Carry on, comrades...
The popular image of the trade union activist had been fixed as long ago as 1959 with Peter Sellers as Fred Kite in I’m All Right Jack, forever calling his men out on strike and dreaming of the paradise that was the Soviet Union (‘All them corn fields and ballet in the evening’). His would-be 1970s equivalent was Vic Spanner, the Zapata-moustached shop steward in a lavatory factory, played by Kenneth Cope in Carry On at Your Convenience (1971), an unlovable figure who signally fails to represent his members.
‘All we want is an honest day’s work,’ they plead, to which he responds: ‘Listen, brother, it’s Bolshie talk like that that got this country in the mess it’s in today.’ Similarly, when one of the workers complains about a proposed strike, Spanner replies, ‘If you’ll pardon me, you don’t have a say. This is union business.’ ‘But it is our union, isn’t it?’ protests another worker. ‘Exactly,’ snaps Spanner. ‘And for that reason you’ll do as I bloody told you.’
The tension between leader and led reaches a peak towards the end of the film when Spanner is organizing a picket: ‘All right brothers, we have got to keep a full picket line today because I have heard that some of the men want to come back to work.’ His henchman Bernie Hulke (Bernard Bresslaw) asks: ‘Well, if they want to, how are we going to stop them?’ ‘Force!’ replies Spanner grimly, handing out baseball bats to the picketers.
If none of this sounds typical of the cheerful, saucy spirit of the Carry On movies, that’s probably because it wasn’t; this was a film that took the series into the troubled waters of industrial politics and left the cast floundering out of their depth. It could, though, have been worse. The working title was Carry On Comrade, and in the original cut it also featured Terry Scott in an unsympathetic portrayal of a union boss named Mr Allcock.
That character was lost in the editing, which helped tone down the anti-union sentiments, but even so actor Richard O’Calloghan (who played Lewis Boggs, the boss’s son) was unimpressed: ‘I personally was very embarrassed by what I was doing,’ he commented later. ‘It was all so right-wing, presenting the unions as complete asses – when, in fact, the unions were protecting millions of people’s security in this country at the time. I believe the box-office takings reflected this.’
He was quite correct about the takings; in general, the barrel-scraping budget of Carry On meant that a film could recoup its costs in three days at the box office – it took Carry On at Your Convenience nearly five years to do so. It was not much of a surprise that after this disaster, the team scuttled back to safer ground in their next outing, Carry On Matron, the fourth medical setting for the series.
The problem was that, although they were subsequently adopted as an emblem of British culture, the appeal of the Carry On movies in their own time was strictly to a working-class audience, and Convenience’s middle-class assault on unions was wildly inappropriate. This was, after all, 1971, when Edward Heath’s government was attempting to limit by law the activities of the trade unions, and when the fightback began in earnest...
published by Aurum Press
© Alwyn W Turner 2008