After the failure of Don’t Lose Your Head and Follow That Camel, the Carry On team went back to their original narrative structure with the very nostalgic Carry On Doctor. However, if this one seemed to be a farewell to the public that had followed the peripeties of the Carry On regulars for almost ten years, it was far from being the case. Indeed, the cast and crew were back in force with Carry On…Up the Khyber, which is considered among the very best films of the British comical series. If Carry On Doctor presents a narrative structure more similar to the one of Carry On Nurse, Up the Khyber uses the more adventurous formula of Carry On Jack or Follow That Camel. As a matter of fact, despite the unpopularity of Camel, some utility was found in that film. Some of the town sets created for the film were used in Khyber the following year. (1)
The film, however, is not set in North Africa, but in British colonial India. Sid James plays Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond, Queen Victoria’s governor set in the province of Kalabar, near the Khyber Pass. The British soldiers that defend the region are known as “The Devils in Skirt” because of their reputation of wearing nothing underneath their military skirts! Not only it gives them a tough-men reputation, but the idea of any potential form of exhibitionism is also something that frightens the Indian rebels. However, their reputation might be at stake when Private Widdle (Charles Hawtrey) is discovered wearing panties by warlord Bungdit Din (Bernard Bresslaw). As absurd as it sounds, this infuriates the British authorities, especially since their enemy, The Khasi of Kalabar (Kenneth Williams), plans on using this information to encourage the anti-British movement.
Things don’t get solved when, during a military inspection to see if the soldiers are wearing anything under their skirt, the governor’s wife, Lady Joan Ruff-Diamond (Joan Sims), takes a photo of the scene, hidden between the curtains of their luxurious mansion. Lady Ruff-Diamond has a twisted mind. Being attracted by the charismatic Khasi, she suggests to give him the photo on the only condition that he accepts to have a bit of fun in bed with her. If the photo finds itself in the wrong hands, it could mean serious troubles for the British army. The bargains having not been accomplished yet, the Khasi still decides to take her with him to Bungdit Din’s palace.
The Khasi’s daughter, Princess Jelhi (Angela Douglas), who has a fine ear, reveals what happened to British Captain Keene (Roy Castle) with whom she is in love. A team formed by Private James Widdle, Captain Keene, Sergeant Major MacNutt (Terry Scott), and Brother Belcher (Peter Butterworth), a cowardly missionary who knows the region well, has been formed to go on a mission to find the photograph and, hopefully, bring back Lady Ruff-Diamond.
The Carry On films made fun of various British institutions over the years: the British Army, British Police, British hospitals, etc. This time, it’s the traditional uniform and its reputation that meets the naughty Carry On humour, when no one would have imagined that someone would dare to a comedy on such a subject! No one is spared from the humour, as the Carry On team makes fun or everybody, the British like the rebellious Indians. Oh yes, they even make fun of Queen Victoria! That is something that didn’t please Princess Margaret when she was visiting the set. (2) Indeed, in one of the scenes, the character played by Sid James dictates a letter to Queen Victoria: “To her most gracious majesty Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and the Dominions, Impress of all India, Defender of the Faith… Dear Vicky”. Apparently, the “Dear Vicky” part didn’t amuse Princess Margaret. (3) Well, I’m sure it worked for many. It did for me. But then, I’m not a member of the British Royal Family who might get offended by this innocent joke (if compared to some of the much more risquée Carry On gags). I also think that this is the type of joke that would be funny or not depending on how it is delivered, which voice is chosen, etc. But with the Carry On cast, we know we’re pretty safe on that level.
The film uses the “skirt” humour in as many ways as possible, but particularly by creating situations and dialogues with, unsurprisingly, a lot of innuendos. For example, we can think of this scene when Private Widdle, who is supposed to keep the guard at the frontier, faces a cunning Bungdit Din. This one takes out his swords to exchange it against a right of passage, but Widdle, too impressed by the sharp object, faints… Bungdit Din seizes the occasion to… investigate:
[After Private Widdle has fainted]:
Bungdit Din: What did I do?! [pause] I wonder…. [he lifts Widdle’s skirt with his sword]: Now we know! *Machiavellian laugh*
Of course, this is the famous scene where it is discovered that the British might very well be wearing something under their skirt after all!
And the humour doesn’t stop when he tells about his discovery to the Kashi:
The Khasi of Kalabar [holding Widdle’s underpants in his hands]: Who speaks truly? The devil wore this garment beneath his skirt?
Bungdit Din: I swear it, highness. Did I not remove it with my own hands?
The Khasi: You did well Bungdit Din!
Bungdit Din: It was not difficult, highness. It was only held up with a piece of elastic.
The Khasi: No, no, no, no, my beautiful warrior! I mean, you did well to discover it! For many many years now they have let us to believe that the devils wore nothing beneath their skirts and we have feared them according, but now! Oh! Oh! Oh!
Princess Jelhi: I do not understand, my father. What is there to fear of a warrior who wears nothing underneath his skirt?
The Khasi: Oh, my child, you have not made war! Think of how frightening it would be to have such a man charging at you with his skirt flying in the air and flashing his big great bayonette at you!
I repeat: Great big bayonette.
But of course, the most memorable scene might be the dinner scene. When it is learned that the enemies are about to invade the British palace, Sir Ruff-Diamond decides to “do nothing” and organises a fancy dinner. This one is attended by him, his wife, Princess Jelhi, Captain Keene, Major Shorthouse (Julian Holloway), Brother Belcher, and a few musicians to create an ambience. The scene is totally absurd as, while the palace is being attacked, the people attending the dinner acts as if everything was normal. Lady Ruff-Diamond removing plaster that has fallen on her from time to time, without worrying too much about it. The only one who can’t enjoy his dinner as relaxed as the others is Brother Belcher, who thinks he has landed in a madhouse.
The film also presents a bit of dark humour in situations that are normally supposed to be dramatic. When the four fellows, Lady Ruff-Diamond, and Princess Jelly discover that the British soldiers have been attacked at the frontier, Brother Belcher declares emotionally: “Look at them! Lying around like a lot of…unwanted cocktail snacks!” Widdle then sees one of his friend, agonising:
Private Jimmy Widdle: Ginger!
Missionary: Who is?
Private Jimmy Widdle: He is. Ginger, my mate.
Sergeant-Major MacNutt: Private Hale?
Private Jimmy Widdle: Yes, Ginger Hale. Hello, Ginge. It’s me, Jimmy. Your old mate, Jimmy Widdle.
Private Ginger Hale: Jimmy? Is it you? My old mate?
Private Jimmy Widdle: Ginge, mate! How do you feel?
Private Ginger Hale: Oh, not so good. I think I’ve been wounded.
Private Jimmy Widdle: Only here and there.
Private Ginger Hale: Jimmy, I can trust you. Now, give it to me straight. Am I going to be all right?
Private Jimmy Widdle: Of course not, Ginge mate.
Private Ginger Hale: Eh?
Private Jimmy Widdle: I said, “Of course not, Ginge mate”.
Private Ginger Hale: I’m not going to be all right?
Private Jimmy Widdle: Well, how could you be, with half a dozen dirty great holes in you? You’ve had it.
Private Ginger Hale: You’re a bleeding fine mate, I must say.
Private Jimmy Widdle: What do you mean? You asked me to give it to you straight.
Private Ginger Hale: Yeah, but I didn’t mean you to. You horrible little runt, you!
Poor Ginger Hale! Not only he has such a name, but his friend doesn’t give him a lot of hope (even if there isn’t any). This scene gave a memorable cameo to Peter Gilmore, who plays Private Hale. The scene loses even more its seriousness considering that Widdle is wearing woman dancing clothes.
There is a lot of great performances in Carry On…Up the Khyber, but the one we’ll remember the most might be Kenneth Williams as The Khasi of Kalabar. He plays a mischievious villain with a delicious ruse, sassy attitude, and humoristic patronizing lines “Oh warmers of my feet” (addressing himself to his wives). Actually, of all the Carry Ons, Up the Khyber was Williams’s personal favourite. He considered his performance as the Kashi to be the one that the audience wouldn’t forget. (4) Peter Butterworth also quite steals the show on several occasions, especially due to the contrast between his more down-to-Earth character and the other British aristocrats. As Robert Ross informs us in The Carry On Companion, Butterworth included a few unscripted gags in his performances. (5) And we know that these can be the ones that work the best! If I could make a last observation on the casting, notice that the role of Captain Keene was initially intended for Jim Dale but, since this one wasn’t available, Roy Castle was instead cast. He made his only appearance in a Carry On film. (6) Castle delivered the performance the right way, but it’s not a role that gives a lot of potential to stands out against the larger than life Carry On regulars. Of course, maybe it would have been different with Jim Dale playing the part. We know that he and Angela Douglas have always embodied with brio the young romantic couple of the Carry Ons.
Talking of lovely Angela Douglas, who made her last appearance in a Carry On film, a more “visual” aspect of the production that I enjoyed was the beautiful costumes she wears as princess Jelhi. Aerian and colourful, these were designed by Emma Selby-Walker who also created the beautiful historical costumes for Don’t Lose Your Head, Follow That Camel, and Carry On Screaming.
Carry On… Up The Khyber distinguishes itself from the other Carry On films for the main reason that the production finally went out of the studios and included on-location shooting. Scenes were indeed shot in Snowdonia, North Whales, which served to represent the Khyber Pass. (7)
Here we have this rare behind-the-scenes clip that shows the filming in Snowdonia and a few words with Gerald Thomas and Kenneth Williams!
Needless to say that, on its release, Up the Khyber was a success. The film was not only the second most popular film at the British box office in 1969 (8), but it also was the only Carry On film to be included in the 1999 British Film Institute poll of the 100 Finest British films ever made. It placed itself at the 99th position. (9) The film faced a minor incident on its release because of the title being considered too suggestive and insulting to the military. “Khyber” is slang for “arse”. Rank pleaded with Peter Rogers to have the title changed to Carry On the Regiment. (10) But, as you can see, nothing was done about it.
If you like second-degree humour, impossible situations, memorable performances, and a great on-screen adventure, then Carry On Up… the Khyber is a film for you!
The next film on our series will be the much-awaited Carry On Camping, which brought back a lot of personal memories!
Want to follow that series closely? Make sure to take a look at my other reviews!
(1) “Follow That Camel: Trivia.” IMDb, n.d. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061680/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv. Accessed Oct. 19, 2019.
(2) “Carry On…Up the Khyber.” IMDb, n.d. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062782/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv. Accessed Oct. 19, 2019.
(4) “Kenneth Williams: Biography.” IMDb, n.d. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0931054/bio?ref_=nm_dyk_trv_sm#trivia, Accessed Oct. 19, 2019.
(5) Ross, Robert. The Carry On Companion. London: Batsford, 1998. p. 76.
(6) Ibid. note 2
(7) Ibid. note 5
(8) Ibid. note 2
(9) Angelini, Sergio. “Carry on…Up the Khyber.” BFI Screen Oline, n.d. http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/466528/index.html. Accessed Oct. 19, 2019.
(10) Ibid. note 5