Carry on Teacher

WFTB Score: 13/20

The plot: Popular headmaster Mr Wakefield has a dream job waiting at a shiny new school, but first of all he and his staff must survive an inspection by liberal psychiatrist Alistair Grigg and his assistant Miss Wheeler. The teachers try to impose discipline without resorting to the dreaded cane, but the kids have their own agenda and are determined to push the staff to the limit.

Maudlin Street Secondary Modern school is your average state school, its kids and staff engaging in a constant battle to get the upper hand. Acting head Mr Wakefield (Ted Ray) has a new headmaster’s job lined up, but first of all he must get through a week of inspection by Alistair Grigg and Felicity Wheeler (Leslie Phillips and Rosalind Knight). It promises to be tricky because the kids, headed up by ringleader Stevens (Richard O’Sullivan), are in playful mood; and Wakefield’s trusty cane is frowned upon by Grigg, a new-age thinker who believes in letting kids run free.

The inspectors watch the sometimes-farcical lessons conducted by the teachers: Science, where nervous Gregory Adams (Kenneth Connor) suffers a case of premature launching; Physical Education, where Sarah Allcock (Joan Sims) finds her short shorts fail to cover her modesty, driving Grigg to a state of distraction; English, where Mr Milton (Kenneth Williams) gets his knickers in a twist about the naughtier bits of Romeo and Juliet, which the pupils are putting on with musical accompaniment from Mr Bean (Charles Hawtrey); finally, there’s maths teacher Grace Short (Hattie Jacques), who has little time for Grigg’s namby-pamby ways. The more the kids play up – starting a whispering campaign about a bomb and causing havoc during Milton’s production of Shakespeare – the more ‘Wakie’ despairs of getting his promotion; yet his exhortations for Gregory to woo Felicity, despite his crippling shyness, may just yield results. And the staff may get a shock when they realise why the kids have been so evil.

I’ve now seen the majority of Carry on films and before watching this, the third in the series, I probably (despite my best intentions) made the following assumptions: black and white, pre-Sid and Babs, so patchily entertaining but both a little twee and slightly stuffy. Happily, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Right from the start, the inclusion of youngsters lends the film a lively, rambunctious air, which the senior actors and writer Norman Hudis all thrive on. Whereas the strict hierarchy and archaic wards of Carry on Nurse obviously belonged to the late 50s, the script of Teacher retains a freshness: with the exception of the corporal punishment, the dynamic between the staff, and between the teachers and the pupils, feels as though it could be that of a modern-day school (admittedly, I’m only going from my own long-gone schooldays, a couple of teacher friends and the odd episode of Waterloo Road, hardly renowned for realism). What’s more, the film achieves a rare and satisfying combination of arch, lightly suggestive jokes, funny set-pieces (the chaos surrounding the play is brilliantly played out) and an overall story that provides consistent motivation for the characters, even if it does, however briefly, fall prey to a most un-Carry on-like sentimentality in its Goodbye Mr Chips moment. I fell for it, anyway.

The real joy of Carry on Teacher, however, is found in the staffroom. The quintet of series stalwarts – Williams*, Hawtrey, Jacques, Sims and Connor – are used intelligently, amusingly and in near-perfect balance. Allcock’s desire for Grigg and Milton’s sparring with Bean are particular highlights, but each takes turns to shine and there’s a particular pleasure in seeing the five of them interact simultaneously. Even if their big moment – the alcoholic tea-inspired game of musical chairs – is essentially the same joke as Hudis used in Nurse, it’s performed beautifully.

I’m not a big fan of Connor, and have generally found his nervous mannerisms more irritating than amusing; but he makes the most of his pivotal role here, mangling his words with skill and finally throwing caution to the wind in a performance which foreshadows Gene Wilder‘s Leo Bloom in The Producers. Connor is helped immensely by playing opposite Rosalind Knight, who proves perfectly charming as Miss Wheeler. Future sitcom star Richard O’Sullivan is effective as chief troublemaker amongst the children, who are generally much more palatable than a bunch of disruptive kids have any right to be. If Ted Ray makes less of an impression, it’s partially because he’s landed with being the authority figure, but mainly through unfamiliarity. A legend of radio comedy, Ray never became the film star his Ray’s A Laugh cohort Peter Sellers would. He doesn’t raise too many laughs here, but does a nice line in quiet mortification.

Carry on Teacher doesn’t, perhaps, deliver huge belly laughs or the memorable moments that were later anthologised in the Carry on Laughing TV series; but it’s a complete film in every sense, and delivers a wonderful ensemble performance from five actors at the top of their game. Comedies have been broader, saucier, more uproarious and much less idealised than Teacher, for sure; but this is a top-notch entry in the Carry on series and, in its understated way, a little gem.

NOTES: Far be it from me to pooh-pooh other critics, but one Carry on-specific website doesn’t like the film because (and I quote) “Kenneth is still acting.” Heaven forbid he should try to act a role, rather than conform to the face-pulling camp caricature he would later become!

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