Tuesday, 13 October 2015

No.75. British sitcom films: STEPTOE AND SON RIDE AGAIN (1973)


The successful translation of the much-loved series onto the big screen led inevitably to a sequel, STEPTOE AND SON RIDE AGAIN, which managed equally well to open out the environment somewhat whilst still retaining the claustrophobic comedy of the oppressive father and son relationship between Albert and Harold.

This time Harold’s grand scheming revolves around two  consecutive connected plots. I’ve always felt the best translations of sitcoms to the cinema are those that construct a series of episodes in a linked arc, rather than one overall plot which always stretches the characters too far and dilutes the comedy of the ‘situation’. Here, Galton and Simpson do this superbly.

As a warm-up in more ways than one, we get to see Diana Dors as the curvy predatory widow, offering Harold more than just her dead husband’s suits. Her overpowering sexuality is such that she is happy to have her way with him in the next bed to her only just-deceased. Even the promise of much-needed profit from the schmutter in the wardrobe isn’t enough to stop him fleeing the macabre scene. It’s an all-too brief appearance by her but welcome all the same.

The real meat of the plot comes when the Steptoes’ beloved horse Hercules is put out to pasture and Harold opts, instead of buying a horse, to purchase a racing greyhound from enjoyably dodgy, diminutive gangster Frankie Barrow, (Henry Woolf) the second of a wave of great character actors recruited for this sequel. Fans of classic Doctor Who by the way will recognise not only Woolf as the evil financial wizard from THE SUNMAKERS, but the fleeting vet cameo is Stewart Bevan, Jo Grant’s love interest Dr Clifford Poole in THE GREEN DEATH.

Hercules the Second is an expensive investment, being fuelled by raw eggs and steak. Albert solves this outgoing by memorably sneezing all over a prime cut at the butcher, much to Welsh TV comedy stalwart Richard Davies’ chagrin. The dog appears to be a dud on the greyhound track, as expected from such a crooked source, until the Steptoes discover he is short-sighted, and with the aid of contact lenses he becomes a contender – until on racing day he breaks off from the track to smother his owners. Another scheme’s wheel falls off the wagon.

The second half of the film is a great opportunity for more TV character cameos and farce construction when Harold persuades Albert to fake his own death for the insurance money needed to pay off the remainder of the dog’s fee to Barrow. Milo O’ Shea is a splendidly dotty, pissed-up neighbourhood doctor who Harold and Albert hoodwink for the all-important death certificate by substituting a mannequin’s limbs for his during the medical inspection. Frank Thornton is a more benign insurance agent than his imperious Captain Peacock in ARE YOU BEING SERVED, and the gaggle of friends who make up the colourful waKe of funeral well-wishers include Bill Maynard and Yootha Joyce amidst the cockney ‘Knees-up Mother Brown’ jollity and and progressively more drunk hangers-on. 

The comic stakes are heightened when Harold finds out the policy was switched to an unknown lady beneficiary, meaning that he now has to fake Albert’s sudden revival. Since Albert misses his cue to emerge from the coffin by falling asleep, Harold’s desperate need to believe he is alive is hilariously mistaken for grief during the procession to the church. His stuntman pulls off a great pratfall crashing through a vault doorway. Albert’s cadaverous emergence from the grave is then coupled with his son’s zombie-like appearance from the vault before all the attendants.

In the epilogue, the careful construction is slightly weakened when the insurance agent uncovers that the policy holder broke the terms of her arrangement, thus reverting back to the Steptoes and entitling them to a surrender value of 85% of the full amount. If the surrendering for such a large amount was always an option, why did they go through all the rigmarole of faking Albert’s death? This aside, it creates a happy ending of sorts for father and son, no better off than before, and no worse.

The furious energy of the insurance scam and familiar supporting faces for me makes a suerior sequel to the first film, and allows the STEPTOE AND SON franchise to go out on a high as the series did a year later. (We can draw a veil over the late ‘70s shoddy Australian theatrical tours…)

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