Pinewood studios, 1964. The Carry On gang are working on the 10th film in the series, Carry On Cleo. During a break in filming Sid James meets newcomer Barbara Windsor and a troubled infatuation begins that will last for over a decade until Sid's untimely death in 1976.
For fans of Carry On the prospect of watching Cor, Blimey! – Terry Johnson's small screen adaptation of his stage play Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick – is one they may approach with trepidation. Justifiably so considering that the plot, focusing on the love affair between Sid James and Barbara Windsor, hints at it being another in a long line of hatchet job biopics of much loved stars. But fear not for, bar the odd frustrating factual inaccuracy, this made for telly film is a very revealing but very affectionate drama.
Cor Blimey! begins in reassuringly familiar fashion, both the opening titles and the music evoking the Carry On tradition. In fact when Sid makes his first appearance, a double entendre laden flirtation with his new dresser, you could be forgiven for thinking you're watching a Carry On film. The emulation of the Carry On style dominates the early part of the drama, a mix of farcical situations and sexual shenanigans with a handful of classic scenes recreated as they might have looked during filming. One of the film's plus points is its authentic feel, which captures the atmosphere of lo-fi filmmaking at Pinewood during the sixties and seventies. A believable backdrop against which the story of Sid and Barbara's affair plays out.
An early scene shows a new employee entering Pinewood, walking through a vast, imposing Roman Amphitheatre revealed to be a foreground miniature. A visual reflection of a theme that underpins the drama, the relationship between reality and the artifice the world of film presents to the audience. A theme that is referred to more explicitly when Sid, his love for Barbara deepening, vents his frustrations to her about his inability to escape from the aging lothario image that has made him a household name. This blurring of the world of film and reality is reinforced when Sid is shown sitting in a hospital bed. Are the audience again seeing a film being shot, one of the many medical themed Carry On's? No, for this is a very real hospital and Sid is recovering from a heart attack in a scene that deftly mixes the comic and the tragic as, the spectre of his own mortality looming, he laments the recent suicide of estranged working partner Tony Hancock.
This more serious tone develops in tandem with the relationship between the two stars and it's here that the actors excel. In these quieter character moments, when the masks of their onscreen personas are removed, the performances transcend mimicry to reveal very real people behind the familiar faces. Samantha Spiro is particularly good, in her hands dolly bird Barbara Windsor is an intelligent forthright woman the equal of her male counterparts. A woman caught between two men who are polar opposites, Sid James and Kenneth Williams. This duo are arguably the actors that best embody the series with Sid the bawdy bird chaser who could have stepped out of any number of saucy postcards and Kenneth the maestro of ribald wordplay. But Kenneth plays up his on screen image whereas Sid, as played by Geoffrey Hutchings, is battling against his. Hutchings' Sid is a loveable fella with hidden depths and when Barbara succumbs to his affections it is entirely believable. Their love scene is a particularly tender moment with the two at their most human.
Against this love story is the decline of the Carry On's, finding it hard to compete with the rise of more explicit Brit sexcoms like Confessions Of A Window Cleaner (which gets a cheeky mention). All seem oblivious to this save for Kenneth Williams vividly brought to life by Adam Godley who portrays him as a tragic figure; his shocking outbursts shrouding a lonely soul, loath to degrade himself by performing ever-cruder scenes he inevitably relents. As the death knell sounds on the series it also rings out for Sid and Barbara's affair, as they both knew it would and Cor, Blimey! comes to a touching finale as the real Barbara Windsor seamlessly replaces her acting counterpart for an emotive exchange with Kenneth in Sid's now dilapidated trailer.
For fans that want their big screen heroes to remain two-dimensional characters projected onto a screen in a darkened cinema Cor, Blimey! is not recommended. But for those that want to see their favourite stars of stage and screen as human beings it is an engaging film, bringing to life a much maligned style of British filmmaking. A trio of perfectly attuned performances imbue their characters with a depth and humanity that may make them too flawed for some but will ultimately endear them to fans afresh.