Saturday, 17 October 2015

No.78. OOH...YOU ARE AWFUL (1971)


Titles such as this film possesses are all too tempting to agree with waggishly when it comes to reviewing them. However, this lame film vehicle for Dick Emery deserves it. It’s a shame as Emery was a huge TV star of his own BBC sketch show between 1963-1981, and it’s easy to forget he pulled in up to 17 million viewers at its height for his versatile, double-entendre fuelled harmless bawdiness. As a child, I was very fond of his show, the drag-act, colourful and cheeky absurdity of his creations, similar in appeal and style to Benny Hill – with the added pleasure of his closing out-takes.

 Somehow with the passing of time, Dick Emery has not been remembered with the same popularity as Hill or Morecambe and Wise for example. Granted, his material was much very much a broad traditional series of character turns, forged during military service in the Gang Show (which also produced Tony Hancock), but it’s only in recent years that modern comedians have cited him as an influence; Higson and Whitehouse, Mitchell and Webb and David Williams have all recognised and lovingly spoofed his work in their own shows.

OOH…YOU ARE AWFUL has a poor script that tries to shoehorn most of Emery’s  gallery of characters into a semi-serious contrivance that alternates between showcasing them and attempting a crime story – resulting in an uneven tone, less than the sum of its parts. The first gag we see is an American tourist with a camera who stops to ask his sex-mad peroxide blonde directions, and soon regrets asking ‘her’ about her modelling potential for her partner: “I expect your boyfriend does you lots of times….in all kinds of positions.” Needless to say, she welcomes the double-meaning and with the famous titular line, pushes him over with full force.

The plot is built around Emery as an inveterate con-man who cannot resist fleecing people, even at his own risk. After an elaborate scheme staged within the Palace of Westminster where he and best pal Ronald Fraser scam a rich Italian car magnate and his son to the tune of £500,000 posing as marriage brokers on behalf of Princess Anne, instead of settling for this colossal score, he sells a dog he doesn’t own to an American couple at the airport. This results in a stretch behind bars, following which Lacey is killed by one of the two crime syndicates who come after them (both the Roman Mafia and a Welsh mob)  before he can reveal the details of the Swiss bank account where their stash was deposited. Fortunately, Fraser had a penchant for tattoos, having a ‘skin directory’ inked on himself of all his conquests and also even more bizarrely spreading the bank details across the buttocks of each of four of his ladies.

Cue some low-frequency seaside postcard naughtiness as Emery channels more of his rogues gallery as disguises to enable him to contrive seeing or snapping each woman’s particulars. He adopts the toothsome vicar character but as a solicitor to ensnare his first victim. Then he becomes a cockney society wedding photographer to snap the bride compromisingly on her big day. Next up, he uses his crusty old grandad role  - as a butler - to inveigle his way into the home of Liza Goddard. She is already in the process of being unwittingly conned by William ‘Schh-you-know-who’ Franklin whose fake Texan accent bounces around Australia like a kangaroo.  I’ll be charitable and suggest he was being delibarately unconvincing, before Emery privately rumbles him and hey team up temporarily. The last TV character he ropes in is the same busty blonde at the beginning, this time to infiltrate a female policewomen’s training college, where he finds the final part of the account details on the bum of his PT instructor. It’s a shame there was no room for his amusingly dim denim-clad yob, but fans of Hettie, his horn-rimmed repressed old bird get a look-in when Emery needs to escape his house under surveillance to flee to Switzerland. His plan goes awry though when the Italians finally collar him, crate him up and dispatch him to la Cosa Nostra.

There’s an upbeat ending however. Tully convinces the Mafia that he is worth more in revenue to them alive, and sure enough our final sight of him is as a Cardinal at St Peter’s tricking another gullible American into a possible twenty million dollar donation.

With a funnier less functional script and an upbeat energetic tone, this could have worked – but there’s a leaden mood overhanging OOH…YOU ARE AWFUL. The comedy impersonations sit awkwardly in service of a serious plot. Never mind. Dick Emery was to have years more success in his native habitat in the TV sketch series before his death in 1982.

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…

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

No.76. British sitcom films: BLESS THIS HOUSE (1972)


The early 1970s saw a wave of successful British sitcoms come to the big screen, and in 1972 the highly popular BLESS THIS HOUSE joined them. The brainchild of Vince Powell and Harry Driver, creators of eleven shows including the other 70s monster hit LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR, this show about suburban familes lasted for six series on Thames TV.

For the cinema, they bolstered the comedy by bringing in the CARRY ON team of producer Peter Rogers and director Gerald Thomas. This influence is most obvious in the casting additions of the film series regulars like Peter Butterworth, Terry Scott and June Whitfield to support the much-love Sid James and most of the original sitcom family, but also the over-use of the duck whistle to unsubtly hammer home a sight gag. It’s colourful, pleasant enough and thankfully lacks the crass racism of LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR. The most obvious change to fans of the TV show was the replacement of Robin Stewart as Sid and Diana Coupland’s son Mike. He was unavailable due to a summer season booking. Instead we have the likeable bundle of energy  Robin Askwith, surely an icon of the 70s as readily identifiable and nostalgic as Spangles and the Bay City Rollers, and later to find infamy in the bawdy CONFESSIONS sex ‘comedies’.

Sid and Diane are the perfect TV suburban couple. She gets her way around her husband, he displays the sexist, sarcastic curmudgeon qualities which make an ideal foil to her needs and the idealism and foibles of his student children. Whilst Askwith creates a haphazard iron skeleton of art school awfulness in the garage, and drives around in a psychedelic smoke-belching literal old ‘banger’, the lovely Sally Geeson is also retained as his sister Sally. Her main role is to cause friction with her radical politics, which interestingly here foreshadows the environmental concerns we take for granted today about recycling – back then it served as a comedic device for creating a ‘crank’ opposition to staid older-generation reactionism. Sally also inadvertently gets on one’s nerves further by the way she delivers her lines. She explains them with such earnest, squeaky innocence, she seems to be in a school’s programme for teaching English to foreigners.

Rogers and Thomas cleverly recruited CARRY ON stars (and later TV’s ) ‘Terry and June’ as the new neighbours, an instant chemistry package which also allows Terry Scott to play well an aspirational snob angle. The wives in BLESS THIS HOUSE are without edge - it’s the husbands who are the endless schemers. Speaking of which, it’s nice to see Peter Butterworth dialling down the furtive chiseller he essays so well in CARRY ON movies to play Sid’s best mate Trevor. Other welcome supporting players include Janet Brown as neighbour Annie Hobbs, Bill Maynard as Oldham, the sleazy stall landlord who likes to hands-on with his female talents; a brief turn from Frank Thornton as a client of Sid’s, and Tommy LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR Godfrey as Murray the plasterer who leaves Sid high and nowhere near dry as he tries to cover a hole left from removing an over-mantle from the wall at his new neighbours’.

Another member of the Rogers/Thomas stable of co-opted talent for this film is Carol Hawkins as the neighbours’ daughter Katie. She was often labelled the posh crumpet in both their films and the PLEASE SIR series - before admirably avoiding the atrociously cheapjack CARRY ON ENGLAND due to its’ excessive nudity – surely only the most convenient reason!

After Sid and Trevor’s explosive attempt at a whisky distillery in the garden shed, it’s up to the young ones to provide the skulduggery as Mike and Katie covertly enjoy a Romeo and Juliet clandestine romance while their gently seeething Capulet and Montague-like fathers feud – until the cat is out of the bag and they are wed. This sub-plot from first meet-cute to marriage is rushed, the only breathing space given is when the parents uncover their children’s deception by going to the greasy spoon where both Katie and Mike work. This allows an amusing gag where Mike tries to perform short-order cooking on his knes so only his chef’s hat and hands are seen the work surface.

BLESS THIS HOUSE is inoffensive painting-by-numbers comedy played with energy. I’d like to have heard a better version of the jaunty theme tune from the TV show, but even so it harks back amiably to a more innocent time, especially in the lack of post-millenial modern cynicism by the student-age children!

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…)

Monday, 12 October 2015

No. 74. British sitcom films: STEPTOE AND SON (1972)


As the second batch of series of the hugely popular sitcom STEPTOE AND SON ran through the early Seventies, like so many TV comedy shows of that era it was given the big screen treatment. Wisely, the talented writing team of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson were kept to support the unforgettable character double-act of Harry H Corbett and Wilfred Bramble as the father and son rag-and-bone men.

Although in films, sitcom plots are usually opened out, often watered down to their detriment, both this translation and its sequel managed to stay true to the bleak trap of the ‘situation’ of the comedy.  Harold is still endlessly trying to extricate himself from his seedy, conniving old man’s self-centred clutches, his lofty pretensions continually punctured by his father’s cynicism and shabby personal habits. (Who can forget Albert bathing in the sink with Vim?) Both the writing and the playing of the show’s principals somehow had the rare skill of making you alternately appalled and frustrated by Albert’s vice-like hold and Harold’s inability to break free, and yet both men earn your sympathy all the while. Harold’s dreams are understandable yet shamefully snobbish toward his father. Albert’s ruthless, selfish disregard for his son’s healthy independence is aggravating yet is borne of fear and loneliness. Ultimately, they are doomed to never leave each other and this is the show’s heart, a strong reason for its success.

Whilst I've always found the show funny and can admire the terrific scripts and acting, the depressing nature of the Steptoes’ trapped lives of oppressive gloom made it hard for me to repeatedly watch it. However, the films are admirable examples of how to stay true to a formula whilst extending the format into long-form.

In this first movie, STEPTOE AND SON, Harold comes home from a night out, besotted with a stripper, Zita, (Carolyn Seymour). He already plans his future with her like a junkyard older Romeo. Albert dismisses her as a ‘scrubber’ with his usual sour grimaces, jealously plotting how best to sabotage her from taking Harold away from him. As the couple wed and set off on their Spanish honeymoon, inevitably they have the old man in tow. Has there ever been a more nightmarish set-up for wedded bliss?

After scoffing down an expensive lobster in the hotel, there is a peculiarly pervy sequence where Albert tries firstly to spy through the connecting door on the happy couple and then listen via a glass against it. It seems somehow wrongly prurient and yet in keeping with his inexhaustibly disgusting propensity for making a nuisance of himself. Just as Harold and Zita get amorous, groans from next door gradually increase till they are forced to check on Albert. He is in agony from contracted food poisoning and once more pushes his son’s buttons to force a premature end to the holiday. With only two last-minute seats on the plane, Zita is left behind. We can see that this will end in tears – but only for Harold. (Albert makes a suspiciously miraculous recovery once back home). There is a beautifully poignant scene where he reads a batch of postcards sent back from her over future days. They begin gushing with love and yearning and end with a crushing ‘Dear John’. Obviously Albert rubs this in as confirmation that she was no good: “She’s blown you out”, conveniently overlooking his role in the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Months later, Harold finds where Zita lives and that she is pregnant by what she claims is his baby. Albert soon sends her packing from a second attempt at usurping him.

More comedy is found after the surprise discovery of a baby in the Steptoe’s stable. This coupled with a trio of tramps and a shooting star create an amusing confluence of Nativity imagery, but to Harold the accompanying note convinces him it must be his baby left by Zita. His characteristic flights of fancy about working every hour God sends to give his son the opportunities he never had cleverly allow the character to indulge both his social pretensions about public school and also his need for an aspirational name, whilst Albert tries to keep him in harness once more, by pleading for the plebeian ‘Albert’ instead of Jeremy. The christening Vicar is asked by Harold for his first own name by way of a solution, only to find it too is Harold. For Harold, there is no escape from his past even in the next generation.

After earning our pity and sympathy by holding down multiple jobs to finance a future for Jeremy/Albert, Harold’s hopes are once more crushed when the baby is secretly taken away again by the mother and when Harold confronts Zita, he sees that actually her real baby is by the multiple-heritage band leader. Just like the circular world of the sitcom, the lives of father and son at the end once more shrink to the humdrum drudgery of the beginning.

STEPTOE AND SON was a well-deserved smash hit, making back six times its £100,000 cost and leading to a sequel the next year…

Sunday, 11 October 2015

No.73 - George Romero - Part III: THE CRAZIES (1973)


By 1973, having suffered the debilitating effect of unreliable backing and distribution for THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA and then SEASON OF THE WITCH (causing him to virtually disown them), George Romero returned to the full-throttle horror exploitation realm that had made his name with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in 1968.

THE CRAZIES is a tense, energetic horror thriller with the premise of what would happen should a small town (Evans City) be infected by a chemical bio-weapon that releases uncontrolled homicidal and erotic impulses in its populace. This leads to the declaration of martial law and rapid mobilisation of the army into the town in anonymous white bio-suits and gas-masks - an invasion by occupying forces. The film essentially follows three factions: the infected crazed citizens, the army and those civilians unaffected but unwilling and suspicious to be compliant with the state’s heavy-handed intervention. On this level, THE CRAZIES works well as a mirror of the ongoing war in Vietnam still raging at that time; the army having to react in-the-moment with no clear idea of their mission or how to resolve the crisis, the public not only mistrusting and resisting them but also incubating hidden symptoms that could rise up at any point.

The movie features themes personal to Romero’s view of modern society that he would return to often in the future. THE CRAZIES features no single crusading hero as 1980s films would capitalise on later. Rather than a Schwarzenegger, Stallone or even the lone ‘everyman’ protagonist Bruce Willis, Romero focuses on rag-tag groups of people trying to work together amid paranoia, the dynamics of leadership struggle and a terrifyingly unpredictable foe in an apocalyptic scenario that could overwhelm us and destroy civilisation if we cannot unite.

The story’s genesis was the first ten pages of ‘The Mad People’, a script written by a friend of the team Paul McCullough. The idea of a released bio-weapon resulting in regional quarantine and the imposition of the army was enough for Romero to make it a springboard for his own take. The film was also a chance to work again with exploitation producer, Lee Hessel, who’d made money from a soft porn film called CRY UNCLE and was keen to expand his range.

THE CRAZIES was filmed in the real Evans City, which was also used in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Romero’s team had a budget of $270,000, which although minuscule by studio standards, was more than he was used to. It became his first film shot on 35mm and with SAG union rates of pay. This still had to be stretched thinly, so  much use was made of real locations and real townsfolk in the cast. There were no stuntmen on the gig but Romero had already built up great creative relationships with his pyrotechnic team of two guys whose background was simply an expertise with fireworks. All the fire, immolation and flamethrower effects were supervised by the two men.

The director also couldn’t afford such standard filming equipment as dolly tracks, yet this was a limitation that became a plus; the pace of the film is superbly cut due to not having the ability to utilise long tracking takes. Instead, Romero’s years of skilled, energetic editing (his favourite part of the creative process) from the scores of fast-paced commercials he made with Latent Image gives the film a fast, driven rhythm, always cutting on action and piling on the detail. He shot thirty to forty set-ups a day, a phenomenal workload, but it pays off handsomely with multiple angles on the scenes and a relentless kinetic movement of the plot.

Fans of Romero’s zombie cinema will recognise the enjoyable imperiousness of Richard France as one of the army scientists. He lends the film a grandeur and command similar to his eye-patched, laboriously patronising expert in DAWN OF THE DAWN.

Bill Hinzmann, the opening graveyard zombie of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD again served as director of photography. In fact the all hands pitching in work ethic of Romero’s team was in full evidence here despite the relative increase in the budget. All of the foley effects (sounds recorded after-the-fact) and extras’ dialogue were recorded by Romero, Hinzmann and Mike Gornick in Latent Image’s basement.

THE CRAZIES has some stand-out horror moments amidst the military/civilian politics, some of which delve queasily into primal and taboo areas. The opening scene of children discovering their dead mother and watching helplessly as their father runs amok setting the house on fire powerfully sets the awful tone of the sudden lawless break-down of family security.  There’s a chillingly serene granny stabbing a soldier to death with her knitting needle. (Is no-one safe from the corrupting corrosiveness of this water-carried infection?) Evidently not as we see when Lynn Lowry (later a memorable nurse in Cronenberg’s SHIVERS) willingly gives herself to incestuous sex with her father, a cringingly potent sequence that would never have been permitted in a studio picture.

Unfortunately, unlike the bio-hazard in the film, Romero’s fourth movie suffered an evaporation on release into box office doldrums. The demoralisation resulted in him taking a number of years away from that world, spending three of them working in TV. However, the period introduced him to producer Richard Rubinstein, an alliance that would begin to bear fruit later with MARTIN and DAWN OF THE DEAD…