I don’t know about you, but I love the Carry Ons. Those zany, saucy, seaside postcard romps from yesteryear are just charming, aren’t they? Chock-full of outrageous acting, schoolboy humour and pantomime-style slapstick, most of Sid James and co’s adventures are, quite rightly, esteemed these days (at least by me) as quintessentially British comedy classics.
But the last few Carry Ons are a thoroughly sorry bunch, deservedly more or less forgotten nowadays. The films started declining in both quality and popularity after scriptwriter Talbot Rothwell, the man behind smutty classics like Cleo and Camping, laid down his pen in 1974. Most of the series’ regular stars jumped ship along with him and the franchise reached its nadir in 1976 with the utterly abysmal Carry On England.
That film would have been dreadful no matter who starred in it (the lead character’s name is Captain S Melly – need one say more?) but its failure at the box office wasn’t attributed to its lousy screenplay. Instead, punters and critics alike were far more vocal about the lack of established Carry On actors in the picture, demanding the return of the stars they’d been watching for decades.
In response, Peter Rogers and director Gerald Thomas conspired to get back as many surviving regulars as possible for their next feature, signing up Kenneth Williams, Peter Butterworth, Kenneth Connor, Joan Sims and Jack Douglas. Alas, despite looking like a pretty primo line-up on paper, even the presence of these old favourite couldn’t salvage the turkey they’d signed up for.
In his biography of Kenneth Williams, Christopher Stevens gives Carry On Emmannuelle, the 30th Carry On and the last of the series’ original run, scarcely a page’s notice, saying succinctly that the actor “should not have made the film.” It’s hard to disagree. Emmannuelle is an undignified, laugh-free pastiche of the sort of mirthless but popular Confessions-style sex comedies that followed in the wake of the original Carry Ons.
To illustrate just how undignified, it’s worth noting that Williams, Connor and Butterworth, all well into their 50s, spend a lot of their screen-time in the movie running about in the nude or dallying with the nubile 21-year-old Suzanne Danielle, who plays the titular Emmannuelle, in an unintentionally creepy Lolita-like way.The Carry On stars were often called a lot of old hams back in the day but this is the first time they actually look like they deserve the remark.
The film’s plot needn’t detain us long: Emmannuelle Prevert is married to an impotent husband (Williams) who can’t satisfy her needs, so she embarks on an 80-minute bonkathon around London aided by the ageing remnants of the Carry On gang. But no matter how antique the actors look on screen, they were nowhere near as old as the threadbare jokes that make up the film’s screenplay.
The original script, by Lance Peters, was apparently blue in the extreme, so Peter Rogers hired the terminally unfunny Vince Powell, writer of such execrable TV sitcoms as Bottle Boys and Love Thy Neighbour, to clean it up. His influence shows. Creaking cabaret club puns of the “are you coming, sir?” variety and half-hearted farce are very much the order of the day.
Indeed, the only time I laughed during the film was when an obvious rip-off of David Rose’s show tune The Stripper kicked in as background music during one scene, revealing just how passionate Rogers was about saving a few quid on his productions.
According to Simon Sheridan’s exhaustive book on saucy cinema, Keeping the British End Up, Rogers and Thomas hadn’t twigged that the reason the new breed of sex comedies made so much money at the box office was solely because they offered punters lots of naked flesh to gaze at, and that the comedy elements in most of these films were a diversion to get nudity past the censor. When putting their movie together, the philosophy was apparently to be rude – but, as this was a Carry On, not too rude.
Consequently, Carry On Emmannuelle doesn’t know what it wants to be, sitting somewhere between a hairy-handed flesh-fest and a mainstream comedy picture. It’s got lots of nudity, but most of that from sagging old men, and none of the outright titillation offered by its equally unfunny but racier competition.
It’s got the same sort of terrible writing as most other sexploitation films, but the script isn’t knowing and ironic, it’s just bad. It’s got absolutely no family-friendly or feel-good appeal like its predecessors – it doesn’t even look like a Carry On, eschewing Rothwell’s witty opening title sequences and being shot on the same cheap, washed-out film-stock as its contemporary no-budget competition. Even the movie’s theme song is a sleazy departure from the norm (although it is, to be fair, pretty catchy)…
Naturally, the film failed to find an audience when it was released. Emmannuelle absolutely bombed at the box office and finished the series off for good, save the risible “comeback” Carry On Columbus in 1992.
Make no mistake, Carry On Emmannuelle is a terrible film, of interest only to Carry On completists. It’s quite fascinating as a historical document, depicting the death throes of an empire like the last few chapters of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, but an utter calamity as a comedy film.
Carry On? After this, I’m glad they didn’t.