By 1964 we were already two deep in the James Bond series, with a third one on the way. Until Carry On Jack, which was its first historical setting, the movies had been about different kinds of employment. So Carry On Spying marks the franchise’s first poke at genre films, which offers a larger stage and opportunities for broader humor and different kinds of jokes. Series regulars Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtree are present, as is Jim Dale. Bernard Cribbins is back. But this is his last appearance in the series for twenty-eight years.
It’s also Barbara Windsor’s debut. And if you don’t know who she is, you are in for a treat.
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The setup is something like this: a secret formula has been stolen by STENCH (Carry On’s parallel to Bond’s SPECTRE) but the Secret Service is scraping the bottom of the barrel. No one is left except Agent Desmond Simpkins (Williams) and his three trainees Crump (Cribbins), Bind (Hawtrey), and Honeybutt (Windsor) to pick up the slack. Crump is the earnest one, Bind the oblivious one, and Windsor, the competent one. Simpkins is the kind of guy who can get himself locked in a closet.
The plot is thin and mostly serves as a mechanism for running the characters through set-pieces that resemble other movies. The streets of Vienna, as in The Third Man, a train sequence and a secret underground lair from the Bond films, and an extended sequence in Algiers which is either a reference to a movie I can’t place or an opportunity to dress Windsor (and Cribbins) like Barbara Eden.
Since this is widely considered one of the best Carry On movies, and since I also happened to have Kenneth Williams’s published diaries sitting on my shelf, it occurred to me to look up the move and see if he had any interesting thoughts about it. ”Carry On Spying.” he said, “Mostly Harmless.”
He didn’t say that. That would be an anachronism. What he did say, however, was more damning: “the Script of Carry On Spying is so bad that I am really beginning to wonder. I’ve changed one or two things, but the witless vacuity of it all remains.” Imagine trying to give Carry On intellectual heft. Witless vacuity or no, Williams’s has a great fight scene in a train like From Russia With Love which really demonstrates the freedom to explore working in genre spoofs provides.
He had a higher opinion of Barbara Windsor: “She is a charming little girl,” he says. The “charming little girl” already had a strong stage and film career. Windsor is more than a pretty face in the film — her comic timing is better than just about anyone else in the series, she steals nearly every scene she’s in, and she does a “photographic memory” schtick that kills me every time.
After England, Vienna, Algiers, and a great fight on the Orient Express that Connery himself would have been proud of, there’s plenty of running down corridors in a secret underground lair. The latter tends to put me to sleep, but so does the climactic underground lair sequence in the real James Bond movies — so there must be good fidelity to the source material. A strong entry in the series and, despite his concern that the movie isn’t highbrow enough, some of my favorite material from Kenneth Williams.