Roman Week: Revisiting CARRY ON CLEO

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Infamy! Infamy! Will Egan's got it in for me...
Considering how popular Ancient Rome has been with filmmakers over the years, there are surprisingly few comedy pieces set in this most esteemed of locations. There have been occasional forays - the current ‘Plebs’ series on ITV, the mocking of the Romans in the brilliant Life of Brian while Doctor Who’s ‘The Romans’ is the closest the show ever came to being a sitcom. Ancient Rome always seems to be a particularly rich area for comedy and a great sitcom could be made around the frequently barmy emperors, lampooning one of the most incredible societies in history. Thankfully, the famous Carry On team noticed the potential for humor in Roman society, coming up with one of the finest pieces to grace that illustrious comedy series.


The title itself may imply a film set in Ancient Egypt but Carry on Cleo is far more focused on Rome throughout, especially the plight of two captured slaves from Briton - Horsa (Jim Dale) and Henna Pod (Kenneth Connor). Being an archaeology student, the idea of Iron Age Britain being filled with cavemen and dinosaurs should fill me with horror, but one of the charms of the Carry On films is the somewhat dodgy chronology in many of their historical pieces. Our two ‘heroes go in very different directions with Pod becoming Julius Caesar’s (Kenneth Williams) bodyguard while Horsa becomes a galley slave on Caesar’s ship. Through various misunderstandings, they become embroiled in the quest of Mark Anthony (Sid James) who has been sent to assassinate Egyptian Queen Cleopatra (Amanda Barrie) but has instead become infatuated with her and now wishes to assassinate Caesar. Plot wise it is hardly Shakespeare, but anyone who comes to the Carry On films for a great plot is not their target audience.


What the Carry On films have always given us are jokes that were probably being delivered in Roman comedies, countless innuendos,  ‘saucy’ scenes and a few bits of good old slapstick. To many people having these aspects in any movie will fill them with horror, yet it is hard not to love the Carry On films despite their many shortcomings due to their sheer charm. Being one of the best in the series, Cleo has all of these by the bucket load and barely a minute goes by without a brilliant corny joke that can still raise a smile.

Many have not given the ‘regulars’ of the Carry On series the praise they deserve, usually due to the snobbishness of many reviewers and even from some of the actors themselves who viewed the film as being ‘beneath them’. This is a major shame as it’s clear they were all brilliantly gifted performers. Kenneth Connor always seems to be somewhat forgotten despite starring in 18 of the films. Henna Pod is probably his finest role and he plays him really well, with some great slapstick scenes in the latter part of the films. Jim Dale (now known as being the voice of the Harry Potter books in America), a semi-regular in the series at this point is also good as Horsa, while Charles Hawtey and Joan Sims are highly enjoyable in their supporting roles. Considering her title role, Cleo herself doesn’t get masses of screen time but it Amanda Barrie still leaves a lasting impression in the role in her second and final Carry On film. Keep an eye out as well for a cameo appearance from future Doctor Jon Pertwee playing a wild-eyed soothsayer showing his comic roots.


The two stars of the film (and possibly the whole series) are Sid James and Kenneth Williams, who play Mark Anthony and Julius Caesar to near perfection. Regarded by his costars as one of Britain’s finest comic actors, James’ lecherous Anthony is played superbly with his trademark ‘dirty laugh’ making its trademark appearance. Williams is on top form here, playing his Caesar as a sniveling, nasally talking fool often exclaiming “I know!’ in that wonderfully high-pitched of his. His crowning moment of course is Caesar’s assassination containing what is officially British comedies finest every one-liner-“Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me!” The line didn’t actually come from the pen (or typewriter) of Carry On stalwart Talboth Rothwell but was actually borrowed from the Jimmy Edwards radio show Take it From Here written by two of his friends.



The Carry On films have become notorious for their extremely low budgets, with the sets often looking rather cheap while, in other installments, Camber Sands and Snowdonia double for the Sahara Desert and the Khyber Pass respectively. However, the disastrous production of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra saw all the sets being rebuilt in Rome with the rest being left empty at Pinewood Studios. The Carry On team took full advantage of them making this the most resplendent of the films by a long mile with much of the action taking place in some quite wonderful sets. It’s clear the film is often lampooning that notorious epic and when all is said and done an argument could be seriously made that Carry on Cleo is actually a better film.

The Carry On films are never going to be for everyone but it’s clear that Cleo is one of their better efforts. Yes it’s dated and many of the jokes are pure corn but it will always have a certain charm that makes it highly enjoyable for a wet Sunday afternoon.

Studies archaeology by day, frees the universe of evil, injustice and cold tea by night. Will walks in an eternity of cult BBC science fiction series and Big Finish. Follow him on twitter.

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