Pen & Sword Review: Carry on Regardless, by Caroline Frost

By Caroline Frost
Imprint: White Owl
Pages: 232
Illustrations: 32 black and white illustrations
ISBN: 9781526774781
Published: 5th May 2022
Expected Re-release Date: 30th June 2022

Blurb

The completely updated story of Carry On, Britain’s largest film franchise, all the way from the gentle capers of the 1950s, through the raucous golden age of the 1960s, to its struggles in the years that followed.

We take a happy walk down memory lane to enjoy again Sid James’s cheeky chuckle, Kenneth Williams’ elongated vowels, Charles Hawtrey’s bespectacled bashfulness and Barbara Windsor’s naughty wiggle.

It all seemed effortless, but exclusive interviews with the series’ remaining stars including Bernard Cribbins, Angela Douglas and Kenneth Cope shed new light on just how much talent and hard work went into creating the laughs. For the first time, the loved ones of some of the franchise’s biggest names – on and off screen – share their personal memories from this unique era.

Was Carry On really as sexist, racist and bigoted as critics claim? Three of the films’ female stars explain why they never felt remotely exploited, plus we take a fresh look at some of the series’ biggest titles and discover that, in reality, they were far more progressive than their detractors would have you believe.

Finally, with constant talk about new films, fresh productions and tantalising speculation about a brand new era of Carry On, we ask – does this unique series still have legs?

My Review

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book. It came with my latest box of books from Pen & Sword. I have always enjoyed the Carry On… films, they are a fond memory from my childhood, where we collected the VHS tapes and then the DVDs. I still have the DVDs but got rid of my tapes when I moved out in 2014. I have always been fascinated by the personalities behind the films, especially the ensemble cast of the 60s who come to mind when I think about the films. I’ve been re-watching the films lately. They’re a nostalgic blanket on a wet Sunday afternoon.

I can also quote quite a few lines from most of the films.

This book is an overview of the films, the cast and crew, going from the earliest film, Carry On Sergeant, to the final film, Carry On Columbus. Over the series the films poked gentle fun at institutions, cracked jokes and threw out double entendre all over the place. Unfortunately, by the late seventies, they struggled to cope with changing social mores and the attempts at keeping up with the times fell flat.

Frost writes from a position of fondness and the author clearly enjoyed interviewing as many people as she could who had been involved, and using the auto/biographies of those she could not, to give a positive view of the films. However, she doesn’t give us many details of the actual production process, and she gets repetitive at times. We hear time and time again how much the cast enjoyed filming, and how it was ‘just like going back to school’ every time they went back to Pinewood Studios. It also gets a bit ‘Great British Humour’ at times, all a bit jingoistic.

I found the discussion of criticism of the films interesting. Certainly the sort of stuff they got away with wouldn’t happen now, such as the black face used in Carry On…Khyber and …Up The Jungle. The roles for women could be a bit limited, although as the author points out, many of the women characters were strong, determined women. Carry on Cabby is a fantastic early example. However, the cheap jokes at the expense of women’s appearances is galling, and actually contributed to Joan Sims’ possible Binge Eating Disorder. I thought that Frost’s attitude to the criticism of what she and others refer to as ‘Woke’ and ‘PC’ critics is a bit hypocritical. People have made valid points about the films and the attitudes they display, and you have to be a very canny viewer to realise there’s a bit more going on.

There is a discussion of the likelihood of new Carry Ons…end the book; there are some deluded people out there that think it could happen. I’m sorry, but times and humour have changed. The films are a snap-shot of a time and place, a period of social change that is reflected in the attitudes of the films and the tension between the past and present in the 1960s and early 1970s. The films also worked because they had an ensemble cast of comedic actors. As we saw with the rebooted ‘St. Trinians’ films, what worked in 1960 doesn’t work in the 2000s; social mores and humour have changed, and there is a dearth of the sorts of comedic actors who would be willing to work as part of an ensemble cast, or with the training on stage, TV and film that the cast had.

Over all, it’s okay, but could be better.

Pen & Sword Review: Broadmoor Women – Tales from Britain’s first criminal lunatic asylum, by Kim Thomas

By Kim Thomas
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 192
Illustrations: 20 black and white illustrations
ISBN: 9781526794260
Published: 12th April 2022

Blurb

Broadmoor, Britain’s first asylum for criminal lunatics, was founded in 1863. In the first years of its existence, one in five patients was female. Most had been tried for terrible crimes and sent to Broadmoor after being found not guilty by virtue of insanity. Many had murdered their own children, while others had killed husbands or other family members.

Drawing on Broadmoor’s rich archive, this book tells the story of seven of those women, ranging from a farmer’s daughter in her 20s who shot dead her own mother to a middle-class housewife who drowned her baby daughter. Their moving stories give a glimpse into what nineteenth-century life was like for ordinary women, often struggling with poverty, domestic abuse and repeated childbearing. For some, Broadmoor, with its regime of plain food, fresh air and garden walks, was a respite from the hardships of their previous life. Others were desperate to return to their families.

All but one of the women whose stories are recounted in this book recovered and were released. Their bout of insanity was temporary. Yet the causes of their condition were poorly understood and the treatment rudimentary. As well as providing an in-depth look at the lives of women in Victorian England, the book offers a fascinating insight into the medical profession’s emerging understanding of the causes and treatment of mental illness.

My Review

Rosie Crofts, who does the marketing for Pen & Sword, sent me an email about this book a couple of weeks ago. I sat down and read it over the weekend.

I quite enjoy microhistories; the life of a single person or building can tell you something about the world around them. This book investigates the lives of seven women who were incarcerated in Broadmoor in the first forty years.

Most of them killed their children, one killed her husband and one killed her mother. Most of them had hard lives, limited by social conventions and/or poverty. Respectability was important to them all, and in court could be leveraged by a defendant so that they received a ‘guilty but insane’ or ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ verdict. Often judges and juries were sympathetic to women who killed new born children in ‘puerperal insanity’ or ‘lactation insanity’. Psychiatrists and doctors didn’t really understand what was going on in people’s minds, and were still clinging to the idea that uteruses could cause madness; one particular belief was that women were so fragile that breast feeding for too long would cause madness.

Some of them had pre-existing mental health conditions before they committed their crimes and hadn’t received any or very limited care. Medical care for mental illness was limited at the time, as people were expected to look after their family members and doctors didn’t really understand how brains and hormones worked. Really bad cases were dropped in asylums and either left or experimented on, observed and drugged. Except in rare cases, like Tukes’ Retreat in York where the Quakers believed in calm, purposeful activity and loving kindness.

They averaged about 7 years in Broadmoor and were often released back to their families. Some husbands started petitioning for their release almost immediately after they were convicted, out of love or desperation for someone to care for their children. Returning to their families was often the worst thing that could happen to the women for several years, since it was the family/home environment that triggered the mental breakdown in the first place.

The regime at Broadmoor in the early years was based on improvement and calm, providing patients with a safe place to recover from their madness, time to heal and return to equanimity before being released. The early superintendents took after Dr. Tuke in their care of the patients; nutritious food, rest and care by sympathetic staff. Their regime was based on the latest (in the 1860s) scientific information. It would still be considered good care, now. Unfortunately, in between 1900 and 2000 there was a change in attitudes from care to abuse and back again. Seriously, I’m working on a project about this for work and it gives me nightmares to think about what happened to people with mental illnesses, learning disabilities or who were otherwise neurodivergent in asylums and residential centres.

I found this book interesting, it humanises the history of Broadmoor and gives us a snapshot into the social conditions of the late Victorian period. It would have been interesting to learn about the lives of the women warders alongside the patients. How did some working class women end up as warders and some as patients?

Could have done with some copy editing.

TBR Pile Review: Walking the Invisible, by Michael Stewart

Hardcover, 288 pages
Published June 24th 2021 by HarperCollins
ISBN: 0008430187 (ISBN13: 9780008430184)

Blurb

Michael Stewart has been captivated by the Brontes since he was a child, and has travelled all over the north of England in search of their lives and landscapes. Now, he’d like to invite you into the world as they would have seen it.

Following in the footsteps of the Brontes across meadow and moor, through village and town, award-winning writer Michael Stewart takes a series of inspirational walks through the lives and landscapes of the Bronte family, investigating the geographical and social features that shaped their work.

This is a literary study of both the social and natural history that has inspired writers and walkers, and the writings of a family that have touched readers for generations. Finally we get to understand the ‘wild, windy moors’ that Kate Bush sang about in ‘Wuthering Heights’, see the imposing halls that may have inspired Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre, and learn about Bramwell’s affair with a real life Mrs Robinson while treading the same landscapes. As well as describing in vivid detail the natural beauty of the moors and their surroundings, Walking the Invisible also encompasses the history of the north and the changing lives of those that have lived there.

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TBR Pile Review: Fat Activism, 2nd Ed., by Charlotte Cooper

Paperback, 312 pages
Published 2021
by Hammeron Press
ISBN13: 9781910849309

Blurb

Charlotte Cooper, a fat activist with more than 30 years experience, lifts the lid on a previously unexplored social movement and offers a fresh perspective on one of the major problems of our times. In her expansive, intelligent grassroots study she: – Reveals details of fat activist methods and approaches – Features extensive accounts of fat activist historical roots going back over four decades – Explores controversies and tensions in the movement – Shows that fat activism is an undeniably feminist and queer phenomenon Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement is a rare instance of fat people speaking about their lives and politics on their own terms. The book is the result of Charlotte’s community-based doctoral research.

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Pen & Sword Review: Not So Virtuous Victorians, by Michelle Rosenberg & Sonia D. Picker

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Paperback, 80 pages
Published July 30th 2018 by Pen & Sword Books
ISBN:1526700913 (ISBN13: 9781526700919)

Blurb

What springs to mind when you think of British Victorian men and women? Manners, manners and more manners. Behaviour that was as rigid and constricted as the corsets women wore. From iron-knicker sexual prudery to men so uptight they furtively released their pent up emotions in opium dens and prostitute hot spots. All, of course, exaggerated clichés worthy of a Victorian melodrama. Each generation loves to think it is better than the last and loves to look aghast at the horrifying trends of their ancestors. But are we really any different?

This glimpse at life for Victorian men and women might make millennials think again. Men and women were expected to live very differently from one another with clearly defined roles regardless of class. However, lift the skirts a little and not only will you see that they didn’t wear knickers but they were far less repressed than the persistent stereotypes would have us believe. The Victorians were as weird and wonderful as we are today. From fatal beauty tips to truly hysterical cures for hysteria to grave robbers playing skittles with human bones, we have cherry picked some of the more entertaining glimpses into the lives led by our Victorian brothers and sisters.

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TBR Pile Review: Those They Called Idiots, by Simon Jarrett

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Hardcover, 304 pages
Published December 30th 2020 by Reaktion Books
ISBN:1789143012 (ISBN13: 9781789143010)

Those They Called Idiots traces the little-known lives of people with learning disabilities from the communities of eighteenth-century England to the nineteenth-century asylum and care in today’s society. Using evidence from civil and criminal court-rooms, joke books, slang dictionaries, novels, art and caricature, it explores the explosive intermingling of ideas about intelligence and race, while bringing into sharp focus the lives of people often seen as the most marginalized in society. 

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Pen & Sword Pile Reviews

I’ve got four for you this evening; I’ve been saving them up. Pen & Sword send me a lot of books, ones I’ve agreed to review, but you know how it is, my eyes are bigger than my belly when it comes to books, so I generally have to read a few at a time then review them all in groups. Sometimes there’s even a theme.

Today there is a theme. Daily life in various historical periods. I’ve just finished reading ‘How to survive in Ancient Egypt’, which I had been waiting on to do this set of reviews.

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TBR Pile Review: Fearing the Black Body – The Racial Origins of Fatphobia, by Sabrina Strings

Book Cover
Format: 283 pages, Paperback
Published: May 7, 2019 by New York University Press
ISBN: 9781479886753 (ISBN10: 1479886750)

Blurb

In her first book, sociologist Strings (sociology, Univ. of California, Irvine) explores the historical development of prothin, antifat ideologies deployed in support of Western, patriarchal white supremacy. Beginning in the aesthetic ideals circulated by Renaissance thinkers and artists and bringing her narrative up into the 1990s, Strings charts how white Europeans and Anglo-Americans developed ideals of race and beauty that both explicitly and figuratively juxtaposed slim, desirable white women against corpulent, seemingly monstrous black women.

The work is divided into three sections. The two chapters in the first part consider how Renaissance white women and women of colour were depicted as plump and feminine, separated by class, yet belonging to the same gender. The second part of the work charts the rise of modern racial ideologies that yoked feminine beauty to Protestant, Anglo-Saxon whiteness. Later chapters and the epilogue consider how Americans normalized the “scientific management” of white women’s bodies for the purpose of racial uplift, a project that continued to situate black women as the embodied Other.

My Review

I’ve been reading this book on and off over the last few months as other commitments permitted; I found it fascinating and always picked up some new information every time I went back to it. I finished it last night with a feeling of disappointment that it wasn’t longer, but also interested in reading more by the author and on the topic.

BMI is, as I have said many times, bullshit, made-up and irrational. That it is still used by the medical profession is a travesty. Historical attitudes to fatness have varied with time and place, but scientific evidence does not support the vilification of fat people. In fact, Ancel Keys, who essentially invented the BMI and pushed for it to replace actuarial tables for insurance and medical purposes, admitted he found fat people ugly and assumed they were unhealthy. You cannot tell anything about a person’s health from a ratio of height to weight, or their appearance.

This book covers Europe and the U.S., because the author is USian, and the U.S. wouldn’t exist without European colonisation, so it covers the period from the Renaissance to the last years of the twentieth century. Five hundred years and three continents it a lot of space and time to cover.

When European’s started Othering people to justify slavery, weight was one of the things they chose to stigmatise. It coincided with Protestant disgust with bodies, with anything that might be fun, and later with changing ideas about ‘polite’ behaviour. By accusing African people of being lazy, gluttonous and dishonest, they could link that to intellect and justify colonisation and enslavement. And of course, to keep Europeans on top of the heap, the same rules had to be applied to Europeans, especially middle and upper class women.

Later still, eugenics came into play and whole new fields of scientific racism and sexism opened up for those white men determined to hold their places at the top of society. In the U.S. one of the ways they did this was to racialise Jewish, Irish, Southern (particularly Italian) and Eastern Europeans as the different groups migrated to the Americas across the 18th and 19th centuries and into the 20th century. They used the same lazy propaganda that earlier European ‘scientists’ had used to racialise and other Africans and then the indigenous populations of the Americas and Australia.

Body size and shape was used as a stick to beat people with. A ‘too thin’ rich white woman was a danger to the nation (whichever nation it was), a ‘too fat’ rich white woman, equally so, at different times. A fat black or African woman – signs of laziness and greediness – moral incontinence and hypersexuality. Because reasons.

Racist shitbags don’t actually have logical reasons, they take their beliefs and make up pseudoscience to support it. Fat hate is the same. It doesn’t matter how much evidence you have to show that ‘normal weight’ doesn’t exist, and that weight variation is just a normal part of human diversity (like the levels of melanin in the skin), they’ll still scream that fat kills.

Strings is a professional, and writes like one, unlike me; I’m just blunt and don’t mind swearing if I think it’s appropriate. I’ve seen other reviews that claim the writing is dry; I disagree. I found it clear and precise, although I would have been interested in more analysis and references from African and African American sources, but I doubt they were available given the systemic erasure and silencing of Black people in the last five hundred years.

The structure of the book puts the different strands of evidence into context and builds on Strings’ argument in a structured and organised way. Strings draws on popular and scientific literature, art and cultural movements to explore the topic and build her arguments. This is not ‘popular history but rewards careful reading and consideration.

Pen & Sword TBR Pile Review: Richard III – Fact and Fiction, by Matthew Lewis

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Hardcover, 127 pages
Published March 20th 2019 by Pen and Sword History
ISBN1526727978 (ISBN13: 9781526727978)

Blurb

King Richard III remains one of the most infamous and recognisable monarchs in English or British history, despite only sitting on the throne for two years and fifty-eight days. His hold on the popular imagination is largely due to the fictional portrayal of him by William Shakespeare which, combined with the workings of five centuries of rumour and gossip, has created two opposing versions of Richard. In fiction he is the evil, scheming murderer who revels in his plots, but many of the facts point towards a very different man.

Dissecting a real Richard III from the fictional versions that have taken hold is made difficult by the inability to discern motives in many instances, leaving a wide gap for interpretation that can be favorable or damning in varying degrees. It is the facts that will act as the scalpel to begin the operation of finding a truth obscured by fiction.

Richard III may have been a monster, a saint, or just a man trying to survive, but any view of him should be based in the realities of his life, not the myths built on rumour and theatre. How much of what we think we know about England’s most controversial monarch will remain when the facts are sifted from the fictions? 

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Pen & Sword Review: The History of Video Games, by Charlie Fish

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By Charlie Fish
Imprint: White Owl
Pages: 120
Illustrations: 150 colour illustrations
ISBN: 9781526778970
Published: 28th May 2021

This book is a potted history of video games, telling all the rollercoaster stories of this fascinating young industry that’s now twice as big globally than the film and music industries combined. Each chapter explores the history of video games through a different lens, giving a uniquely well-rounded overview.

Packed with pictures and stats, this book is for video gamers nostalgic for the good old days of gaming, and young gamers curious about how it all began. If you’ve ever enjoyed a video game, or you just want to see what all the fuss is about, this book is for you.

There are stories about the experimental games of the 1950s and 1960s; the advent of home gaming in the 1970s; the explosion – and implosion – of arcade gaming in the 1980s; the console wars of the 1990s; the growth of online and mobile games in the 2000s; and we get right up to date with the 2010s, including such cultural phenomena as twitch.tv, the Gamergate scandal, and Fortnite.

But rather than telling the whole story from beginning to end, each chapter covers the history of video games from a different angle: platforms and technology, people and personalities, companies and capitalism, gender and representation, culture, community, and finally the games themselves. 

My Review

This book was sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

I hang around with gamers. It would be nice to have some idea of what they’re babbling on about. This book provides a history of computer games from several different angles. I found this a useful way of understanding the developments, especially the chapters about console development and about culture.

There are lots of pictures, some quite nostalgic – my sister had an original game boy with Tetris and Super Mario for instance. The biographies of important people involved in games and console development were interesting. A couple of them are definitely autistic.

There was quite a bit of detail and the references are fairly extensive so as a place to start, this potted history is a good one.

Unfortunately, the two chapters I was really interested in were truncated. Between pages 65 and 81 – most of the chapters on the important personalities of games development and gender and representation in games – had been replaced by a repeat of the previous chapter, on console development. I understand that I got an an ARC so errors happen, but it is disappointing.