An acquired taste, I suppose, but if you're receptive to their small pleasures, quite nice. VCI Entertainment and Renown Pictures has released the British Cinema Comedy Collection, a two-disc, six-film compilation of some rather obscure (at least on these shores) but pleasant British "B" comedies. Titles include 1955's Where There's a Will, 1952's Down Among the Z Men, 1953's Love in Pawn and Those People Next Door, 1955's No Smoking, and 1956's Not So Dusty. Right off the bat, these little comedies are not of the caliber of say, the more famous Ealing Studio offerings, so don't expect forgotten or overlooked comedic gems awaiting rediscovery here in the British Cinema Comedy Collection. These are basic meat 'n' potatoes comedy "Bs" which were produced for a very specific audience: the undiscriminating, general British moviegoing public, looking for native product. Production budgets are meager, the scripts conventional and broad. But if you're attuned to other, better examples of this genre from Britain (and particularly from this time period in their film history), you may enjoy the Cockney accents, the looks at rural versus urbanized England, and the overall sentimental approach and laid-back pacing and atmosphere of these "Bs." Let's look very briefly at each title.
Where There's a Will
London city dweller Alfie Brewer (Leslie Dwyer) has received notice that his Uncle Ernie, a farmer in Devon, has been blown up by a left-over WWII land mine - and Alfie is the sole heir to the estate. He quits his long-held Turkish bath job, and moves his family down to Wind Rush Farm. But the "estate" isn't quite what any of his family was expecting; it obviously hasn't been run in tip-top condition for years. His elder sister, Maude (Dandy Nichols), his younger sister Amy (Thelma Ruby), and her scheming husband Fred (George Cole), all want to sell up as soon as possible and take the money back to their homes in London. But Alfie is in his element in the rural, tumbledown Devon farm, and he intends on staying, a situation amenable to Annie Yeo (Kathleen Harrison), the maid to Uncle Ernie who really runs the whole show, and Amy's and Fred's daughter, June (Ann Hanslip), who has fallen in love with handsome next-door neighbor, Ralph Stokes (Edward Woodward). Alfie, however, soon learns there was a feud between his Uncle's family and the Stokes for centuries, and Ralph's father, Squire Stokes (Philip Ray), has no intention of letting a Cockney interloper take over a farm he's had his eye for quite some time.
Scripted by popular author R.F. Delderfield (To Serve Them All My Days) from his own play, and directed by Vernon Sewell, Where There's a Will is a lighthearted family comedy that touches on several interesting themes that seem to reoccur in British comedies from that time period (including some of the other films in this collection). Certainly, the nostalgia (idealized or not) that many urban Britons felt after the war for the fast-receding rural life is central to the story. Alfie, well-played by veteran character actor Leslie Dwyer, speaks quite movingly about working underground, day after day, at his Turkish bath job, only coming out into the city, into the darkness, at the end of the day; he's grateful for this chance to escape the dirt and darkness of the city. And he takes to the stereotypical country squire role like a duck to water, complete with immediately outfitting himself with Uncle Ernie's clichéd country finery when his suit clothes get wet. Where There's a Will also touches on the idiocies of socialist government policies that make the public poorer in spirit and in their pocketbooks (the government's explanation that Wind Rush Farm can be arbitrarily taken from its rightful owner because "it's not being used for the greater common good," sounds frightfully prescient today). There's a terrific scene where farm worker Arscott, played by Hugh Morton, lays it out to a government flunky how the increased minimum wage actually costs him more money in the long run, while robbing him of his past, more enjoyable way of life (does any of this sound familiar today?). I was also impressed with the Annie character, who doesn't take a backseat to Alfie's plans. She states she'll lend Alfie the money to keep the farm from Slater's schemes, but she'll do so only by her rules - which includes Alfie marrying her (she even counters his protestations that he's not fit to be married by stating she'll make sure he suits her - a strong statement with obvious implications). How their relationship resolves itself is sweet and sentimental, but also rather touching, too. Where There's a Will's laughs aren't at all raucous (or even that frequent), but some quirky British humor comes through occasionally (I love the train porter giving newly-arrived Alfie directions to the farm...if he was traveling by aeroplane). It's a familiar little story, done well.
Down Among the Z Men
Amateur actor Harry Jones (Harry Secombe) keeps his clerking day job at Isaiah Crabb's (Sidney Vivian) general goods store. Approached one day by spies Stanton (Clifford Stanton) and Spider (Graham Stark), Harry is convinced by the agents that frequent oddball customer, Professor Osrick Purehart (Michael Bentine), is in actuality a thief who stole the "real" Professor's important atomic formula. Seeing that Harry has detectives on the brain (he's currently starring as Bats of the Yard in The Masked Avenger), the spies plan on letting Harry do their legwork, leading them straight to Professor Purehart, so they can steal his formula. But Purehart has been sent down to Warwell Army Camp for his own protection, so Harry stows away in his truck, where he's eventually "drafted" into the Z Men corps, a supposedly highly-trained unit set up to guard secrets just like the Professor's, made up of goof-offs and screw-ups like Private Eccles (Spike Milligan), who seems at the very least, mentally challenged. Guarding the Professor as well is Carole Gayley (Carole Carr), of M.I. 5, who's undercover as camp commandant Major Bloodnok's (Peter Sellers) daughter.
A title at least familiar sounding to Peter Sellers and The Goon Show fans over here in the States, Down Among the Z Men is an often-written about (but little seen) piece of Goon Show history in that it's the only film featuring all four Goons, the comedy group consisting of Milligan, Sellers, Secombe and Bentine that became wildly popular at this time on British radio and TV. Unfortunately, this potentially important pop culture moment is marred by the fact that Down Among the Z Men was not written by Milligan, who's credited with writing the brilliant scripts for The Goon Show. As a result, we have the four Goon performers enacting someone else's gags and jokes here...and they're not up to par with the usual Goon brilliance (if you've never heard any of The Goon Show tapes, do so - they're still hilarious). The story has potential, but the extreme stinginess of the budget obviously effects the film's comedy; the film had a two-week filming schedule, with a reportedly "one-take" policy - whatever came out of that one take, showed up on the screen. I find Down Among the Z Men funnier now than when I first saw it (disappointment over not finding something as funny as The Goon Show colored my assessment). The finale, where everyone is dressed like the Professor, walking like a penguin through the house and getting hit over the head, is amusing enough. And the few glimpses of Sellers are worthwhile (although his final stand-up routine is aborted rather abruptly). Milligan, whom I adore in small "Bs" like Postman's Knock, does a rather funny imitation of Disney's Goofy, but Secombe overplays badly - almost like a bad Lou Costello impersonation. A patchwork quickie, with not nearly enough laughs - a pity, too, since it was the only time the celebrated Goons could be gathered together for a film.
Love in Pawn
Struggling bohemian artist Roger Fox (Bernard Braden) and his model wife, Jean (Barbara Kelly), live on a houseboat at Cubitt's Yacht Basin. Fed up with the chickens that mess up his deck, there isn't much Roger can do about moving since he's flat broke - he's even stopped the milk delivery (he leaves a note, stating, "Tell the cows it's nothing personal."). Roger, a Canadian, has escaped from his timber baron Uncle Amos's (Laurence Naismith) clutches for now, but soon respectability rears its ugly head again when Roger is summoned by Mr. McCutcheon (John Laurie). Uncle Amos is willing to give Roger the princely sum of $10,000 pounds if he can prove he lives a moral life; that he lives an economically productive life, and that he has no debt - or it's back to the lumber mill in Canada. Roger, overtaken with enthusiasm to impress McCutcheon at dinner over at their houseboat, buys a too expensive dinner to cook, and finds they can't pay for it. So Barbara comes up with the brilliant idea of pawning Roger - just for the night - to pawnbroker Albert Trusslove (Reg Dixon). Albert, wishing to get his wife, Amelia (Avice Landone), off his back, agrees to the bargain, and everyone seems to be happy - especially Albert's sexy daughter Amber (Jean Carson), who doesn't care if Roger is married. Soon, the situation spins out of control as the whole nation wonders if Jean will "redeem" her pawned husband.
Starring the real-life couple of Bernard Braden and Barbara Kelly, Love in Pawn is a silly little bedroom farce that makes up for a weak script with good rhythm from Braden's and Kelly's obvious rapport. I had to read up on Braden and Kelly (apparently he was a popular TV personality during the 1960s), but I was most impressed by Kelly, who had a cool, sexy, flippant manner that worked well within the story's framework - particularly when she has to switch and be upset with pawning off her husband. I also enjoyed the Trusslove family taking an instant shine to Roger when he becomes their "property;" I wish the film had done more to show Roger in that environment and the comic possibilities that could have arose from that set-up (I was also disappointed they didn't elaborate on Roger's comic strip work, including his funny Lurline the Moon Child strip that's briefly shown). Events become a little protracted during the "break out" sequence where Uncle Amos and sculptor friend Hillary (badly overplayed by Walter Crisham) try and liberate Roger - a scene made unnecessary when Roger simply walks out of the pawn shop (a central cheat to the overall scenario that doesn't work). Still, Braden and Kelly are attractive and fun as the bantering couple, and the film's over before you know it.
Those People Next Door
England, 1941. The Blitz is on, but the Twigg family keeps showing's England's best as they deal with borrowing neighbors, bombs, and a family crisis. Sam Twigg (Jack Warner), who thinks he's the head of the household, works at a bomber factory with complaining socialist Joe Higgins (Charles Victor). Sam laughs at Joe's b.s., but Joe's a neighbor and a friend, and that's good enough for easy-going Sam. Not so good enough is Joe's wife Emma (Gladys Henson) constantly borrowing items and food from Sam's wife Mary (Marjorie Rhodes), going so far as to move in with the Twiggs when their house is destroyed by a bomb. Other than the Nazi bombs that might flatten them at any minute, the biggest crisis this home front family faces involves their pretty daughter, Anne (Patricia Cutts), who's in love with Flying Officer Victor Stevens (Peter Forbes-Robertson). Victor's rich, aristocratic family, Sir Andrew and Lady Diana Stevens (Garry Marsh and Grace Arnold), don't approve of the match, but Lady Diana is much more opposed - on grounds of class conflict - rather than any romantic considerations. Will Anne win them over, or will the Twiggs tell the Lord and Lady to piss off?
A slight but enjoyable family comedy, Those People Next Door uses the easy class conflicts of rich versus poor, gentry versus commoner, to only mild effect here, particular when we know all along that everyone is going to wind up friends in the end. Big Warner gets off a couple of smart ripostes to Joe's whinging on about capitalism (as he correctly puts it, if proto-fascist socialist Joe was in charge, the only thing people would be doing is what he told them to do), and I liked how he didn't do a traditional slow-burn whenever one of his kids annoyed him, or his wife nagged at him or put him in his place (Sam's more than likely to laugh off an annoyance than get steamed about it). The central romance isn't worthy of building a film around, particularly when we only see Victor at the very end of the film, but the introduction of the Biggles-like First Lieutenant Claude Kimberley (funny Geoffrey Sumner), a friend of Victor's is quite a treat. Pure nostalgia and softened memories for the harsh war years, Those People Next Door doesn't add up to much, but Warner and Sumner are fun to watch, as is Jimmy James in a cameo, as he does his celebrated drunk act, in a totally arbitrary bit down at the pub (when he says to the bartender, "Two more brandies before the fight starts!" the bartender responds, "Who's going to fight?" as Jimmy downs the drinks and says, "You and me, because I've got no money to pay for those drinks!")
In the sleepy little village of Kinneford, local scientist Reg Bates (Reg Dixon) has discovered, among other miraculous little drugs, a pill that makes you quite smoking. Visiting American ad man Hal Hurst (Peter Martyn) is astounded that no one has marketed this miracle drug, so he immediately hooks up with Reg to manufacture the pill. He also tries to hook up with attractive Joyce (Ruth Trouncer), but she's wary of the American, particularly after she catches him kissing job applicant Miss Tonkins (Belinda Lee). But Hal is innocent, particularly since Tonkins was sent by George Pogson (Lionel Jeffries), a businessman who doesn't want the nation to quit smoking, and a rival for Milly's (Myrtle Rowe) affections - the same local girl Milly that Reg admires from afar. Soon, millions have quit smoking, and industry is grinding to a halt - something tobacco combine leader Wellington-Simpson (Alexander Gauge) won't stand for.
Now this one plays very much like an Ealing Studio cast-off, which isn't surprising since it was produced by Tempean Films' Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman (who worked for a time with Ealing). Using the classic Ealing "little Englishman against the crushing, monolithic government/big business" set-up, No Smoking may not have the genuine wit of an Ealing comedy, but it does move along nicely, with a few funny bits here and there to keep your attention. Bald-pated comedian Red Dixon didn't do much in feature films; his personality is so mild-mannered as to be almost reclusive - and that may be the film's biggest drawback. Whereas an Alec Guinness could make Reg the scientist a compelling or sympathetic figure outside the confines of the story (such as in the suspiciously similar The Man in the White Suit), here, Dixon can't break through as an individual; the plot alone carries the film. Still, one or two scenes amuse, such as Reg's dream sequence, right out of a Hollywood musical, where he fantasies about being married to Milly, or the community sing, where the decidedly unglamourous Dixon looks funny with that sweet singing voice pouring forth. More jokes - or at least better jokes - would have put this solidly in the "plus" column.
Not So DustyDustmen Nobby Clark (Leslie Dwyer) and appropriately enough, Dusty (Bill Owen) are on the job when they spy Agatha (Ellen Pollock) and her Alistair (Bill Shine), rifling through Agatha's sister Miss Duncan's (Totti Truman Taylor) apartment. Their spying on the balcony is interrupted when they find a diamond brooch in the dustbin, which, being honest blokes, they return to the grateful Miss Duncan. They also let her know what her sister was up to, while Dusty makes time with Miss Duncan's lazy, smart-mouthed maid, Lobelia (Joy Nichols). Miss Duncan, grateful for the men's honesty, reward them with a book, The Philosophies of Diogenes - a tip that leaves the money-hungry Cockneys decidedly underwhelmed. Later, Nobby's wife, Mrs. Clark (Dandy Nichols), gives the unwanted book to their son, Derek (William Simons), who then takes it to antique salesman Mr. Layron (Roddy Hughes), and so begins the farce. For you see, that particular book - a first edition - is worth a small fortune, and there's an American dealer looking to drop 5,000 pounds for the volume, and back and forth the book goes.
A bit of Cockney switcheroo, Not So Dusty keeps the patter going - funny or not - with Dwyer and Owen a good comedy team here. As an American viewer, I'm accustomed to expecting more visual gags in a set-up like Not So Dusty, which would seem to offer a gold mine of possibilities as the dustmen make their rounds. But except for a bit with a dusty sandwich and a nasty looking fish, the comedy in Not So Dusty comes from the back-and-forth dealings with the sought-after book. There's a great moment where Owen (so brilliant much later in his career in Last of the Summer Wine TV series) steps out of the scene to deliver a song to the audience, while funny Nichols does an amusing story song, Tellin' Me What To Do in a passable Betty Hutton/Doris Day manner. A lot of Cockney charm covers up the thin script here, but it could have been much more funny.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.