In my last post I mentioned National Service. Following World War Two, UK males were subject to being called up to carry out compulsory military training, a practice which lasted until around 1960. One film immediately springs to mind when National Service is mentioned – and that is Carry On Sergeant. This was the very first Carry On and it was made in 1958. Many of the Carry On regulars are there, along with famous faces such as William Hartnell, Bill Owen and Bob Monkhouse. I really don’t like Bob Monkhouse I’m afraid, he sits firmly in my personal category of smarmy git, but his appearance is more than made up for by a delightful turn from one of my film heroines. Dora Bryan plays Naafi Nora, who inexplicably falls desperately in love with lovely Kenneth Connor’s hypochondriac Horace. Her attempts to woo him are the hilarious highlight of the film, especially her line where she describes her love as “painful, yet exquisite” in her inimitable style. Oh and the bit where she corners him with her tea urn…I could go on – it’s a fantastic part.
The storyline follows one company of misfits through their 10 week training under Sgt. Grimshaw (Hartnell). I mentioned in my previous post that troop movements continued to put pressure on the railways after World War Two and an early scene demonstrates this. Monkhouse and Connor’s characters first meet on the train as they make their way to camp – taking the form of transport that most would have done in an age before mass car ownership. How far the rest of the film can be used as historical evidence is difficult for me to say. National Service is something that I know little about. It has never been a part of any syllabus that I have studied formally, it’s not really turned up in any of the books that I’ve read and I don’t know anybody who was called up to serve it. It’s quite a mysterious subject to me, so what can be gleaned from the film?
In order to engage and entertain the first Carry On audience, then the film has to include elements that were recognisable to an audience that would have been familiar with National Service. It’s also a fair assumption to make that several people involved with the making of the film had done their own spell. So there has to be some real history in here somewhere. If I had to pick out one element of the story that rings with the most truth, that had been the catalyst for the original storyline, then it would be the character mix. It would have been difficult to gain exemption from this conscription – only a handful of professions were exempt, including coal mining and farming. It would have therefore brought together men from various walks of life – one of those acts of social levelling that World War Two is credited with in continuation. The characters found in the film’s Able platoon may not be all that exaggerated, you may well have found the academic, the factory worker and mollycoddled mummy’s boy all in one barrack room. This can only have led to friendships and changes in outlook that have lasted a lifetime. But it is obvious that rose tinted spectacles have been put onto the camera lens. In the film, differences and weaknesses are overcome to succeed – the required view of the era. In my many years of observing human nature, I’m sure that this wasn’t always the case. I expect that there were many fights, prejudices re-inforced and bad examples set.
The film also shows us the types of activities carried out by National Service soldiers – the sort of activities that you would expect. How to put a gun together, running at the enemy with a bayonet and taking part in obstacle courses are probably basic soldiering skills and so fairly accurate. I also wouldn’t be surprised if some of the characters were based on real people encountered by the writers or the actors interpreting their words. It’s a taste of National Service that we should take with a pinch of Naafi Nora’s table salt, and use as a stimulating starting point for further study.