WFTB Score: 10/20
The plot: London’s thin blue line is stretched to the limit by a ‘flu epidemic, forcing one station to bring in a rum bunch of raw recruits. As the rookies get themselves into a series of disastrous scrapes and singularly fail to keep law or order, the put-upon sergeant – already fed up with his Inspector – wonders whether he’d be better off with an empty station.
When ‘flu hits the cop shop run by fish-loving Inspector Mills (Eric Barker), he puts the pressure on Sergeant Wilkins (Sid James) to come up with a solution, threatening to transfer him sharpish if he fails. Unfortunately, the solution that presents itself at the station’s front desk is less than promising: superior Stanley Benson (Kenneth Williams), convinced that phrenology holds the key to identifying criminal types; superstitious, cannily-named astrologer/astrologist Charlie Constable (Kenneth Connor); and upper-crust Tom Potter (Leslie Phillips), a man with an eye for the ladies but not necessarily much of a knack for policing.
The troublesome trio are joined by budgie-fancying Special Constable Gorse (Charles Hawtrey) and super-efficient WPC Gloria Passworthy (Joan Sims), who makes Sgt Moon (Hattie Jacques) suspicious and gives Constable Constable some very unprofessional ideas – so long as she’s a Virgo, that is.
As the new recruits are put up in their compact lodgings (the cells!) and put through their paces, they prove to be as much of a hindrance to Wilkins as a help, with Benson and Gorse dragging up, Some Like It Hot-style, to catch shoplifters and Potter spending more time giving relationship advice than preventing crime. But there are a bunch of bank robbers hiding out in the area, and with the pressure on to bring them – or anyone – to book, the new recruits spy a chance to prove to Mills that they’re not completely useless.
You could, if you squint in a certain way, see Carry On Constable as a precursor to Police Academy; however, though the plot is essentially similar, the films are worlds apart in their sensibilities, as indeed is this fledgling effort (number 4 in the series) to the later Carry On films. Other than a few tantalising glimpses of young lady flesh, and rather more male nudity, the comedy is of a much more genteel nature than the series’ 1970s efforts, which is a double-edged sword: there are sequences that come across as merely daft rather than funny, and a few that don’t work at all (mostly the dog-walking larks); but on the upside, the amount of care that writer Norman Hudis has put in to creating lively, funny and credible characters is something that Williams, James, Connor et al would surely have killed for in the later efforts.
Williams has an absolute ball as the snooty officer who thinks he knows everything but is constantly made to look foolish, whilst Leslie Phillips, admittedly playing to type, enjoys cosying up to Shirley Eaton’s confused young lover and anyone else in a skirt. Sid James, in his first Carry On (and pre-Babs chasing), is marvellously down-to-earth and Hawtrey shows just how good he could be before his parts were written around his drinking: ‘Priceless innuendo, how witty!’ he observes joyously during a raucous parade. On top of these game performances and those of Jacques, Sims and others, there are wonderful cameo appearances from the likes of Joan Hickson as a friendly old soak and Esma Cannon as (what else?) an old dear Benson unwillingly drags across the road.
Impressively, the film also manages to squeeze in a half-decent action story as by pure luck the novices stumble onto the robbers’ hideaway; plus, there’s a nicely cynical attitude towards work hierarchy (the inspector takes all the credit and none of the blame) and a clutch of rather sweet matches made during the happy ending – happy for everyone, that is, except Barker’s Mills, the authority figure who gets the short straw and is perhaps the least effective presence, though it’s equally likely that I’m not familiar enough with Eric Barker’s considerable body of work to appreciate his comparatively mannered style.
In my callow youth I associated older films, especially those in black and white, with a sort of corny, unsophisticated comedy (possibly based on snippets of Will Hay and Norman Wisdom films). Having seen movies such as Passport to Pimlico, The Ladykillers and Alastair Sim’s Scrooge, I now know what a simplistic view that was. I wouldn’t claim that Carry On Constable is the equal of any of those British greats; neither has it the lively spirit of the series in its mid- to late-sixties stride. However, it is charming whilst being winkingly daring and the cast’s energy knocks spots off the lethargic, lazy motions of the Carry Ons’ later years.