‘Infamy, infamy…they’ve all got it in for me…’ is probably the stand-out line in this Carry On film from 1964, but it’s not the only one; this venerable comedy series peaked in the mid sixties with Cleo, Screaming and Up the Khyber!, with the switch to colour and a new permissive attitude reinvigorating the franchise. Readers outside the UK may need their cards marked; the Carry On series was a series of British workplace comedies which diversified into film parody; pretty much everyone in Britain grew up watching them on permanent rotation, and Carry On films are still a key part of British culture, such as it is.
Cleo made clever use of sets built for the Elizabeth Taylor version of Cleopatra before that giant production moved to Rome, giving Gerald Thomas’s film a more cinematic look that usual. Horsa (Jim Dale) and his friend Hengist Pod (Kenneth Connor) are peace-loving locals whose lives are disrupted by a Roman invasion, led by Mark Antony (Sid James), Horsa is sold to slave-trading firm Marcus et Spencius and ends up leading a revolt, with mistaken identity causing Hengist to be recognised as having saved the life of Marc Anthony’s boss, Julius Caesar (Kenneth Williams). Caesar makes the incompetent Hengist his bodyguard, but the voluptuous Cleopatra (Amanda Barrie) hopes to repose the ruler from his perch.
Despite a few well-recognised comic tropes (the wind-hole which becomes a prototype for the newly invented window, Hengist’s square-wheeled bike), Carry On Cleo is unusually literate and has a smattering of neat anachronistic jokes. The emphasis is on school-boy humour, but doesn’t dive into smut in the way that the 1970’s films do. Some popular British re players make their mark as well, Jon Pertwee, Peter Gilmour and particularly good work from Warren Mitchell as a trader.
Carry On Cleo has just enough slapstick to make it a decent film for kids; Charles Hawtrey’s disguise as a Roman urn is particularly amusing to young minds. There’s really only a handful of the Carry On films that are bearable by today’s standards, but this one passes muster.