Tuesday, 2 June 2009

CARRY ON AND ON (Ken Russell, 1976)

By the time the Carry On movies invited Ken Russell to the helm, they were in bad shape: adrift in a sea of ever-decreasing entendre, a tired set of comics ripped of their inspiration and cast, like a barrel of monkeys, into an ever diminishing quest to make an artefact of comic genius, with the suspicion that, if enough jokes were made, with enough frequency, then eventually snake eyes would not be hit... but instead, the comedy gold of two sixes, a five and a six, or even, by this point, a couple of fours, perchance, would land face up. Comedy, frequently, is a musical exercise, and this band played on, and on, and on, almost reaching a bland nirvana through a rehashing of tired cover versions of better, earlier turns.

So comes Russell then, over the horizon, a wolf in wolf's clothing, a grand provocateur, the master of furious ridicule; and with him, at his insistence, the Burning Orphanage group on script duty*1, and Carry On Redux was go. And naturally, it is a mess, a mixture of the director's grandstanding, the writers' philosophical suggestion, and the series' own lascivious momentum. Carry On And On is an Elizabethan-set explosion of set-pieces and witty twittery, replete with avant garde touches and dramatic, deep colour work. Originally conceived as a five-act play, the finished film is seperated into three parts: I:Carry On, Anon, II:Carry On And On, and III:Carry on, Carrion. The wife-swapping, gender-bending plot revolves around a love octagon between the King (played with creamy perversion by Joan Sims), the Queen (a masochistically thin Charles Hawtrey), the Minstrel (a hilariously bored-looking Kenneth Williams*2), The Commander (a sadistically mustachioed Hattie Jacques) Bill Shakespeare (an almost nude and quite bearded Barbara Windsor), the Nymph (a quite nude Wendy Richard), the Advisor (a predictably excited Sid James) and the Tragic Hero (a wonderfully gormless Bernard Bresslaw, oblivious to the fact that everyone is trying to tell him that he will meet a sticky end: 'I've never met a lady called Hubris' he states, repeatedly). Bill Shakespeare is a journalist attempting to document the goings-on in court, and largely failing.

From the gleeful mess certain inspirations can be salvaged, like useful pieces of metal at a scrap heap or unburned wood after a house fire: There are Williams' withering stabs at minstrel song, including the King's favourite, The [Expletive Deleted] limerick which goes something like this:

'There once was an expletive deleted
Who expletive expletive deleted
Expletive deleted
Expletive deleted
Expletive expletive deleted!'

The couples and triples sing couplets and triplets and mix and match, creating a seamy Valhalla of stained bedsheets and rhyming swears. It builds to a giddy climax as an army approaches the self-deceiving party at the castle. When the King, surrounded and desperate, cries a garbled rehash of the Richard III line about swapping kingdoms for horses, a bloody horse leaps from Joan Sims' mouth in a shocking stop-animation interlude; afterbirth at the gills, placenta snapping in the mane wind, it unleashes a red mist across the screen, which for the final ten minutes of the film overlays very graphic claymation violence with a live action orgy sequence in an explosion of polari filth talk, grunts, blood and boobs. 'A nail in the noggin of Carry On'*3 concluded Barry Norman, and so it proved, as, despite further outings for the series, the corpse twitched no more.

Carry On And On Directed by Ken Russell Produced by Peter Rogers Written by Ken Russell, Derek Haddaway, Ken Brannerd, Thomas Cecily Music by Eric Rogers Rank Starring Sid James Joan Sims Kenneth Williams Bernard Bresslaw Hattie Jacques Charles Hawtrey Barbara Windsor Wendy Richard Ian Lavender Pictures Release Date UK: May 1976 US: N/A Tagline: 'Wherefore Art Thou, Homeo?'

*1. Originally set-up at Kings College Oxford as an 'anti-slapstick' comedy team, the Burning Orphanage group (so named because, as founding member Derek Haddaway said, 'there's nowt less funny than a burning orphanage') sought to make jokes from taboos. They soon decided that a more subversive act would be to do quite the opposite- take jokes and render them unfunny. Their most famous film, Punchline! (Ken Brannerd, 1971) is a series of obvious joke set-ups without pay-offs: Men not falling off ladders, stepping over cow pats, spilling drinks and not getting any down their fronts, carrying huge sheets of glass through parks quite successfully. This accumulation of unfinished scenes created what critic Barry Norman described as 'a quite unbearable tension worse than any thriller' on his Film '71 programme on the BBC.
*2. In his Diaries, Williams discussed the film at some length: '...well, of course I 'oped that silly old Ken would come in, roger the whole thing so senseless that it would kill the entire ridiculous farrago off once and for bloody all, piss away all that wonga, and hows-yer-father, we're free from all this tedium. But who could ever be so lucky, eh?'
*3. Film '76, May 1976.

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