Carry On Columbus started filming less than six months before it was released – and it’d be the movie that brought down the curtain on the series.
If cinemagoers were hardly banging down the doors of film companies asking for Christopher Columbus films back in the year 1992, it certainly wasn’t got to stop them being made. To mark the 500th anniversary of his voyage to what was described as the ‘new world’ in 1492, there was something of a battle to get film projects to the screen.
The high-brow option? That’d be 1492: Conquest Of Paradise, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Gerard Depardieu. Snapping at its heels came a loud and expensive rival from Superman producers the Salkinds, for which they’d hired The Godfather writer Mario Puzo and James Bond director John Glen. Oh, and stumped up to get Marlon Brando involved. It’d be called Christopher Columbus: The Discovery.
By far the cheapest and the quickest to make though was the distinctly British Carry On Columbus, the 31st and to date final film in the enduring series of British comedy films. However, if this was to be the film to resurrect the franchise and bring it kicking and screaming into the 1990s, then – not wishing to spoil the ending – it’d be an unsuccessful exercise.
Still, it’d be remiss to suggest the Carry On series wasn’t enjoying some popularity when Columbus headed into production. Much as ITV2 happily plays Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz pretty much on loop today, back in the days when there were only four channels to pick from, ITV wasn’t shy about programming a Carry On movie. They came around on terrestrial television regularly, and that kept awareness of the series going.
That said, the whole shebang had been brought to a shuddering halt with 1978’s ill-fated Carry On Emmanuelle, yet in truth the series had been dealt a massive blow with the death of Sid James just two years prior. Could they carry on, as it were, without their most identifiable star? Not easily. There’d been an attempt to refresh the ensemble with 1976’s Carry On England, but that hadn’t gone well at all. Emmanuelle – trying to cash in on the soft-core movie series that had sprung up earlier in the 1970s – even less so.
And that was set to be that. Producer Peter Rogers and director Gerald Thomas – the creative heartbeats of the Carry On movies – appreciated that things had moved on, and whilst there were sporadic plans for further films in the ensuing years (a very 1980s project, Carry On Dallas, was mooted), nothing came to pass.
It was a British producer called John Goldstone who persuaded Rogers and Thomas to give things another try. He’d worked with them in the late 1970s, but it was in 1990 he was looking at bringing British comedy talent to the big screen. Realising that two far more dramatic movies were being made about Christopher Columbus, he saw his opportunity, and Carry On Columbus quickly sparked into life. Dave Freeman was hired to pen a screenplay, but had just three weeks to bang out a script. This was a film very much on a schedule and being put together very late in the day, that needed to hit a 1992 release date. Filming wouldn’t even begin until late April 1992, and it was due in cinemas at the start of October.
The other challenge that Rogers and Thomas faced, against the backdrop of the ticking clock, was what to do with the ensemble. So many of the familiar names from the series had gone to the chucklehouse in the sky, with most of the stalwarts of the series – James, Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howerd (who had been due to appear, but died weeks before the shoot), Peter Butterworth, Hattie Jacque and Charlie Hawtry – all gone.
Furthermore, rounding up the others was easier said than done. An offer went into Carry On regulars Barbara Windsor and Bernard Bresslaw, but the speed at which the project came together meant they couldn’t wriggle out of a commitment to a summer theatre season in Blackpool. Ironically, the show they were committed to was called Wot A Carry On.
Still, some familiar faces were back. Jim Dale took on the lead role, returning to the series after departing in one of its few sequels, Carry On Again Doctor. And also knowing their way around a Carry On set were Bernard Cribbins, June Whitfield, Jack Douglas and the peerless Leslie Phillips. Kenneth Connor turned down a cameo, and Joan Sims declined to return too.
Goldstone was also wanting the film to bring fresh comedy faces to the big screen, and the cast was fleshed out with an abundance of British talent. Rik Mayall, Richard Wilson, Alexei Sayle, Maureen Lipman, Sara Crowe, Nigel Planer, Tony Slattery and Julian Clary were amongst those hired, and there was no shortage of face fodder for the poster. It’d be remiss not to mention the mighty Jon Pertwee too, even though as the story goes he thought originally he’d been offered a role in 1492: Conquest Of Paradise.
With a £2.5m budget, this was hugely expensive by standards of the series, yet Richard Webber’s excellent book Fifty Years Of Carry On talks of a general dissatisfaction behind the scenes.
Jack Douglas, for instance, is quoted in that book as saying “‘for me, it just didn’t work. Many of the new faces didn’t want to be part of us [the remaining originals from the previous films] at all. They just went on, did their bit, got into their cars and went home. They never came with us for a drink or even sat with us. If we were having lunch, they’d go and sit at the other end of the room. They wanted to do their own thing, therefore it was like having two separate casts”.
Conversely, Gerald Thomas was said to be surprised how well the different generations blended across the four-week shoot. Certainly an article in Film Review’s October 1992 issue paints a happier picture, but given that was timed for the promotion of the film, it’d be odd if they were all slagging it off. Nonetheless, Jim Dale is front and centre talking of the “whole new generation of comics who are all determined to uphold the Carry On tradition”.
Which all just about held until the film was seen. Critics, as they always tended to do with films in the series, eviscerated the movie, and in truth over time, many of those involved with it added their voices to those of discontent. What the film also demonstrated too was that whilst people were happy to watch an old Carry On film on ITV, they were less keen to go to the cinema in 1992 and watch them.
They weren’t keen to watch either of the other Columbus movies though, and all three films centred around the explorer failed to ignite. The one that nudged close to breaking? That’d be Carry On Columbus, primarily down to the fact it cost less than 10% of its nearest rival, and it outgrossed the others at the UK box office as well.
Still, this time the film really would mark end of an era. Gerald Thomas passed away a year after the film’s release, and the response to Columbus was enough to put anyone off trying again for the best part of a decade.
There’s still the occasional flicker of life though, as we looked at here. But Carry On Columbus very much marked the last hurrah for a series of films that got to a boxset of 31. The chances of there being a 32nd look increasingly slim.
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