Published On: Tue, Dec 12th, 2023

Bimbos? Not a bit of it. The Carry On girls always outsmarted the men | Films | Entertainment


Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques in Carry On Doctor

Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques in Carry On Doctor (Image: ITV)

It was 5.30am and still dark when Sally Geeson arrived at Pinewood Studios to start filming Carry On Abroad. In spring 1972, the comedy franchise already had legions of adoring fans, tickled pink by its bawdy humour. But the 21-year-old actress wasn’t sure what reception to expect from the established cast.

She had heard, for instance, that Kenneth Williams could be “tough” with newcomers. So, it was with slight trepidation that Sally climbed the stairs to the makeup room ­until, suddenly, something made her stop dead on the spot.

“I could hear this hysterical laughing coming from the makeup room,” the actress, now 73, recalls today. “I thought, ‘Who is that? What is that?!’” Edging closer, she poked her head around the door. “Barbara Windsor was there laughing her head off and so was Charles Hawtrey in the makeup chair,” she remembers.

“They looked round, I said, ‘Hello, I’m Sally,’ and they said, ‘Oh, hello Sally.’ They were so nice and friendly, I thought, ‘I’m going to enjoy this, I know I am.’”

Her instincts soon proved right. “There was never an unhappy moment,” Sally continues. “I used to get home and I’d be tired, and I’d say to my boyfriend: ‘Oh, I’m worn out laughing.’” The actress appeared in three Carry On films altogether, including 1973’s Carry On Girls, whose 50th anniversary has been celebrated with a lavish new book, The Carry On Girls, written by husband and wife team Gemma and Robert Ross.

The couple wanted to pay homage to ­the fun, feisty and determined women – from Hattie Jacques and Joan Sims to June Whitfield and, of course, Barbara Windsor – who helped popularise the much-loved series alongside leading men Sid James and Kenneth Williams.

“The films show women having a good laugh,” says Gemma.

“And you can see Hattie and Joan aren’t always acting because they genuinely find what they are saying is funny, whether it’s opposite men or women.”

Sid James and Barbara Windsor in Carry On Girls

Sid James and Barbara Windsor in Carry On Girls (Image: ITV)

Rather than being merely bimbos or nags, she says the female characters were empowered figures who outsmarted men or were in on the jokes. Robert agrees.

“They’re very strong characters. They ­are sexually confident and the men are a bit silly, but it’s a comedy film and everybody’s a bit silly.

“You see Kenneth Williams with his trousers around his ankles as much as you see Barbara Windsor in a bikini. It’s all a comedy of embarrassment and sexual frustration.”

Although fashions and tastes in humour change over time, often according to younger generations who decide what is in vogue or is no longer deemed acceptable, the Carry On films continue to delight all ages.

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They’re available to watch on BritBox but you’ll also find titles on Netflix and Channel 4, where unorthodox content rules. “It’s because they’re funny,” says Sally of their appeal. “People like that silly humour and they can identify with the situations.”

She references Carry On Abroad, number 24 in the 30-strong franchise, in which the gang heads to Spain for an all-inclusive stay at the Elsbels Palace Hotel, a play-on-words of “Hell’s Bells”. “Not only is the name funny but the films remind people of their own experiences, such as the package holidays they went on when they were young,” says Sally.

Robert has another theory about Carry On’s enduring appeal. “There’s no guideline about who gets attacked,” he says. “The team is made up of various people, be it gender, sexuality or social class.

“The only people we [the audience] don’t like in a Carry On film are people who don’t have a good time. Kenneth Williams is ­­
usually the baddie, and Sid James or Barbara Windsor are the goodies, but there’s no ­real agenda.”

It’s hard to remember a time before the franchise dominated the comedy landscape, which launched with Carry On Sergeant in 1958. Robert, Carry On’s official historian, says the plotlines always reflected the time in which they were made, even if the material was historical.

Sally Geeson appeared in three Carry Ons

Sally Geeson appeared in three Carry Ons (Image: Lawrence Lawry/Avalon/Getty)

Take Carry On Matron, filmed in 1972 and featuring unmarried mothers. “There’s a whole plotline about stealing contraceptive pills,” says Robert.

“You could never have talked about ­contraceptive pills in the late 1950s when the series started. The boundaries are pushed a bit more each time, right the way up to Carry On Columbus in 1992.”

In Carry On Girls, the 25th film, the ­­action revolves around a ­seaside town’s beauty ­contest organised by a local councillor, played by Sid James, to perk up its ­boring image. Today’s feminists may have a lot to say about the skimpy outfits and seaside postcard innuendo.

Even the trailer, accompanied by close-up shots of bosoms, carries the slogan: “The most sizzling Carry On ever!” But Sally, who wore two-pieces, says she was never ­disrespected on set, nor in Carry On Abroad, even when she was in her bra and pants.

“It didn’t bother us, it wasn’t a problem,” she insists. And Gemma says this view is shared by all the actresses she interviewed. “What came out of my conversations with the girls was the love they have for director Gerald Thomas, creator Peter Rogers, and for each other. Nobody’s had a bad word to say about anybody.” Long-time Carry On director Gerald went to great lengths to ensure the women were ­protected during any scenes involving semi-nudity or rumpy-pumpy.

“What people don’t realise is that the ­­sets were closed,” says Gemma. “You were only there if you really had to be there. Nobody was allowed to linger about.”

Robert interjects: “[British film director] Ken Russell was filming The Devils at this time. He saw Barbara Windsor and told her ‘You get a closed set for half a bum cheek? You want to come and see what we’re doing over here!’ Other directors were shocked.”

Sally was 10 and still “a ­little girl with plaits” when she made her first Carry On appearance in 1961’s Carry On Regardless.

As a child, she attended Corona Stage Academy with her sister, Judy Geeson, who made her stage debut opposite Sidney Poitier in the 1960s British school drama ­­To Sir, with Love. In her late teens, she played free-loving Nikki in the comedy film What’s Good For The Goose, alongside legendary entertainer Sir Norman Wisdom, before she won the part of Sid James’s daughter, also named Sally, in Bless ­­This House.

She did six seasons in total and formed a close relationship with her screen father who helped her land her second Carry On picture. Sid was “the most genuine, ­gorgeous man”, Sally says.

They met in the office of her then ­future husband, the quizmaster and television producer William G. Stewart, who ­produced and directed Bless This House. Sally and William were married in 1976 for a decade before they divorced.

Of her first encounter with Sid, Sally recalls being taken aback ­by meeting a man of elegance ­and sophistication.

Authors Gemma and Robert Ross

Authors Gemma and Robert Ross (Image: )

“He had the most beautiful clothes and shoes on,” she remembers. “He stood up and said, ‘Hello, my darling.’ He just was not what I expected. I imagined him to say, ­‘Cor blimey!’ I thought he’d ­be the Sid James I saw in the Carry ­On films.

“He was so gentle and quiet and sweet. And straightaway we got on.”

The rambunctious cast was known for continuing their fun on big nights out once the cameras stopped rolling, but Sid was ever the gentleman.

“He looked after me, wherever I went, I could always see Sid,” says Sally. “He would look at me and say, ‘Are you alright, Sal?’ He was always my little guardian.”

Today, there hasn’t been a new ­­Carry On film for more than 30 years. But everyone agrees they could make a return with the right script.

Carry On Sergeant was very ­different to Carry On Columbus,” says Gemma. “They’re 36 years apart. So if one is made today it would have to reflect 2023 and what we find funny, and then it would work.”

A cost-of-living crisis and brutal foreign conflicts may not seem like ­side-splitting topics but it’s about ­­finding the funny in everyday life, Robert says. “We are going through particularly bad times but anyone who can make people laugh is a godsend.

“If a new Carry On can make an ­audience laugh like they did back in the 1970s, that’s got to be a good thing, hasn’t it?”

It certainly is.

  • The Carry On Girls by Gemma Ross and Robert Ross (History Press, £25) For free UK P&P, visit expressbookshop.com or call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832



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