Carry On Up the Khyber (1968) ***

After a spate of serious pictures I thought I’d treat myself to some lighter fare and indulge in double entendres and lavatorial humor. I didn’t realise I had picked the only Carry On picture with serious undertones, exploring the hypocrisy endemic among leadership as much as witnessed in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1969), taking a distinct anti-colonial stance, and poking fun at military inefficiency.  

Despite the need to keep up appearances, British governor Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond (Sidney James) despises Indian counterpart The Khasi of Kalabar (Kenneth Williams), the truth of their feelings towards each other revealed in muttered asides. Appearances are all that stand between the British and an Indian revolution, the natives fearing the Scottish regiments, the famed kilt-wearing “devils-with-skirts.”

The notion that any army would run a mile from a pair of bollocks – unless of course they had the faint-inducing dimensions of a Thor – is of course bollocks but that’s the film’s central conceit. But when the Indians discover that the British actually wear cotton undergarments as protection against the windy privations of the northernmost parts of the country, and, through the treacherous Lady Ruff-Diamond (Joan Sims), gain potential access to photographic proof, the status quo is threatened.

Lady Ruff-Diamond, furious at her husband’s constant infidelities, has set her eye on the Khasi, and is willing to betray her country for a bit of what could be termed “the other.” A squad of the usual British misfits, despatched to recover the incriminating evidence, naturally enough finds itself in a harem while Sir Ruff has to keep the British end up by entertaining native lasses by the score (he keeps count). When war does break out, the British, under siege, do what they are famous for, which is nothing.

You might have to be British to grasp many of the jokes, Khyber Pass and Khazi both have toilet associations, for example, but other visual gags would not be out of place in a Charlie Chaplin sketch. “Please close the gate” reads a sign on the border. Outside the Governor’s mansion is another sign “No Hawkers.” And you might at times believe the entire production was Chaplinesque, some of the jokes being ancient – “call me an elephant” orders Sir Sidney, referring to the mode of transport, only to be hit by the rejoinder “you’re an elephant.”

Many set-ups are obvious – black-faced British troops tumble into a bath. The double entendres are occasionally inspired – fakir, bullocks and shot among the perfectly innocent words so rendered. But the jokes come so thick and fast that by the time you’ve complained about a poor one an absolute cracker is on the way. Some contemporary notes are struck, references to cuts (at a time when Britain was suffering economically) and a muscular servant striking a gong (reference to the introduction to all films made by British studio Rank).

However, the political insight, if that’s not too complimentary, is not sustained and it soon collapses into more straightforward Carry On territory. A film like this comes of course with multiple warnings about sexism, racial stereotypes, blackface and anything else that could possibly offend, since that was the team’s denoted purpose, and, as you will be aware, it couldn’t be made nowadays so enjoy it – or as much of it as you can stomach – while you can.

Prior to the emergence of the Bond goldmine this was the closest thing the British movie industry had to a solid-gold franchise, this being the 16th in the series. Gerald Thomas directs from a Talbot Rothwell screenplay and the cast involves usual suspects Sidney James, Kenneth Williams, Joan Sims, Charles Hawtrey and Peter Butterworth. Angela Douglas (The Comedy Man, 1964) supplies the glamour and you might spot Wanda Ventham (The Blood Beast Terror, 1968) and Valerie Leon (Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, 1971) in walk-on parts.

Oddly enough, the early Carry On pictures, seen as the natural successors to Ealing, if somewhat ruder, achieved minor cult status in the United States, Carry On Nurse (1960), the flagship, playing for over 40 weeks in Denver and clocking up $2 million in nationwide rentals (“Carry On Nurse US Rentals Run Over $2,000,000,” Variety, February 14, 1962, p3). However, no others approached that peak and “never received any hard sell to the U.S. and it remained for audiences to discover their buffoonery on double bill programs usually playing second fiddle to reissues of major British  hits” (“Carry On Mostly Discovered By Yankee Fans,” Variety, February 5, 1969, p22). Despite a positive review in Variety (Dec 25, 1968, p18) which deemed it a “beautifully timed and very funny piece of comedy film-making,” Carry On Up the Khyber made little impact on U.S. audiences recording just about $100,000 in rentals (“Variety B.O. Charts 1969 Results,” Variety, April 29, 1970, p26), that figure achieved by rounding up in the normal fashion.

A Home of Your Own (1964) ***

The phrase “classic silent British comedy” isn’t one that naturally trips off the tongue. Add in “of the 1960s” and you can guarantee furrowed brows. Thanks to the boom in recycling Hollywood silent classics in the early 1960s – which I may come back to in a later Blog –  there was a subsequent mini-boom in what were called “wordless” pictures, as if using the term “silent” was blasphemous. The oddity is that so many emerged from Britain, primarily in shortened format – not more than one hour long – as the second feature in a double bill.

Blame for this development lay in the hands of producer and later writer and later still director Bob Kellett, Britain’s unsung comedy king.

A Home of Your Own is beautifully structured, following the mishaps in building a block of new apartments. A credit sequence covers the stultifying bureaucracy involved so that what was a pristine site at the beginning of the endeavor turns into a waterlogged dump before the first brick is laid. Sight gags and slapstick abound with mostly everyone getting in each other’s way, or not, the traditional approach of the work-shy British builder being to provide an audience for someone else to dig up a road or a trench.

No paddle goes unsplashed, mud only exists to drench people, and in pursuit of comedy gold most of building materials end up misused. The gatekeeper’s main job is to make tea and there is naturally an union official whose chief task is to obstruct.

Pick of the gags is Ronnie Barker’s laying of cement, delivered with exquisite comedy timing, followed by Bernard Cribbin’s stonemason delicately chiselling out a plaque only to discover at the end in a laugh-out-loud moment that he has misspelled one word, and the carpenter who appropriates the closest implement with which to stir his tea. Some of the jokes grow legs – the morning tea break, a ham-fisted carpenter, the pipe-smoking architect arriving in a sports car, and a patch of ground on the road outside constantly being dug up by different contractors representing water board, gas, electricity.

Once the building is complete, the job has taken long enough for the aspiring apartment-owner, a mere fiancé at the outset, to lift his wife over the threshold accompanied by three kids. Any sense of personal accomplishment – the British thirst for owning property quenched – is undercut by problems the young couple now face thanks to the shoddy workmanship we have witnessed.  

All this is accompanied by a very inventive Ron Goodwin score which provides brilliant musical cues. As a bonus, the film features a roll-call of British television comedy superstars  including Ronnie Barker (The Two Ronnies, 1971-1987), Richard Briers (The Good Life, 1975-1978) and Bill Fraser (Bootsie and Snudge, 1960-1974).  Peter Butterworth and Bernard Cribbins were Carry On alumni. Janet Brown achieved later fame as an impressionist while Tony Tanner hit Broadway as the star of Half a Sixpence before expanding his career to choreographer-director, Tony-nominated for Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

A Home of Your Own went out as the support to the Boulting Brothers’ comedy Rotten to the Core (1964) which gave a debut to Charlotte Rampling. Despite being effectively a B-film, primarily made to take advantage of the Eady Levy (a cashback guarantee for producers), it was surprisingly successful.  “Will delight arthouse patrons” commented Box Office magazine in America (“Review,” October 4, 1965, p160) as British comedy films in those days tended to end up in the arthouses. In part, this was because it was the official British entry to the Berlin Film Festival. It was distributed in the U.S. there by Cinema V in a double bill with Rotten to the Core and launched in what was misleadingly called a “world premiere engagement” at the prestigious Cinema 1 in New York.

Jay Lewis (Live Now, Pay Later, 1962) directed and co-wrote, along with Johnny Whyte, the mini-feature. Kellett continued in this enterprising vein with the 55-minute San Ferry Ann (1965) – which he wrote – about a group of British holidaymakers going abroad and the 49-minute Futtock’s End (1970) – which he directed – featuring a bunch of guests descending on an ancient country house owned by Ronnie Barker.

Television stars showcased in these two featurettes included Wilfred Bramble (Steptoe and Son, 1962-1974), Rodney Bewes (The Likely Lads, 1964-1966), Warren Mitchell (Till Death Do Us Part, 1965-1975) and Richard O’Sullivan (Man About the House, 1973-1976). Ron Moody composed the Oscar-winning Oliver! (1968) while Joan Sims and Barbara Windsor made their names in the Carry On series and theatrical knight Sir Michael Hordern appeared in Khartoum (1965) and Where Eagles Dare (1968).

Though disdained by critics, Kellett went on to become by far the most influential British comedy director of the 1970s. His output included the Frankie Howerd trilogy Up Pompeii (1971), Up the Chastity Belt (1972) and Up the Front (1972), as well as The Alf Garnett Saga (1972). He was well ahead of his time with the transgender comedy Girl Stroke Boy (1972) and female impersonator Danny La Rue in Our Miss Fred (1972).

You can find all four films in a compilation released by Network under the title Futtock’s End and Other Short Stories.  Thanks to Dolphin PR for a copy. You can catch it on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital services.

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