Reviewed by Lee Broughton
The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer's brisk pace and episodic but anarchic plotting allowed writers Peter Cook (Bedazzled), John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Kevin Billington to cast a satirical eye over a broad range of subject matter. Their approach may seem a little scatter-shot at times but they manage to hit their intended targets more often than not. The result is a slightly surreal but cautionary political satire that almost threatens to veer into science fiction territory on a couple of occasions. Indeed, this delirious but knowing exposé of the shady activities engaged in by powerful political spin-doctors, media manipulators and personality politicians probably played like a paranoid fantasy piece to most of its original audience. Thirty seven years on, media-savvy/media-saturated 21st Century viewers are more likely to gasp and marvel at the seemingly prescient nature of much of this superbly cast film's content. Please note that it has been necessary to include a number of mild spoilers here in order to fully convey the breadth of both the narrative subject matter encompassed and the comedic tone employed by this highly original show.
When the mysterious Michael Rimmer (Peter Cook) enters the offices of Fairburn Publicity Services armed with a stopwatch and clipboard, the woefully under-achieving PR outfit's work-shy staff assume that he's a time and motion man who has been sent to spy on them by the firm's owner, Mr Fairburn (Dennis Price). Their sense of guilt allows Rimmer to assume control and his leadership soon turns the company into a commercial success. Rimmer's knack for producing statistically accurate opinion poll results leads to both the governing Labour party and the opposing Conservative party becoming dependant upon his advice. An accomplished spin-doctor and confidence trickster, the manipulative Rimmer sides with the Conservatives, becomes a Conservative Member of Parliament and masterminds the party's election victory before becoming Prime Minister. Still not satisfied, Rimmer devises a plan that will result in him becoming the first President of Great Britain.
Part urbane Machiavellian charmer, part cold-blooded psychopath, Michael Rimmer always carries himself with supreme confidence. Sporting a mod Carnaby Street haircut, a fitted pin-stripe suit and a sly sardonic smile, Rimmer follows an irate client into the offices of Fairburn Publicity Services and finds just the opportunity he's been looking for. His officious tour of the offices reveals much in the way of malpractice: Ferret (Arthur Lowe, If....) is either being distracted by the affair that he's having with his young secretary (Valerie Leon, Blood From the Mummy's Tomb) or watching the cricket on TV, Pumer (John Cleese) spends his time practicing the tango, Dederman (Dudley Foster) is constantly on the phone to his bookmaker's office, Crodder (James Cossins) seeks solitude via extended visits to the firm's toilets, etc. When Rimmer makes his findings known to the eccentric Mr Fairburn, it's obvious that the dotty old toff doesn't know Rimmer and never actually commissioned his report but Rimmer's promise to turn the company's fortunes around results in the trickster being given the go ahead to create a high-tech, computer-reliant but super-efficient public opinion-polling company. And so starts Rimmer's unstoppable rise to the top.
We quickly deduce that Rimmer is an accomplished media manipulator when he devises a successful marketing campaign for Fromage and Waring's (Graham Chapman and William Job) unpalatable and previously unmarketable humbug mints: he re-brands the mints as Scorpios and repackages them in modernist tubular packaging. Rimmer's subsequent TV ad features Monika Ringwald (star of the Quentin Tarantino-championed Girl from Starship Venus) sexily writhing around under a translucent bed sheet whilst suggestively caressing, licking and sucking on a phallic-like tube of Scorpios. When Rimmer buys the services of an equally unscrupulous operator, the greedy and untrustworthy Peter Niss (Denholm Elliott, A Room with a View, Zulu Dawn), he is able to destroy the reputation of a rival opinion-polling firm. His devious plan involves a team of co-opted locals feeding false data to Ronnie Corbett's hapless interviewer. The media seize upon the results of the rigged poll and generate a national outrage all by themselves. This section of the film makes use of some old-time comedic sight gags, playing Corbett's diminutive physical stature off against both John Cleese's overly lanky presence and Valerie Leon's commanding chest. It's one of a number of almost farcical interludes that don't always sit entirely comfortably with the show's much cleverer satirical content.
When Rimmer moves into politics, the film presents a bitingly satirical look at Britain's two main political parties that pulls absolutely no punches. The left-of-centre Labour party is represented as being a party of socialists who are secretly willing to compromise their strict political ideals in order to retain public office and power. The right-of-centre Conservative party is represented as being a group of selfish capitalist elitists who count kinky sex fetishists amongst their number. The Conservatives openly spout racist opinions and feel that their election campaign is doomed unless they can stir up public concerns about immigration. Rimmer and Niss ruin the Labour party's chances of re-election by sabotaging the Prime Minister's (George A. Cooper) autocue and scenic back-projection during a live television broadcast to the nation and the pair then set about expertly grooming and coaching the unpopular Conservative leader Tom Hutchinson (Ronald Fraser, Too Late the Hero, The Wild Geese) for office. A secreted device designed to bring tears to Hutchinson's eyes during a supposedly emotional section of a speech goes wrong with farcical results but Hutchinson saves face when his Rimmer and Niss-penned oration allows him to make political capital out of the noisy protests made by Ranjit X (Jerry Ram) and his Faculty of Applied Violence students. A take on the special relationship that is said to exist between American Presidents and British Prime Ministers is offered when Hutchinson visits the White House. When Rimmer subsequently engineers the need for a new party leader and puts himself forward, one old Conservative observes, "He's ruthless, opportunistic, dishonest, shallow, evasive and unprincipled but I'm still not sure that he'll make a good leader."
On top of the satirical and farcical elements found here, The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer also features some mildly absurdist and surreal moments. Rimmer holds an elaborate self-promotional breakfast party inside London Zoo and chaos reigns during live television coverage of the general election. When Britain's gold reserves are revealed to be low and sterling becomes devalued, Rimmer orders a team of crack commandoes to raid Switzerland's federal gold reserves. The commandoes leave no clues to their identity because their weapons of choice are top-secret aerosol cans that contain a highly concentrated form of the English common cold virus. Director Kevin Billington expertly shoots the sequence in a manner that brings to mind a young Richard Lester spoofing something from a James Bond film. Rimmer then announces that a gold seam has been found in Britain's North Sea territories. Rimmer also devises a novel way to save on his huge defence budget whilst awarding his top military brass a 100 percent pay rise: he commissions a Gerry Anderson-like special effects team to produce realistic-looking test films that give the impression that Britain has developed futuristic weapons that subsequently act as the ultimate deterrent. When Rimmer decides to hold a postal referendum on every single decision facing the government, the volume of post generated is such that every home in Britain needs its own personal postman: Billington presents shots of armies of postmen marching down streets in unison and delivering the post with military precision. The nation's houses are soon swamped with envelopes and people are up all night filling in their replies. A postal strike results in a flashing light being connected to every citizen's television set: the light comes on and prompts citizens to cast their referendum votes via interactive television set controls.
All of the main players here turn in good work but Cook and Elliott steal the show with a couple of really outstanding performances: there's a great chemistry present between the pair. Their characters secretly hate each other but they know that they must work together if they are to realize their ambitions. Cronyism rules the day when Rimmer becomes Prime Minister and Niss is duly rewarded for his bought loyalty. Rimmer actually chooses himself a trophy wife (Vanessa Howard, The Blood Beast Terror) when he enters politics by consulting a recent opinion poll that determined the best-loved women in Britain. Niss then spends his time trying to get her into bed and a sequence where the pair communicate their intentions via the words they concoct during a game of Scrabble is really well played. There's also some really good work from a raft of guest actors in supporting roles. Diana Coupland (Bless This House) impresses as a sex mad housewife who seduces Rimmer's pollsters while the dependable Graham Crowden (Britannia Hospital) has fun as another unlikely champion of all things Rimmer, the Bishop of Cowley. Norman Rossington (A Hard Day's Night) pops up as a jingoistic chemical weapons' guide during the lead-up to the raid on Switzerland while Julian Glover (Quatermass and the Pit) is the high-ranking military man who leads the raid. Richard Pearson (Tess) is a liberal and tolerant Conservative that Rimmer sets up for a fall when he refuses to toe the party line. Old stalwart Dennis Price is excellent as the eccentric Mr Fairburn and playwright Harold Pinter is very effective as Steven Hench, a crafty talk show host and media figure. Pinter's sequences feature a lot of behind the scenes activity on political television shows and offer some interesting insights into the media circus in general.
The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer is every bit as intriguing and interesting as I've hopefully made it sound. It's also a really great looking and technically proficient show. Interiors were mostly shot at executive producer David Frost's hi-tech and resources-packed London Weekend Television studios and the superb art direction was the work of Oscar and BAFTA winner Carmen Dillon. A multitude of great looking location shoots were also undertaken and access was even granted to the real 10 Downing Street and the real Conservative party headquarters. Director Kevin Billington (The Light at the Edge of the World) and ace cinematographer Alex Thomson (Dr Phibes Rises Again, Excalibur, Wings of Fame) supply a succession of nifty camera moves and impressively composed shots. And John Cameron turns in a really effective soundtrack score. The film's main theme is an infectious but slightly sinister-sounding slice of Swinging London groovieness that is all driving trumpets and jangly electric guitars: an edit of the main theme's foreboding jangle can be heard whenever Rimmer is busy formulating a devious new plan of action. But, for all of its very good and sometimes excellent content and general execution, the film is adversely affected by the uneven quality of its comedic tone and intent.
In his highly informative and enjoyable commentary track, Kevin Billington reveals that the film originally started life as a selection of stand-alone sketches concocted by John Cleese and Graham Chapman. Billington and Peter Cook then had the job of refining the sketches and developing a suitable narrative that the sketches could be placed within: unfortunately there are too many moments within the film where this working method remains quite evident. The satire and the mild bouts of absurdist/surrealist humour work very well for the most part but the interludes where attempts at more direct laugh-out-loud sight gags or openly farcical comedy routines (the Cleese-Corbett-Leon polling sequence described earlier, Cleese awkwardly practicing the tango alone, an exasperated Arthur Lowe cycling his bike into a river, etc) tend to fall flat: the sought-after laughs fail to materialize and these interludes become distractions that disrupt rather than enhance proceedings. That said, the show remains thoroughly compelling and it's a real treat to have such a determinedly original yet long-neglected film available on DVD. In spite of its flaws it remains a film that demands repeated viewings. Fans of leftfield British comedy will no doubt seek the film out purely on the strength and reputation of its quite superb cast. I would also recommend the show to anybody who enjoys imaginative or offbeat British cinema from the early 1970s. Anybody with a soft spot for the likes of Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man or Robert Fuest's The Final Programme should find something of interest here.
If the running times quoted at the Internet Movie Database are to be believed, this (PAL speed) DVD version of The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer is actually longer than any version of the film that played theatrically. Picture quality here is very good: there are odd outbreaks of small flecks and specks but these don't pose a problem. Sound quality is equally good. The extra features include a very impressive image gallery that features some interesting behind-the-scenes stills. Kevin Billington's commentary track is a welcome addition too.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer rates:
Movie: Good + / Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good +
Supplements: commentary track by Kevin Billington, image gallery and the film's original poster.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 28, 2007
Text © Copyright 2007 Lee Broughton
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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