“…it became mutated from a Mike Leigh film into a Carry on film.” (Brett Anderson, 2018)
Sixty years ago director Gerald Thomas and producer Peter Rogers brought a film about national service to British cinemas. The film was adapted from a play called “The Bull Boys” and it was the first in a series of films that, more than any other, captured a truth about the British character. It was, of course, “Carry on Sergeant” and in its cast, characters, comedy and charm it mirrors much of what made Britpop a cultural phenomenon. Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Will Hartnell, Bob Monkhouse, Kenneth Connor, Hattie Jacques and Terry Scott would all go on to become national treasures and pop cultural icons. Each one of them to fan and critic alike is immediately recognisable to anyone over the age of 40…the Britpop generation in other words.
When Brett Anderson cited the “Carry on…” series as some sort of low art, low brow, low value insignificance in comparison with the work of Mike Leigh he was, I think, trying to say something about the themes that lie at the heart of his own work; the troubled, the outsiders, the lonely, the misfits, the darkness, the shadows. It is impossible not to hail Leigh as a master filmmaker and his films encompass a side of the British character that is as important as that which is embodied in the “Carry on…” films. There is humour of a different kind, there are identifiable characters and there is something larger than life even in his most intimate films but, crucially, there is at the very heart of his work a realism, a very particular form of realism, that is only ever hinted at in the “Carry on…” films. They are, often, painfully bleak and incredibly difficult to watch…which makes them very rewarding.
It would be difficult to make a case for the “Carry on…” series to be seen as high art but that doesn’t mean that they should be dismissed as mere fluff or trash, like litter on the streets. They have a special place in the British post-war psyche and they certainly play their part in helping to define much of what made Britpop so meaningful for so many people.
One of the key forerunners of Britpop were, of course, The Smiths. Their defiantly British aesthetic and sound can be found in almost every one of the major players in the music scene in Britain in the nineties. Where Morrissey was shaped and moulded by the look of the Teddy Boys; the quiff, the vintage Levi’s, the Billy Fury records and the work of the angry young men the Britpop bands turned to the sixties, at least for the key components of the image; Fred Perry, Ben Sherman, mop-top hair, The Beatles and The Kinks. Morrissey adored the “Carry on…” films and they crop up in song titles (“Late Night Maudlin Street”), lyrics (the camp “oooh I say” from “Some Girls are Bigger Than Others”) and in his solo videos (“Carry On Abroad”)…he loved their Britishness, their evocation of a simpler time, the camp, the innuendo and the wit. All of those qualities run through Britpop like “Blackpool” through a stick of rock.
The obvious “Carry on…” moment in Britpop is the video for “Country House” by blur. With its scantily clad girls, garish colours and “cor blimey” attitude it could really be the trailer for “Carry on Britpop”. While some have discussed the debt that Damien Hirst owed to Benny Hill for the video that’s a bit lazy because Hill himself was merely plagiarising the crassest elements of “Carry on…” in his television shows. “Country House” isn’t the only blur video that owes a debt to “Carry on…”, it’s impossible to watch “Parklife” without seeing the films. It also wouldn’t be difficult to imagine baby faced Damon Albarn as a Jim Dale character. Interestingly Dale himself had a pop career shortly before the start of the “Carry on…” series.
When Oasis took the stage at the Brits in 1996 and declared that only they, Alan McGhee and one Anthony Charles Linton Blair were doing anything for young people in Britain I couldn’t help but think of “Carry on at Your Convenience” from 1971. In that film the power of the trade union movement in Britain was given the “Carry on…” treatment, which is to say that it was dealt with in a very one dimensional and unsophisticated manner. Of course Noel couldn’t have known in 1996, and with at least a couple of pills swirling around his system, that within a few years the hope of the Blair years would be dashed against the rocks of an interventionist foreign policy. The point is that for serious political comment it’s probably wise to look beyond comedians and pop stars.
It wouldn’t be too difficult to see Noel as Sid James…a wicked sense of humour, the oldest kid in the room and with the ability to elevate the performances of those around him. Which would make Liam…Bob Monkhouse; immaculately dressed, a sharp wit and a major hit with the female of the species.
Clutching at straws?
Maybe…but I’m having fun with this, leave me be.
What often seemed to be slight and crude on the surface often had something significant to say and did so with a bit of charm and a lot of style. The British Empire was hoisted on a petard by “Carry on Up the Khyber”, the NHS is lovingly portrayed in “Carry on Doctor”…and many of the films are amongst the finest this country has ever produced; “Carry on Screaming”, “Carry on Jack” and “Carry on Cleo” are fabulous and fabulously funny. The same argument could be made for Britpop…at times it could seem slight and unsophisticated but many of those records, especially those made by the less well known names, are among the finest this little island has produced.
“Meantime” may well be the first film that Damon Albarn drops into a conversation, “Life is Sweet” and its portrait of life with an eating disorder may have influenced “4st 7llbs” by the Manics and “This is Hardcore” and it’s dirty heart may owe a debt to “Naked”…but it’s equally true to acknowledge that Jarvis Cocker stalked the stage like Kenneth Williams set loose from his demons, Louise Wener had the heart, charm and cheek of Barbara Windsor and the entire knowing, ironic, nudge-nudge-wink-wink side of the scene is ripped wholesale from the “Carry on…” films.
Mike Leigh may well capture a truth of the human condition and the British disease but it isn’t the only truth and the other side of his dark coin is the silliness, the light and the joy of just carrying on.