'Carry on Teacher' (1959) is one of the earlier Carry On films, and I think that there is a tendency to overlook it. Yet it deserves attention as one of the series with real substance to the story. Granted, you're not always looking for substance from a Carry On film. And 'Teacher' still offers enough slapstick (the itching powder scene) and double entendre (the film stars Leslie Phillips - say no more) to satisfy someone in search of light-hearted banter. But it also offers more. Ted Ray puts in a brilliant performance as the Headteacher of Maudlin Street School. He is thinking of moving on but the children don't want him to go, resulting in some genuinely touching scenes. The acerbic exchanges between Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey are so realistic that you can't help feeling that you are witnessing something of their real life relationship. (According to Wes Butters, the pair were not unfriendly, but were very competitive.) And, as all the best cinematic comedy does, the film gently mocks important issues of the time. In Teacher's case, progressive education ideas are offered up as the Aunt Sally. Leslie Phillips' character is one of the peddlers of those airy-fairy child centred education themes. He has the stuffing knocked out of him at Maudlin Street School, and towards the end of the film he proclaims that all these ideas are alright for other people's kids. The film really comes down on intellectual outsiders and government officials interfering with schools and teachers, who are the ones that really know what they are doing.
But even more interesting than this is the tackling of corporal punishment. The head is firmly against any form of physical punishment, while Hattie Jacques' character bemoans the lack of it within the school. I feel sure that this must be a reflection of the wider debate that was brewing at the time. Corporal punishment was banned in UK schools as late as 1987 but I have no doubt that debate raged for many years before this. Changes to cultural ideas such as this don't happen overnight and this film is evidence of this. The film comes down on the side of the headteacher and of not caning children. I think that unusually for a film of its time, it shows children as intelligent and aware small humans, whom adults should take time to understand rather than lash out at. I find this stance admirable. I'm pleased to say that I wasn't ever at the receiving end of a cane, but I do remember seeing the headmaster of my primary school giving a boy the slipper - and the unpleasant look of enjoyment on the head's face has stayed with me forever. I have subsequently never had any respect for this particular man.
So, as well as being a Carry On film with substance, it shows insight and attitudes ahead of its time. Viva Carry On!