Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond looks after the British outpost near the Khybar pass. Protected by the kilted Third Foot and Mouth regiment, you would think they were safe. But the Khazi of Kalabar has other ideas. He wants all the British dead! But his troops fear the "skirted-devils"; they are rumoured not to wear anything underneath. Then one is caught with his pants on...
There is a tendency to look back at British cinema in the 1960s as the era of earnest kitchen-sink dramas and angry young men. But in terms of box office at least, this is something of a myth. Two British films made the UK top five in 1960: Doctor In Love and Carry On Constable. In 1965, the big money-spinners were Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines and Carry On Cleo. In 1968, Carry On Up The Khyber topped the British box office, as did Carry On Camping a year later. In fact, take out the Bond movies and the bawdy comedies, and British product barely registers on the commercial radar during the swinging decade.
Yet the Carry Ons never won any awards (not a sniff of BAFTA recognition in 20 years) and were treated mostly with indifference by the critics (unforgivably, Halliwell's Film Guide didn't even grant the films individual entries while the big H was still alive). Some would argue that this is no more than the series deserved. Silly. Smutty. Sexist. Oh yeah? And how would you describe the American gross-out comedies of the 90s? The fact is, the cream of Carry On represents some of the finest and most joyful middlebrow entertainment this country has ever produced; Cleo (1964), Cowboy (1965), Screaming (1966)-, and Khyber (1968) are prime examples of what a good repertory cast, a prohibitive budget and a British sense of fun can achieve.
While it's true that the Carry Ons started to tail off in quality around At Your Convenience (1971), and reached an unhappy nadir with Emmannuelle (1978) edged into a corner by the more frank and fleshy Confessions series the 60s gems remain enjoyable on a far more concrete basis than just camp kitsch. Up The Khyber is a genuinely original, resourceful and funny film. No surprise that it is producer Peter Rogers' favourite out of a series which, if played back to back, would run for 44 hours and 36 minutes. Even Variety liked it.
Shakespeare had his history plays, and so did Carry On. As a general rule of thumb, if a Carry On has period costumes, it's one of the good ones even during the 70s decline, only Henry (1971) and Dick (1974) stand up. Khyber, with costumes by regular Emma Selby Walker, is set in India in 1895, during the days of the Raj. Action centres around Scots Guards regiment, the Third Foot And Mouth ó cue central gag about what's under their kilts, which was less of a hackneyed notion in 1968. But this is not a Carry On you have to make apologies for 30-odd years later.
If the innuendo smacks of a more prudish, repressed era and shows how far away the Summer Of Love really was from Pinewood this adds to the film's innocent charm. The punnish character names are still delightful (The Khasi Of Kalabar, Private Jimmy Widdle, Princess Jelhi, Bungdit Din), the cut-price Snowdonia locations are effective (the same mountain pass filled in for China in The Most Dangerous Man In The World starring Gregory Peck, shot directly after the Carry On team had left) and Talbot RothwelPs script includes some killer set-pieces ó not least the oft-cited besieged dinner party, which is an all-time golden great; thanks in no small part to the combined comic intuition of diners Sid James, Joan Sims, Julian Holloway, Roy Castle and Peter Butterworth. (Butterworth, veteran of 16 Carry Ons, was never better than as lecherous missionary Brother Belcher, but, like so many other fine regulars, his loyalty to the franchise saw his reputation as an actor unfairly dulled by repetition.)
Archly subtitled The British Position In India, Up The Khyber is not all lavatory humour and overuse of the term "tiffin". Rothwell slips in a rare topical joke (Khasi: "They will die the death of a thousand cuts!"; Princess Jehli: "Ohno, that's horrible!";Khasi: "Nonsense, child, the British are used to cuts!"), and there's a sly reference to the fact that Peter Rogers had struck a deal with Rank film distributors: after a gong is banged, the Khasi describes it as "rank stupidity". For further layered intrigue, composer Eric Rogers slips in a musical reference to Tchaikovsky's Letter Song (from Eugene Onegin) when Sid James dictates a letter. It's smarter than any seaside postcard.
But the reason the Carry On costume dramas are more durable than contemporary romps like Loving and Girls is that they speak less of the turbulent times in which they were made, coming off less quaint and dated. Up The Khyber does not have "late 60s" written all over it compare it with the lame hippy festival denouement in Carry On Camping (1969), which looks desperate.
As Carry On chronicler Robert Ross says Khyber, "almost gets its foot in the door as a classic of respectable British cinema". To deny it such legitimacy would be to take a very stiff British position indeed.
The best Carry On film by a country mile.