31 Carry On movies have been made to date, with regular stories about more on the way – but there are many that never got to the screen.
The Carry On films are – as is often said – a bona fide British cinematic institution, which grew in stature through repeated showings on television. All in all, some 31 feature films (currently six more then the James Bond franchise) were filmed by producer Peter Rogers and director Gerald Thomas between 1958 and 1992.
More than a few Carry On scripts were discarded along the way for one reason or another. The original Carry On film had actually started life as a drama – The Bull Boys, by the novelist R.F. Delderfield. It concerned a ballet dancer’s boyfriend, called up to do National Service on their wedding day. Though a straight drama, screenwriter Norman Hudis seized upon the comic potential of the set-up – a newly married young man enduring National Service, instead of enjoying his honeymoon – making it the backstory for the nominal star of the film, Bob Monkhouse.
Needing a familiar face to nail the training ground sergeant major role, Thomas approached the star of ITV’s The Army Game, William Hartnell, later famously the first pilot of the TARDIS in the BBC’s Doctor Who. Hartnell’s familiarity to the avid TV viewer counted as much in his favour as his performance. Gruff authoritarians were his stock-in-trade and the film wasn’t about subtlety.
Thomas drafted in some unlikely recruits played by Kenneth Williams (familiar from Hancock’s Half Hour). Kenneth Connor and Charles Hawtrey (a graduate of the Will Hay films of the 30s and 40s). The trio would be the focus of the more comedic moments. Their bungling and ineptitude would eventually come good, as against the odds, they eventually pass out as a decent set of soldiers to make their retiring Sergeant proud.
Carry On Sergeant, as it was retitled, set a comedy standard and surpassed the expectations of Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas at the box office.
The success of Sergeant saw demand for more of the same. Rogers and Thomas were happy to oblige, and they decided to use (where possible) the same comedy stars again. The idea, whilst not unique, was very effective.
The Carry On team, much like a rep theatre group, would gradually emerge over the next three films and be dependable for gags and slapstick farce, regardless of the situation. The Carry On title was the ‘star’, the film’s biggest names were notoriously paid a very low fee, being offset by the fact the movies were made on a regular basis. The ‘raw recruits’ theme was a favourite screenwriter Hudis would return to often, notably in the first Carry On to feature Sid James – Carry On Constable. Gerald Thomas assembled Kenneth Williams, Kenneth Connor and Leslie Phillips as a trio of incompetent constables for that one, held in check by a wily ‘Sarge’, Sid James.
But soon came the first of the Carry On movies that never was.
The film slated to follow 1961’s Carry On Regardless, would have seen the team return to that ‘raw recruits’ theme. Carry On Smoking would have likely starred Williams, Connor and Phillips – this time as trainee firefighters, the team presumably wishing to send up all the three emergency services, having already poked fun at the police force and hospitals.
There was some disquiet that the film may suffer if a major fire broke out near its release date, and that it might be seen as tasteless at best and could even be pulled at worst. Not something that ever worried the makers of The Towering Inferno.
Hudis instead pitched another ‘raw recruits’ idea, with this time the trio becoming astronauts. Carry On Spaceman was due to follow the production of Carry On Cruising in 1962. Intended to give a more European view of the space race, it was seen as a potentially expensive project and having just made their first film in colour, Rogers and Thomas were looking for something less elaborate than space-age tech. The space project was abandoned.
Carry On Flying, a send up of the RAF, was due to be filmed in late 1962 and a lead role would have gone to newcomer Jim Dale. When this didn’t, er, ‘fly’, Peter Rogers decided to green light a production based on a script Gerald Thomas had been offered entitled ‘Call Me A Cab’. It was penned by Talbot Rothwell, a seasoned writer whose career stretched back to penning gags for The Crazy Gang.
Rothwell’s experience of writing for a comedy team shone through the dialogue, although the film in question wasn’t initially devised as a Carry On, as evidenced by the theme music, which can be sung to the lyric ‘call me a cab’. Thomas enjoyed the satire on kitchen sink drama and the battle of the sexes as Glam Cabs give Charlie Hawkins’s taxi firm a run for its money. Moreover, noting the number of Carry On regulars he had cast, he retitled it Carry On Cabby, which ensured it was a hit. Jim Dale made his eventual debut as an expectant father and Rothwell was hired as the new go-to screenwriter on the franchise, replacing Norman Hudis, who was leaving for America.
Back in time
By 1963 the ‘raw recruits’ theme was somewhat played out, so instead Thomas and Rogers decided to go back into history. The successful but dull seafaring saga Carry On Jack, a send up of Horatio Hornblower, was followed by a homage to Cleopatra in 1964’s Carry On Cleo, arguably the best Carry On film ever made. It was helped in part by the opportunity to use some impressive but rejected sets from the Taylor and Burton epic, Cleopatra, which was in production the same year. This dramatically improved the production values. The money-saving (and last) monochrome production was Carry On Spying, an underrated satire of James Bond and the vogue for espionage movies such as The Ipcress File.
The next historical outing was planned to be the Carry On take on Robin Hood, entitled Carry On Robin – a name which was actually registered by Peter Rogers with the British Film Producers Association but ultimately unused. Though there are a number of ways of telling the Robin Hood legend, the team would no doubt have played it fast and loose for as many laughs as they could muster. The rumour was Jim Dale would have played Robin, though that would have relegated Sid James to a supporting role. Sid though liked the idea of a western pastiche and a chance to work with horses, Carry On Cowboy became a more viable idea and Carry On Robin was forgotten.
History aside, the other major successes of the Carry On stable was hospital humour, initially seen in 1959’s Carry On Nurse. The team managed to replicate it with Carry On Doctor in 1967 and there was bedpan fun aplenty in Carry On Again Doctor in 1969.
They even managed to inject box office success into the franchise with 1972’s Carry On Matron, following the poor returns of Carry On At Your Convenience (which took a pop at trade unions and is often said to have alienated a core part of the audience). Carry On Again Nurse was due to go into production in 1968, as a direct sequel to Carry on Nurse. Unable to make it work, they tried again over a decade later in 1979 when it was actually announced as the film to follow Carry On Emmanuelle.
Again it didn’t happen, and a further attempt to resuscitate the idea came in early 1988. By now Carry On Again Nurse had become known as Carry On Nursing, scripted by George Layton and Jonathan Lynn. Sadly, the deaths of Kenneth Willliams and Charles Hawtrey ended the already slim chance the film could be made.
World War II films had always done good business at the box office and in 1972 the BBC had great success with the series Colditz, which featured an international cast and won high ratings. The following year, Talbot Rothwell pitched Carry On Escaping. Working up a suggestion by his great friend Peter Butterworth, whom he had first met when they were detained in a prisoner of war camp, organising a concert party to cover the noise of escapees. A fellow prisoner was Rupert Davies, later the first TV Maigret. Potentially a pastiche of films like 1963’s The Great Escape, there was a major question mark on whether it would be seen as mocking the bravery of those involved though. Though the team returned to the war theme with 1976’s Carry on England, the next film to be released was instead Carry On Girls.
In the early 1980s, some three years after what many thought had been the final feature film – Carry On Emmanuelle – attempts were made to respond the success of TV soap Dallas. Thomas was considering ideas for Carry On Dallas, a planned 1981 release, which would have seen Kenneth Williams as a JR Ewing-type character. Perhaps, then, humorously played the opposite of Larry Hagman’s tough uncompromising businessman, with Williams as a weak, ineffectual fool without nous or acumen. The project felt as if it really ‘had leg'” but then Lorimar, Dallas‘s US production company and unaware of the shoestring Carry On budget, weighed in with a hefty fee to use the basic ideas. The company wanted a figure that exceeded the total potential budget of the film twenty times over and that was the end of that.
There were still more ideas. Carry On Down Under was a film scouted on location in Australia by Gerald Thomas in 1981. Though the idea gained traction again in the late 80s due to the success of Australian soap Neighbours, the original plot had nothing to do with that particular show. Instead, this one got as far as the scripting stage. A treatment by Vince Powell – a copy of which is included in the book Fifty Years Of Carry On – had the potential backing of the Australian Film Commission. Unfortunately the funding fell through and the project was abandoned
90s and beyond
The last film in the series to date, Carry On Columbus, was panned by the critics, yet at the box office did better business in the UK than either of the ‘proper’ Columbus films that year – 1492: Conquest Of Paradise and Christopher Columbus: The Discovery. Clearly there remained an audience for a Carry On, despite the dubious quality of Carry On Columbus.
More recently in 2003, Carry On London (not to be confused with the 1975 stage play) was announced. It was set to star Shaun Williamson, familiar to TV viewers as Barry in EastEnders (and later for his role in Extras trying not to play that part, despite his agent, Darren Lamb, regularly calling him “Barry”). The would-be cast was said to include Paul O’Grady and Daniella Westbrook, however this never really came together and entered a protracted period of production hell, later being referred to, somewhat randomly, as Carry On Bananas.
Over the years there have been several attempts to revive the franchise, with the most recent, reported right here, said to be “in production in 2020”. Obviously that won’t happen any time soon, with the current filming restrictions top of a long list of reasons. The fact that very few of the original Carry On team and neither Rogers or Thomas are still with us means any attempt to revive the franchise is probably doomed. That isn’t to say a regular team of current comic stars couldn’t make a successful series of ensemble films – with the spirit of the Carry Ons – but if the title is used it only invites unfair comparisons. The humour is probably far too bawdy for modern audiences, and the innuendo that laced the original films feeling very out of place.
Would the franchise have benefitted from any of the proposed ideas? Carry On Smoking and Carry On Flying wouldn’t have really broadened the appeal but Carry On Spaceman seems a missed opportunity, had they abandoned the raw recruits idea and made a slapstick sci-fi entry. Carry On Escaping could also have been watchable, as the topic was later humorously explored by Michael Palin in Ripping Yarns: Escape From Stalag Luft 112B and in the fourth series of ‘Allo ‘Allo on TV.
Still, fans of the original 20-year cycle of films probably prefer to celebrate and enjoy them for what they are, rather than what they could have been or might be again. And with some of the movies now getting HD remasters courtesy of Britbox, they’re set to live on…
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