CARRY ON COMPOSING!
The Music of the ‘Carry On’ Films 1958-78
by PETER EDWARDS
This article is a shortened version of an undergraduate music dissertation written at Durham University in the Spring of 2002. The original paper is presented with a selection of audio and video examples, together with a bibliography and discography. For the purposes of this article, many of the examples and citations have been removed. In some places, however, I have referred to Gavin Sutherland’s CD, The Carry On Album (Sanctuary Group CDWHL 2119). Many readers will already own this disc; for those who don’t, my advice is to treat yourself to a copy! Peter Edwards
In 1958, Gerald Thomas and Peter Rogers made a low-budget film called Carry On Sergeant. Over the next twenty years they would produce 29 more films bearing the ‘Carry On’prefix, and representing the most successful series of comedy films in British cinema history. Like most aspects of popular culture, these films were not original; they wallowed in a collection of tried and tested comic ideals and stereotypes, owing something to nearly every genre of comedy which had gone before. And yet the ‘Carry On’ series quickly established itself as something rather special; something which was uniquely and affectionately British, and remains so to this day.
As Britain’s culture changed from the late 1950s to the late 70s, the Carry Ons adapted accordingly. The series soon diverted from the almost Ealing style launched by Carry On Sergeant; the actors, jokes and characters, however, stayed reassuringly the same. They represented comedy in its simplest form: low brow and unassuming but speaking directly to a mass audience. The films achieved this consistency through a talented team of comedians, notably Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Kenneth Connor, Hattie Jacques and Joan Sims. The screenplay writer, together with director and producer, was a major driving force. But in this article I will be discussing the work of the man who is most criminally forgotten: the composer.
It is through music that every structural aspect of the Carry On films is brought to life. Indeed, without the skill of the composer any film production would be sure to fall flat; this being the case more than ever in a comedy production. The rather cheeky, largely visual, naughty and yet innocent humour of the Carry Ons is directly and often graphically mirrored by their music. A good film score is an integral part of the production, as much as lighting, costumes sound effects and dialogue; it cannot be merely tagged on.
The massive amount of music included in twenty years of Carry Ons was written almost exclusively by two men. Bruce Montgomery composed the scores for the first six films from 1958-62 . His successor, Eric Rogers, scored the following twenty-three films until 1978. Interestingly the change in composer coincided with a change in screenplay writer: Talbot Rothwell replaced Norman Hudis. This brought about a marked change in style whilst continuing and enhancing the spirit of Carry On into and beyond the Swinging Sixties.
The roots of this kind of comedy could be described as the ‘spirit of Carry On’. Everything in the production, including the music, was to immerse itself in these roots in order to give the audience what it wanted. The earliest and perhaps most obvious of these roots is apparent in the British music-hall. These centres of popular entertainment offered shows of a decent quality, at an affordable price, to a largely working class audience. Their comics made light of embarrassing situations, spoofing the most cherished of our institutions. The early Carry Ons did precisely that, sending up the British Army in Carry On Sergeant (1958), the National Health Service in Carry On Nurse (1959), the Police Force in Carry On Constable (1960) and so on. Later the films would send up the more ‘serious’ films of the day: James Bond in Carry On Spying (1964), the Western in Carry On Cowboy (1965), and the historical costume drama in Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head (1966).
British audiences have always laughed at jokes about sex, or indeed about anything considered ‘naughty’ or ‘taboo’. Just as the music-halls pushed cultural boundaries in their time, the Carry Ons did the same in the 1950s, 60s and 70s – and always at the mercy of the censors. But jokes and innuendo, as written in a script, are not funny in their own right. The thought of anyone but Kenneth Williams crying "Stop messin’ about!" does not provoke so much as a smile. Music-hall songs were always associated with their particular performers; and the jokes of the Carry Ons were associated with the men and women on screen, established as the ‘Carry On Team’. Perhaps this is why the main acting figures in the films are famous, whilst the men behind the scenes – especially the composer – are largely forgotten. And yet the thought of a Carry On without its music is at least as dull as the thought of a music-hall without its orchestra.
The spirit of music-hall had to be presented, not just in the jokes of the songs, but in the music itself. In a similar way, the Carry Ons achieved light comedy through their light music. Every aspect of the comedy – the spoofs, the naughty situations, the larger-than-life characters and caricatures, the verbal and visual jokes – is presented by the composer in his score.
The theatre and its music continued to flourish in Britain when the music-hall was dying. By the 1950s the mainstream music-hall had been consigned to history, yet its very spirit had become transformed into comedy films, and its music into the variety theatre. Eric Rogers (the second of the Carry On composers) started his career in the theatre – as musical director at the London Palladium. Here he composed Startime, famous theme of the TV series Sunday Night at the London Palladium. He also arranged and orchestrated Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver!, (Bart could neither read nor write music himself). It was in the theatre that Rogers developed his own skill in composing film music. Just as the variety show stage was an important precedent for the humour of the Carry On films, the music of the theatre represented a solid grounding for the art of film composition. Above all, both mediums of entertainment were characterised, musically, by immaculately balanced scoring, impeccable timing to guarantee fast-moving continuity, and a particularly bright and colourful manner of orchestration which is displayed in the work of all great theatre and film composers.
An important difference between theatre and film, from the composer’s point of view, is the use of microphones. Film music may be scored at any level, since its volume can easily be adjusted when the score is mixed with dialogue and sound-effects. Furthermore, balance within the orchestra can be controlled through the use of several microphones; heavy brass, for example, can be softened whilst the quieter harp can be strengthened. This luxury does not exist in the theatre, since the audience hears the music directly from the pit. Theatre composers, therefore, must exercise particular skill in finely balanced orchestrations. Eric Rogers took his orchestral roots from the theatre into his film scores; this is evident in his consistently impeccable orchestration. The priority of finely balanced scoring was an underlying feature behind the success of the Carry On music.
Film music itself has its origins in the silent film. It is startling to consider that, within thirty or forty years, the solo pianist of the early 1900s cinema would be replaced by a fully synchronised recorded soundtrack, typically featuring a specially composed score for full orchestra. In the very early days, music was needed primarily as a means of drowning the clattering noise of the projector. When this noisy mechanism was eventually concealed in a soundproof box it became apparent that music was still required; not so much to satisfy an artistic urge, but to cover up the eerie silence which would otherwise dominate. Film critic Kurt London wrote:
‘We are not accustomed to apprehend movement as an artistic form without accompanying sounds. Every film must possess its individual rhythm which determines its form.’
This certain ‘necessity for music’ had the natural result of the use of inappropriate or superfluous music in films. This became more apparent when, as cinemas grew, the solo pianist was replaced by a full orchestra. Despite their versatility, these orchestras were unable to offer the same level of musical directness as could be improvised by a pianist or organist in front of the screen. It was not until the birth of the talking picture – famously The Jazz Singer (1927) – that producers began to consider the possibility of a specially commissioned score. Before then, cinema orchestras generally selected items from a library of mood music to compile a seemingly appropriate score for the film. But even the arrival of the soundtrack did not fuel an instant demand for film composition. Indeed, the primary novelty of the sound film was the human voice. The second interest was the addition of natural sound effects. The musical score would in fact take many years to establish itself as an indispensable element of film, as it had been in the silent days. It would also require substantial advances in recording and mixing technology for film music to be taken seriously.
A major breakthrough occurred in the late 1920s and early 30s with the advance of the Walt Disney group. Skeleton Dance (1929) was the first of the ‘Silly Symphonies’, in which animation was directly synchronised with music. Soon followed a healthy flow of animations, revelling in the most graphic and colourful orchestral scores. The advances in synchronising technology ironically brought about a full-circle return to the spirit of the silent film. This soon filtered through from animations to adult comedy, and it is this very tradition which is seen and heard in the Carry On films.
Soon, new standards took the lead in film music. As directors began to work more closely with composers, leading figures were employed to write scores: including Arthur Bliss (Things to Come, 1935), Benjamin Britten (Night Mail, 1936) and William Walton (As you like it, 1936). The serious composer of art music had entered the world of film. Bruce Montgomery and Eric Rogers, although not symphonists, were two such experts in film composition. With the technology to synchronise their scores to the nearest ⅓ second, they would transform the spirit of the turn-of-the-century silent film into the resources of a full orchestra. The Carry On music owes much to every historical aspect of cinema music, whilst having its own fresh voice as delivered by Montgomery and Rogers.
Having discussed the earliest roots of the spirit of Carry On, we may take a look at the more immediate musical influences. This is where the world of ‘light music’ comes in. The distinctive musical style of the Carry Ons was created from a great fusion of the various strands of light music, particularly those of Britain in the years between the wars through to the early 1960s. Pop music became increasingly influential from the mid 1960s to the final films of the late 1970s, but the Carry On style, as expressed through the orchestra, remained solidly consistent throughout the entire series. It is these various strands of music which contributed to the very British sound of the Carry On films. The light-hearted, often satirical though deeply rooted patriotism associated with the series is evident in the situations, the characters, the actors themselves and – most consistently – through the music.
British light music continued to thrive as the cinema and theatre orchestras declined. This was thanks to the advent of broadcasting. Radio programmes demanded a very fresh, instantly appealing style of music in order to captivate an audience. Interestingly, many of those given the task of writing this music were composers who had worked in the cinema and theatre. Sidney Torch and Ronald Binge were both virtuosos of the cinema organ, Charles Williams worked some time with the Gaumont British film company, and Eric Coates spent much of his early career in the theatre pit as a viola player.
This kind of music we love is characterised by its colourfulness, tunefulness and in particular by its directly accessible quality. But good tunes alone do not produce good music. Light music flourished because it was placed in the hands of composers who took it seriously; those who knew exactly how to write for the orchestra, how to create and arrange beautiful melodies, and whose music was the product of real craftsmanship. It is this approach to composition which forms the foundation of the music in the Carry On films.
Creating light music of high quality is one task; creating music of similar quality for film comedy takes the composer’s job a stage further. Light music is created to appeal directly to our sensibilities. Just as people could universally respond to the BBC’s generous offering of light music on radio and television, the cinema audiences of the 1950s, 60s and 70s could universally respond to the music in the Carry On films. Light music itself responded to the most cherished of musical genres – the marches of the parade ground, the waltzes and polkas of the ballroom, the intermezzos of the silent cinema and the virtuoso novelty numbers of the variety theatre – in the same way as the Carry Ons responded to just about every British institution of their time.
The BBC, besides broadcasting an unprecedented flow of light music in the post-war years, became an increasingly popular provider of radio comedy. Like most other broadcasts, comedy productions required music. The difference between these and other programmes was that comedies, besides needing a suitable title theme, demanded quirky musical interludes throughout the whole show. Between 1950 and 60 the BBC employed no less than eight full-time light orchestras for the purpose of broadcasting. Comedy shows usually had a live orchestra which would play an actively integrated role in the script. The need for bright, lively and finely balanced orchestrations was greater than ever before. The best example of these shows as a direct forerunner of the Carry On films, in terms of both music and comedy, is Hancock’s Half Hour. Starring three of the subsequent stars of most of the Carry On films – Sid James, Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Williams – Hancock represented the very spirit of radio comedy in the years immediately preceding Carry On Sergeant in 1958. It addressed day-to-day situations with down-to-earth characters playing themselves (Tony Hancock and Sid James) alongside slightly less down-to-earth caricatures (Bill Kerr as the dumb Australian) and a whole range of farcical characters (provided mainly by the varying tones of Kenneth Williams). Under a different scriptwriter the Carry Ons would work along similar lines with these actors only a few years later.
The music, composed by Angela Morley (then known as Wally Stott), had the comically quirky style which was to become so much a part of British comedy – on radio, television and film – for the next decade and beyond. The famous augmented 4ths of the opening theme on the tuba could be said to sum up the entire series. The interspersions of dialogue within the music – firstly from the BBC announcer, then from Tony Hancock himself – demonstrated a manner of musical timing which is so important in the planning of film music. In many ways Morley was showing her admiration for the work of Robert Farnon, who had composed Jumping Bean nearly ten years earlier in 1947. The rather cheeky opening bars of this piece have been used as a model for comic musical gestures ever since, both in the Carry On films and elsewhere.
One of the most remarkable things about the Carry On music is that it preserved its unashamed association with the world of light music, long after light music itself had begun to decline. As the 1960s progressed the BBC brought about a fashionable change to its image, resulting in significant developments on both the ‘popular’ and ‘serious’ sides of music, and leaving little or no concession to what lay in-between. The abolition of the Home Service and the Light Programme, in favour of generic broadcasting in 1967, was primarily responsible for the decline of light music on the radio. Listeners, it was argued, should be able to select any kind of music at any time. Since light music fell uneasily between the images of Radio 2 and Radio 3 it was choked out of circulation. By 1971 the BBC had disbanded all its light orchestras, leaving only the BBC Concert Orchestra – founded in 1953 and for many years closely associated with Sidney Torch – as a potential provider of lighter music for broadcasts such as Friday Night is Music Night. Meanwhile, somehow the Carry On industry was booming with a sound that had directly embraced the kind of music which was going out of fashion. It had an amazing ability to take on contemporary musical trends, between the late 1950s and late 70s, whilst retaining the solid orchestral style on which it was founded.
In Britain the 1950s saw the rise of swing, closely followed by Rock ‘n’ Roll. These popular styles were incorporated, indirectly, into the Carry On music. The earlier British dance bands of the 1920s and 30s had themselves embraced trends from the USA, whilst remaining distinctively British. Jack Hylton, a bandleader of the 1920s and 30s, put forward some of his ideas in an article entitled ‘The British Touch’:
‘I examine all the music [from the USA] in detail and have tried much of it live, but it has not appealed to the public. Before it can be played here it must be modified, given the British touch… In the dance halls or gramophone record alike it makes a subtle appeal to our British temperament; it is in fact becoming a truly national music.’
Although Hylton was not specific in defining the ‘British touch’, it is clear from his arrangements what he was talking about. The British bands were altogether more orchestral – less swingy, arguably more refined, making very significant use of string instruments. It is this refined British style of jazz which made its way into the post-war British bands, and into the Carry On scores of Bruce Montgomery in the late 1950s and early 60s.
From the mid 1960s Eric Rogers would acknowledge the styles of pop music which followed; music commonly associated with the ‘Swinging 60s’. But if the Carry Ons were supposedly modernising their scores to fit their fellow aspects of popular culture, they did it in a way which preserved everything that was good about orchestral film music. Whilst many films of the 1970s made use of a pop band score – this becoming increasingly common in low-budget releases – the Carry Ons kept their full orchestra. Eric Rogers in particular proved that he could swing his music just enough whilst retaining all the traditional elements of a descriptive comedy film score.
In taking something special from each of the strands of music mentioned above, the composers required a particular kind of orchestra. Since budget restrictions were tight, the composers had to select an ensemble which was flexible enough to cope with the varying styles of their scores. The standard budget for a Carry On orchestra was forty players. In 1975 producer Peter Rogers diminished this to thirty for Carry On Behind, forcing Eric Rogers to write a lighter textured score. Eric refused, however, to write for only twenty players in Carry On England (1976) – hence this film was scored by Max Harris. Forty was a viable number for a versatile film orchestra. Bruce Montgomery employed a fairly traditional scoring for the early films: usually double woodwind, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, four percussionists, harp and strings. The woodwind players would increasingly be called to play saxophone as required.
Eric Rogers distributed his players differently, augmenting the brass section and lightening the traditional double woodwind in favour of a more consistent use of saxophones. The horn section was diminished in favour of four trumpets and trombones, the horn being used more as a solo instrument along with the woodwind section. One percussionist was stationed permanently on drum kit, whilst the other two were kept busy with the more traditional orchestral percussion, especially timpani, triangle, cymbals and xylophone, glockenspiel and vibraphone. Rather less traditional instruments included temple blocks, cow bell and swannee whistle – favourite Carry On sounds, although surprisingly few novelty instruments like this were required. The ‘rhythm section’ has been augmented, consistently to include electric guitar, bass guitar and piano, working alongside the harp. With this kind of ensemble Rogers had, at his disposal, a traditional orchestra with the additional feature of a pop band or dance orchestra embedded in the ensemble. Versatility was the key to a useful orchestra.
In a letter to Peter Rogers in 1962, composer Bruce Montgomery referred to his ‘Carry On bag of tricks’. By this he was talking about the extensive menu of musical devices from which he could choose, as required, to project the true spirit of the Carry On films. Eric Rogers would continue this trend, within his own style, when he succeeded Montgomery in 1963.
The ability of music, as an art form, to express the spirit of humour cannot be overstated. Music is arguably the most abstract and expressive of all the arts. Whilst a person’s eyes are actively selective in what they take in, the ears are fundamentally passive; this means that they are always open and (more or less) directed to any sound within their range. Music has the most powerful privilege of entering the ears whether the listener likes it or not. For this reason music, as an art, has always aimed to transform the potential laziness and dreaminess of the ear into concentrated effort and serious work. In film music the context is different, since the music is continuously matched to – or justified by – the images on the screen. Film music, unlike pure art music, does not necessarily transform the ear into ‘concentrated effort’ or ‘serious work’; but it is always there. For this reason the importance of good film music is paramount. Music in a comedy production – perhaps more than ever in a Carry On film – must express humour in such a direct way that its qualities cannot go unnoticed by the viewer.
Music of all kinds has traditionally been described as subjective; its effect always depends on its perception by a particular listener. Humour is also subjective, since identical events will always provoke different reactions from different people. Although music is a language (a means of communication) it is not a universal language. A verbal language may be universal amongst the people who speak and understand it; music is different because it is abstract. This is a good argument in the context of art music, although in the context of film, music has an altogether different function. The music of the Carry On films, in particular, could be described to a certain extent as objective. This is because its musical language, like the language of humour in the films, is understood universally. This does not mean that everybody appreciates it, or that everybody finds the films funny; rather, it means there is absolutely no doubt as to the connection between the comedy on the screen and the comedy in the music. Just as light music is written to appeal directly to our sensibilities, so do the Carry On films and their music. Cinema-goers, perhaps subconsciously, knew the style of the music in the same way that they knew the style of the films.
Prerequisites for humour, that is any kind of humour, rely firstly on the comical environment. In this there must be an element of surprise, without which none of the other components will have any effect. This works directly with the principle of comparison: the observer bases his expectations upon a specific context, which will be contrasted with something ridiculous – the circus clown being the classic example. A humorous situation often occurs at the expense of a victim; in the Carry On context this means spoofing British institutions. Also important for Carry On humour is the element of falsehood; humour is seldom completely truthful. The entire spirit of Carry On is based on something unreal. Through the many ups and downs of contemporary British life the Carry Ons would remain relentlessly cheerful – this is comedy about an England which never existed. The humour of the Carry On films, and their music, rests primarily on the overall elements of surprise and comparison between the familiar and the ridiculous.
Other prerequisites for humour concern the observer. First and foremost, the audience must be ‘in the mood’ if it is to appreciate humour. Without this ‘pleasurable state of being’ the most perfect situation and timing of a joke will be in vain. This is where the importance of music takes a real hold. A cinema audience, prior to receiving the main visual part of a film, is presented with the title music. The title themes to the Carry On films are the key to audience disposition. Typically only between 1½ and 2 minutes long, the theme music needed to sum up the spirit of the entire film, getting the audience into that ‘pleasurable state of being’ – in addition to presenting the credits. In the words of director Gerald Thomas, the theme would ‘bang the drum for the picture’.
The march Bruce Montgomery composed to introduce Carry On Sergeant in 1958 was to have a significance unknown to anyone at the time. It became the ‘Carry on Theme’, used in various shapes and forms to introduce the next five films. Its original version was recorded by the Band of the Coldstream Guards, and intended as a gentle parody of British military music. Montgomery then arranged this for full orchestra for Carry On Nurse (1959). [The Carry On Album,track 5]
The three contrasting sections are concisely joined in a traditional march structure, summing up the spirit of Carry On. The opening tune is the military parody; the second section is in cheeky ‘Carry On’ style – featuring the kind of jaunty xylophone writing which would become such an important part of the later Carry On music. The trio section represents warm British nostalgia – so much a part of these early Carry Ons.
After Carry On Nurse producer Peter Rogers suggested that the march be jazzed up for the next film (Carry On Teacher). This is where Eric Rogers entered the scene. Montgomery wrote a letter to Eric about his marching theme:
‘As you can see, it was intended to be the sort of thing a not-very-intelligent Army bandmaster might have written in about 1900… I feel if anyone can make a free symphonic pop version of it, you can.’
Rogers’ upbeat version of this theme became an instant hit, acknowledging the growing trends in 1950s popular music whilst referring back to the original which is so unashamedly and traditionally British. Despite its obvious big band connotations, Rogers’ treatment is largely orchestral – most notably by his important use of strings, featured in the melody of the trio section. [The Carry On Album, track 8]
The Carry On theme, as conceived by Montgomery and jazzed up by Rogers, is a classic example of what makes a good title to a film. In the spirit of British light music it consists of a good tune which is well constructed and orchestrated; at the same time it acknowledges swing, and the rather cheeky style of the films themselves.
From this point onwards the title themes became increasingly upbeat, culminating in the classic Rogers style of the 1970s. A good example of this is Carry On At Your Convenience (1971), whose story is centred on a toilet manufacturers. [The Carry On Album, track 15]. From studying the score, one immediately observes the remarkable clarity – and apparent simplicity – of orchestration. Strings are mainly in unison and octaves, providing rushing sequences (based on scales) to punctuate the beat along with the upper woodwind. The virtuosity of the string parts is strongly evident. The brass, too, appear to be in unison providing the main punctuation of the melody. The percussion writing is particularly crisp and bright – the xylophone was one of Rogers’ favourite instruments, and the drum kit was an important driving force in the orchestra, together with piano and electric guitar. The harp has the primary job of playing rushing glissandi, particularly at moments of key change. In the spirit of the fast-moving theatre show, Rogers revelled in key changes, typically up a semitone, for which he would employ rushing sequences or scales in octave strings, upper woodwind and xylophone. Incidentally, this particular theme features four key changes in the space of less than 1½ minutes, with an additional swift key change in the last two bars before the opening scene of the film is introduced [from 1:15]. This final key change is a classic Rogers device, providing a quirky ‘kick’ immediately before the first section of ‘incidental’ music.
The next section, heard in the opening scene of the film, depicts W.C. Boggs toilet factory. This is playfully mechanical music, suitable to the action taking place – as the workers busily go about their duties. The temple blocks, two triangles, xylophone and muted brass all contribute to the ‘working’ music. This is a similar style, not surprisingly, to the one heard in Rogers’ orchestration of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! about ten years earlier, in the opening workhouse scene. The ‘Carry On’ depiction of the boys marching into dinner is unmistakable.
Humour in music may be divided into two categories. ‘Referential humour’ is humour which has extra-musical connotations, whist ‘absolute humour’ is humour within the musical material itself. Although comedy film music can often be humorous in its own right, here we are concerned primarily with referential humour, since the music nearly always matches the images and dialogue on the screen. It is by this token that one may be justified in classifying the music as objective rather than subjective, since the link between music and visual or verbal comedy is unequivocal. One kind of referential humour is that of ‘satirical quoting’. In the Carry On films musical references to well-known genres are aplenty, in the same way as the content of the films is based on all kinds of cultural references.
The title themes provided the composer with the opportunity to make a strong musical reference if desired. Traditional tunes appear to be a major contributor. The theme to Carry On Camping (1969)is based on ‘One man went to mow’ [The Carry On Album, track 1], Carry On Loving (1970) on the two traditional wedding marches (by Wagner and Mendelssohn), Carry On Henry (1971) on ‘Greensleeves’, and Carry On Matron (1972, set in a maternity hospital) on ‘Rock a bye baby’. All four of these tunes are given the Rogers ‘Carry On’ swing treatment.
Often traditional tunes become an integrated part of the score. In Carry On Teacher (1959) Bruce Montgomery uses a disguised form of ‘Girls and Boys come out to play’ whenever the children go out into the playground. Quotations sometimes take on a more contemporary form, providing direct references to other films or television programmes In a scene from Carry On Spying, set in the dark streets of Vienna, Rogers directly quotes the well-known zither music of Anton Karas in The Third Man (the famous British spy thriller of 1949). This is interspersed with pizzicato strings to create comic tension. When a British agent (Bernard Cribbins) pokes his head around the corner, a tense motif based on ‘Rule Britannia’ is heard in the woodwind. A more up to date cultural reference can be heard in Carry On Screaming! (1966) in a scene where the detective (Harry H. Corbett) drives along the street in a cart before unwittingly committing a robbery – he has been turned into a monster. The television series Steptoe and Son – very popular at this time – classically featured the same actor driving a rag and bone cart. Appropriately, Rogers bows his head to Steptoe by quoting a fragment of the television theme. Familiar musical quotations such as this served as a comic reference point for contemporary cinema audiences.
Classical music quotations are also commonplace in Carry On films; these could be received and appreciated on a different level, probably only by a limited portion of the very wide audience. Carry On Cleo (1964) is set largely in Egypt; hence the title theme is based, loosely, on the grand procession from Verdi’s ‘Aida’ [The Carry On Album, track 9]. Rogers made extensive use of Haydn’s string music in Carry On Camping (1969). An arrangement of the serenade from his string quartet in F is used firstly to depict a quiet country boarding school for well-bred young ladies [track 2, from 3:15]. When it is revealed what the girls really get up to – in the company of trespassing young men – Rogers jazzes up the original in the spirit of the Swinging 60s. The versatility of the ensemble is fully displayed, as the five-part string sound gives way to a saxophone solo with piano, electric guitar and drums.
A different kind of satirical quoting is found in Carry On Nurse (1959). Here Bruce Montgomery uses his own original melody – the main tune from the Carry On theme – as a source of referential humour. The melody is heard on tuba and glissando timpani – used to represent the menacing Matron (Hattie Jacques) as she approaches the ward for her inspection – in conjunction with an affectionate portrayal of one of the patients (Charles Hawtrey) pretending to conduct an orchestra from his headphones. In the score the tuba line is marked molto pomposo. This is an example of Carry On humour where the instruments of the orchestra, besides mimicking visual comedy, become a source of comedy in their own right. The trombone, snare drum and triangle (as acted by Charles Hawtrey) become comic sounds. Similarly, Montgomery writes a satirical passage for the school orchestra in Carry On Teacher (1959). The music for the school play, supposedly written by the music master (Charles Hawtrey, who appears as conductor) is deliberately poorly scored and equally poorly played for comic effect. Again, Montgomery has exploited the content of the film by writing a score which demonstrates the funniness of music itself.
Another example of humour in music is that of tone painting. 18th century composers revelled in exoticisms, brought about by a fascination for Oriental themes: Mozart, for example, in his Turkish music. In many ways little has changed since then, particularly in the world of film music. Whenever the Carry On Team visited an exotic location (usually a disguised Pinewood Studios) the composer would be quick to oblige with appropriately exotic-sounding music. The scores always avoided absolute authenticity, remaining a purely Western and deliberately ethnocentric portrayal of the location; this is part of the humour. Carry On Up The Khyber (1968) includes some suitably exotic music to paint the atmosphere of an Indian palace, residency of the Khasi of Kalabar (Kenneth Williams) - [The Carry On Album, track 16, from 2:24]. This is a classic example of Rogers wearing his ‘world music’ hat, using a conventional Carry On orchestra. The percussion section plays an important role, with gong, Chinese bell tree, tambourine and finger cymbals (ironically many of these are not Indian instruments). The airy melody is played by divided violins, with muted banjo tremolos imitating the sitar.
For the costume-drama Carry Ons a different skill was required. Despite being low-budget, the Carry On productions always employed appropriate period music, alongside suitable costumes, sets and choreography. Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head (1966), set during the French Revolution, features some country dancing at an aristocrats’ ball. This kind of dance, in terms of rhythmic and melodic drive, may be readily compared to a Classical ‘Quadrille’ – a dance which came to the ballroom during the reign of Napoleon I. The choice of music is historically and culturally appropriate. The main achievement of the composer, however, is to treat this style in his own individual way; the orchestration is pure Eric Rogers, characterised by his jaunty use of off-beat snare drum, and woodwind with glockenspiel. These films used musical tone painting in a manner which reflects the period and setting whilst being unmistakably ‘Carry On’.
The Carry Ons are particularly famous for their verbal jokes, and yet so much of their humour is visual – visual, that is, with musical accompaniment. Imitations of non-musical sounds are a major ingredient of referential humour in music. The Carry On composers took this a stage further by imitating non-musical sounds in a deliberately unrealistic – often crude – way. The sound of a clumsy doctor bumping into the large Matron in Carry On Doctor (1967), for example, is accompanied aptly by a heavy thump from the percussion section. Bruce Montgomery tended to dress up a comic visual scene with a passage of grossly exaggerated music. Carry On Teacher (1959) features one such scene in which the PE teacher (Joan Sims) attempts to put on a pair of shorts which are too small for her – accompanied by a crudely Wagnerian brassy climax.
Like so many scenes from the films, the music here is not so much an imitation of a ‘non-musical sound’ as an imitation of a comic (and largely silent) gesture. Eric Rogers had some fun depicting a traditional British hand signal in Carry On Cabby (1963). In a brief example of 1960s road-rage near the start of the film, a car jams on its brakes to a timpani glissando – the taxi behind grinds to a halt, accompanied by a harp glissando and a twang from the electric guitar. The taxi driver, Sid James, calls out , "Can’t you give a hand signal?!". The other driver obliges with a rather crude ‘hand signal’, aptly accompanied by an upward glissando on the swannee whistle, culminating in a clang on the cowbell.
Musical accompaniment to screen gestures, in the context of Carry On, is not about realism or even caricature. The idea that music in film should be ‘realistic’ is nonsensical, since both music and film, by definition, are art forms and therefore unrealistic. The Carry On music succeeds because it has a certain objective relationship to the action, whilst simultaneously serving a purpose far beyond the demands of ‘realism’. Indeed, the music relies on its own unrealism for the desired comic effect.
Besides directly conveying humour, film music is equally important in conveying the human emotion. A good score is able to describe the emotional feeling of the film’s characters – perhaps in the same manner as a book, though without the luxury of written narrative. Spoken narrative in films is rare and only occasionally used (for special effect). For this reason the score is an indispensable narrative and emotional voice.
Emotional music serves an important role in the comedy of the Carry On films. Bruce Montgomery was particularly good at displaying gushing romantic emotions in his portrayal of characters. In Carry On Teacher (1959) a school inspector (Leslie Phillips) is bowled over at the sight of PE teacher, Miss Allcock (Joan Sims), accompanied by 15 seconds of music. This quick breath of musical romance, in itself, sums up his feelings. The inspector’s first sight of the lady is signalled by a bright chord on the vibraphone, closely followed by flutter-tongued flute (a classic Montgomery device) and slushy violins. A muted trumpet contributes to the sexy feel of the music. As Miss Allcock goes out of sight, the brief scene is abruptly ended by a clang on the tubular bell – this features as a musical pun on Leslie Phillips’ next line: "Ding Dong!".
In the later films, Eric Rogers’ portrayal of romantic emotions is rather swifter and cruder. In Carry On Cleo (1964), Mark Anthony (Sid James) goes to see Cleopatra (Amanda Barrie), and is instantly overcome by her dazzling beauty. His first reaction at seeing her submerged in the Egyptian bath is conveyed by an upward glissando on the timpani – an immortal ‘Carry On’ sound if ever there was one!
Bruce Montgomery and Eric Rogers had their own individual styles of composition, and yet they both equally match the spirit of Carry On in their music. Their music not only matches the rest of the film; it becomes a source of comedy in its own right.
The spirit of the Carry On films is founded in popular light entertainment. Whilst their underlying formula was highly unoriginal, their transformation and delivery of it was fresh and contemporary. The music, too, is rooted in all things light. It has a sound which affectionately embraces Britain’s musical past whilst acknowledging the ever-changing present; just as all good light music does. The films were consistently popular at the box office. Despite this – or even because of it – they have been heavily criticised. During one day of filming, a brash interviewer cornered producer Peter Rogers in Pinewood Studios:
"Still making the same old crap, Peter?" he asked.
"If you call money crap, then yes I am," Rogers replied.
It could be argued that commercial success and artistic quality are naturally in conflict with one another. This is because composers are continually forced into structural frameworks set by the mechanical and administrative frameworks of film-making. The Carry On composers were subjected, perhaps more than ever, to these restrictions. After viewing the fine cut with the director, the composer had no more than two weeks to write his score, and only two days in which to rehearse and record it. And yet these scores have not suffered musically; indeed, one could argue that the tight confinements of a Carry On budget production helped to ensure the kind of precision which is so evident in the music. The same was true for so many light music composers, who wrote such large amounts of high quality music in a very limited time.
The only way in which a film maker produces light comedy is through his being meticulous. Comedians do not perform light-hearted humour by light-hearted means; they are meticulous in planning their act. In the same way, light music is written by serious composers who are meticulous in their craft. The Carry On films have an unequivocally light image. All elements of the production, however, involved the height of precision and accuracy – the screenplay, the costumes, the lighting, the camerawork and the music. In being both light and meticulous the Carry Ons went beyond the norms of popular entertainment by taking on their own special quality. This quality may be at odds with the criteria traditionally used to define good film; but whatever the Carry Ons achieved, they achieved only through the most precise means.
The Carry On scores revel in leitmotifs, clichés, tonal colours and lyrical melodies – elements traditionally criticised as being at odds with true freedom of musical expression. Ironically the music succeeds for this very reason. It is the constant engagement with the listener’s expectations – the continuous delivery of something familiar – which helps enhance this popular style of comedy. Just as the content of the films relied primarily on British cultural stereotypes, the music worked along similar lines. So we have military music in Carry On Sergeant, nautical music in Carry On Cruising, wild west music in Carry On Cowboy, crude horror music in Carry On Screaming … and so on. The very essence of humour is grounded in comparison. In this context the audience is comparing familiar aspects of their culture to comic parodies, as presented by the films. That is why the Carry On films thrive on a very direct and objective relationship between music and action.
The Carry On films transformed their deep British roots into something fresh and contemporary. The music followed suit; Bruce Montgomery and Eric Rogers knew the style and delivered it in their own ways, whilst remaining ever-faithful to the original spirit of the series. The suggestion that the music of the films is ‘a remarkable match’ does not appear to go far enough. These two elements are inseparable. They are fully integrated, complementing one another and working together – and in the true spirit of Carry On.
To fully appreciate this article, you are strongly advised to listen to THE CARRY ON ALBUM – Sanctuary Group CDWHL 2119. This features the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Gavin Sutherland, performing many extracts from "Carry On" films composed by Bruce Montgomery and Eric Rogers.
Make sure you enter all the required information, indicated by an asterisk (*). HTML code is not allowed.