It’s that time of year again, when the nights grow dark, the lights grow bright and our favourite old movies are dragged out of the attic for their ritual parade across the Christmas schedules. We might never actually watch Die Hard, Scrooged, Mary Poppins or the Guns of Navarone, but we gain a sense of comfort and continuity from knowing that they’re still around…somewhere. These tried and tested staples are a lot like that quaint old village church we never visit, yet fight tooth and nail to protect from all manner of modern encroachments.
If current reports are even remotely accurate, then 2017 will be remembered as the year that big media and big politics were finally exposed as hotbeds of the very misogyny and predation they’ve often railed against with a screeching self-righteousness that was bound to raise suspicions sooner or later. I’d often thought they protested too much.
In light of this ruthless, career ending hunt for sexual misconduct both real and alleged, it’s kind of strange to see our socially awkward friends from the Carry On team gracing our screens day after day during the holiday season. How can we explain this contradiction? How is it that a bunch of bawdy farces from the sixties and seventies are still airing as family viewing long after most of their contemporaries have been demoted to obscure footnotes in feminist literature?
The answer is that although we may not watch them, we collectively give the Carry Ons a cultural pardon with a kind of affectionate indulgence not granted to other comedians, movies and franchises hailing from that admittedly controversial era. Somehow the good ship Carry On just carries on, despite the ill winds of revisionism doing their best to blow it off course. The reason for the Carry Ons’ seemingly inexplicable appeal has actually been staring us in the face these many years, with all the subtlety of Barbara Windsor’s bosom.
The truth is that while men may sit on the throne, a woman’s word is law in the kingdom of Carry On.
Sexually, institutionally, socially and even financially, the ladies are nearly always on top. From teenage temptresses, through senior nurses, saucily strict governesses and ending with screeching, hen-pecking harridans; the female of the species is most definitely smarter, more deadly and more astute than her underachieving Carry On competitors.
By contrast, the Carry On men are not quite the collection of unapologetic, misogynist barflys they’ve often been made out to be. They’re much more a bunch of hapless, balding, wannabe lotharios or comically uptight, neurotic misfits. They’re constantly outwitted by the younger women they’ve still not learned to leave well alone, while stumbling from one misadventure to the next. They’re forever looking over their shoulders, always fearful of Matron’s institutional power, or even worse, the wife’s marital and emotional muscle.
This is why the Carry On films have admittedly aged but yet still lasted, while a franchise like On the Buses has faded into almost total oblivion. Whilst it’s tempting to lump them both together, there’s a very good reason why one elicits a wry, grudging affection and the other commands only a kind of cringing and embarrassed contempt.
The Carry On men were most often the helpless victims of a world they only imagined they controlled, while the protagonists of On the Buses were a pair of workshy schemers who constantly badmouthed their wives while chasing ever more deluded dreams of extra marital affairs. While one franchise gave us a cast of outrageously camped-up caricatures, the other left us with only a pair of conniving, lying manipulators for company. Who would you want to hang out with?
History has now delivered its verdict.
Whether we like to admit it or not, the Carry On world lives within us all; finding validation with every fumbled chat up line and every free drink accepted from a stranger. We indulge, if not outright embrace these ageing sexual comedies because we know deep down that they reflect some enduring, unchanging and fundamental truths about our own social and sexual worlds. We recognise these often tongue tied, always awkward men within ourselves and also in others, because we know that a caricature begins its life in reality.
Long may they carry on…and on…and on.