WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: The tale of two of Henry VIII’s lesser-known wives. French bride Marie’s nightly ritual of eating garlic before bedtime has an adverse effect on the King’s ardour, so the news that she is pregnant seems like a blessing; if she’s been unfaithful, he can dispose of her and chase women such as the bounteous Bettina. The only trouble is, the King of France is keen to reward Henry for his happy marriage – and itching for war at the first sign of any trouble.
Of all the Kings and Queens of England, Henry VIII is among the most colourful, remembered chiefly for his stout frame, red beard and Eight Wives. Eight? Oh yes. For, as Carry On Henry details, the King (Sid James) is most keen never to be without a wife, so as soon as the last one’s dispatched he moves straight on to Marie of France (Joan Sims). Marie is fair of face and figure, but not sweet of breath: she insists on eating garlic every night, putting Henry right off his stroke.
She refuses to stop eating the bulbs, he refuses to consummate the marriage, so each takes matters into their own hands: Henry tries to get the marriage annulled with the help of Chancellor Thomas Cromwell (Kenneth Williams) and Cardinal Wolsey (Terry Scott), while Marie takes a lover in the foppish shape of Sir Roger de Lodgerly (Charles Hawtrey). When Marie falls pregnant, it appears to offer Henry a way out – if Cromwell can torture a confession out of Roger, he’ll be free. However, King Francis of France offers to bless the new arrival with 50,000 gold crowns, an offer too good for Henry to refuse; and when a kidnap plot by Lord Hampton of Wick (Kenneth Connor) and an ever-so-slightly anachronistic Guy Fawkes (Bill Maynard) goes awry, it looks as though he’s stuck with his malodorous missus. But then Henry claps eyes on Bettina (Barbara Windsor), the Earl of Bristol’s daughter – and suddenly the hunt is on again!
The popular wisdom (as I may have said before) about Carry On films is that they start off black and white and twee, get into their swing along with the sixties, and start to decay with the new decade. This is undoubtedly true, but Henry at least represents a brief upswing in an otherwise downwards trend. It’s not that the film relies any less on innuendo than those released immediately before or after it, far from it; however, the ripeness of the subject and the lustiness of the King are a good fit for the Carry On team, whose historical parodies always brought out the best in both scriptwriter Talbot Rothwell and the dependable troupe of actors.
But as I say, the innuendo is there. While Henry still contains a decent smattering of really good lines – I particularly like Henry’s explanation of why he needs France’s money: ‘My mint has a hole in it’ – the clever bits of the script are possibly outweighed by the crass: boob jokes, bum jokes, the Sex Enjoyment Tax and the decidedly off-colour ‘hunting’ of Margaret Nolan’s buxom maid (Guy Fawkes is only roped because his name sounds slightly rude). And whilst the repeated sequences of Hawtrey being stretched on the rack, then put in the Iron Maiden, are paid off with funny physical gags, other repetitions are less welcome; Marie endlessly trots to and from the tower, and to be blunt, the idea of Terry Scott sticking a big scroll up his arse is only vaguely amusing the first time it happens.
Finally, while there are some lovely sparks of invention – the name Roger de Lodgerly is brilliant – the template for the film is ultimately one viewers were already used to: lecherous Sid is knocked out by voluptuous Babs, but his desires are ultimately thwarted.
Apart from the script, the other yardstick I always measure Carry Ons by is the quality of the cast and the uses they’re put to. By this reckoning, Henry does pretty well: Sid, Ken and Charles are really good, Joan (for once!) has a major role worthy of her talents, Babs does what Babs does, and others such as Kenneth Connor and Peter Butterworth, thankfully, have smaller parts*. I get a sense that Terry Scott isn’t greatly loved amongst Carry On fans, but while his big-boned bluster is undoubtedly a riff on Frankie Howerd’s act, I like him, largely (I admit) on the basis of his subsequent work in Danger Mouse. Jacques is inevitably missed, Bresslaw less so, and – because rejoicing in the fact has become a noble WFTB tradition – there’s no Jack Douglas. Hurrah!
I’ve seen the majority of the Carry On films at least once now, and although I wouldn’t describe Carry On Henry as anything more than a middling effort – it’s not up with Cleo, Cowboy, Khyber or (controversially, I know) Teacher – I certainly wouldn’t lump it in with the dreck (Girls, Behind, England, Emmannuelle). Rothwell and the team ride a fine line between sauce and smut, and whenever the film veers towards the latter it’s kept on path by a viable plot and capable performances. Regrettably, it wouldn’t stay that way for long.
NOTES: No sniggering at the back. It is an occupational hazard reviewing Carry On films that anything you say can be…er…taken the wrong way.