Thursday, 15 October 2015

No.77. British sitcom films: PLEASE SIR (1971)


The title of this movie spin-off sounds like a plea to end a torrent of abuse. Fortunately, it actually heralds a TV-to-film comedy that’s amiable and spirited if nothing else. Based on the four-series sitcom by Edmonds and Larbey (co-creators of THE GOOD LIFE amongst other solid hits), it’s centred around the day-to-day shenanigans at the London sinkhole comprehensive of Fenn Street.

John Alderton found deserved small-screen fame by his excellent comic timing as the bumbling, well-meaning tit of a teacher, Bernard ‘Privet’ Hedges, in charge of the most suspiciously well-developed class of fifth-formers in the history of the education system. Of the two teenage lovebirds for example, Carol ‘CARRY ON’ Hawkins as Sharon is divertingly cute but already in her early twenties, while her boyfriend Eric (Peter Cleall) was easily ten years too old to be a pupil. Lord knows why the producers felt they had to stack the cast with ringers as a few years later the BBC were able to prove there were half-decent child actors out there in GRANGE HILL (‘Roland’ notwithstanding).

The rest of the staff include Patsy Rowlands, brought in especially for the film as Miss Cutforth, pursuing Hedges with all the claustrophobic ardour of Hattie Jacques smothering Kenneth Williams in the CARRY on films. From the TV show line-up, Deryck Guyler reprises his buffoon caretaker Norman Potter, a bear of very little brain but a military background – “Sah!”; Richard Davies always gives value for money as Welsh sourpuss master Mr Price – and the formidable Joan Sanderson as Mrs Ewell lays a ground frost of control a couple of degrees warmer than her marvellously ultra-severe old bag in FAWLTY TOWERS.

It’s easy to see why the pupils in Form 5C are such tearaways. You only have to get a load of their vividly-etched parents to claim that nurture trumps nature in that old debate. Corduroyed nature-loving simpleton Dennis, (Peter Denyer) has a father who’s a seething illiterate bordering on psychopathy by the way he browbeats his wife. Wannabee Hell’s Angel Frankie (David Barry) is all tough-talk but his mum’s relationship with him is cloying to the point of being almost Oedipal. She batters away his relentless insults with blind obsessive love and ensures he is not without his teddy bear when the class learn they are finally going on the school trip to Woodbridge Rural Centre (the main hook of the plot).

On their trip out, there’s an intriguingly placed cameo by 70s icon of goggle-box racism Jack ‘LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR’ Smethurst as the beleaguered coach driver, coming as it does sandwiched between two lame bursts of ill-advised ethnic-baiting in the script. (Pupil Brinsley Forde’s Wesley catches a lift with Liz Kerman and tells her tall stories of racist victimisation by Hedges amongst others, while Asian classmate Faisal is encouraged to take a ceremonial mat and stop the coach for repeated prayers to Mecca en-route).

Once at Woodbridge, (a no-expense-spent group of wooden huts), 5C fall foul of rival posh kids and while Kerman and Alderton clear up misunderstandings caused by Wesley and begin a romance, the Fenn Street ruffians befriend a Gypsy boy, who tries to curry favour with them by stealing money from the upper-crust stereotypes to put in their bunk. Later, when we visit the even worse stereotypes at the Gypsy camp, accusations of theft against the innocent 5C are seen to be groundless, which just leaves possible ones against the writers/producers for portraying Romany people as thieving bandanna’d pirates riding around in painted caravans!

All is well by the closing disco scene, featuring the Cilla Black number ‘La La La’, a catchy tune if you like disposable Eurovision lyrics. Alderton dances like a skier who’s just realised he’s forgotten his poles,  and then after a quick smooch with Kerman, propels himself in a love-sick dive over the assault course wall which lands him in the unwelcome octopus-like grip of the ever-ardent Miss Cutforth.

PLEASE SIR, like many of the British comedies of this era, is cheap and cheerful. As for the racism, see me after class…

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