In this fantastic guest blog, Dr Laura Mayne describes and discusses two of the most influential and important men in the history of Carry On - Producer Peter Rogers and scriptwriter from 1963 - 1974, Talbot Rothwell.
Laura is a Research Associate on the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project ‘Transformation and Tradition in Sixties British Cinema’ (The 1960s Project for short!) run between the universities of York and East Anglia.
Peter Rogers was an interesting figure in British cinema. By the 1960s he and his wife Betty Box had, between them, practically cornered the market on low budget comedy, Box with the popular Doctor… films and Rogers with the Carry On… films, the series which came to define British comedy and ideas about ‘Britishness’ for decades to come. While the success of the Doctor… series depended partly on Box’s longstanding collaboration with director Ralph Thomas, the fortunes of the Carry On… series very much depended on Rogers and his ongoing relationship with director (and brother of Ralph) Gerald Thomas. Over the course of 18 years, the two men worked with ruthless efficiency to bring each production in on time and under budget.
When Talbot Rothwell replaced Norman Hudis as scriptwriter for the series in 1963, it changed direction ever so slightly: whereas Hudis had affectionately lampooned institutions like the NHS, Rothwell’s more colourful, anarchic style veered into cinematic parodies and high camp. The more restrained comedic styles of Carry On Sergeant and Carry On Constable seemed a product of the 1950s, while a film like Carry On Screaming could belong nowhere other than the ‘Swinging Sixties’. In developing the character of the series for 1960s audiences, Rothwell’s relationship with Rogers was very important, and Rogers often had a hand in scriptwriting, even if he rarely took the credit. At heart, Rogers saw himself as a writer, stating in his private correspondence that ‘I am a writer first and a producer second’.
Rogers pictured with Carry On star Joan Sims
And Rogers was quite unlike a ‘typical’ film producer in many respects. He was completely without bombast and roundly uninterested in adopting a movie showman persona. At a time when producers were inflating their budgets to make their products seem more attractive to exhibitors, Rogers would flat-out tell the press just how much (or in this case, how little) the Carry On films cost. When questioned, he could be acerbic about the industry and how it worked, and was cynical about the swagger and extravagance that characterised the modus operandi of some producers. Rogers made cheap, lowbrow productions, and he was not afraid to say so. Interviewed by The Times on November 5, 1959, he said:
‘Throughout the trade one hears people saying that you can’t make a film which will show a profit for under £500,000 – which is supposed to automatically make it a super production which will be able to break into world markets. I did not believe this, and I think I have proved my point’.
But the Carry On films were, above all, profitable. At a time when producers of low-budget British fare were finding it next to impossible to make a profit solely on the domestic cinema circuits, Rogers had been doing exactly that for many years. He had proved his point again and again by paring down budgets as low as they could possibly go (and the films really were made on the proverbial shoestring) while simultaneously producing films which made it into the box office ‘top ten’ every single year.
Rogers: ‘I’d do anything for my actors – except pay them’
However, Rogers’ thrifty ways could add some friction to otherwise good working relationships. According to Joan Sims, Rogers had once said ‘I’d do anything for my actors – except pay them!’ - and it was a sentiment not too far from the truth, as Sims reportedly earned the same amount for her first film in the series, Carry On Nurse, made in 1958, as she did for her last, Carry On Emmannuelle, made a whopping 20 years later. Rogers was keen to see that no one member of the cast of returning artistes got too big for their boots; this way, stars couldn’t hold the production hostage by demanding more money. When Charles Hawtrey asked for a salary increase before filming Carry On Cruising, he was unceremoniously dropped and replaced with Lance Percival, who was paid £600.
Rothwell: ‘I’m about as ambitious as a eunuch at an orgy’
A series of letters between Rogers and Rothwell, housed in the Gerald Thomas Collection at the British Film Institute, reveals a genial and even affectionate relationship between the two men, but one which was (at times) beset by the same financial tensions which affected rest of the cast and crew in the continual effort to keep costs as low as humanly possible. In 1966 Kevin Kavanagh, Rothwell’s agent, was angling for Rothwell to take a percentage on Carry On Cowboy, to the apparent ire of Rogers. Two years previously Kavanagh had agreed with Rogers not to ‘up’ Rothwell’s fee for Carry On Cleo, but felt that Rothwell should in some way participate in the profits of further Carry On films. Rogers, unfortunately, wasn’t convinced, while Rothwell apparently regretted being caught up in these rather distasteful negotiations, writing to Rogers:
‘Believe me, I couldn’t care less about the percentage. As you well know, where money is concerned I’m about as ambitious as a eunuch at an orgy. It was just the if-he-doesn’t-like-it-he-knows-what-he-can-do bit that rankled. It’s not necessary, you know. You only have to say a simple ‘no’ to me, as any girl will tell you. Agents, on the other hand, have to behave like agents. ..this, invariably and unfortunately, always seems to create bad feeling’.
The following year, Rothwell’s agent became concerned that there had only been one down payment on one of Rothwell’s scripts. Still, Rothwell’s tone in his correspondence to Rogers remained placatory:
‘…he was merely worried because I seem to have been working almost a year now with only a down payment on one subject. We have never seriously fallen out over finances and I certainly don’t want to start now. You have always been very fair, and I very much appreciate that’.
Further correspondence reveals that Rothwell didn’t always make the most auspicious financial decisions with regard to his role in the series, however. He agreed to relinquish his percentage for Carry On Up The Khyber as compensation for some earlier financial confusion, even though ‘knowing my luck, Khyber will probably turn out to be a smasheroo’. As it turned out Khyber was not just a ‘smasheroo’ but the most financial and critically successful film of the entire series.
By 1967 Rogers was keen to diversify into other media in the name of making the most out of the popularity of the series. With this in mind he asked Rothwell if he might like to do a side-line in Carry On paperback novels, with Khyber as one of the first novelizations. But Rothwell didn’t think much of the idea:
‘Regarding paperbacks, why Khyber anyway? I would have thought Carry on Doctor would have had far bigger public appeal, knowing their hunger for things medical. As I told you before, I would certainly like to do a book, but find I’m rather slow at writing prose’.
Despite his somewhat ruthless approach to budgeting, what Rogers did was impressive. During a time of extreme funding scarcity and economic uncertainty for British independent producers, Rogers made 31 films which were profitable in the domestic market (and abroad) over a period of more than two decades. It’s worth noting that though audiences loved them, the critics consistently hated the Carry On films, a fact which delighted Rogers – after all, it was what the audiences thought that mattered. As he often stated, his team would stop making the films when they stopped being profitable. And eventually they did, but perhaps the less said about Emmannuelle, the better.
Many thanks again to Laura for this fantastic guest blog. You can contact Laura via Twitter @1960sProject or follow the project on facebook.
About the Author: Dr. Laura Mayne is a postdoctoral research associate working on the 3-year AHRC funded Transformation and Tradition in Sixties British Cinema project led by Professor Duncan Petrie. In 2014, she completed her doctoral thesis on the industrial impact of Film4 on British cinema as part of the AHRC-funded Channel 4 and British Film Culture project based at Portsmouth University. She has contributed to such works as the Journal of British Cinema and Television and has written numerous reviews for the BUFVCs Viewfinder journal. Her recent published papers include Mythologies of Chance: Historicising Luck in the Film and Television Industries (2015) and Assessing Cultural Impact: Film 4, Canon Formation and Forgotten Films (2014).