Naughty but nice

Terry Johnson's racy drama about the bizarre off-screen antics of the Carry On stars makes its television debut tonight. Mark Lawson reckons ITV has got its hands on something big

The novels of the late RF Delderfield (1912-1973) occasionally turn up on jumble sale book tables. Best known is A Horseman Riding By, a Sunday night classic serial of the past. Delderfield called his autobiography For My Own Amusement, but few perhaps now appreciate - his novels scarcely being comic - the scale of the contribution he made to the national laughter.

Delderfield wrote a play called The Bully Boys which, in 1958, was turned into a film by Gerald Rogers. The producer changed the title to Carry On Sergeant. Viewers of the subsequent 28 movies in the series wouldn't realise that the recurring title words hadn't originally been a saucy pun but a piece of army jargon. This was intended as a one-off project, and the little-known actors Kenneth Williams, Kenneth Connor and Charles Hawtrey were retained on a single contract. Yet for 20 years or so these movies would more or less constitute the British film industry.

The words Carry On indicated a sense of momentum, but there came a point in the 70s when there was doubt about how long the jokes and the actors could keep going. This dying of the laughter is the subject of a television drama, Cor Blimey! (tonight, 9pm, ITV), written and directed by Terry Johnson, which catches Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Barbara Windsor off-camera on film sets from the series over 14 years.

The two-hour piece is adapted from Johnson's 1988 National Theatre hit Cleo, Camping, Emanuelle and Dick, a title - derived from a quiz clue about Carry On films - which has been judged either too rude or too subtle for the ITV audience. Johnson is becoming culture's creative middleman between theatre and the screen. He has just put the movie The Graduate on the West End stage, starring Kathleen Turner, and he has written another stage play - Dead Funny - based around the deaths of Frankie Howerd and Benny Hill.

Cor Blimey! - bringing the Carry On movies to television via the stage - is his most complicated mixed-media installation yet, but it succeeds triumphantly. The key decision in theatre-to-screen transfers is the extent of what's known as "opening out". As when extending a building, the risk is that you wreck the architecture. But Johnson understands how differently material needs to be shaped for theatre's rectangle of open air and television's oblong of glass.

On stage, the piece was a farce, its explosions depending on the enclosed space of Sid James's caravan at Pinewood Studios. On television, the external news brought back in speeches - the Carry On stage show in London, James's death on stage in a play in Sunderland, Windsor's attempt at Shakespeare in Chichester - is dramatised, adding to the biographical weight of the depiction.

A film-set moment jokily referred to by Windsor on stage - the diffi culty of redubbing the word "buttocks" as "bottom" for the censor - benefits from the close-up to become a smart visual gag. And a play driven by the affair between James and Windsor gains from an on-camera scene in which, as they struggle to resist each other, they are required to snog in Carry On England. The one serious theatrical miscalculation - the final scene re-appearance of James as a ghost - is sensibly excised for TV. A writer once described self-editing as doing root-canal surgery on yourself. Johnson has the emotional Novocaine to do it.

The biggest risk was that a show which so depended on convincing lookalikes would be exposed on television. An actor who seemed a ringer from Row P might easily appear an impostor from 12 feet in the living room. In fact James (Geoffrey Hutchings), Windsor (Samantha Spiro) and Williams (Adam Godley) are uncannily exact in accent and mannerisms. Oddly - but appropriately - each of the central Carry On trio had a distinctive laugh: James's cackle, Windsor's giggle, Williams' snort. Here, used in almost musical counterpoint, they lead to amazing pairs of tittering, as the Carry On scriptwriter Talbot Rothwell might have put it.

But, impressive though the impressions are, this would merely be Madame Tussaud's broadcasting were it not for the depth and intelligence of Johnson's script. Johnson's own smut is more adult than Rothwell's. There's a running gag about cunnilingus which, 10 years ago, would have had ITV in it up to its neck. Oooh, there I go again.

The real power, however, is in the characterisations. The grim inner life of the publicly grinning comic is a cliche of fiction, but Cor Blimey! is much more complex about the relationship between stars and parts. These actors are not the opposite of their off-screen personae but - more interestingly - a darker and more dangerous version of the same. James suffers the pain and frustration of really being the reckless lecher he plays effortlessly on screen. Williams, master of the bottom gag, is a martyr to anal ailments. Windsor, whose Carry On persona involved not fully understanding the consequences of what she did or said, ignores for as long as possible the fact that her marriage to Ronnie Knight has made her a gangster's moll.

I mentioned here recently the increased use of what might be called website programming: the placing of related shows in the schedules like arrows leading from pages in cyberspace. ITV does the obvious thing of following Johnson's play with Carry On Cleo.

And it's a tribute to the visual illusion and imaginative empathy of Cor Blimey! that it will easily survive this proximity with the original. One of the best stage plays of the 1990s has become one of this year's TV highlights. As Sid, Kenny and Barbara might have put it, ITV has pulled out the big one and forced it down the BBC's throat.

Contributor

Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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