Carry On Abroad SE Review
There is a school of thought which claims that the ‘Carry On’ films reached their peak in the mid sixties with Carry On Cleo or possibly Carry On Up The Khyber and went into slow decline from that point onwards. Personally, I don’t hold with this for a moment. For me, old enough to have seen some of the later ones at the pictures, I think the Golden Era of Carry On stretches from Carry On Screaming to Carry On Abroad, with one final classic in the shape of the surprisingly inventive Carry On Behind in 1975. Carry On Abroad, of 1972 vintage, is the last of the series to feature a relatively full complement of the team and the swan song of the great Charles Hawtrey. More significantly, it contains Kenneth Williams at his comic peak, Sid James at the point where he finally became resigned to playing a dirty old man rather than a supposedly young Lothario, and a truly inspired comic double act from Hattie Jacques and Peter Butterworth.
The plot, if I may use such a term, is an early usage of the familiar Brit-com staple, the dodgy Spanish holiday resort with a half-finished hotel and an unpredictable climate. Vic Flange (James) is hoping for a dirty weekend with buxom customer Sadie (Windsor) but is disappointed when his suspicious wife Cora (Sims) decides to come along as well. They choose a Sunshine Tours weekend in the exotic Spanish resort of Ells Bells, staying in a particularly dodgy hotel run by Pepe (Butterworth) and his terrifying wife Floella (Jacques). Needless to say, it all goes horribly wrong, since the establishment is unfinished, with no glass in the sliding doors, shared bathrooms and furnishings, which are liable to collapse at a moment’s notice. The courier Stuart Farquhar (Williams) and his rather smashing assistant (Grainger) try to keep their customers’ spirits up, without much success, and it all ends up with a mud-caked slapstick farewell party and a not entirely unexpected series of couplings. The other passengers include Eustace Tuttle (Hawtrey), an ageing mother’s boy with a propensity to get pissed at the merest whiff of a bottle of vodka; Robin (John Clive) and Nicholas (David Kernan), one of whom is and one of whom might be; goodtime girls Marge (Hawkins) and Lily (Geeson), who are desperate for the attentions of any single man regardless of eligibility; a party of 12 monks from the Order of St Cecilia, including a particularly dim one (Bresslaw); ...Bert Conway (Logan), a womanising Scotsman; and Stanley Blunt (Connor) and wife Evelyn. (Whitfield), a couple who haven’t had sex since the Thirty Years War.
In other words, no surprises, but a comforting array of stereotypes, all of them expertly played for whatever laughs can be wrung out of Talbot Rothwell’s script. Rothwell, veteran scribe of most of the mid to late period ‘Carry Ons’ (his last one being Carry On Dick in 1974), couldn’t exactly be described as a good writer but he is an ingenious one, managing to ring endless changes on the same collection of jokes without wearing the patience of this viewer at least. Sometimes - usually - it’s exactly what you expect, for example the following exchange at the beginning; “Have you got a large one ?” (referring to a serving of spirits), “I’ve had no complaints ! "Arg arg argh !!!”. That’s what we might call a classic double entendre, in that the audience is aware both of what is really being referred to and what connotation is being placed on it. Rothwell is fond of this, as we see later in the film with Charles Hawtrey’s attempt to entice the young ladies into a game of leapfrog - “Oh come on, you know you enjoyed it last time!”. It becomes the signifier with a varied denotation - leapfrog, a drink, a game of cards etc - but a fixed connotation of sex. Sexual intercourse is never mentioned directly, which is broadly the difference between English farce and French farce, where sex is constantly and explicitly referred to. The English, and Rothwell in particular, enjoy applying the same concept to homosexuality where the ‘forbidden’ as it were (this being considerably less enlightened 1972) is referred to solely in the context of double meaning -“What sort of a man are you ?” being a good example, or, not in this film itself, “Oh I do feel queer”. When you get a repressed homosexual in real life, such as Kenneth Williams, saying this sort of thing of course, there are echoes and suggestions which make the text all the more inadvertently fascinating. There’s also the use of the object, or the name of it, as amusing in itself because of its implication. For example, “That’s a lovely pear” interpreted as “That’s a lovely pair (of breasts)”, or sometimes the other way round; “Where’s the crumpet?”, “Oh, I don’t think they serve us tea !” Rothwell’s ability to create variations on jokes he was writing ten years previously is his chief claim to some kind of immortality, and his ability is more impressive when you consider that none of the other writers who followed him - Dave Freeman, Lance Peters, David Pursall and Jack Seddon - managed to write the material with the same elan. You could equally argue that he just recycles the same old crap from the bottom of his barrel, but compared with the writers of dire British sex comedies such as Can You Keep It Up For A Week, he has the talent of Wilde and a truly Sophoclean knack for classical repetitions.
The actors, given this sort of stuff, either give up and fade into the background or run with it. Sid James is very funny, managing to make every word he says sound like the filthiest thing you’ve ever heard, and then adding his trademark laugh just to confirm your suspicions. He was a much better actor than he was given credit for being and if you doubt this, just look at the scenes between him and Joan Sims in Carry On At Your Convenience which are genuinely Pinteresque in their inarticulate sense of thwarted suburban longing. Kenneth Williams, who claimed to hate the whole thing, is actually in his element whether he realised it or not, and he gets some fine moments of comic confusion, notably a scene with a misbehaving switchboard. He also has a trademark moment when he says “Ohhhh, don’t be like that !”. His comic persona is so strong that he doesn’t need a name that sounds like “Fucker” in order to be funny - an example of the lazier side of Rothwell’s writing, the assumption that silly names are funny in themselves. If you don’t laugh at James or Williams then you’re probably clinically dead, but surely even those who turn their noses up at the very thought of a film featuring Charles Hawtrey getting kicked out of a brothel must admit to raising a smile when Hattie Jacques stokes up a fine fury at her “cock stove”. Jacques and Butterworth are wonderful in this movie, with the latter running about as if in Feydeau farce as he tries to keep the hotel from collapsing around him and the delightful Hattie swearing in broken English while pouring meths over her impotent oven. Nice moments from Kenneth Connor too, playing his standard sex-starved middle aged Englishman, and Sally Geeson and Carol Hawkins flash lovely smiles while negotiating the trials of the Pinewood backlot during a freezing cold April, wearing only skimpy bikinis. I’d also like to mention the absolutely gorgeous Gail Grainger who seems to have vanished without trace after making this film.
Technically, the film is more than competent. This is one of the hallmarks of the series and the reason that the Carry On films still look pretty good thirty years or more after their first release. Alan Hume’s cinematography is especially worthy of a mention, managing to just about hide the fact that the filmmakers went no nearer to Spain than Slough High Street. The editing is efficient and sometimes excellent - a good montage of escalating jokes about the complaints going through the switchboard for example - and the director, Gerald Thomas, has a good eye for a visual joke despite the fact that his sense of composition is about as good as that of your dad lining you all up for a holiday snap. But Thomas serves his cast well, as his did in most of the films, and he’s a perfectly decent director for this sort of thing - again, compare him to the likes of Bob Kellett or Harry Booth if you want to see real examples of hopeless mediocrity.
Carry On Abroad has an oddly melancholic feel to it, as if all involved are aware that it’s coming to the end of an era. Certainly, the freshness of the peerless Carry On At Your Convenience is missing but it’s still a good deal of fun to watch. If you surrender to the idiotic charm of it all then it’s bound to supply a few good laughs - and it’s even better after six pints of lager and a curry.
The first releases of the Carry On films from VCI were generally disappointing. After a nice disc from Carlton of Carry on Camping, the rest of the Rank films (Don’t Lose Your Head onwards) were very basic, fullscreen releases which looked pretty shoddy. Having had the rights pass to them Carlton have restored honour, bless them, with a new collection of Special Editions which, on the evidence of the three I’ve had the good fortune to see, are a must for fans of the series.
The film is presented in an anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1 format. The films were made in fullscreen and then matted to this ratio for theatrical release and, in the opinion of this reviewer, this is the best way to watch them, reflecting the way they were originally shown. The quality of the transfer is very impressive. Comparing this disc to my off-air tape from ITV, the picture looks a good deal better with sharper definition and shadow detail and much richer colours. There isn’t the flatness which tends to characterise the films when seen on TV broadcast and the whole looks more ‘filmic’. There is a slightly grainy appearance throughout but far less of a problem with artifacts than on the original 2000 releases of the films.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital Mono and it sounds absolutely fine, again reflecting the original theatrical presentation.
There are a number of extra features. Following the animated menu, which contains sequences of jokes from the film, we get several bonus materials. Firstly, there is a very entertaining commentary track. Hosted by Robert Ross, expert on all things Carry On, this features John Clive, David Kernan, Carol Hawkins and Sally Geeson. The four actors chat about the film and about their experiences while shooting and share copious recollections about the stars. An initial sense of “When did we make this ?” fades slowly, thanks to Ross’s occasional promptings, and the actors obviously enjoy their reunion. Most of the stories are familiar but worth another outing, especially the one about Kenneth Williams’ cock. Also related to the film are the stills gallery, some trivia and the original theatrical trailer, all jolly voiceover and extended scenes from the movie.
We also get a full 25 minute episode from the Lew Grade financed “Carry On Laughing” series of the early 1970s. This is called “Short Knights, Long Daze” and is, unfortunately, quite dreadful. You’ll get the idea if I tell you that Jack Douglas plays an Arthurian knight called Sir Gay and that an early joke goes as follows; “I’m sorry sir, he’s having trouble with his instrument”, “His bugle’s not much good either”. Many more non-hilarious escapades ensue and it’s only worth seeing for Joan Sims, Kenneth Connor and an amusing turn from Peter Butterworth as Merlin. This show really does look cheap and tends to make the film look much better in comparison.
I can heartily recommend this DVD to all fans of Carry On or lovers of British comedy at its most basic. It’s not the best of the series but is still pretty good and recommended if you like a nice big one during an evening. Er, I mean, a nice big laugh. Carlton’s disc is well produced and the commentary alone makes it worth a purchase.