1958 – 1961 | 1962 – 1964 | 1965 – 1967
1968 – 1970 | 1971 – 1973 | 1974 – 1992
Carry On Christmas | Carry On Laughing
My, what a juicy looking pear.
- Barbara Windsor's fruity line, Carry On Doctor.
The Carry On films were a series of 31 British comedy films made 1958-1992 that epitomise the 'saucy seaside postcard' humour in which men lust over young, attractive women while being married to older, fiercer, harridans. Although the films have a reputation for being sexist and stereotypical and degrading for women, they feature a strong female ensemble cast. Is the sexism actually in the films themselves or how we perceive them? Do the Carry On films cross a line or are they merely innocent innuendo?
The Bechdel Test
One established method used to judge whether a film is sexist is the Bechdel Test. This asks whether the film involves two or more named female characters1 having a conversation2 with each other that is not about men.
The 'named female character' is intended to differentiate between important and background characters. As the series refers to both important male and female characters by their title rather than name, 'named character' has here been defined to include titled characters whose title is a mark of respect, such as Matron3 as played by Hattie Jacques and Joan Hickson's Sister in Carry On Nurse. People of importance having only titles is not gender-biased as important male characters include the nameless Colonel in Carry On Nurse and the Chief in Carry On Spying.
So how do the Carry On films do with the test?
Carry On Films and the Test
We don't sell toothpaste.
- Valerie Leon, Carry On Camping
All 31 Carry On films feature at least two named female characters, although only 25 of the 31 films pass the 'have a conversation together not about men' test.
|Type of Carry On||Total #:||# Pass:|
Ignoring clip-show compilation film That's Carry On!, the films can be divided into those set at the time they were made and those with a historical setting. This shows half the historical films fail while every contemporary film passes. The films that fail are:
Carry On Jack (1963)
Two named female characters, Sally and Peg, have a conversation, but only about Midshipman Poopdecker.
Carry On Cleo (1964)
This features four named female characters: Calpurnia who stays in Rome, Cleopatra who stays in Egypt, Senna Pod who stays in England and Gloria, a captured slave girl who meets Calpurnia, but no two-way conversation takes place.
Carry On Screaming! (1966)
This also features four named female characters. Doris Mann is kidnapped and frozen. Emily Bung spends most of her time at her home, but does have a brief conversation with Mrs Parker about whether her husband is having an affair. Valeria spends most of her time in the spooky house and talks to the frozen women displayed there, but as they are frozen they cannot answer back.
Carry On Don't Lose Your Head (1966)
The two named female characters, Desirée Dubarry and Jacqueline, only discuss the Black Fingernail.
Carry On Follow That Camel (1967)
Zig-Zig, Lady Jane Ponsonby and Corktip do not engage in conversation. However, the looks that Zig-Zig gives Corktip speak volumes.
Carry On Henry (1971)
Queen Anne is executed to begin with. King Henry marries then imprisons Queen Marie, and plans to have her executed so he can marry Bettina. Then as the film ends, he meets Catherine Howard. Bettina speaks to Marie but mentions Henry4.
Almost every character in a Carry On film is a stereotype. Heroes are brave and persistent, good triumphs over evil, love conquers all and everyone lives happily ever after. In Carry On Jack, pirates have eyepatches and sailors have wooden legs. In Carry On Cowboy the villain wears a black hat. Comedy has long used stereotyping, but what stereotypes are and aren't acceptable changes over time. The handsome hero is as much a stereotype as the damsel in distress. This raises the question are all stereotypes for women automatically sexist, and can a woman be seen as sexy without being a sex object?
From Miss Oakley to Misogyny
Angela Douglas first appeared in Carry On Cowboy playing strong character Annie Oakley. Oakley was the best gun in Stodge City, single-handedly fighting off an attack on the stagecoach by the stereotypical Indians. Although Douglas' character's journey across America is as a strong role model, the same cannot be said for her second film in the series.
There can be no doubt whatsoever that the Carry On films' nadir is Angela Douglas' character Lady Jane Ponsonby's journey in Carry On Follow That Camel. Travelling alone from England to Algeria, everyone her naïve character encounters on her journey sexually assaults her once they discover she is travelling without a protector, telling her they will 'punch your ticket' or 'check your porthole'. Lady Jane's placidity during the experiences, which result in her being kidnapped and intoxicated in a harem while giggling 'I'm travelling alone, you know', is clearly unacceptable in a post #MeToo era.
By this measure of misogyny, Carry On Follow That Camel is the worst offender, but it is not the only film in the series in which women are presented as sex objects. Nor is it the only film in which the villain is noted for having a harem of women who are his personal property. In Carry On Up the Khyber it is revealed that the Khasi's women are numbered and tattooed. When it is wrongly believed that the Khasi has cuckolded Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond, his numerous wives feel obliged to cuckold the Khasi in return, introducing themselves by their number, with no attempt to establish individual identity and motive.
The film that most strongly objectifies women is Carry On Screaming! The villains Doctor Watt and his sister Valeria kidnap women and literally turn them into objects by transforming them into mannequins. A spoof of popular horror films such as House of Wax (1953), it ends with the innocent Emily Bung frozen as a mannequin while the unpunished Valeria ends up living happily ever after with Detective Sidney Bung, presumably because he found her more attractive.
Carry On Come Ons
I only keep going in there for my shag.
- Sid James discussing tobacco, Carry On Loving
Most women in Carry On films are portrayed as enjoying and craving sexual attention; those who do not predominantly fall into standard categories. Many are housewives who have forgotten the experience and, when reminded, become eager and willing sexual partners. Housewives such as Senna Pod in Carry On Cleo, or Evelyn Blunt in Carry On Abroad, fall into this category. Others are doctors, nurses or matrons who, due to their profession, have excessive contact with male patients and experience their overfamiliarity.
One intriguing exception to this rule is the character of Rosemary in Carry On Girls. She is a feminist who dresses in a smart suit throughout, describes the maternity hospital's nursery as 'not my scene', and is mistaken for a man by the police inspector. All these are 1970s-film shorthand signalling to the audience that the character is probably a lesbian. Leaving aside the police inspector being unable to tell whether she is male or female (if Carry On characters could tell the difference between the sexes, none of the drag gags would work after all), at no point are her life choices criticised, challenged or modified.
Any woman, regardless of age, can choose to become sexually attractive to men, for example Miss Dempsey in Carry On Loving. However, any extra effort made by a man wanting to impress a woman will always end in failure, with the harder they try, the more accident-prone and bumbling they become.
Battle of the Sexes
But Never with a Daffodil.
- Matron (Hattie Jacques), Carry On Nurse
Throughout the series attractive women easily manipulate and make fools of the men they encounter. In Carry On Up the Khyber, when the British rescue party sees the harem girls, they declare: 'It must be a trap – let's walk into it' and are subsequently captured. Even day-to-day situations involving an attractive woman lead to men making fools of themselves; in Carry On Camping, embarrassment combined with an inability to think or talk results in Sid Boggle (Sid James) asking Miss Dobbin (Valerie Leon) for a tube of toothpaste despite knowing perfectly well that camping shops do not sell it.
In 'Carry On Nurse' the nurses encounter an experienced, headstrong and determined colonel. Being a colonel he is a proud leader of men, battle-hardened and tough as nails – yet the nurses defeat him with a daffodil. And it isn't just young, attractive women who can embarrass and make fools of the men around them. Carry On at Your Convenience ends with the female characters getting the upper hand, quite literally when Vic Spanner's mother spanks his bottom in public. When the women resolve the tensions between management and workers, Vic Spanner asks: 'Brothers, you're not going to let a bunch of women tell you what to do, are you?' The immediate reply is: 'Don't they always?'
There is no doubt that the male gaze dominates in the Carry On films. Women are frequently seen as sex objects who gain the attention of the stereotypical dirty old men, and seem to enjoy this attention. The clearest example of this is in Carry On Abroad, where numerous characters drink a love potion. When a man drinks it, we see his point of view - he now sees women in their underwear - but we never learn what a woman sees when she drinks it. That the films rarely show events from the female characters' perspective shows the series' inherent sexism.
Receiving men's attention is predominantly presented as a choice; female characters can choose to dress in a manner in which they are ignored, or change their appearance and manner to become as attractive as they wish. The character of June (Jacki Piper) in Carry On Up the Jungle initially is uninterested in male attention and so is told:
You could walk starkers through a Foreign Legion outpost and nothing would happen.
She later chooses to be seen as an attractive female, telling Ug: 'You're different from me, you see. I'm a woman.' Once her choice has been made, she is viewed as an attractive partner. Similarly, Jenny Grubb (Imogen Hassall) in Carry On Loving is initially described as having 'led a very sheltered life and has had little or no experience of men', and is considered unattractive. Later, when she chooses to embrace her sexuality, Terence Philpott (Terry Scott), who had dismissed her before, suddenly finds her immensely attractive.
However, it must be said that no Carry On woman chooses to make the opposite transition - having once been seen as sexually attractive, none decide to become undesirable. It appears to be irreversible. This can be seen in Carry On Emmannuelle, when Emmannuelle is stalked by the obsessive Theodore who refuses to stop pursuing her, despite her making it clear that his advances are unwanted. The most extreme example of the male gaze, he photographs her every move, revelling in revealing her affairs to the press.
Theodore is not the only man to possess a camera in the Carry On films. When Sally Martin (Jacki Piper) strips off in front of Bertie Muffet (Richard O'Callaghan) in Carry On Loving (assuming he is a photographer) and Dawn Brakes (Margaret Nolan) similarly strips in front of photographer Larry (Robin Askwith) in Carry On Girls, both women are completely at ease with themselves while the men they are with become nervous and increasingly panic-stricken.
In Carry On Up the Khyber, a photograph is important to the plot. In that film, the British rule in India is based entirely on the myth that Scotsmen do not wear anything beneath their kilts. During a parade a drill takes place in which the men's kilts are lifted, only to tragically reveal that the men are, in fact, wearing underpants. Lady Ruff-Diamond watches and photographs the men revealing their underwear. This photograph, which could be considered to represent the female gaze, has the power to end British rule and cause a massacre.
I want you to take my knickers down.
- Joan Hickson discussing her pants being raised up a flagpole, Carry On Girls
From Carry On Constable in 1960, the Carry On series has occasionally featured nudity, although it has been far more fascinated with underwear. Pants were frequently considered to be trophies: men's pants were displayed alongside other hunting trophies in Carry On Up the Khyber while women's knickers were hoist up flagpoles in both Carry On Girls and Carry On England.
'Nudity' consists of men or women's bottoms and women's bare breasts. Topless men, such as Kenneth Connor in the bath in Carry On Girls or Terry Scott in his loincloth in Carry On Up the Jungle, will not be counted here. Nor will the wearing of bikinis, bras or revealing belly dancer outfits, regardless of whether worn by men or women. So what do these revealing scenes reveal about the degree of sexism in the Carry On films?
The nude scenes are:
- Kenneth Connor, Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey and Leslie Phillips' bottoms in Carry on Constable
- Barbara Windsor's breasts (briefly) in Carry On Camping
- Joan Sims' body double in shower (from a distance) Carry On Up the Jungle
- Bare bottom of Gilly Grant, credited as Nurse in Bath in Carry On Matron
- Barbara Windsor's bottom and one breast briefly in a shower in Carry On Abroad
- Carol Hawkins' and Sally Geeson's back and sides in Carry In Abroad
- Jenny Cox playing Vivienne the Stripper shows her breasts in Carry On Behind
- Kenneth Williams' bottom, Carry On Behind
- Elke Sommers' bottom (briefly), Carry On Behind
- Numerous women (except Joan Sims) in bed topless and four women on parade topless in the unedited version of Carry On England
- Suzanne Danielle's bottom and breasts in Carry On Emmannuelle
- Tricia Newby as nurse at marriage guidance clinic flashes her breasts in Carry On Emmannuelle
- Kenneth Williams' bottom, Carry On Emmannuelle
- Sara Stockbridge's bottom, Carry On Columbus
Though the series contains numerous scenes of both men and women wearing women's underwear, when it comes to actual nudity, Kenneth Williams is the actor most frequently seen nude. Many of these scenes, such as topless women getting out of bed in Carry On England, add nothing to the plot but were added for titillation or joke purposes. The topless parade in the same film can be viewed as the women using nudity as a form of empowerment to defy the orders of Captain S Melly (Kenneth Connor) who had ordered: 'As from this moment skirts will not be worn - battledress trousers will be worn at all times, that is all'. Though female nudity in the Carry On films are considered to be titillation, naked protests have long been used as a method of empowerment in the UK, from Lady Godiva in Coventry in the 11th Century to the World Naked Bike Ride, which has been taking place annually in cities such as London since 2004 to protest for a better environment, safer cycling and the recognition that ordinary people have ordinary bodies.
Adults Adulating Adultery
If you think nine inches is an average one, you've been spoilt
- Rainfall discussion, Carry On Girls
A key focus of the series is men pursuing women. In addition to the young, dashing hero pursing his true love, there are older men who try to pursue a less pure, purely sexual relationship with younger women. This never ends well and frequently results in the lecher discovering that their intended love interest is actually a man in women's clothing. That happened to Gladstone Carver (Sid James) in Carry On Again Doctor. The Admiral in Carry On Girls who enjoys molesting women receives his comeuppance and is attacked by Hope Springs (Barbara Windsor) in revenge. He also inadvertently molests Peter Potter (Bernard Bresslaw) disguised as a woman. In Carry On Matron Dr Prodd (Terry Scott) is called the 'taxidermist' because of his obsession with women's bodies, but again, he gets his comeuppance. Firstly he is injected in the bottom, and later he discovers he is molesting Cyril dressed as a woman. When Sergeant Nocker is in a relationship with Zig-Zig (Joan Sims) but is led astray by Corktip (Anita Harris) in Carry On Follow that Camel, he is knocked unconscious and captured.
Although the series was made against the background of the swinging 60s and sexual revolution, male characters going out of their way to commit adultery never succeed. Either the men are led on and manipulated into doing favours for the objects of their affections, who then go off with someone else, or their plans are thwarted by their wives or girlfriends. Even in Carry On At Your Convenience, when Sid Plummer (Sid James) and Chloe Moore (Joan Sims) are both trapped in loveless marriages and yearn for each other, nothing untoward happens between them.
Even King Henry VIII cannot cheat on his wives, according to Carry On Henry. Though willing to have his wives executed, he refuses to take a mistress, quoting his family motto Never spit on your own doorstep. He spends the film intending to marry Bettina. He does have a romp in the hay with a pleasant peasant after his unconsummated marriage to Marie, but at the time he believed that this marriage was being annulled and had never existed.
Perhaps the greatest example of man's inability to commit adultery comes in Carry On Up the Jungle. Charles Hawtrey's character King Tonka has been captured by the female-only Lubi-Dubi tribe who have no men of their own and are desperate for a man to mate with all of their most beautiful women. Even then he cannot physically cheat on his wife.
Is All Affair In Love and War?
That said, in Carry On films married women can have affairs easily and without consequence. While this most notoriously applies to Emmannuelle in Carry On Emmannuelle, who sleeps with almost every man she meets, another example is Evelyn Blunt (June Whitfield) in Carry On Abroad. Also, Queen Marie has an affair with Sir Roger de Lodgerley in Carry On Henry. This provides another example of how men who are interested only in physical pleasures get their comeuppance, with Roger de Lodgerley tortured on the rack.
In 31 films there are only two instances in which married men commit adultery, but in both cases it is the woman who initiates and controls events. These were in two films made in the middle of the series (1966 and 1969) at the height of the sexual revolution. In Carry On Camping Peter Potter (Terry Scott) is seduced by Sally (Trisha Noble) when feeling neglected, frustrated and trapped in his married life. The other example occurs when Detective Bung (Harry H Corbett) is trying to solve the case of disappearing women in Carry On Screaming! While investigating a spooky house he is seduced by the vamp Valeria (Fenella Fielding). Initially punished for this transgression by being transformed into a mindless monster, long-term his love affair results in his living happily ever after with Valeria while his constantly-nagging wife Emily (Joan Sims) is frozen and trapped as a mannequin. This harsh penalty is presented as being a just reward for her earlier attitude towards him and is even presented as a punishment she agrees with; the film ends with her winking to the camera.
Curiously, with the single exception of Carry On Screaming!, adultery is presented as leading to the strengthening of marital bonds, which are renewed with a new male-dominance. Following his experience with Sally, Peter Potter rekindles a passionate relationship with his wife, having found the confidence that has allowed him to re-establish control. Similarly, in Carry On Abroad, Evelyn Blunt (June Whitfield) has her love for her husband (Kenneth Connor) renewed following her affair with the barman, and she suddenly becomes submissive.
In Carry On Cleo, Hengist Pod finds a love potion that reinvigorates his manhood. When he returns home he uses it to re-establish dominance in the home and his wife treats him with much more love and affection than she had at the start of the film, when she exhibited every conceivable nagging stereotype. The underlying message is that the way to control a wife, or reinstate a loving, level playing field in which both partners can live happy, fulfilled lives, is through sex.
Emmannuelle is the Carry On character with the most sexual freedom, but it is questionable whether or not it is portrayed as a good thing. Emmannuelle pursues numerous affairs, but it is only her husband that she loves. While she refuses to adhere to other people's values or expectations, she does not seem to have her own reasons for her actions either. In Carry On Emmannuelle a lengthy series of seductions take place - she wonders whether any of her husband's male friends might try to assassinate him, and decides the best way to prevent this is by sleeping with them all. Forget free love, her actions are free from logic.
Keeping Up Appearances
Throughout the series women are often judged by their appearance, whereas the male characters are not; the male cast are clearly not chosen for their looks. Though this isn't the only criterion the women are judged by, it is fair to say that the males go out of their way to gaze upon them. For instance, Henry (Sid James) in Carry On Henry hatches a number of elaborate plans, each more disastrous than the previous one, trying to see the flirtatious Bettina (Barbara Windsor) nude, in order to decide whether to marry her.
In Carry On Again Doctor, the Moore-Nookey Clinic is an institution providing a slimming serum that makes people thinner. This clinic is for women only, which implies only females need worry about their appearance. Curiously, those undergoing the slimming treatment aren't actually overweight to begin with.
The series also has a bathing fetish. Women are watched washing in either baths or showers in Carry On Regardless, Carry On Cleo, in which Cleopatra spends almost all her time in a bath, Carry On Camping, Carry On Up the Jungle, Carry On Matron, Carry On Henry, Carry In Abroad, Carry On Behind and Carry On Emmannuelle. Carry On Jack contains a scene in which Sally, disguised as Albert, is about to be stripped and given a bath. However, men are similarly frequently seen washing too, in Carry On Constable, Carry On Camping, Carry On Up the Khyber, Carry On Henry, Carry On Abroad and Carry On Behind. In many of these they are seen or spied upon in the bath by women, with even the sanctity of their own bathrooms not safe from intrusion.
One of the strangest sexist episodes occurs in Carry On Girls, when a new Gents public convenience is opened. There are no Ladies facilities and there's no explanation why not. Understandably, local women are peeved and announce that they will squat in the toilet in protest until the situation is resolved. No further mention is given to this protest or the town's toilet situation at all. Although this public toilet is for men only, there are women-only spaces in the Carry On films. These typically are harems, although there is also the Vestal Virgins' temple. While we are informed it is a sentence of death for men to enter these female spaces, inevitably they end up being the place that the heroes hide in while disguised as women.
There is Nothing Like a Dame
Throughout the Carry On films the characters regularly disguise themselves as members of the opposite sex, with more men dressing as women than women dressing as men. The actors and films in which crossdressing occurs are listed below:
- Bernard Bresslaw: 5 - Carry On Doctor, Carry On Up the Jungle, Carry On Matron, Carry On Girls, Carry On Dick
- Peter Butterworth: 5 - Carry On Screaming!, Carry On Follow That Camel, Carry On Up the Khyber, Carry On Dick, Carry On Emmannuelle
- Roy Castle: 1: Carry On Up the Khyber
- Kenneth Connor: 4 - Carry On Constable, Carry On Cabby, Carry On Cleo, Carry On England
- Kenneth Cope: 1 - Carry On Matron
- Bernard Cribbins: 2 - Carry On Jack, Carry On Spying
- Jim Dale: 3 - Carry On Spying, Carry On Cleo, Carry On Don't Lose Your Head
- Charles Hawtrey: 4 - Carry On Nurse, Carry On Constable, Carry On Up the Khyber, Carry On Again Doctor
- Sid James: 3 - Carry On Don't Lose Your Head, Carry On At Your Convenience, Carry On Dick
- Terry Scott: 2 - Carry On Up the Khyber, Carry On Up the Jungle
- Sara Crowe: 1 - Carry On Columbus
- Angela Douglas: 1 - Carry On Follow That Camel
- Juliet Mills: 1 - Carry On Jack
- Dany Robin: 1 - Carry On Don't Lose Your Head
- Barbara Windsor: 1 - Carry On Dick
I don't think Barbara Windsor's right bosom is going to corrupt the nation.
- Censor's verdict, Carry On Camping
There are numerous references to Bristol throughout the Carry On series. Both Bettina in Carry On Henry and Lady Francis in 1973's Carry On Christmas are said to be 'from Bristol'. Model Goldie Locks in Carry On Again Doctor models for Bristol's Bouncing Baby Food while in Carry On England reference is made to a pair of Bristols, referring to the aircraft. As 'Bristol' is Cockney rhyming slang for breasts (Bristol City, titty), this is immature humour intended to be harmless fun, cinema's equivalent of naughty seaside postcards.
As well as Goldie Locks and Carry On Spying's female character's codename of 'Brown Cow', Carry On Up the Khyber features a character called 'Busti' while Carry On Teacher has Miss Allcock. Giving female characters silly names is not unique to the Carry On series5 yet men too have ridiculous names, such as Lyons in Carry On Emmannuelle who is only ever called 'Loins' and Inigo Tinkle in Carry On Up the Jungle.
Beauty is in the Eye of the Bodybuilder
In the 1970 Miss World contest, feminists throwing flour bombs and tomatoes bombarded the host Bob Hope. This event was the inspiration for Carry On Girls, in which a seaside town holds a beauty contest that is successfully sabotaged by the local feminist movement. On release the film was criticised because it featured a beauty contest, albeit a sabotaged one, and was considered highly sexist. It is true that stereotypes are present throughout the film, right down to the feminists being seen burning bras. Overall the focus is less on the girls taking part in the contest and more on the reaction to it. It is critical of feminists, portraying them as bra-burning, older harridans and killjoys out to ruin harmless titillation. This raises the question, is a film about the feminist reaction to a beauty contest more, less or equally as sexist as a film about a beauty contest?
Carry On Emmannuelle features a bodybuilder named Harry Hernia (body Howard Nelson, voice Kenneth Connor). His role, in which like the girls in Carry On Girls he is judged purely on his physical attributes, resulted in no reaction whatsoever.
Roles for Women
I can do a man's job, and I will too, if it's interesting enough.
- Liz Fraser's character Delia King in Carry On Regardless
What roles have women played in the Carry On films? The following list is in order of appearance :
Bride, NAAFI girls, army doctor, army captain, matron, nurses, hospital doctor, wives, girlfriends, mothers, maths teacher, PE teacher, school inspector, schoolgirls that teachers consider capable of constructing a time bomb, police sergeant, female police constable, drunk, deaf old woman, housewife in underwear, woman in shower, nosy neighbour, secretary, Helping Hands (highly adaptive agency temps), neglected housewife, secretary, train passenger, cruise ship passengers, canteen worker, taxi drivers, manager of successful taxi firm, bar wench, naval officer, spy, brothel madam, belly dancers, femme fatale and/or double agent, Amazonian guards in underground headquarters of a sinister organisation, cavewoman, nagging housewife, household slave, slave owner, Queen of Egypt, salon owner, secretary, squaw, chorus and Can-Can girls, gunslinger, love interest, victim, nagging wife, mannequin, vamp, gold-digger, café owner, belly dancer, harem girl, bride, wife, mother, matron, midwife, nurse, sister, patient, princess, wife, girlfriend, nudist, school girl, school teacher, wealthy widow, model advertising baby food, secretary, receptionist, business partner, widow, explorer on expedition, lady's maid, Amazonian warriors, English teacher, queen, wife, self-employed corset maker, dating agency co-owner, fake computer operator, model, sausage-stuffing factory worker, housekeeper, queen, buxom lass, ceramics factory workers, mother, landlady, housewife, secretary, canteen worker, unrequited love interest, matron, pregnant women, nurse, sister, glamorous film star, barmaid, landlady, holiday rep, hotel cook, brothel madam, councilwoman, hotelier, mayor's wife, beauty queen, model, publicity company employee of some sort, matron, nurse, wife, housekeeper, maid, entertainers, highwayman, butcher, internationally renowned Roman archaeology expert, tourists, ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) anti-aircraft gunners, army sergeant, army corporal, ambassador's wife, cook, housekeeper, queen, spy, lady's maid, cabin boy.
This shows that there are a wide variety of different roles that women play in the series, but perhaps the only important question to ask is, 'is this role a positive role model?' There is no denying that many female characters in the films exist solely to allow the male characters the opportunity to say 'phwoar!' Neither side of these encounters can be said to be a positive role model. Many female characters can be considered to be fulfilling positive functions in society and are looked on by others with respect. There are female doctors, nurses, police constables, councilworkers and teachers. The matron is a pillar of society that everyone else in the hospital looks up to and respects. There is the owner of a taxi company that can out-compete an established and experienced taxi company. There are several queens, warriors, a sergeant and a world-renowned archaeologist. So there can be no denying that these representations can counterbalance the less-positive 'phwoar factor'.
However, there is no denying that many of those roles were either considered to be 'women's jobs' that men at the time didn't do, such as NAAFI girl, matron, sister and nurse. Similarly, a lot of the humour of the series comes from female characters doing something unlikely for women, such as dainty Annie Oakley proving an effective gunslinger.
15 out of 36 recurring Carry On actors who have appeared in more than four Carry On films have been women. In comparison, in the James Bond film series to date (2019), there have been 29 actors who have played a recurring character. Of these, only five have been women6. This is largely because women in Bond films are considered to be decorative and disposable, with a new beautiful young actress required in every film.
In the more recent, James Bond films, particularly in the 21st Century, women have increasingly been given much more responsibility and agency in keeping with the times we live in, whereas the Carry On films were all made in an earlier age. Despite this, unlike the James Bond films where the actresses are almost all in their 20s and 30s, Carry On films celebrated women aged from 18 to 80, with actresses such as Joan Hickson and Esma Cannon both over 50 at the time of their first appearance in the series.
|Actor||Years||Films||Carry On Christmas||Carry On Laughing|
|Eric Barker||1958, 1960, 1964, 1978||4||-||-|
|Kenneth Connor MBE||1958-64, 1970-78||17||3||12|
|Jim Dale MBE||1963-67, 1969, 1992||11||-||-|
|Jack Douglas||1972-78, 1992||8||2||12|
|Patricia Franklin||1969-70, 1973-76||5||-||-|
|Liz Fraser||1961-63, 1975||4||-||-|
|Peter Gilmore||1963-71, 1992||11||-||-|
|Joan Hickson OBE||1959-60, 1970, 1973||5||-||-|
|Julian Holloway||1967-71, 1976||8||1||-|
|Hattie Jacques||1958-63, 1967-74||14||2||1|
|Dilys Laye||1962, 1964, 1967, 1969||4||-||-|
|Valerie Leon||1968-70, 1972-73||6||1||-|
|David Lodge||1961, 1973-76||5||-||7|
|Victor Maddern||1960-61, 1964, 1978||5||-||3|
|Margaret Nolan||1965, 1971-74||6||-||-|
|Brian Oulton||1959-60, 1964, 1969||4||1||-|
|Bill Owen MBE||1958-63||4||-||-|
|Jon Pertwee||1964-66, 1992||4||-||-|
|Leslie Phillips CBE||1959-60, 1992||4||-||-|
|Terry Scott||1958, 1968-72||7||2||-|
|Marianne Stone||1959, 1963, 1966-67, 1971-75||9||-||1|
|Dame June Whitfield DBE||1959, 1972-73, 1992||4||-||-|
|Dame Barbara Windsor DBE||1964, 1967-69, 1972-74||10||4||8|
The 13 actors in bold are recognised as the main Carry On stars.
While in many film series it is common practice for the young male characters to recur and a new, attractive woman to feature in each film, after Jim Dale left, it was more likely that a new male actor would feature in each film (Roy Castle, Julian Holloway, Richard O'Callaghan, Kenneth Cope, Robin Askwith) while actresses playing the young female love interest role were far more consistent.
The Pay is the Thing
Perhaps one of the most important measures of how highly rated women in Carry On films were is by examining the issues of top billing and pay. Top billing identifies which actor played the film's principal character. That top billing matters to actors can be seen in the fact that Charles Hawtrey was fired from the Carry On series because of his obsession with it. Having already received a guarantee that he would always be billed in the top three, Hawtrey demanded top billing for the third episode of Carry On Christmas and refused to appear unless he received it, which led to his being dropped entirely from the series. Of the 31 films, only one had a woman who was top-billed: Elke Sommer for Carry On Behind7. Television was slightly fairer - Hattie Jacques was top-billed for one of the four episodes of Carry On Christmas, and of the 13 episodes of Carry On Laughing Joan Sims was top-billed three times and Barbara Windsor twice.
Pay was a highly contentious issue, with producer Peter Rogers notoriously stingy, saying: 'I would do anything for my stars except pay them.' With the complete wage bill for Carry On Sergeant at £10,000, pay was kept low - the minimum an actor (as opposed to an extra) would be paid for appearing in a Carry On film was a mere £25. Of the two highest paid actors to appear in a Carry On film, one was a woman: both Phil Silvers and Elke Sommer were paid £30,000 for their appearances. In second place was £12,000 paid to Harry H Corbett for starring in Carry On Screaming!, followed by £9,000 paid to Frankie Howerd for his appearances. Of the main Carry On team rather than guest stars, the highest wage was £6,000 for Kenneth Williams in Carry On Emmannuelle, while he and Sid James were paid a standard £5,000 for every other film from Carry On Cruising (1963) onward. Charles Hawtrey's wage was typically in the £3-4,000 range, just above Kenneth Connor, Hattie Jacques, Jim Dale and Barbara Windsor, whose salary was usually £3,000. Joan Sims was paid a standard £2,500, the same as Bernard Bresslaw, Jack Douglas and Terry Scott, while Peter Butterworth never earned more than £2,000.
How does Top Billing compare with the number of scenes each of the main Carry On actor was in? Kevin Snelgrove in his book The Official Carry On Facts, Figures and Statistics (2008) measured the average number of scenes each Carry On actor was in. This figure can be seen in the 'scenes per film' column. Using this figure we can compare it to each actor's average billed position, from 1st billed to 33rd.
|Actor||# Films||Highest Billing||Lowest Billing||Average||Scenes per film|
We can therefore compare the order of the number of scenes each actor was in with their rank in the billing table, to see if women were being disproportionately billed.
|Scenes per Film Rank||Billing Order Rank|
What we can see is that though no woman makes the top five in either billing or number of scenes order. Joan Sims actually has a better billing than her average number of scenes would suggest, Barbara Windsor remains the same and Hattie Jacques is billed one place lower. Patsy Rowland, who appears in the fewest scenes, has the worst average billing although the worst individual film's billing by far is Terry Scott, who was billed 33rd out of 50 in Carry On Sergeant. It is no surprise that Charles Hawtrey is third in billing order as his contract specifically required him to always be billed third in any film in which he played a substantial part rather than cameo. This places him higher than the number of scenes in which he appears, as he was given an increasingly smaller role as the series progressed due to his struggle with alcoholism. Bernard Bresslaw appears in more scenes than his credited position would suggest.
Full Cast and Crew
It is no surprise that in the period between the 1950s and 1970s, the film industry worldwide was dominated by men. This is reflected in the Carry On film series. The recurring actors and actresses are only part of the story, of course, with the behind-the-scenes crew also influencing the finished films. Of the important production crew roles, the producer and director were both male. All writers, composers, directors of photography (cinematographer), camera operators, art directors, assistant directors, production managers, editors and sound/dubbing editors across all 31 films were male. The make-up artist for 23 films was Geoffrey Rodway, with only two films (6.4%) having female make-up artists. Of the nine films that credited a Casting Director, women had the role on seven occasions. Crew roles exclusively performed by women were Continuity, Hairdressing and Costume Designer.
The following is based on research by Snelgrove, and takes into account everyone who worked on a Carry On film down to the last extra and lowliest credited crew job.
|Carry On Sergeant (1958)||45 (90%)||5 (10%)||16 (80%)||4 (20%)|
|Carry On Nurse (1959)||25 (56%)||20 (44%)||17 (81%)||4 (19%)|
|Carry On Teacher (1959)||12 (67%)||6 (33%)||13 (76%)||4 (24%)|
|Carry On Constable (1960)||21 (58%)||15 (42%)||12 (71%)||5 (29%)|
|Carry On Regardless (1961)||40 (70%)||17 (30%)||13 (76%)||4 (24%)|
|Carry On Cruising (1962)||17 (77%)||5 (23%)||17 (77%)||5 (23%)|
|Carry On Cabby (1963)||19 (61%)||12 (39%)||18 (86%)||3 (14%)|
|Carry On Jack (1963)||19 (66%)||10 (34%)||16 (84%)||3 (16%)|
|Carry On Spying (1964)||19 (53%)||17 (47%)||17 (81%)||4 (19%)|
|Carry On Cleo (1964)||22 (55%)||18 (45%)||15 (83%)||3 (17%)|
|Carry On Cowboy (1965)||27 (56%)||21 (44%)||18 (86%)||3 (14%)|
|Carry On Screaming! (1966)||15 (75%)||5 (25%)||18 (86%)||3 (14%)|
|Carry On Don't Lose Your Head (1966)||16 (52%)||15 (48%)||18 (86%)||3 (14%)|
|Carry On Follow That Camel (1967)||23 (61%)||15 (39%)||16 (84%)||3 (16%)|
|Carry On Doctor (1967)||21 (55%)||17 (45%)||16 (84%)||3 (16%)|
|Carry On Up the Khyber (1968)||21 (50%)||21 (50%)||18 (86%)||3 (14%)|
|Carry On Camping (1969)||14 (41%)||20 (59%)||16 (84%)||3 (16%)|
|Carry On Again Doctor (1969)||18 (45%)||22 (55%)||15 (83%)||3 (17%)|
|Carry On Up the Jungle (1970)||14 (61%)||9 (39%)||15 (83%)||3 (17%)|
|Carry On Loving (1970)||27 (60%)||18 (40%)||17 (85%)||3 (15%)|
|Carry On Henry (1971)||25 (74%)||9 (26%)||17 (85%)||3 (15%)|
|Carry On at Your Convenience (1971)||16 (59%)||11 (41%)||17 (85%)||3 (15%)|
|Carry On Matron (1972)||14 (42%)||19 (58%)||17 (81%)||4 (19%)|
|Carry On Abroad (1972)||16 (62%)||10 (38%)||17 (89%)||2 (11%)|
|Carry On Girls (1973)||16 (43%)||21 (57%)||18 (86%)||3 (14%)|
|Carry On Dick (1974)||21 (66%)||11 (34%)||22 (81%)||5 (19%)|
|Carry On Behind (1975)||21 (50%)||21 (50%)||15 (83%)||3 (17%)|
|Carry On England (1976)||21 (64%)||12 (36%)||20 (83%)||4 (17%)|
|That's Carry On! (1977)||46 (62%)||28 (38%)||N/A||N/A|
|Carry On Emmannuelle (1978)||33 (73%)||12 (27%)||20 (83%)||4 (17%)|
|Carry On Columbus (1992)||43 (84%)||8 (16%)||58 (71%)||24 (29%)|
|Total:||707 (61%)||450 (39%)||542 (81%)||124 (19%)|
Films with an equal or greater number of actresses appear in bold. Unsurprisingly the medical Carry Ons with their plethora of nurses score highly in the number of women appearing in minor roles, but overall the pattern is clear. The crew figures also reveal that, at a time when filmmaking worldwide was extremely male-dominated, the Carry On films were no exception.
Gender of Title
If we look at the Carry On film titles, is there a gender bias? The titles fall under the categories of names, place names, job titles/descriptions, and others. Names can easily be divided into masculine and feminine while places, such as England, Abroad, the Khyber and Jungle, are obviously gender-neutral. How can job titles be defined?
Perhaps the fairest way to divide the job titles by gender is by using the Carry On films' own criterion to do so. Do the Carry On films consider the job in question to be male-only, female-only, or one which they have shown both named men and named women doing? So for the film title Carry On Teacher, both named male and female characters are teachers in the film, so the Carry On series itself considers 'Teacher' neutral. Carry On Sergeant is another job title, and army sergeants appear in four films8. All four feature male sergeants, but Carry On England also features Sergeant Tilly Willing played by Judy Gleeson, so the Carry On film series considers an army sergeant to be a role both men and women can undertake. The Carry On series brought us two named female doctors: Captain Clark, Royal Army Medical Corps doctor played by Hattie Jacques appeared in Carry On Sergeant, while Carry On Nurse brought us Leigh Madison's Doctor Winn medicine woman, so Carry On Doctor and Carry On Again Doctor are neutral too.
Five film titles appear in the male list. Of these, Henry, Dick and Columbus are named after male historical figures - Henry VIII, Dick Turpin and Christopher Columbus - and so are clearly male. The other two are less straightforward. No character called Jack appears in Carry On Jack, which derives its name from sailors being commonly nicknamed Jack. Does this nickname derive from Jack being a common name, in the same way that British soldiers are nicknamed 'Tommy', or from the fact that onboard ships there are stays, lines and ropes sailors need to winch and jack? If the latter, it is worth noting that Sally (Juliet Mills) successfully impersonates a midshipman. Similarly it could be argued that Carry On Cowboy should be gender neutral as character Annie Oakley is the best shot in Stodge City, single-handedly fighting off a stereotypical Indian attack. However, as she never interacts with cows can she truly be considered a cowboy?
That said the humour in Carry On Jack derives from a woman disguising herself as a Midshipman, which isn't a job women are considered able to do even at a time when the navy is so short of men that they're willing to recruit the incompetent. In Carry On Cowboy no-one expects Annie to be a gun-slinging cowboy, which makes this different from the role of 'Doctor' in which the female doctors' credentials are recognised by their peers.
Similarly, five film titles appear in the female list. Cleo and Emmannuelle are named after female characters, and only women, predominantly Hattie Jacques but also (once) Joan Hickson, play a matron. However, is it possible to argue that 'nurse' and 'girls' should be gender neutral? In many of the films a male character disguises himself as a woman, including Carry on Girls, in which one of the beauty queen contestants is a man hoping to generate publicity. Arguing that therefore men too can be counted as girls would seem farfetched. Similarly, although there are no male nurses in the films, men disguise themselves as female nurses, such as Charles Hawtrey's character in Carry On Nurse, while in Carry On Matron Kenneth Cope's character is disguised as a female nurse for a substantial period, even successfully performing the duties of a nurse by delivering triplets. Although in the 21st Century there have been male nurses for many years, at the time these films were made the joke was that men weren't nurses and so 'nurse' is a female-only role.
East or West, Home is Best
It is fascinating to see how the depictions of home life change during the Carry On series' main run. The very first scene in the first film of the series is of a wedding, while the last scene of Carry On Emmannuelle is that of a mother having given birth. The early films such as Carry On Constable depict home life as glamorous, with young housewives ironing in their underwear or showering nude10. Many of these characters only appear in these scenes and are a clear example of the male gaze. As the series progresses the housewives become older and grumpier, such as Emily Bung (Joan Sims) in Carry On Screaming!, or lazier and less interested in housework or their husbands, such as Beattie Plummer (Hattie Jacques) in Carry On at Your Convenience. Instead of wanting desperately to spend time with their wives, as Charlie Sage (Bob Monkhouse) had in Carry On Sergeant, husbands start to plan on getting as far away from them as possible, eg Sid James' characters in Carry On Abroad and Carry On at Your Convenience. Yet inevitably, when the husbands are left alone by their wives and have to do their own cooking and ironing, they fail miserably.
In conclusion, while there is no doubt that sexism exists in the Carry On film series, it is clearly and demonstrably less sexist than many of its contemporary film series, particularly the James Bond films. Carry On Follow That Camel crosses the line of acceptability and Carry On Emmannuelle not so much crosses it but instead tries to tightrope walk along the line only to plummet to the depths after only a few steps. Several generations have enjoyed watching the films, and after 60 years it is inevitable that culture has changed and moved in some regards. Yet despite this, the Carry On films can be seen as mostly harmless, though sexist, entertainment.