There are some people who think the British have made the funniest films in the world, but with the qualification that the moment they went from black and white into colour they stopped being amusing. Perhaps it is that the world started to become tawdry at around the same time that colour film became cheap, and part of that tawdriness was that it became culturally permissible to prompt laughter by uttering four-letter words, referring without subtlety to bodily functions and sexual intercourse, and dispensing with, for example, trousers. One thinks of the 1970s Carry On films, the repertory company that made them ageing and becoming worn down by cynicism, the scripts becoming puerile, the atmosphere redolent of a decade that was recovering from excess and dealing clumsily with its hangover.
Such films are a long way from what is regarded as the zenith of the art in Britain: the Ealing comedy. I would have a fight with anyone who wished to dispute that Kind Hearts and Coronets is not the greatest jewel in the history of our cinema; though it is a comedy of such refinement and subtlety that it stands outside the general run of such films. Ealing usually treated its audience as though it had some wit and discernment, and its other great comedies — Whisky Galore!, Passport to Pimlico, The Man in the White Suit, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Titfield Thunderbolt and The Ladykillers — bear no resemblance to the music hall, Max Miller tradition that the Carry On series, after a few more tasteful efforts, decided to ally itself with.
The era just before the Carry On films — the first of them was made in 1958 — and running into the early 1960s was rich in a somewhat different type of comedy, many of which had the sophistication of Ealing but featured an additional seam of cynicism. The English cinema was blessed with some of the finest comic actors imaginable, whose skills of understatement and the representation of eccentricity gave the films their peculiar flavour. In the older generation there were Alistair Sim and Margaret Rutherford; but by the late 1950s producers and directors such as the Boulting brothers, Launder and Gilliat, and Mario Zampi had worked out that to stuff a film with any combination of Terry-Thomas, Peter Sellers, George Cole, Ian Carmichael, John Le Mesurier, Dennis Price and, displaying a remarkable versatility, Richard Attenborough, was to help arrest decline at the British box-office. These were also the films in which future staples of the Carry On series — notably Sid James, Joan Sims and Liz Fraser — perfected their skills.
Whereas Ealing had concentrated on celebrating eccentricity (Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts, with its dark undercurrents, is the exception), the films from other studios in the 1950s and early 1960s concentrated on exploiting human frailty to get their laughs. There are few greater moments in this genre than Alastair Sim, in drag, spending the girls’ pocket money in the first St Trinian’s film, or one of the mistresses staring forlornly out of the staff room window and proclaiming: “If only I had the courage to give myself up.” Private’s Progress suggested that the British soldiery who won the Second World War were bolshie, lazy, venal and in large part criminal, and the officer class either complicit in their depravity or incapable of commanding them: this is the film in which Terry-Thomas first uttered the immortal line, “You’re an absolute shower.” I’m All Right Jack, which featured many of the same characters, did more to damage the trade union movement than anything until the advent of Mrs Thatcher, while displaying management, too, as craven and stupid. And if anyone wonders why the British have a cultural disposition to deploy the idea of used-car salesmen as a simile for dishonesty, the scene in Hamer’s School for Scoundrels where the two bent motor men Dunstan and Dudley Dorchester (magnificently played by Dennis Price and Peter Jones) will answer the question.
Crime and criminality became the popular theme of these films. In The Naked Truth, Dennis Price blackmails (among others) Peter Sellers and Terry-Thomas. Sellers reappears as an old lag in Two-Way Stretch and a rogue couturier in The Wrong Arm of the Law, and Terry-Thomas plays the philandering husband only too glad to have his wife kidnapped — he refuses to pay the ransom and she joins forces with her kidnappers to punish him — in Too Many Crooks. The black-and-white Carry On films, with what at the time were considered second-division comics, follow on naturally from these entertainments, but as the permissive society takes hold, standards change and reticence disappears, they decline to an ignominious end.
It is not quite true, however, that British comedy films stop being funny once filmed in colour. Perhaps the most magnificent moment in any of the films — in Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head, about the French Revolution, and worth repeatedly pausing and rewinding the DVD for — is Joan Sims’s enunciation of the phrase “my brother, the Count”, in which she almost succeeds in making the aristocratic title rhyme with “hunt”. But there can be no doubt which is the most magnificent film in the series, Carry On Up the Khyber, filmed at Pinewood and in Snowdonia (impersonating the North-West Frontier) in the spring of 1968 in the most glorious colour.
It is the definitive Carry On film. Most of the great stars are in it; and the intensity of the gags is so relentless that one is forced to admit that great music-hall comedy requires little short of genius. Sid James and Joan Sims play Sir Sidney and Lady Ruff-Diamond, and Peter Butterworth is the local missionary, Brother Belcher. Charles Hawtrey is the most unmilitary of soldiers, Private Widdle, of the 3rd Foot and Mouth, and a comrade is Private Ginger Hale. Kenneth Williams plays the local nabob, who is of course called the Khasi of Kalibar, and Bernard Bresslaw is his sidekick Bungdit Din. It is a deeply patriotic film, for once the 3rd Foot and Mouth have routed the revolting natives by the simple expedient of standing in a line before them and raising their kilts, the film ends with a shot of a fluttering Union Flag bearing the motto “I’m Backing Britain”. I hope, for philosophical reasons, that the film will be shown on television in Scotland on the eve of the referendum on independence.