WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: A chance discovery by chief Burpa Bungdit Din leads to the possibility of an uprising in Queen Victoria’s beloved India. How will the defending regiment, the Devils in Skirts, repel the invaders with their formidable reputation in tatters? And how will the Governor of Khalabar, Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond cope when his wife has forsaken him for the grand and mysterious Khasi?
There are academics, clearly with too much time on their hands, who are prepared to put in print the theory that the Carry On films were not in fact one producer and director’s lucky streak of end-of-the-pier comedies that rose and fell into a decline of ever lower-common denominator smut, but a sustained twenty-year attack on all forms of British authority that at its best advocated a sublime form of anarchy. They are talking rubbish, of course; but if one film does highlight the absurdity of the class system that still leaves its scars on contemporary Britain, it is Up the Khyber.
Khyber takes us back to 1895 and the fictional Indian region of Khalibar. On the surface, Khalibar is peaceful and stable, with polo games being played and Tiffin (nominally a light snack, but used here as a winking metaphor) taken at regular intervals; but despite their outward politeness, the Governor Sidney Ruff-Diamond (Sid James) is at loggerheads with the Raja, the Khasi of Khalibar (Kenneth Williams). The natives are kept in check by the 3rd Foot and Mouth, otherwise known as the fearsome ‘Devils in Skirts’, but when a raiding party led by Bungdit Din (Bernard Bresslaw) frightens the life out of Private Widdle (Charles Hawtrey), allowing Din to get a peek up his kilt, the ‘Invincible’ tag of the Devils is put into question.
The damage is made worse when Lady Ruff-Diamond (Joan Sims), desperate for a bit of love, takes a photo of the whole regiment wearing undergarments and flies – with the photo safely secreted about her person – into the ambivalent arms of the Khasi, who is keener to get hold of the photo than the Governor’s wife, in order to persuade Afghan rebels to join in an uprising. The Khasi’s daughter Princess Jelhi (Angela Douglas) flees the other way to warn her beloved Captain Keene (Roy Castle) about her father’s plans; Keene assembles a rescue party which includes Widdle, shouty Sergeant Major Terry Scott and mucky missionary Peter Butterworth, and although they are eventually successful in their quest, they bring the Khasi and hordes of Burpas back to lay siege to the Governor’s palace.
In this standoff – and indeed, at the defence of the Khyber pass (actually a gate in some Welsh mountains) – British military life and British life in general is distilled into ten minutes of excellent physical and verbal comedy. The ordinary man tries to hold the line – Widdle actually paints a thin red line, in due deference to Zulu – whilst in the palace, music plays and the officers and Governor ignore the gunfire and have a black tie dinner, keeping up the facade of civilisation to the last. As Joan Sims casually flicks plaster off her shoulder, the pretence of the stiff upper lip is shown to be completely ridiculous, especially since the Ruff-Diamonds are at heart as common as the rest of the British in India, if not more so (Sidney dictates a letter to the Queen, starting ‘Dear Vicky…’).
This added political dimension helps to push the case for the climax of Carry On Up the Khyber being the single most impressive set-piece in the entire series, as it looks like a proper siege and has a number of very funny moments, mostly provided by Sims and Kenneth Williams. Even Peter Butterworth, who spends most of the film being unappealingly grubby, is fun when he becomes increasingly unhinged as the world crashes around him.
Talbot Rothwell’s script makes sure that both ends of the film are well provided with laughs (the start introduces Kenneth Williams’ magnificent Khasi and Sid and Joan as the British enemy); in the middle, however, things are less exciting. Although Sid gets plenty of compensation for the loss of Joan in the shape of some of the Khasi’s wives, and Bresslaw is entertaining as Bungdit Din, the middle of the film concentrates rather too much on Keene and company’s long-winded rescue of Lady Ruff-Diamond and the incriminating photograph. Roy Castle does his best in the role (it’s the sort of thing Jim Dale would usually do) but it’s pretty bland stuff, despite the obligatory harem of busty beauties that waylay the group and bold jokes like ‘Fakir – off!’ It’s not that the material isn’t good, but it is clearly stretched to bring the film up to requisite length: in Cleo, the plot played out without any such longueurs, which is why I believe that to be the best of the bunch (furthermore, although Barrie isn’t stupendous in Cleo, she still makes more of an impact than Angela Douglas does here).
However, I am aware there are many who champion this film, largely (I presume) on the strength of the big bangs of the finale. That debate will swing back and forth, but what can be said with confidence is that Carry On Up The Khyber is from the Carry On team’s golden era, which was unfortunately not to carry on into the 1970s when the tastes of the film-going public became more adult and less receptive to the series’ mostly harmless sauciness.