THIS TIME on Torments, George takes a look at the death rattle of a series desperately struggling for relevance.
Disclaimer: I know there are plenty of people who would consider any and perhaps every entry in the Carry On film series to be a Torment. They are full to the brim of the mistakes of popular cinema of the late fifties, sixties and seventies. Sexism and stereotyping run through them like a little stick of Brighton rock. Grubby innuendo, sometimes regarded as the lowest form of wit, is rampant.
Resisting the urge to step outside the role of the critic and into the personal is hard with this one – I grew up watching the Carry On films. My best friend and I watched all of them endlessly as teenagers, discovering the gentler black and white beginnings of the series and loving them as one loves a past unreachable. The romance of nostalgia is what it is, but this only adds to the idea that these films live in the past. They may be comfort food, they may be on every Christmas, but they do not look good in a modern context.
You may be anchored to them, but there is no way you could ever be chill with the representation of women or non-white cultures in them. There’s plenty to enjoy in sending up British institutions (and the Carry On films savaged them, portraying the British Empire as being built on bluff and the health service tied up in bureaucracy) but even as cult cinema, they do not stand the test of time well.
But I’m not here to talk about the Carry On series as a whole. Instead, I want to tell you about 1978’s Carry On Emmannuelle, the 30th and final entry in the original run of the series. (This depends on how canonical you think Carry On Columbus, which briefly revived the films in 1992, is; my DVD box set excludes it.) Produced under the pall of studio changes and loss of old hands, both on a personal and professional level – including the sad death of Sid James, whose absence casts a shadow over the final entries – this is Carry On Through the Looking Glass. Carry On Burning Out At the End of the Seventies. Carry On Screaming Right Into the Excesses of Thatcherism.
For those unaware of the Emmanuelle films, they’re a lurid series of softcore porno flicks released in the 70s. This, of course, is a parody of those (with the titular character’s name spelled a bit wrong), and was designed to rejuvenate the Carry Ons as they languished in a slump having suddenly gone out of date in favour of X-rated comedies like the Confessions Of series.
Terrible idea. New is not always better, and bigger, jazzier and sexier is not always, in fact, sexier. From the off the film departs from the animated titles and brassy music of a typical Carry On opening, with the credits running over the opening scene and a funky disco number playing over the top. We see the titular character, Emmannuelle (Suzanne Danielle), in the cabin of the Concorde (bigger, more modern, remember?), groping a steward’s crotch (yes, another man asks from further down the plane “Steward, are you coming?”) before seducing hapless Theodore Valentine, a wet blanket who tells her she must come to tea with mother, in the toilet.
The plot remains oddly coherent upon landing. Emmannuelle dances around some off-colour humour with the British Asian man on the immigration desk (“We must be careful who we are letting into this country.” “Well, ‘ow did you get in?”) while we also learn that she is the wife of the French ambassador, Emile Prevert. Emmannuelle then proceeds to her husband’s house and is greeted by Jack Douglas (who is actually playing a character that isn’t his normal clumsy-Northern-man-throwing-things), the butler.
This brings me to a particularly sore spot for fans of the Carry On film series and that generation’s stable of charismatic British character actors in general – the treatment of the series’ regulars. Jack Douglas is served well, yes, by being bumped up to more screentime and not being saddled with his flailing gimmick, but poor Kenneth Williams (the ambassador) is stuck with an outrageous French accent.
Peter Butterworth plays the shambling old man bootboy well, but isn’t given enough to do. Joan Sims is reduced to being the shouting housekeeper harridan, accusing them all of being sex-mad (which, of course, they are). Kenneth Connor again proves that he’s a brilliant actor, criminally under-used, as the Cockney man-about-town chauffeur. But none of them are in it enough and when they are, it involves them running around in the sorts of tiring farces that the Carry On films are (incorrectly) known for.
Oh, the plot? If it seemed like I went off-track there, it’s because, after reuniting with her husband, Emmannuelle embarks on a series of romps with various characters we briefly meet in a handful of scenes. At one point, she has it off with a whole football team (tastefully off-screen of course – this isn’t an actual porno, though it’s probably not much funnier than one), and all while Theodore Valentine (the wet blanket from the Concorde toilet) stalks her and complains to his mother that he only wants Emmannuelle to settle down with him.
Actually, special mention to the wonderful Beryl Reid here – she saves every scene she’s in as Theodore’s mother, managing to be irritatingly sweet and over-bearing in a way that’s always funny without ever making you want her off the screen. Like the rest of the talent in this though, she’s overlooked in favour of countless scenes of Emmannuelle seducing assorted men.
After this endless barrage of nudging, winking, and bare bottoms, the plot assembles itself into action again – the reason Emmannuelle has taken to her adventures is because her husband has been unable to perform sexually since he injured his penis on a weather-vane (naked skydiving). He rediscovers his passion for her and swaps her contraceptive pills for fertility pills so that she’ll be a mother and not keep wanting to have sex all the time (gross), which is exactly what happens. Of course, the fertility pills make her give birth to a massive litter of babies and all the men she’s slept with throughout the film surround her hospital bed and celebrate.
This is not the first Carry On film primarily about sex. And no, not all of them were primarily about sex, although it is a prominent theme throughout most of them. But where, say, Carry On Loving was all “phwoar!” and awkward encounters, Carry On Emmannuelle just throws sex around as something that’s funny in itself. There’s some innuendo but for the most part it’s simply humping. At one point Emmannuelle takes her coat off to reveal she’s just wearing pants underneath: “Ah forgot ah wasn’t wearing any clothes!” Delightful.
It’s a sad and sour note to leave a series like Carry On, which – while, we must remind ourselves, is now firmly locked in the carapace of history, without hope or need of resuscitation – was a historically significant roll call of send-ups. Watch it if you’re a completist or just love poorly-written smut.