Fifty years ago, a quintessentially British comedy was produced in the pleasant fields and orchards near Pinewood Studios. The masses lapped up Carry on Camping, though, like others in the series, it did not receive critical acclamation. I was drawn to watch it again, following the revelation that national treasure Barbara Windsor has dementia. It’s the purest form of the British comedy genre.
The film requires very little plot. Sid James and Bernard Bresslaw play two boyfriends who have seen a promo film for a nudist camp. They hoodwink their girlfriends into going there for the summer holiday. But they end up at the wrong Paradise, just a muddy field with no amenities. This also happens to be the destination for a class of girls at a finishing school, under the watchful glare of their matron (the awesome Hattie Jacques) and headmaster Dr Soaper (the brilliant Kenneth Williams).
Not having watched a Carry On movie for over twenty years, I was struck by how much my impression has changed. As a teenager, when the films were repeated on the BBC, I saw them as embarrassingly silly slapstick. Although risqué when made, the sexual innuendo and toilet humour seemed dated in the taken-for-granted liberty of the 1980s. Today, Carry on Camping seems positively edgy.
The jolly japes of Carry on Camping would be ‘inappropriate’ now – the nudity and very conventional gender relations too distasteful and discriminatory for our supposedly tolerant culture. The sexual promiscuity of schoolgirls in unfeasibly short mini-skirts, and the unashamed leering by older men, would be verboten in the light of the MeToo movement.
The film’s most farcical scene is in the early-morning Physical Training (PT) session, when the girls are urged to put more vigour into their stretches. Busty Babs swings her arms and her bra catapults into Dr Soaper’s face, to his disgust. Male campers feast their eyes. In another scene, Sid James peers through a peephole into the female showers.