A User’s Guide to the Great British Sitcom Movie - Part Two
by Matthew Coniam
Part two of Matthew’s exploration of British cinema’s neglected gems
The better the writers, the more considered the screenplay. Two by Clement and Le Frenais, The Likely Lads (1976, a spin-off from Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? despite the title) and Porridge (1979) have been opened out sensibly and in-keeping with the style of the originals. So, after a fashion, have Galton and Simpson’s two Steptoe and Son movies, notable for their heightened sense of squalor and for their interestingly matter-of- fact use of the word “wanker”. But of all of them, only Dad’s Army (1971) really plays as a film in its own right, beginning with the forming of the Home Guard and ending with a Nazi siege in the village church. (Even so, there’s at least twenty minutes of superfluous stuff around the middle of it.)
Be in no doubt. These were incredibly popular films. They even had their own sequels. There are two Steptoes and two Alf Garnetts. On The Buses (1971), Hammer’s most successful film of its year, made it to three. Up Pompeii took on a life of its own at the movies - the 1971 spin-off was followed by two sequels in which the central character reappeared during the Crusades (Up The Chastity Belt, 1972) and the First World War (Up The Front, 1973).
Others twisted their original formats into incredibly complex new shapes. The spin-off of Thames TV’s Man About The House ends at the studios of Thames Television, where the characters meet Spike Milligan and the cast of Love Thy Neighbour playing themselves. So the film exists in a world where George and Mildred are real people but Love Thy Neighbour is a television sitcom. This, I should confess, is one of my favourite films and (along with Bless This House) the best illustration to newcomers of the peculiar joys of the form.
You have to see it: it’s not something I can explain in words. Yes; the locations are wonderful (Maida Vale at its greyest and least hospitable), yes; the film-making is delightfully eccentric (the street where the characters live has a sign with its fictional name written on it next to the unobscured real one, one character hails a taxi outside Thames Television and asks to be taken to Thames Television), and yes, the cast is perhaps the finest ever assembled for a single film. But there’s more to it than just that, or rather less to it… It’s something purer, simpler than that. It’s the essence of it, the taste of it, the air it breathes. Great comedy, great cinema it plainly is not. But it is perhaps the classic example of a film that has such unconscious beauty in itself that it transcends its immediate purpose. (Remember Larkin’s photograph album here.)
Every film, whether it knows it or not, is ambassador for a whole range of incidental concepts: a certain place, a certain moment in time, a certain set of values, impressions, ideas. And it is these things, often, that ingrain themselves deeper in the audience than the plot, or the acting, or the jokes, or some other superficial ingredient. And Man About The House seems to stake its claims, in particular its claims for London and for 1974, more vividly than any other I can think of.
And no other film makes me so curious as to what it was like actually making it. What sort of direction did the director give? Were there discussions about the script? Did Sally Thomsett say things like “I don’t think Jo would say this” or Yootha Joyce ask what her motivation is for objecting to her husband cutting his toenails next to a bowl of salad? I find myself imagining conversations on set, between takes, during lunch breaks. I picture actors Richard O’Sullivan and Doug Fisher discussing the merits of film over television in the same spirit as that in which their characters Robin and Larry might compare blondes and brunettes. How would it feel to be actually out there on those streets as the cameras turned?
The point is this. You may well have seen Man About The House and have no idea in the world what mysterious delight I seem to be taking in it. But you do know what I’m talking about. I’m sure you can think of some other film that affects you in such a fashion, even if it’s a much safer choice like Casablanca or Annie Hall or that one where Paul Hogan dies and comes back as an angel. We all acknowledge the power of film to invade our consciousness in such a fashion. It is not mere enjoyment, it is the desire to somehow make its world and ours the same, to be alive within it. There are of course films about this very phenomenon (like Purple Rose of Cairo) so I must assume that it presses buttons with everybody. The choice is academic. For you: Casablanca. For someone who likes rubbish films rather than good ones: A Clockwork Orange. For me: Man About The House. Nowhere else is London so Londonish, or 1974 so 1974-ish, as Larkin would doubtless more poetically observe. It positively reeks of its moment, and one watches it in the same spirit in which one sinks into a warm bath. And by “one” I of course mean me. Because everyone else thinks it’s shit.
From their heyday, around 1972-5, the films thinned out as the decade wore on and the Eady money dried up. Their death was announced in 1980, when Cinema Arts put out two of the oddest: George & Mildred, made shortly before the death of its star Yootha Joyce, and Rising Damp, made shortly after the death of its star Richard Beckinsale. This latter is chiefly notable for being composed largely of chunks of the TV scripts rather than an original screenplay, and for the extent of its deviations from the original format. Relocated to London in a big white house (instead of the beautifully brown TV set) the film featured the plot revelation that Don Warrington’s Philip is only pretending to be an African chief and a disco-style theme song (Rising damp is climbing up the walls, Rising damp is out there in the halls, Rising damp is gonna get us all!). Token reference is made to the fact that the late Beckinsale’s character has moved away, but nobody seems to notice that replacement Christopher Strauli has been given all his old dialogue.
Alas, it all ended here. We never got to see a film version of Open All Hours in which Arkwright and Granville try to fight off competition from a new supermarket by releasing rats in the food hall and setting off stink bombs. Cruel fate denied us the Hi-De-Hi movie, in which oil is discovered under Maplin’s holiday camp, and Ted Bovis becomes a millionaire oil dealer. And we can only dream of the film of Terry & June in which the pair inherit a haunted castle from Terry’s mysterious uncle, only to discover that the “ghosts” are really villains trying to scare them away so that they can find loot hidden in the building by its previous owner.
But perhaps we should be thankful for the ones we do have. After all, it now seems so unlikely that this whole adventure ever happened, we really should be grateful that Man About The House and Bless This House, two of the most adorable comedies of British film history, exist at all. And no, I’m not being ironic. I really mean it.
This article originally appeared in Kettering 1.
Note: An entirely different version of this article first appeared in the May 1996 issue of The Comedy Review. The reason it was entirely different was because it was not so much edited as gutted, and completely rewritten without my permission. As well as adding large numbers of errors, inane ‘jokes’ and opinions I do not hold, the magazine decided to give individual paragraphs puerile titles, such as ‘Seventies Plotless Rubbish’ and ‘There Wuz Only Three Good Uns’.