WFTB Score: 14/20
The plot: Fresh from the invasion of cold, damp Britain, Julius Caesar sends Marc Antony to Egypt to remove Cleopatra and install Ptolemy as leader. The Queen’s charms, however, ensure that Marc Antony fails to carry out this plan, the pair devising one of their own which involves Caesar’s much-prophesied death and Antony becoming Emperor. They have, however, reckoned without the intervention of noble slave Horsa and his neighbour Hengist Pod, who has the happy knack of being in the right place at the right time.
Hot on the heels of the Taylor-Burton spectacular Cleopatra came this Carry On take-off, ‘Based on an original idea by W. Shakespeare’, weighing in at less than half the length and – no doubt – a tiny fraction of the budget of the Joseph L. Mankiewicz epic. Although it was made quickly and on the cheap, Gerald Thomas’ film is by far the more fondly remembered of the two; which might sound surprising, until you discover that Cleo finds the team at their absolute pomp.
Sid James is Marc Antony, heading up the legions invading Britain; a miserable country still struggling to invent the wheel, at least in the settlement where slow-witted Hengist Pod (Kenneth Connor) lives. When the village is attacked and the inhabitants rounded up as slaves, only Horsa (Jim Dale) puts up any resistance, but he and others are eventually subdued and taken to Rome. Also returning to the Eternal City is Caesar (Kenneth Williams), who has had his fill of British weather but doesn’t seem much happier in the company of shrill wife Calpurnia (Joan Sims) or her insatiable father Seneca (Charles Hawtrey), perhaps because Seneca keeps forecasting Caesar’s demise.
When Horsa and Hengist escape from the slave traders Marcus and Spencius they also – temporarily – prevent Caesar’s assassination, the cowardly Hengist mistaken for the hero of the piece and taken on as Caesar’s bodyguard. Meanwhile, Julius’ friend Marc Antony is bewitched by the charms of Amanda Barrie’s slinky Cleopatra; Anthony is smitten and resolves to lure Caesar to his death in Egypt, using Cleo’s beauty as bait, but time and again Hengist finds himself the accidental hero, credited with dispatching Caesar’s enemies when the still-revolting Horsa has actually done all the work.
As with all Carry on productions, the success or otherwise of Cleo is dependant on two things. Firstly, the allocation of roles is just about perfect, Ken Williams playing the much-abused, vainglorious Caesar with relish and Sid James his waylaid warmonger with matey earthiness laid on in spades. This central partnership, itself dominated by Williams’ facial and vocal contortions, dominates to the extent that of the supporting cast, only Hawtrey and Connor get much chance to show off: Hawtrey is enormous fun as usual, and while I will never be Connor’s biggest fan, his weedy persona is suited to the role of Mr Pod, ably supported by Sheila Hancock as his nagging wife Senna. As Cleo, Amanda Barrie certainly looks the part and does the lovely-but-dim act very convincingly; it has to be said that she delivers her lines in rather bland fashion, but her air of mystery works where (for instance) Barbara Windsor’s over-generous effervescence wouldn’t have. We should also be thankful – I am, at least – for the absence of Peter Butterworth and Jack Douglas.
The second, related thing is Talbot Rothwell’s script, which plays to the strengths of all the cast whilst puncturing the pomposity of Hollywood epics like Cleopatra and Ben-Hur. He lets Jim Dale do a bit of action hero stuff, but not too much; he lets Sid do the odd cackle, but gives him plenty of plotting to do as well; and as well as filling the script with endless quickfire gags about sex, boobs and homosexuality (all somehow done with a sense of fun), Rothwell gives the film a number of running jokes which help to give it a sense of continuity, a feature lacking in many of the later films. My favourites are Antony and Caesar’s greetings to each other (“Julie!” “Tony!”) and the constant interruption of Caesar’s famous “Friends, Romans…” speech.
On top of this, Carry on Cleo still looks quite good too, boasting a cast of hundreds and sets that pretty effectively convey the atmosphere of the time. This is hardly surprising since some of the sets were purloined from an abandoned shoot of Cleopatra, but it is good to see a Carry on film with production values to match the quality of the script, since some of the later efforts (eg. Camping) have a whiff of being shot on a shoestring in a field round the back of Pinewood studios – as indeed they were. It’s not perfect, by any means, and there are jokes that the fiercest enemies of political correctness would have to concede are dated; but Carry on Cleo perhaps offers the best marriage of script, freshness and enthusiasm in the entire series, together with an imperious performance from Kenneth Williams. Altogether now: “Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!”*
NOTES: In the interests of pedantry I should point out that whilst Talbot Rothwell’s script deserves a lot of praise, Frank Muir and Dennis Norden wrote this particular line. Pedants, eh?