Sunday, September 09, 2007

Funny How?

After doing so well last week, British Film Forever was back to its usual tricks. Finishing the seven-week run by focusing on British comedy at least the inappropriate narration that has plagued the documentary series occasionally fitting with the subject matter.

For the most part the final episode seemed to be going through the motions before running out of steam. There were some glaring omissions – for instance, the Will Hay films made by Gainsborough Pictures – but it ticked off most of the boxes.

Comedies are always tricksy buggers because not everyone finds the same thing funny. Luckily they didn’t dwell on the long-running Carry On... series or the Norman Wisdom films made by The Rank Organisation, movies that I’ve been able to watch straight-faced since my early teens.

Actually, there is Carry on Screaming! which still makes me smile. The fact that Sid James isn’t in it is probably the reason why. Although Talbot Rothwell’s name always crops us as writer of the series, Norman Huddis wrote the first half-dozen films before he headed over to America to write for TV dramas from The Man from UNCLE to Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and a far better pay cheque.

With far less of the lazy and obvious innuendo and double entendres that the later films relied heavily upon, the series didn’t start off half bad. As for the Wisdom films, with him constantly acting the prat and running about shouting “Mr Grimsdale!” before dolloping on the sentimentality... you have to hand it to the Albanians, they put up with a hell of a lot.

With the end-of-the-pier humour and seaside postcard smut out of the way, Sauce, Satire and Silliness: The Story of British Comedy turned toward more clever fare, which meant paying due reverence to Michael Balcon, who oversaw the run of post-war Ealing Comedies; the Boulting brothers’ marvellous satires, like I’m All Right Jack, that mercilessly jabbed at traditional British institutions; and Launder & Gilliat’s anarchic St Trinian’s films.

Once it reached the 1970s, when nothing good could really be said of the cheap sex comedies and rash of big screen versions of television sitcom favourites, the episode started to run out of steam. George Harrison’s Handmade Films made a significant contribution to British comedy, first by rescuing Monty Python’s Life of Brian after EMI withdrew funding and then producing Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I.

Since the latter’s humour came from character and situation rather than simply jokes, the programme seemed to show an interminably endless selection of clips to prove it was funny without really contributing to the show. If the film had only been shown at one cinema in London upon release, it must have been the Odeon Haymarket, which was where I caught it in early 1988.

Because the rom-coms from the 1990s onwards had already been covered in the Romance episode, after A Fish Called Wanda and Bill Forsythe’s magical Local Hero, Sauce, Satire and Silliness seemed to be grasping for material. The Full Monty had been showcased in the episode on Social Realism but was dragged out again. It only seemed to be there as a stepping-stone to East is East and Bend it like Beckham, and then the show was over.

Of course the episode wouldn’t have been complete without some serious muckraking. This episode, the easy target was Peter Sellers. Everyone knows Sellers was a bloody monster. Maybe he lost himself so completely in the multiple roles that he simply forgot who he was. The fact remains, Sellers had a remarkable talent that still puts him head and shoulders above the screeching divas that exist for no particular reason nowadays.

Unless she holds a spectacular grudge, having specialised in playing ditzy blondes in Carry On movies, Boulting satires, The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's, and even the Confessions films, I’m sure Liz Fraser had a lot more to say about British comedy that what a difficult bastard Sellers was to work for. Unfortunately those were pretty much the only clips used.

Whether it was bad timing on the part of the schedulers or the programme makers seriously wanted to stick the knife in, 8th September, the day this final episode of British Film Forever was transmitted, was Peter Sellers’ birthday. Had he not died of a heart attack in 1980, he would have been 82 years old. Some celebration...


At 10:41 pm, Blogger Jon Peacey said...

Yet another lamentable entry in the British Film Forever series!

The most intriguing (and never commented on) about thing about the first Carry on- Sergeant- is the credit 'based on a play by R.F. Delderfield'.

So glad I'm not the only one who fails to the see the humourous side of Norman Wisdom. He's like a clumsy 5 year old packed full of E numbers.

At 1:27 pm, Blogger Lianne said...

I haven't been watching this from the outset - actually I just started watching last week's episode which was great. I was thinking the same thing about the comedy episode - it seemed so ungracious to spend so much time on what a difficult man Sellars was when that's already been well documented and surely the point of this series was to focus on the films not the personalities behind them. I had no idea it would have been his birthday on Saturday. How insensitive.

At 9:35 am, Blogger Riddley Walker said...

“He's dead - get him!” seems to be the way of things, sadly.

You’re absolutely right. Aside from his personal demons, Sellers was grossly talented. Much as a former member of Deep Purple once described the guitarist Ritchie Blackmore: “I think that god reached down and just touched him. He wasn’t like the rest of us.” Sellers undoubtedly had a fight on his hands with a world that he probably understood as little as that world understood him.

At 8:33 am, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

Having been away, I missed this, but I have two mouthy comebacks...

Firstly, Sellers was, undoubtedly, a unique talent but his work (or his choice of roles) is patchy - even within a film (unlike Jaques Tati) his performance can be variable, with moments of brilliance and others of misjudged over-indulgence: he learnt much from Guinness about the superficial elements of characterisation but whilst he had a gift as an IMPERSONATOR, he lacked both an actor's training and the modesty to learn; as a result, whenever his material was less than brilliant, he would fall back on the comedian's improv routines from his stand-up days at the Windmill - sometimes to dull, poor or even embarrassing effect.

However, we should forgive him his failings in exchange for his Dr Strangelove, Chauncey Gardiner and many moments of wildly ludicrous idiocy as Inspector Clouseau...

Secondly, am I the only person in the world who doesn't find WITHNAIL & I funny? Frankly, with me, it's a toss up between W&I and Norman Wisdom...

At 11:55 am, Blogger Good Dog said...

Hey Brian, welcome back. Hope you had a great holiday. That's certainly right about Sellers. When he was good he was really good, when he wasn't good it was an indulgent train wreck.

You're not alone with Withnail and I. The girlfriend just didn't get it while I laughed like a drain. Having grown up in the wilds of Devon, it was the useless townies stumbling about in the countryside that really made me howl.


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