Director: Gerald Thomas
Cast: Ted Ray, Kenneth Connor, Leslie Phillips, Joan Sims, Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Hattie Jacques, Rosalind Knight
Plot: A beloved headmaster (Ray) looks to leave the school, so the pupils decide to launch a full scale prank campaign to foil any chance of a promotion.
The great thing about Carry On Films is that, while they do cling to their generic structure and the same stock thrills, it does mean that there is always a pleasant surprise in store, when you stumble across the better than average ones. This is the third Carry On film and while Carry On Nurse is highly regarded to be the one that set the franchise in stone, Carry On Teacher, in my opinion, is easily the strongest yet.
The plot for one, sets up a Carry On set of hi-jinks that can roll onwards full throttle, without feeling forced. Ted Ray (a staple of the Carry On films seems to be putting a non-recurring star as the central role), plays a kind-hearted acting headmaster. He treats the pupils with respect and only punishes them physically when he is left with no other option. However, only being an acting headmaster, he has his eyes on a permanent job in a state-of-the-art new school opening up in his home-town. He assembles the staff (the Carry On team in various amusing positions: Williams is the passionate drama teacher, Sims the flirty gym coach), and announces his plan to impress the no-nonsense Minister of Education inspector, who is escorting a child psychologist around the premises for the coming week. If the inspector is impressed, his position is guaranteed. However, to throw a spanner into the words, the psychologist she is accompanied by (played delightfully by Leslie Phillips – ding dong!) is very against caning, so the school staff have to get through the week without the use of hard punishment. While the school is mainly against the use of caning, the safety blanket of taking it away really makes them confront their true thoughts on the issue. The staff do not know however that a lively pupil, Robin, overhears the staff meeting and realises that the children’s beloved headmaster is thinking of stepping down. The kids make a pact to sabotage the psychiatrist’s visit, put the headmaster in bad graces with the Minister of Education inspector and keep their headmaster for the long term. What follows is the worst nightmare for any teacher, as every lesson is sabotaged by inventive pranks and tom-foolery. The pranks follow a varying degree of hilarity from the simple fun of itching powder in the office or swapping Joan Sims’ shorts with a smaller size, so her pants rip into the middle of an energetic gym lesson (I repeat – ding dong!), to some more outlandish set-pieces. A rocket is launched in science class, blowing a hole in the roof. A performance of Romeo and Juliet literally falls down around Kenneth Williams’ ears. These larger examples really show that Carry On is willing to up the stakes significantly in their humour. On top of the physical humour, the actors are all on fine show, their comic timing never anything less than perfect, from the witty innuendo to the facial reactions when something goes awry. Carry On Teacher also has the added bonus of a fresh-faced cast of youngsters adding the spark to the third entry. A lot of the time the main cast are reduced to the supporting stars, asked to react wonderfully to the madness going on around them.
But Carry On Teacher also has a lot more bite behind the jokes. Looking at films as early as this one, made in 1959, it is interesting to see the social context behind the creation of this film. A point that is raised often in this film is capitol punishment, namely: is caning a suitable form of disciplining for children? Obviously, from a modern perspective, we can say that is is totally not an acceptable way to treat schoolchildren, but seeing as this film was brought out a good thirty years before it was made illegal for that form of punishment to be carried out in schools, it is fascinating to see the debate being had. The Carry On team are clearly against it, proven by insightful remarks like “I’ve never seen the sense in teaching kids to be upright, when we ask them to bend forward!”, but stand back from their opinions enough to make the third film free of being weighed down by political grandstanding. The entire plot is about kids and how their unruly behaviour might be down to a higher purpose. If the teachers listened to why the kids were acting up (a protest against their headmaster leaving), rather than working out how to stop them, there wouldn’t be a problem full stop. There are flaws in the debate, of course, especially how rockets are being launched in science class as soon as the punishment of caning is removed from the equation, but this is a comedy and those set-pieces need realising. Outside of the talk of caning, there is a genuine heart to this film, perhaps not seen in Carry On Sergeant and Nurse. In those two films, the motives of the characters were largely selfish. Here, there is a sweet charm to the antics at heart, so when a character stops to reflect fondly on their arc, there is genuine emotion to be found. The final line is a crowd-pleaser, for sure, and it isn’t even a joke. It shows that the Carry On team not only have heart, but intelligence as well.
Final Verdict: An early high point for the team, a Carry On that doesn’t lose humour, but gains narrative richness.