Looking Back At CARRY ON SERGEANT - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony’s on parade.
When you mention the Carry On films to most people, they immediately think they know what you mean. The Carry On movies generally were bawdy, intensely British, end-of-the-pier postcards brought to life. There was raunch, sexual pursuit or gawping, lavatorial humour and some framing device to enable the same or similar themes to be regularly replayed. There was titillation, and there was stereotyping of both men and women and the permitted power dynamic between them during the time they were made.

And then you show them Carry On, Sergeant.

And the thing is, while a lot of the SEEDS of the Carry Ons as they became known are there in Sergeant (the first of the series), the tone is altogether different, much warmer and gentler than most of what was to follow. You can still watch Carry On, Sergeant today and find lots of good, healthy laughs in it, as well as that warmth and sentiment.

There are lots of reasons for that. For instance, while most later Carry Ons would follow a format, a particular Carry On style, Carry On, Sergeant has none of that baggage. It was based on a play by highly respected author RF Delderfield, and it was made in 1958, when there was no such thing as a ‘Carry On style,’ so it stuck more distinctly to an element of plotting with gags in, rather than, as sometimes later became the case, a bunch of gags in a loose plotting structure.

The ‘quest’ elements in Carry On, Sergeant are also much clearer than it would be in many later Carry Ons, which frequently relied more on physical farce for their laughs.
Charlie and Mary Sage (a young Bob Monkhouse and Shirley Eaton) are enjoying their wedding reception when one of the telegrams turns out to be Charlie’s call-up papers for National Service – a compulsory spell of army training which was still a real thing in Britain in 1958, when the film was released (it wouldn’t come to an end until 1960, and it shaped many mindsets in the generation who went on to be parents in the Sixties and Seventies). He’s to report to Heathercrest National Service Depot immediately – repeat, IMMEDIATELY – to begin ten long weeks of army training, separated from his not so much blushing as chronically frustrated bride before they can even consummate their marriage with the traditional wedding night romp.

Unprepared to have such carnal delights denied to her, Mary stows away on a lorry and gets a deeply unofficial job in the kitchens at the depot, determine to have her man come hell or high water.

If that all sounds a bit forward and progressive for 1958, it’s probably worth mentioning this is almost exactly what Desdemona does to be with her new husband in Shakespeare’s Othello, published in 1603, so it’s fair to say British audiences had had a while to get used to the notion of sex-crazed newlywed women following their men into ‘battle’ to get what they claimed was their right.

That’s quest 1.
Quest 2 is that of the Sergeant who will train the troop of which Charlie Sage becomes part. Played by a significantly pre-Doctor Who William Hartnell, Sergeant Grimshaw is a soldier with a very simple dream – to have the best platoon in a training block, just once before he retires in ten weeks. Grimshaw has just one last shot at fulfilling his dream – the troop of which Charlie Sage is part. And so infamous has his reputation for failure become that fellow Sergeant Paddy O’Brien (played by an almost unrecognizably young Terry Scott) bets him £50 he has no chance of fulfilling his ambition with his final troop of recruits.

Unfortunately, the troop turns out to be a gaggle of utter disappointments, seemingly keeping O’Brien’s money safe.

Apart from the initially sex-obsessed ‘nice guy’ Charlie (Monkhouse assaying the role that would traditionally be given to Jim Dale in future Carry Ons), there’s Kenneth Connor as Horace Strong, giving it his all as a world-class hypochondriac who reports sick every single day bar one for ten weeks.

Charles Hawtrey is here as Peter Golightly, a gangly-legged well-meaning dimwit who would go on to act as a template for many of his Carry On roles. Kenneth Williams takes a slightly unusual role – while Williams had become famous on shows like Hancock’s Half Hour for either very posh authority figures or his clingy, ‘snide’ character, here as James Bailey, he’s more Noel coward than anything – an intellectual aesthete with a deadly line in passive aggressive reasoning, but underneath all that, a gift for teaching, with the kindness that implies.

Terence Longdon’s in the troop as Miles Heywood, scion of a great military line – and as such, Grimshaw’s best hope for a star cadet. Sadly, he knows he doesn’t have it in him to command men, and wants to remain a simple national service recruit.

Gerald Campion – best known as the Fifties’ Billy Bunter – is in the troop too, as rock and roll fan Andy Galloway, whose storyline sadly never goes anywhere, leaving him a little lost in the mix.

And then there’s Norman Rossington as Herbert Brown, the seemingly unteachable hanger-on of the depot, who blooms under the unofficial tutelage of Kenneth Williams’ Bailey, eventually making it into the troop – something never before imagined possible by anyone who’s tried to teach him.
Divorced from all of this as the depot’s Medical Officer, tucked away in one corner of the storytelling and much more subdued than in either her role on Hancock’s Half Hour or the roles she would most often go on to fill in future Carry Ons, Carry On, Sergeant also has Hattie Jacques, dealing with Private Strong’s incessant demands to be released on medical grounds with increasing apathy as the film goes on.

It’s a joyous irony that the two main figures of authority and military bearing in the film are played by William Hartnell (later to become famous as the first Doctor in Doctor Who, an endless source of disruption and a frequent speaker-out against corrupt authority), and Bill Owen as his deputy, Corporal Copping. Owen would later find eternal sit-com fame as Compo, the scruffiest man in Yorkshire, in Last Of The Summer Wine, so seeing the renegade Time Lord and the scruff-monster as the two model military men in this comedy adds an extra smile to proceedings.

And we know what you’re thinking. Cue screwball comedy where the Sergeant shouts endlessly, trying to make ‘men’ of his final troop, and the troop resist and play silly beggars to thwart his authority, right?

Verrrrry much wrong. It’s a more intelligent and warmer film than that. Grimshaw realises, with all his military experience, that being the voice of God’s own thunder will provoke precisely that resistance from this group of unlikely recruits. So he goes completely the other way, in defiance of his instincts. He tries to treat them all as ‘delicate blooms’ to get the best out of them. This is his approach to his quest – the gentle touch.

There are plenty of sub-quests here too. Kenneth Connor’s Horace is on a quest to get invalided out, hence his daily visits to Jacques’ Medical Officer with some new ailment or other, all of which are entirely psychosomatic. Kenneth Williams’ Bailey – at first reluctant to embrace military authority – begins to treat the experience as an experiment in maintaining one’s individuality within the army framework, and later, in teaching Herbert Brown, finds himself a real role within the structure.

And as one of only three main women in the film (very different to most later Carry Ons), Dora Bryan is Norah, the ACTUAL cook at the depot, who not only takes pity on young bride Mary Sage, but also falls hook, line and sinker for Horace Strong. She’s on a quest to get her man too – though she only really succeeds after Jacques’ Medical Officer takes Horace for a bunch of tests with specialists, who all pronounce him a medical marvel of physical fitness.
All these quests run simultaneously, but – in a forerunner of things like the Police Academy movies more than the Carry Ons, the troop is naturally hopeless. They’re not trying to punk the Sergeant, they’re just useless. But as the movie goes on, the seeds of ways in which they COULD be brilliant are revealed. Charlie’s great with weapons, having previously worked at the factory where they’re made. Bailey has a unique aptitude as an educator. And after Norah gets her new, improved, non-hypochondriac Horace, he’s something of a daredevil, able to tackle all the physical challenges of training with no problems.

But it’s a chance remark, overheard on the night before they have their final tests and leave, that straightens up the troop. They overhear Hartnell’s Sergeant admitting that it’s not for him to have his dreams come true – and they determine to prove him wrong. Again, if you’ve watched a Police Academy movie, you get the vibe of Carry On, Sergeant, though it’s delivered here with much less slush and sentiment – and it’s true that the ending feels rushed and hurried, with little time to register Grimshaw’s reaction to what his final troop do for him.

But it’s still immensely watchable, over 60 years on. Hartnell, if you’re only used to him from Doctor Who, is a staggering revelation. The amount he does with looks alone is an absolute masterclass.

Bob Monkhouse is far from the TV host he was later known as, and he plays the sincerity of his simple role to the hilt. Williams and Hawtry feel like they significantly underplay versions of their future Carry On stereotypes, but really, all they’re doing is acting the characters, rather than pre-expected Carry On roles. Similarly, Hattie Jacques turns in an understated but still powerful performance. Of them all, it’s probably Kenneth Connor who goes most in the direction of future Carry Ons, but you need him to do that, to give a lot of funny forward motion to the piece while keeping it believable.

Carry On, Sergeant is not really in the same class as some of the later Carry Ons. As a film, it’s a lot better – and for those with a more reserved streak, it’s much more watchable.

There are only three main women in it, so there’s less opportunity to drift towards the prurient or sexist side. Jacques’ Medical Officer is certainly a foreshadowing of her many Matron roles, but the role is played more like drama than broad comedy. Shirley Eaton’s Mary Sage is written and played as openly sexual, but ‘permittedly’ so, as a new bride. Again, Othello, 1603 – the British audience had long experience with brides wanting the wedding night they were promised. And Dora Byran’s Norah too is an active woman, seeing the man she wants and determinedly romancing him. Much more here than in many of the films that followed, there’s more balance and less sexist exploitation in the gender roles.

But while it was not the ‘part comedy, part documentary, part Interesting Things happening’ that RF Delderfield had originally envisaged, the combination of all the quests, and especially the quest of Hartnell’s Sergeant Grimshaw, make for an affecting comedy with human – and humane – elements that make it stand significantly above most of what followed under the Carry On name.

Watch Carry On Sergeant today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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