The Gilbert Adair files: The Nautilus and the nursery

Roland Barthes’s [sic] April Fools paean to the Carry On cycle, from our Gilbert Adair tribute trove.

Gilbert Adair

from Sight & Sound Spring 1985, pages 130-132.

Editor’s note:

Quarterly magazines, as Sight & Sound was until 1991, rarely indulge in April Fool japery, but this was an exception, posing as an essay by Roland Barthes (then almost exactly five years deceased) about the Carry On films. Its author was, as many guessed even at the time, Gilbert Adair, who signed its introduction and claimed to be its translator, proffering in the process a few clues as to its inauthenticity, notably the nudgingly named Jean-Marie d’Avril. Adair would publish his own explicitly Barthesian collection of essays and aphorisms, Myths and Memories, the following year.

— Michael Brooke


It might be useful for me to explain, briefly, the circuitous route by which the following essay, a ‘Mythological’ one by Roland Barthes, now makes its debut appearance in the pages of Sight and Sound. There is an endearing line of dialogue in the MGM minipops musical Babes in Arms – Mickey Rooney’s dad (Charles Winninger, naturally), fretting that his scamp of a son spends too much time composing popular songs, is reassured thus by his wife: “Now, dear, every boy goes through a songwriting phase!” In the same hyperbolic spirit, I propose that every young ‘intellectual’ goes through a magazine-founding phase.

For example, in the late 1970s, based in Paris, I formulated the wish to found a sumptuous bilingual literary-cum-film revue. It was to be named ‘Letters and Neon’, or, in French, ‘Lettres, et le neon’ (a complicated pun on Sartre’s L’Etre et le néant, i.e. Being and Nothingness), and have a prominent Latin-American bias, its fellow founders including the Argentinian directors Hugo Santiago and Edgardo Cozarinsky and the Chilean Raul Ruíz, its guardian ‘angel’ (in the financial sense) a well-to-do Cuban exile. Copy was canvassed from various defiantly illustrious sources, and a half-dozen or so texts actually thumped on to my ephemeral editor’s desk. Ephemeral, for, like many such an undertaking, ‘Letters and Neon’ came to grief so prematurely that not a single issue ever hit the stands; and the copy submitted had to be returned with regret.

Six years later – in December 1984, to be exact – I received through the post an essay by Barthes, ‘Le Nautilus et la nursery’ (the only flaw on an otherwise immaculate MS being the pencilled scribble of the alliterative Anglicism ‘nursery’ across the typed original ‘chambre d’enfants’), apparently meant to grace my ghost of a revue but never mailed. It was sent by Jean-Marie d’Avril, a former student and acquaintance of Barthes, who is currently working on and annotating his posthumous papers. Contacting him by phone, I learned that the most startling feature of the essay – its author’s knowledge of and interest in the Carry On films – was no secret to his circle of intimates. Indifferent, like one of his models, Sartre, to most manifestations of contemporary English culture, he nevertheless retained a perverse fascination for that by now defunct cycle of ribald farces.

Here is therefore, and thanks to the disinterested generosity of M d’Avril, the first publication of what is certainly the sole instance of Roland Barthes reflecting upon a British ‘mythology’. (The translation is my own, excepting the passage self-quoted from Mythologies, for which I have used that of Annette Lavers from the English-language edition published by Jonathan Cape in 1972.)

The Nautilus and the Nursery

Utopias have traditionally been predicated on the double principle of enclosure and repetition: enclosure in the sense of a ‘wrapping around’, as I illustrated in an early essay on Jules Verne – which is to say, the projection of a finite, private and uncontaminated enclave as an ideal of (bourgeois) comfort and sensuousness (“The Nautilus, in this regard, is the most desirable of all caves: the enjoyment of being enclosed reaches its paroxysm when, from the bosom of this unbroken inwardness, it is possible to watch, through a large window-pane, the outside vagueness of the waters, and thus define, in a single act, the inside by means of its opposite”); repetition in that the strength of this enclosure (a necessary guarantee of its privacy) must periodically be affirmed by submission to a series of tests (akin to algebraic variables), either superimposed or externally imposed upon it; thus, through all the adventures which make up the narrative of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the Nautilus remains snug, larval and inviolate.

There exist, of course, innumerable Utopias which are not either material or literary constructs: these, being more diffuse, more latent, more ‘ideological’, are usually only accessible to an operation of decipherment. For example, the ‘classic’ Hollywood cinema of the 1930s and 40s was essentially Utopian in structure; its sense of enclosure was reinforced by such parameters of the studio system as typecasting, the regular recycling of plots and the remarkable constancy of character psychology; and serials or series of films (Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes – currently, the Star Wars saga) helped, by repetition, to throw this stereotypology of the world into even greater relief. Moreover, a few recent series have so reduced the pool of variables at their disposal that each succeeding episode has become practically, shamelessly, a remake or duplicate of the original film. (As may be seen, an ‘advantage’ of such Utopian cinema is the facility with which it contrives to reconcile opposites: plots which are different but also the same, characters who age but do not, the narrative coming to an end yet theoretically capable of endless rebirths.)

The best-known instance of this phe-nomenon in the British cinema (though little-known, perhaps, except to inconditionnels of Anglophilia, on our side of the Channel) is the Carry On… cycle. Carry On… is Utopian cinema par excellence. Which is not to say very much: the question ought to be, which Utopia? For, as I have said, the Nautilus‘ ‘enclosure’ is as material as it is abstract, it is even what is called ‘well-appointed’: a good, richly stocked library, a first-class cuisine, deep leather sofas and armchairs, and firm, heavy drapes. This reproduction of a nineteenth century ideal of bourgeois luxury is clear enough, and what has been added is a layer of cultivated refinement that suggests nothing so much as the study of a man-of-letters. One might go so far as to say, Jules Verne’s own study; certainly, such as Verne describes them, Captain Nemo’s quarters aboard his submarine conform to the (then as now) popular, mythic conception of a successful author’s abode (a myth perhaps less idealised but no less widespread than that of the candlelit garret in which the Bohemian poète maudit scribbled and starved). By projecting his own invulnerably plush environment on to the high seas and into the future, Verne reconciled those otherwise unresolvable opposites of ‘staying at home’ (security) and ‘travelling abroad’ (adventure). 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, being no more than a writer’s unashamed reverie, legitimises the reader’s most ingenuous daydreams; and, consequently, unlike the treacherous allegories of Wells, it and Verne’s other premonitory novels do not disturb: instead, they reassure, they tranquillise, they ‘tuck the reader in’.

On those occasions when I have happened to watch a Carry On film (not professionally as a critic; more idly, rather, precisely as a diversion from the exercise of criticism), I have experienced a similar sense of assurance, of social and, indeed, existential harmony, of ‘things in their place’. Though the extrinsic settings may vary with each film (barracks, hospital ward, grammar-school classroom; or else the Khyber Pass at the turn of the century, the ‘Merrie England’ of Henry VIII), the ‘world’ proposed to us by the series in its entirety remains a vacuum as finite and compact as the Nautilus, since it is founded, not on measurable boundaries, but on an unchanging interconnection of relationships between the company of performers and the stereotypes which, from film to film, from epoch to epoch, they never cease to embody.

When all these settings, these modalities of time and place, are superimposed one on top of the other, as buccaneers were said to combine individually meaningless segments of a treasure chart, what ought to emerge, once the incidentals have craftily cancelled each other out and only essential instructions remain legible, is the very blueprint of a Utopia; and the answer to that question “Which Utopia?” – an answer I now offer like a television chef demonstrating the preparation of a complicated dish before pulling a perfect specimen from the studio oven – is, the ultimate address (one might almost say, the terminus) of all rational nostalgia; I mean, the nursery.

Whatever the overt ‘intellectual’ discourse of the films (a none too elevated one, to be sure), their true mentality is that of the playroom. Thus the series is also escapist – here, however, the word carries no exotic connotations (for us French, of course, it is inevitably imbued with exoticism), being used in the sense of ‘regressive’: the spectator’s regression is eased into a warm, uterine pen, one in which human relationships and their crises have been emancipated from any real consequence or responsibility. Each of the films (Carry On, Sergeant, Nurse, Teacher, Doctor, and so forth) represents a game, a giggly, off-colour charade, a tiny microcosm of the adult world, a model world (as one says ‘model aeroplane’); and it is worth noting that the professions aped and parodied, especially in the earliest of the series (doctor, nurse, soldier, teacher), are tra-ditionally the most favoured guises of those children’s games which involve dressing-up. The actors, too, do not play soldiers or teachers – they play at them. In Carry On, Nurse, it is evident, what they are playing at, like generations of children before them, is Doctors and Nurses; and from the fact that, in such a context, giving a performance implies little more than donning a uniform, and in no way requires the actor to modify his ‘act’ in accordance with his character’s professional, social or intellectual status (Sidney James, for example, whom one might regard as the ‘Groucho’ of the series, remains the same genial, lecherous Cockney whether he is impersonating a cab-driver, a town councillor, an eighteenth century highwayman or Henry VIII), we may presume that audiences are alert to, and obscurely approve of, this primitive alienation effect.

In the same way, it does not matter that Carry On, Cowboy was all too visibly shot somewhere in the south of England, since it is the very falseness of the landscape which clinches, as it were, the synecdochic nature of the whole enterprise: the producers had only to crown the green and gently undulating English countryside with a sheriff’s office, a saloon bar and a livery stable, like a schoolboy wearing a Stetson hat, and the trick was done. The game being played, it hardly needs to be added, is Cowboys and Indians (for some reason, no doubt because of its association with just such children’s games, the word ‘cowboy’ has seldom figured in the title of any Western with pretensions to seriousness); and one can see – better, probably, in this film than in any of the others – with what ease the more or less permanent repertory troupe invites comparison with a gang of children (or, at least, its comic-strip caricature). There is the type of scheming ringleader mentioned already (Sidney James); the spindly but ‘game’ weakling (Charles Hawtrey); the snivelling, eternally complaining sneak (Kenneth Connor); and the upper-class prig (Kenneth Williams, in whose persona the codified signs of the [flamboyant] homosexual – effeminate gestures, a mincing walk, a falsetto voice – stop short of any definitive implication of homosexuality as a practice or an ethic, thereby enabling him to assume the ambiguous but immature and, in any event, infinitely less threatening identity of a ‘sissy’). The feminine roles may be inserted without strain into the same stereotyped ideology: the fat, bossy spoilsport who can nevertheless be relied upon to nurture a secret passion for one of her playmates (Hattie Jacques); the neither-too-pretty-nor-too-plain girl who, in spite of her gender, is suffered fairly gladly by her male betters (Joan Sims); and the knowing nursery flirt, endowed with the one infallible sign of knowingness: a precocious physical development (Barbara Windsor).

And there we are, finally, at the question of sex. For what the Carry On… series is most notorious for is being ‘naughty’ – a word, yet again, also applicable to children and their misdeeds. But are its two meanings so dissimilar? To an amazing degree, the sexual practices and fantasies which recur throughout the series are those first ingested in the nursery: scatology; voyeurism (the term in English for a voyeur, ‘Peeping Tom’, even sounds like the protagonist of a nursery rhyme, notably ‘Tom, Tom, the piper’s [or peeper’s?] son’); and the fad for genital self-measurement (“What a fuss to be making over such a little thing!” one of the nurses in Carry On, Nurse teases poor Kenneth Connor, terrified as he is at the thought of having to strip in front of her). More subtly, there is a disturbing sense of grown men and women actually in the process of discovering, with a mixture of embarrass-ment and delight, the existence of physiological differences between the sexes. (Not unexpectedly, the common denominator of these four traits turns out to be the bedpan, a Grail-like receptacle for the Carry On… scenarists, whose almost too obvious analogy is with the ‘potty’.) Thus the eroticism of the series has jammed at the fundamentally infantile stage of disclosure, in which nudity is a (never quite attained) culmination, rather than a point of departure.

Beyond citing the country’s apparently hallowed music-hall tradition, it would seem that the English critical establishment has tended to dismiss these films as unworthy of its attention. On the other hand, their commercial success has been considerable; and there is surely food for reflection in the fact of this – if not eternal, then oft-repeated – return, on the part of a substantial number of spectators, to the most formative and “most desirable of all caves”.

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