TV Reviews

Carry On Christmas – DVD Review

Nowadays, it feels like you are never more than five minutes away from a culture war of one sort or another. Good to know that the Government has so much free time on its hands just now, with nothing far more pressing that needs to occupy its attention besides trolling anyone left of them, and wringing its collective hands over supposed Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati.

Those long of memory and tooth may well recall back in the 1980s the rise of what was dubbed ‘alternative comedy’, as part of what was deemed as being political correctness gone mad. As alternative comedy challenged the mainstream by taking on those comics whose material was deemed sexist, racist, or offensive in any number of other ways by ‘punching down’ when picking its targets, the backlash against this was vociferous, and sadly all-too familiar to those following all of the current skirmishes in the ongoing culture-war-without-end, in terms of both tone and language.

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Sacred cows were being slaughtered across the field, with Not The Nine O’ Clock News parodying The Two Ronnies in an acerbic sketch which dubbed them as ‘The Two Ninnies’, and deeply offended Ronnie Barker by sending the duo up, resulting in Barker sending a letter of complaint directly to NTNOCN producer John Lloyd. Other persona non grata in this new era of comedy included Benny Hill, whose antics on screen were now being decried as being sordid, demeaning, and well behind the times. If you were part of the ‘old guard’ of light entertainment mainstays, then you were potentially in the firing line.

Curiously, though, considering the ‘putsch’ which was taking place of beloved British comedy institutions, one appears to have weathered the storm somewhat better than others: the Carry On film series. Having started back in 1958, the Carry Ons had gained a reputation for their saucy, seaside postcard-style humour, which gradually became far bawdier and lewder as tastes changed in the 1970s, thanks to the rise of sex comedies like the Confessions… movies. The upshot of this came with 1978’s disastrous Carry On Emmanuelle, an entry which had seemingly holed the franchise below the waterline, and looked to ensure that they would Carry On no longer.

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However, when there was one further stab at bringing the series back to cinema screens with 1992’s misfire Carry On Columbus, alongside some of the returning actors we saw a number of newer names from ‘alternative comedy’ turning up in the cast, such as Rik Mayall, Peter Richardson, Alexei Sayle, Nigel Planer, Keith Allen, and Julian Clary. Clearly, the lure of appearing in a Carry On film would outweigh any of the possible negative connotations for this new generation of comedy talent, and perhaps demonstrates the endurance of the movies, despite a sea change in public attitudes that had impacted other material from that era.

Various attempts have been made since Columbus some 30 years ago to try and breathe new life into the Carry On range, but to little avail, which evidently shows just how difficult it is to recapture what made those films so much of a mainstay, with so few of the original ensemble still with us now. The 31 existing movies do seem to be a regular fixture on television even today, having avoided the fate of being ‘cancelled’, and it would appear that they will continue to be around for a good while yet. Although your own views on Carry On may vary, it would be difficult to dispute that – for better or worse – they have become cultural landmarks.

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What is probably less commonly known about the Carry Ons is that for a few years at the height of their fame, they were part of the Christmas television schedules thanks to some specially-made festive episodes produced for Thames, the London weekday ITV franchise holder. Commonly known by the blanket name of Carry On Christmas, the quartet of TV specials were aired in the Decembers of 1969, 1970, 1972 and 1973, with input from the creative team of Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas, and seeing many of the familiar faces from the films transferring over to the small screen.

Now, in time for Yuletide 2022, all four specials have been brought to us on DVD by Network Distributing, meaning that we can sample for ourselves whether or not we have a turkey for this Christmas. In actuality, this is in fact more of an expanded re-release, as they first came out in 2005, and all of the original special features – interviews with Wendy Richard, Peter Rogers and Jack Douglas, and footage of ‘An Evening With Peter Rogers’ – are intact. The only addition is a curious TV special from 1971, All This – And Christmas Too, featuring Sid James and Kenneth Connor, which feels like an unsubtle steal from James’ sitcom vehicle Bless This House, a show which had debuted earlier that year.

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The first episode – 1969’s Carry On Christmas – is probably the strongest of all the four specials. Based loosely around A Christmas Carol, it later veers off into ‘Universal Monsters’ territory, with appearances by Dr Frank N. Stein and Count Dracula. Sid James makes the perfect Scrooge, with many of the other Carry On regulars more than earning their keep in supporting roles, but the show gets stolen away from under them all by Frankie Howerd. With the show taped before a live studio audience, Howerd knows how to work the room, and by directly addressing them – as well as the viewers – he delivers a peerless performance, doing exactly what he does best.

1970’s Carry On Again Christmas (AKA Carry On Long John) is rather a curiosity, by dint of being in black and white, rather than colour. Whether done as a cost cutting measure (with colour broadcasting still being relatively new in the UK, and more costly to produce), or due to the impact of a strike by technicians affecting production of shows in colour, the end result is that it gives the special a more retro feel, which aids the setting of all kinds of high seas hijinks, being a spoof of Treasure Island. The finished product is nautical but nice, a slew of corny old jokes mixed in with innuendo, although it does feel a little laboured at points.

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The two year gap between that special and 1972’s Carry On Christmas (AKA Carry On Stuffing) would appear to have resulted in some lost momentum, as this is a much weaker entry by far. Again based in a period setting, this time being set around a festive dinner in an 18th Century Manor House, the featured characters – such as they are – feel even more thinly drawn than usual. In fact, the main setting seems little more than linking material, around which to insert a series of not especially good historical-based skits, and there is little to raise even a titter for the most part.

The fourth and final special – 1973’s Carry On Christmas – is the only one to feature a contemporary setting, and features James as a somewhat sleazy department store Santa. There is a truly jaw dropping moment, where James is confronted with Barbara Windsor playing a thirteen year old schoolgirl, and the sheer lecherousness of it sets all kinds of alarm bells ringing. The scene was even included in Channel 4’s It Was Alright In The 1970s, where a parade of talking heads all sit agog at the sheer cringeworthiness of the scene. Sadly, that tends to overshadow what is actually not a bad little special, although there is some head scratching to be done during a skit seeing prehistoric cavemen celebrating Christmas.

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Network’s Carry On Christmas DVD release manages to let us see some relative rarities from the Carry On stable which have not been bludgeoned to death by overfamiliarity, and there is plenty of novelty value in this, not least in viewing the cast playing to a studio audience. However, this means that at times it feels somewhat less polished than their big screen endeavours, and as well as being a little rough round the edges, there are also some moments where the material feels like it goes a little too far, particularly with some of the vernacular used veering towards the homophobic more than once, as well as touching a few other nerves.

However, what would Christmas really be without having a few snowflakes, and after watching this, you might end up finding yourself amongst them, due to those moments of political incorrectness which are peppered throughout. It may not be a White Christmas this year, but this DVD might just make it feel like a Blue one instead. Carry On Christmas certainly delivers more than ample sauce for anyone’s goose, as well as plenty of crackers being pulled, and a whole load of old chestnuts.

Carry On Christmas is out now on DVD from Network Distributing.

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