WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: Neglected by her workaholic husband Charlie, Peggy Hawkins sets up a rival cab company to teach him a lesson. With a fleet of new cars and a team of shapely female drivers, it’s hardly surprising that ‘Glamcabs’ soon takes the majority of the town’s fares; on the other hand, it doesn’t do much for the couple’s marriage.
Speedee Taxis isn’t the smoothest-running of operations, especially since owner Charlie Hawkins (Sid James) has a soft spot for ex-servicemen, even walking disasters like Terry ‘Pint Pot’ Tankard (Charles Hawtrey). Still, manager/mechanic Ted (Kenneth Connor) keeps the cabs on the road – when he’s not distracted by café girl Sally (Liz Fraser) – and Charlie works all the hours God sends; besides, they’re the only firm in town.
On the downside, Charlie’s love of his job is at odds with his love for pining wife Peggy (Hattie Jacques); and when Peg’s plans for an anniversary night out on the town are scuppered by Charlie’s inability to refuse a fare, she decides to take action. Peg secretly ploughs the couple’s savings into new premises and a fleet of shiny new cars and launches Glamcabs, which only employs lithe young lady drivers and undercuts her husband’s firm. The customers (all male, naturally) prefer Glamcabs’ service and Speedee Taxis starts to lose money hand over fist; even a concerted campaign of dirty tricks by Charlie and Ted backfires horrendously. However, Peggy’s victory seems set to be Pyrrhic when Charlie discovers the treacherous driving force behind Glamcabs, driving between them a wedge as wide as Charlie’s old, faithful cab.
Reading up on the history of Carry On Cabby, one is tempted to think the worst: adapted from a story by Morecambe and Wise writers Sid Green and Dick Mills and not originally intended to be a Carry On film, the received wisdom is that this is one of the less funny of the earlier films – after all, Kenneth Williams turned down the role of bolshie shop steward Allbright because he didn’t like the script (Norman Chappell eventually took the part, Hawtrey most of the lines).
It’s true that in terms of both knockabout slapstick and scriptwriter Talbot Rothwell’s trademark innuendo, Cabby doesn’t hit any great heights, although both are present and correct, the former represented by Hawtrey’s ultra-clumsy Pint Pot, the latter by a string of nudging car-related puns. It’s also true that the plot has dud stretches: the episode in which expectant father Jim Dale gives Charlie the run-around goes on too long, as does the ‘damsels in distress’ climax (for all its interesting car ‘stunts’), whilst the final outcome, though sweet, is as implausible as it is uninspired.
And it goes without saying that although the idea of an all-female workforce appears to chime with the changing sexual politics of the 60s, it’s essentially an excuse to wheel out some smartly dressed (and in one gratuitous changing room scene, smartly undressed) dolly birds.
On the other hand, Cabby has several things going for it, all in terms of performances: James and Hawtrey are reliably entertaining, whilst Connor is less annoying than usual and Fraser enjoys a relatively major role. Amanda Barrie is entertaining as posh, airheaded driver Anthea and Esma Cannon lends her usual dottiness as Flo, the old dear who helps Peg set up her rival firm.
More than anything, though, this is Hattie’s film: Jacques is simply wonderful as the lovelorn spouse, playing the comic aspects perfectly (with an entertaining range of comic voices) but also imbuing Peg with immense pathos, loneliness and guilt. Jacques is almost too good for the part, or to put it another way her acting here is too sincere for something as lowbrow as a Carry On: Peg’s all-too-apparent heartache doesn’t exactly make the audience fall about laughing, but I’d much rather watch Jacques playing a rounded, feeling human being rather than the tragic fatty caricature she would eventually be lumped with. Though the Carry Ons would be at their best over the next five years, the actors gradually learnt to broaden their performances to meet the tone of the writing. If only the writing had consistently met the abilities of the players: but there we are.
Ultimately, Carry on Cabby lacks colour. In a literal sense, of course, since it’s in black and white; but also missing the full palette offered by the best of the series – a touch of parody, a hint of anti-authoritarianism, the haughty sneer of Ken Williams and the naughty smile of Joan Sims. However, it’s without anything unduly blue and is the one film out of the whole lot that showcases Hattie at her best, for which we should all be thankful. Given a choice between Hattie’s acting chops and Babs Windsor’s bra-flinging antics, I’d take the former any day of the week.