Blu-ray/DVD review: Laughter in Paradise (1951)

After a long life of pranks and practical jokes, the wealthy Henry Russell (Hugh Griffith) is dead, leaving aside a substantial sum of money to four of his relatives. But old Henry being Henry, things are not going to be quite as simple as that. For each of his relatives are all flawed in various different ways and under the terms of the old rascal’s will, each will have to complete a very specific task before they can get at his money. Each challenge has been perfectly designed to force them to confront their own worst failings.

Agnes (Fay Compton), for example, a dreadful snob is forced to spend a full month in the employ of a middle-class family headed, in this case, by a hypochondriac Scot (played by John Laurie, later of Dad’s Army). For the supremely timid young bank clerk, Herbert (George Cole), however, the task is different. He must stage a hold up at the very bank he works for using a water pistol. Simon (Guy Middleton), meanwhile, is a first-class cad and a womaniser in the mould of the type of characters Terry-Thomas often used to play in films like this. He is obliged to marry the first single woman he speaks to, to get his share of the loot. He actually cheats straight away ignoring the first single woman he meets, a beautiful but presumably penniless young cigarette seller. This very small part is played by Audrey Hepburn in her screen debut.

Finally, there is Deniston (Alastair Sim), a retired army officer, whose life is already pretty complicated even before Henry’s demise. Publicly engaged to an overenthusiastic armed services girl, ‘Fluffy’ (Joyce Grenfell, great as ever), Deniston leads a double life enjoying a secret career dictating the trashy American-style crime novels he has composed to his adoring secretary (Eleanor Summerfield) which are then published under a variety of pseudonyms. Deniston’s task is to commit one actual genuine crime which will seem him incarcerated for precisely 28 days. Sim’s character finds the execution of this, surprisingly difficult.

There are a few extras. Although he obviously hasn’t watched the film that recently, Stephen Fry’s knowledge and genuine love for the film is obvious during his interview. We also get to see Sim hamming it up as the Roman Emperor Nero opposite his frequent co-star George Cole in a wartime short. More dedicated Sim fans might want to listen to his 1949 speech delivered on being elected Rector of Edinburgh University (beating future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan) in full.

Newly restored nearly seventy-years after it first appeared, Laughter In Paradise is still lots of fun. Alastair Sim, in particular gets some marvellous screen moments, self-consciously turning a bust of Shakespeare the other way at one point so as if to prevent the Bard seeing him delivering the particularly purple prose of his latest potboiler (e.g. “she was one hot tomato”). Other brilliant sequences see him make several abortive attempts to throw a brick – for some reason, neatly tied up in string – through a jeweller’s shop window and and a long, drawn out attempt to get caught shoplifting an umbrella in a Piccadilly department store. “The wrong tartan,” he explains, on returning it, embarrassed.

A genuine classic.

Vintage Classics. Studio Canal. Original release: 1951. Cert: U.

Release date: 29 June 2020

Running time: 80 minutes

Directed: Mario Zampi

Cast: Alastair Sim, George Cole, Fay Compton, Guy Middleton, Joyce Grenfell, Hugh Griffith, Audrey Hepburn

DVD/Blu-ray extras:

New Alastair Sim and Laughter In Paradise Interview with Stephen Fry

Ministry of Information short Nero: Save Fuel (1943) starring Alastair Sim and George Cole

Stills Gallery

Alastair Sim’s 1949 Rectorial Address at Edinburgh University (Audio Only)

Easter Egg

DVD review: Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story


Director: Steve Sullivan. Running time: 105 minutes
Back in the 1980s, a Manchester man called Chris Sievey started appearing in public wearing an oversized Papier-mâché head. At first, he called the character, ‘John Smith’ before changing it to ‘Frank Sidebottom.’ Frank soon became something of a success. You may well have seen him yourself. This documentary tells his story, or rather, the story of his creator. Chris Sievey ended up playing Frank for the rest of his life.
Chris appeared live as Frank as well as on Saturday morning kids’ shows like Motormouth and in the comic, Oink! He worked with a few people who later became famous such as Mark Radcliffe (interviewed here, before his recent illness), Caroline Aherne and Jon Ronson. Ronson later wrote a book about his time with Sievey, which later became the 2014 Michael Fassbender film, Frank.
He was never hugely famous himself, despite once introducing Bros (at the height of the short-lived ‘Brosmania’ era) at Wembley stadium. He played songs and told jokes, appearing with a ventriloquist’s dummy made in Frank’s image called ‘Little Frank’. He was often not very funny and his songs were often not good.

Despite this, it’s hard not to be won over by the warmth of this affectionate tribute to Sievey (who died in 2010, aged just 54) from director Steve Sullivan. There was certainly a dark side to Sievey: his success with Frank Sidebottom came only after years of persistent failed attempts to launch his own music career notably with band, The Freshies. A song called, ‘I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk’ came closest to success. Like Sidebottom, he seems to have been possessed by a child-like optimism and a naivety about such things as paying taxes and bills which must have made him very hard to live with. He seems to have grown to resent the fact his only real fame was achieved through a made-up character. No joke intended, but he also seems to rather have let the success he did have as Frank Sidebottom go to his head.
Supported by interviews from fans like poet John Cooper Clarke and comics Ross Noble and Johnny Vegas as well as Chris’s son, Harry, who was subsequently tragically killed in a cycling accident in 2017, this is a first class documentary about a minor popular culture icon who deserves to be remembered.

DVD review: This Country Season One & Two

this country

Cousins Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe live in an unnamed village in the Cotswolds. Although both have finished school, they are both poorly educated and are still yet to break out of their childhood habits. There is literally almost nothing to do in the village and the suspicion is that the longer they stay there the more likely they are to turn into one of the assorted eccentric weirdos who already roam the landscape. Indeed, they are already well on the way.

The cousins are in fact played by real-life brother and sister, Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper who also wrote the series which is filmed in a mockumentary format. The Mucklowe’s only real ally in the world – although a much underappreciated one – is the well-meaning local vicar (the excellent Paul Chahidi).

Kerry is almost invariably dressed in a football t-shirt and lives with her mother, who rather like Howard’s mother in early episodes of the US sitcom, Big Bang Theory, is an unseen presence (in this case, voiced by Daisy May Cooper herself) endlessly shouting inane instructions or complaints to her daughter (“KERRY!!” “WHAT??) in an agitated rasping voice.

The show is something of a family affair with the Coopers’ real life father, Paul Cooper playing Kerry’s dad and their uncle, familiar character actor, Terry Cooper playing local oddball, Len.

Kerry is, a formidable presence in her own right:

“I’ve got enemies in South Cerney,” she boasts boldly at one point. “I’ve got enemies in North Cerney, I’ve got enemies in Cerney Wick. I’ve got enemies in Bourton-on-the-Water. There’s a tea rooms there and under the counter they’ve got a panic button and if I take one step inside, they can press that.”

Both she and the hapless Kurtan often act, as the ever positive vicar notes, “somewhat younger than their years.”

“Have you ever looked up at the clouds and the sky?” Kurtan reflects thoughtfully, at one point. “It really makes you appreciate how insignificant they all are.”

Both are, at times, selfish, childish and immature. But they are essentially good-natured and there is a real sweetness to them. Kerry, in particular, completely worships her father. The fact, that he is clearly an incredibly selfish loser, keener on relating crude and unlikely anecdotes about his supposed sexual exploits than showing any affection for his daughter, makes this relationship quite poignant.

In truth, these are great comic creations. This Country is not a series that benefits from extensive hype: it is perhaps best discovered for yourself, either on DVD or on the BBC iPlayer.

But it is nevertheless, quite brilliant, a wonderful, low key, comic delight.