tv times article 4th January 1975

The half-lit, slimy dungeon and the star's prune-skin face were made for each other. Sid James, as a dishevelled 19th century prince, slumped against the filthy wall, his hands in two stout chains. He groaned hopelessly.

A few feet away, cameramen and technicians strained to hold back their laughter, until director Alan Tarrant broke the silence. "All right children, splendid. Break for lunch now. Back at two.Ē

Sid James slid out of his shackles, reached to a nearby table for his cigars, spun round on his heel and asked: "How do I get out of this place?"

It was a good question. Studio D at Elstree had been carved up, labyrinth-like, into seven separate sets for the first of the new Carry On Laughing series, Saturday's The Prisoner of Spenda. If you wanted to find the gents, the canteen or the make-up department, you had to negotiate a Continental tea-room, a railway carriage, a bedroom, a hotel lounge, a customs hall, a hunting lodge - and the dungeon.

Eventually winding his way to the exit, Sid went up to his dressing room for a snack. "I never have a heavy meal at lunchtime, it makes me sluggish. I have to be right on top to work efficiently, and a drink or two could just take that sharpness out of my performance. So I put my feet up for an hour, I'm a great relaxer these days" he says.

For the first show in the series, Sid is joined by Barbara Windsor, Kenneth Connor, Peter Butterworth and Joan Sims. Each episode is set in a different age of history, from 1066 to the present day, and each maintains the laugh-a-minute nudge nudge formula of the Carry On Films - The Prisoner of Spenda features such notable characters as Vera and Albert Basket, Colonel Yackoff and Count Yerackers.

The cast have worked with each other many times before - there have been 26 Carry On films alone. Sid James and Kenneth Connor have done 21 films each, Peter Butterworth 12, and the whole cast has just finished 10 months' nightly slog in Carry On London on stage at the Victoria Palace theatre.

Knowing each other so well, the rehearsing and filming of the television series goes quickly and smoothly. Each half-hour play is recorded comfortably in two days. Keeping an eye on proceedings in the studio was Gerald Thomas, director of the Carry On films and, with producer Peter Rogers, the joint overlord and string puller of the whole Carry On business.

On the set, Thomas, in dark suit and tie, looked out of place amongst the casually-dressed technicians, but appearances are deceptive. It doesn't take long to see that Thomas's finger controls the Carry On button, and the entire cast looks up to him devotedly. "The films have been such a success because they have been a team effort. There are no stars. Everyone is equal, and they all know that the best comedy is produced out of a strict and serious discipline" he says. "There is no ad-libbing. No one is allowed to chip-in his own ideas to get one-up on the scriptwriters. They work tightly to the words provided and if anybody steps out of line they get the mickey taken out of them so much that they don't try it again".

You could sense this mutual understanding as the scenes were recorded in the studio, one after the other, with only the occasional technical hitch.

In the first show, Sid plays a short-sighted English tourist who is roped in to impersonate Prince Rupert of Pluritania while the unfortunate Prince is locked up in the dungeon, and in one beautifully timed comic sequence, he is taught how to sword-fence. (Dialogue gem - Peter Butterworth: "We will start with epee." Sid James: "I beg your pardon?")

During the scene, Sid was to take a fencing lesson from stunt man Rupert Evans, who plays a major, and unwittingly puncture a water-pipe with his sword. The first time they filmed the scene he nearly decapitated Diamond instead of a vase of flowers - "Oops, blimey, sorry mate!" - and when his sword went into the pipe...no water. Eventually, during the re-shoot, the water appeared, but it spurted out so quickly it caught Sid in the face, drenching his costume and left a large pool of water on the studio floor.

Watching the Carry On team at work, at outsider expects the pranks, the practical jokes and camaraderie - so gloriously displayed in the films - to continue off the set, but that is not the case. It is almost as each member of the cast retires to a neutral corner when the laugh lines stop. Working constantly together as they do, they prefer to go their own ways when they are not acting, and there is no after-the-show socialising among the cast.

In the studio, Peter Butterworth, dressed in medal-decked greatcoat for his role as Count Yerackers, waited at a table in the restaurant set for his call before the cameras. He pushed aside the menu cards (which were, in fact, of 1960 studio canteen vintage, offering liver and bacon for 3s. 6d.) and pored alternately over the morning paper and his script. "Just checking up on my jokes," he said, rather gloomily, before being called back to another laugh-loaded scene.

Kenneth Connor, who has some of the funniest lines in the show, was in a tight-fitting, light blue, customs officer's uniform, standing alone against a redundant camera, waiting for his scene to come up.

On screen, Connor usually plays over-zealous, tight lipped officials, who get their pomp deflated somewhere along the way. But away from the cameras, it is this same resolute quality which makes him come over as a very serious, intense man.

He never watches his own performances when they are screened, and didn't even glance, for nostalgia's sake, at those classic early Carry On films when they were shown recently on television.
He sees the Carry On business as a useful outlet in today's overheated society. "Itís good for a laugh. People need to laugh and forget about the dreadful things going on around them, if only for an hour or so. There's nothing deep or intellectual or significant about it. Laurel and Hardy didn't need "O" levels to make people laugh."

Perhaps the mix which makes Carry On so successful is the fusion of the talents of Sid James and Barbara Windsor. Sid, who seems to play every cackling role with the easy-going air of a man asking for a pint in a pub, thinks Barbara is the most instinctive, spontaneous actress he has ever worked with. "With her, there is an immediate gel. Itís as if a computer working in her brain automatically adjusts her lines to the situation on the set. She pitches everything just right. Once you work with an actress like Barbara it is difficult to work with anybody else." he said.

You could see this in the studio. As cameras and lights changed position for a scene between Sid and Barbara in a railway carriage, they sat together in the bedroom set quickly going through their lines. Both of them, but especially Sid, tend to skim through their parts in rehearsals and then turn on the big performance like an electric current when the cameras actually roll.

Barbara is dedicated to her job to the point of being a little neurotic about it. "I panic about getting in on time. I'm so awful about it that I'm always the first in the studio in the morning, and while we're doing this series we're making an 8:30am start. So I'm getting up at some ridiculous time like six o'clock just to make sure I'm not late. I'm always the same."

Barbara's skill is in the way she pours her own little nuances into the bare words of the script. Written down, her part looks about as sexy as a plate of cold baked beans, but her perfectly pitched intonation - a raised eyebrow here, a nudge and a wink there - breathes naughtiness, sauciness and shocked innocence into the blandest line of Carry On's customary diet of innuendo.

In The Prisoner of Spenda Barbara appears, just for a change, not only fully clothed, but positively chocked up in neck-high 19th century costumes.

"At least I think I am," she said. "Usually I don't read the script very carefully when they send it to me. I only get stuck into it when I start rehearsals. Then one day, they turn round and say, 'Well, Barb, this is the bit where you lose your bra and your knickers fall down,' and I say 'No. Is it?' and of course I have to get on with it."

At the end of their day in the studio, Sid and Barbara had to race from Elstree to a film awards dinner in London. There wasn't much time, so as soon as the last scene was completed, Sid dashed into the make-up department for a quick shampoo and then up to his dressing room to change into a dinner jacket an a bow tie.

He dunked his face in a basin of warm water, and a make-up girl massaged the shampoo into his hair. Emerging, rubbing his head with a towel, his grey hair stood on end like that of an ageing golliwog, and he knew it. "Nobody in this world has got wire wool on their head like this," he said. "Jimi Hendrix had nothing on me. Got any setting lotion, luv?"

Up in his dressing room, he splashed soap all over his face and chatted non-stop as he changed, dragging a metal comb through his wire wool and lighting another cigar.

"I love this life," he said. "It's a marvellous, rewarding way to earn your living. But that's all it is. I don't go boozing after the show, or get mixed up with boring shop talk. When I've finished, I've finished. I switch off. I go home and take it easy like anybody else."

When the cast heard the news that they were going to do a Carry On series on TV, they thought it might mark the end of the road for the team - a last, gasping laugh for armchair audiences. "Now we hear we're doing yet another film some time in 1975," said Sid, "so we're carrying on just as before. Sometimes I think we'll carry on 'till we drop, but it will have been a giggle - for everybody."