Carry On Follow that Camel Review
When Rank took over the Carry On series from Anglo Amalgamated in 1966, they decided to do away with the famous prefix, fearing that their cinematic output would be tarnished with the ‘low brow’ name. Unsurprisingly, the two films released without this prefix performed badly at the box office - Don’t Lose Your Head and Follow That Camel. Realising their mistake, Rank quickly re-released the films under the old Carry On heading and the films proved, once again, as popular as their predecessors. This accounts for the tortuous syntax of both film titles and the fact that the prints themselves do not have the usual Carry On wording. (Presumably it was cheaper to change the film posters than the actual films - and cheapness is a key prerequisite when it comes to these films.)
As to the film itself, it’s easy to view it as merely a dry run for the superior Carry On...Up The Khyber, released the following year. But while the basic setting and period is similar, Follow That Camel feels quite different thanks to its unique visual look. For instance, there are many sequences that could have come straight from a silent film, such as Peter Butterworth trying to escape the clutches of Bernard Bresslaw, played out in silhouette through the Sheikh’s tent; or the montage of scenes with the Legionnaires as they trudge across the burning sands. The location filming is extremely effective too, making this entry one of the most cinematically satisfying historical Carry Ons. Clever photography, courtesy of luminary Alan Hume, ensures that the windswept Camber Sands on England’s south west coast never look anything less than a baking hot Egyptian desert.
Of course the film’s main claim to fame is the odd - but ultimately successful - casting of American comedian Phil Silvers in a key role (replacing an ill Sid James). His Vaudeville style of comic banter matches that of the regular team members’ music hall delivery to such an extent that you forget any difference in accent. Received wisdom has it that he’s very out of place amongst the regular Carry On line-up, but I personally think he’s as much at home as many of the other one-off performers we’ve seen in the series, such as Bob Monkhouse (Sergeant), Ted Ray (Teacher) or Harry H Corbett (Screaming). Of the regulars, Jim Dale and Peter Butterworth stand out for their nicely understated performances, especially the former, who has presumably discovered that to be funny, ‘less is more’. Kenneth Williams, clearly relishing the chance to do something a bit different, makes the most of his sadistic German Commandant (complete with brutal haircut and monocle), while an ever-reliable Charles Hawtrey minces around as his second-in-command, Le Pice. Bernard Bresslaw is excellent as the villain, a role he would repeat verbatim for Khyber. Sadly, the female members of the team are not so well treated: Joan Sims has hardly any lines, while Anita Harris (too bony for a belly dancer, surely?) makes as little impression as Angela Douglas, here playing a naive English girl who is continually interfered with by randy old men - a far cry from the strong character she had played in Cowboy. (I’m probably over-reacting, but the scenes of implied rape - “What an odd way to check my porthole!” - I find horribly misogynistic.)
Follow That Camel is a good example of a historical Carry On, but not the best. Whether it’s the absence of Sid James or the familiarity of the genre (this was the fifth historical in a row, after all), it’s impossible to say. At times the starkness of its material - a suicide in the first few minutes, men staked out in the sand for days on end, a climactic massacre - makes it seem more akin to a big-screen Ripping Yarns, a series that always had a dark vein to its humour. That said, any film that has someone hitting explosive coconuts over a wall with a cricket bat must have something going for it.
Enough about the film, what about the DVD? Well, as far as the picture quality is concerned, it is impeccable. From the crystal clear title cartoons to the sweaty, heaving bosoms of the harem girls (I watched this scene very closely - for research purposes, you understand), I can confidentially state that the film has never looked better. Okay, so there is the odd touch of grit every now and again, but considering that the film is 36 years old, that’s only to be expected. It’s a pity that the transfer’s not anamorphic, but I don’t suppose it would have made an awful lot of difference to the look of the thing. If you’re expecting 5.1 sound you’ll be disappointed, but the mono audio is perfectly acceptable for a release like this.
The main extra on the DVD is a commentary by Jim Dale. He is accompanied by Carry On author Robert Ross (I will refrain from mentioning how my book was compared to his by The London Evening Standard!), which is just as well because Dale’s input, although well meant, is often uninspiring. That said, his remarks about Phil Silvers’ short term memory less -apparently he would repeat the same joke umpteen times - are fascinating. And because of this condition, Silvers would read all his lines from cue cards, a practice that incensed the seasoned Carry On team, especially Williams. (As an aside, the fact that this behind-the-scenes friction never once manifested itself on screen is testament to the cast’s great professionalism.) Other gems include the revelation that cinematographer Alan Hume had to stuff a handkerchief in his mouth to stop himself laughing at certain scenes, a second take was seen as “wasting time”, and real sheep’s eyeballs were used in the desert banquet scene, which after several days’ shooting, caused a very odorous whiff! Robert Ross likes it to be known that he has his finger on the pulse of Carry On trivia, so when the occasional fact conflicts with Dale’s memory, there’s sometimes a frisson of embarrassment as Ross hesitantly tries to correct the fallacy while remaining chummily polite. But at the end of the day, what little we glean from Dale could have been provided by a ten-minute interview.
There is a cinematic trailer (2:48) with specially shot narration by Silvers, and two filmed interviews with him (6:35), done back-to-back on location at Camber Sands. These are direct addresses to the camera, done in single long takes, and each contains broadly similar content. Silvers looks a little uncomfortable trying to be ‘funny’ without an autocue, and expected moments of comedy as extras charge past him down the sand-dunes go sadly unexploited. Unexpectedly, considering the paucity of interesting material on offer, the stills gallery (2:38) is excellent. The many rare publicity photos are presented full-screen with the rostrum camera panning or tilting across them so that we get to see the image as close-up as possible. Accompanied by informative captions and with Eric Rogers’ magnificent theme music blaring out at full volume, it’s one of the best presented photo galleries I’ve seen in a long while. There is a 4-page Trivia section, which goes through the shooting of the film in a fairly brief way. Menus are of the ‘Saucy Seaside Postcard’ variety, but at least they’re bright and cheerful. There are ten chapter stops on the main feature, each with photos and captions.
This is a middling DVD release of a much under-rated Carry On escapade. I think ‘Special Edition’ is going a bit far, but it’s probably worth forking out for the superbly restored print and the occasional nugget of wisdom in Dale’s commentary.
Mark Campbell is the author of The Pocket Essential Carry On Films (Pocket Essentials, £3.99), available from all good bookshops or by visiting www.pocketessentials.com