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

The Best UK sitcoms of the 21st century so far…Peep Show (2003-15)

Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell) is a straight-laced sort of chap. “Socks before or after trousers, but never socks before pants, that’s the rule,” we hear him thinking in the first episode. “Makes a man look scary, like a chicken.” Later, he eats some toast: “Brown for first course, white for pudding. Brown is savoury, white’s the treat. Of course, I’m the one who’s laughing because I actually love brown toast!”

For all this sweetness, Mark can be weird and quite history-obsessed, sometimes constructing strange analogies to explain his relationships with women.”Sophie is the one. Toni is Russia: Vast, mysterious, unconquerable.,” he reasons. “Sophie is Poland: Manageable… won’t put up too much of a fight.” He is a loans manager, boring, neurotic, anal, and as the above indicates, obsessed with his work colleague, Sophie (Olivia Colman).

His flatmate, old Uni friend, Jeremy (Robert Webb) is a very different character: jobless, vain, promiscuous, irresponsible, convinced against all the evidence of his own musical genius, (he envisages a band called, “Danny Dyer’s Chocolate Homunculus). He falls ‘in love’ with any pretty girl he meets and is too much under the influence of his dubious friend, Super Hans (Matt King). “If I don’t think about it, there’s always a chance it didn’t happen,” is a typical thought.

“If it feels good, do it!” he suggests to an outraged Mark, at one point.

“If it feels good, do it?” Mark repeats incredulously. “And what is that? ‘Gaddafi’s Law?'”

Peep Show is still the longest running sitcom in Channel 4 history. Two things particularly (other than Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain’s brilliant writing) elevate it above the usual odd couple style flat share set-up. Firstly, the unique way it is filmed, enabling us to not only see the world through Mark and Jez’s eyes but hear their (often not entirely flattering) thoughts.

The other is that as a comedy vehicle, it introduced most of the world to the world of David Mitchell and Robert Webb.

Or as Jez would put it: “This is good. This is exactly like watching a porno. Except I can’t see anything, I haven’t got a hard on and I want to cry.”

Netflix, All 4

Peep Show quotes:

Mark: Jeremy, there are many things I would do to help you. But digging a hole in the wintry earth with my bare hands so that you can bury the corpse of a dog you killed is not one of them.

Jez: Justice is done. Not actual justice, but what I wanted to happen, which is basically the same thing.

Jez: Crunchy Nut cornflakes are just Frosties for wankers.

Mark: Frosties are just cornflakes for people who can’t face reality.

Jez: No more drugs! I don’t need drugs. I mean, what great music was ever made on drugs? Bowie, obviously…The Floyd…The Prodge. Aphex, the list is endless really.

Super Hans: People? People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis! You can’t trust people, Jez.

Mark: So what if I don’t really love her. Charles didn’t really love Diana and they were alright. Sort of.

Jez: Brilliant, Mark! My mate and your woman have just gone off to fuck each other. What are we gonna do now? Go and make a tent in the living room and eat Dairylea? Is that what you want? ‘Cos that’s what’s gonna happen!

Mark: There’s the familiar gut punch of pain and confusion. Hello, old friend…

Jez (on vaginas): She’s got one. She’s got one. She’s definitely got one… she’s pretending she hasn’t got one. But really she has..

Mark: Well, listen, I’m sorry if I didn’t do it right and I’m sorry if you assume that I eat red meat and don’t necessarily think money or Tony Blair are a bad thing, but if there isn’t room here for people who stand against everything you believe in, then what sort of a hippy free-for-all is this?

Jez: Come Mr. Taliban, tally my bananas.

Mark: The perfect combination of beauty and low self esteem.

Big Suze: My friend Otto had a very bad trip one time. He put his head on a railway track thinking it was a big steel sweatband.

Jez: Why can’t I just have everything I want? All the time? Isn’t that democracy?

Mark: I guess doing things you hate is just the price you pay to avoid loneliness.

Jez: Aren’t we supposed to be living in a multicultural democracy? And isn’t that the point? You know, the Jews, the Muslims and the racists all living together happily side by side, doing and saying whatever the hell they like?

Mark: Do a Columbo! Do a Columbo!

Super Hans: The twins! I’m always going on about me twins, am I?’ Course I have! The twins, the fucking twins. I’m always on about them! I bloody love ’em too. Hey – I’ve got them on my phone. Oh, hold on, have I…?

Mark: This was definitely a good idea. There’s no chance this wasn’t a good idea.

The Best Sitcoms of the 21st century so far: Friday Night Dinner (2011 – ?)

Despite a surprisingly funky theme tune and title sequence, Robert Popper’s long running sitcom works on a deceptively simple premise: a family of four, Martin, Jackie and their two unmarried grown-up sons, Adam and Jonny, meet up for their regular Friday evening meal.

Dad Martin (Paul Ritter) is the most eccentric of the four; endlessly taking off his shirt (“so bloody hot!”), recycling the same lame jokes (“a lovely bit of squirrel, love!”), reacting with confusion and terror if anyone attempts to ‘high five’ him (“Jesus Christ!”) or hiding from his wife, Jackie (Tamsin Greig). Although in their twenties, the sons (Inbetweeners’ star Simon Bird and Ton Rosenthal from Plebs) revert to their childhood selves whenever they visit, putting salt in each other’s drinks or feuding over such trifles as the possession of a childhood cuddly toy.

The meal is also reliably interrupted by oddball neighbour Jim (Greig’s old Green Wing co-star, Mark Heap) who has an ill-concealed crush on Jackie and until recent series, a pet dog, Wilson, who he is clearly terrified of. And then there’s Horrible Grandma. And Lovely Grandma (the late Frances Cuka). And the horrible Mr. Morris (“I will not be slandered!”)

Writer Robert Popper and an excellent cast have created a frequently hilarious world of their own.

Channel 4, All 4, Netflix.

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.

Book review: Easily Distracted by Steve Coogan

Coogan cover

Easily Distracted by Steve Coogan

Published by: Century

Let’s be clear: Steve Coogan is not Alan Partridge.

There are similarities, obviously. They both look almost the same. Both are totally car-obsessed.  Both have a love for James Bond. In one episode of I’m Alan Partridge…, Partridge memorably recreates the entire opening sequence of The Spy Who Loves Me. Coogan, meanwhile, admits to having a picture of Roger Moore in a safari suit on his bedroom wall as a child. As an adult, he was overjoyed to be mentioned briefly in Roger Moore’s own autobiography.

But the resemblance soon ends. Partridge seems to be always around ten years older than Coogan himself. Coogan has just turned fifty, Partridge must thus be now about sixty, although the age gap seemed to narrow in Alpha Papa. Coogan is a left winger with an understandable and fully justified hatred of our tabloid press. Partridge is much less politically sophisticated, a Daily Mail reader and “homosceptic” who supports the death penalty. Coogan has been much more successful with women than Alan, who makes largely inept romantic overtures towards beauty show contestants, much younger radio station employees and whose idea of a hot date is going to a “cracking owl sanctuary”. Oddly, Coogan attributes his success in this regard, which predates his fame to his essential geekiness: “they liked the fact that I wasn’t an alpha male. I was a bit square. A bit nerdish.” It has often ended in disaster, however.

There is far more to Steve Coogan than Alan Partridge, however, and despite an occasional failure (like his 24 Hour Party People character, his real life friend Tony Wilson) to wear his learning lightly and avoid pretension (“I’ve learned late in life to understand the true beauty of thoughts and reflections”), this is an enjoyable well written book. The first section deals with various highs and lows: his recent triumph with Philomena, his war with the evil forces of News International, the filming of Alpha Papa and an early nadir at the 1990 Edinburgh Festival during which he “spent far too much time imagining what it would be like to be Sean Hughes” then seemingly bound for superstardom, hard as it is t believe now. The second section is more chronological, describing his generally happy Irish Catholic northern upbringing. His brother later had a top twenty hit with the Mock Turtles’ “Can You Dig It?”

The third segment deals with Coogan’s rise to fame through college, Spitting Image and radio and TV up to the mid-nineties. There is perhaps not enough about Coogan’s actual career since he achieved fame: Around The World In Eighty Days isn’t mentioned, perhaps understandably as it was a big flop, nor is Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible. But successes like Cruise of the Gods and Coogan’s Run are barely mentioned either. Coogan will also doubtless surprise many by admitting to liking Saxondale more than Alan Partridge.

Comedy is a vicious business but while he admits to rightly loathing Bernard Manning who he has met, On The Buses and to not personally being a fan of Michael McIntyre (“not my cup of tea”), he is remarkably generous about almost everyone he has worked with, usually only encountering tension with them if they are unable to work with him again for some reason. He admits to finding Chris Morris “odd” and was “hurt” when John Thomson, by then a big star thanks to The Fast Show and Cold Feet understandably no longer wanted to be Paul Calf’s sidekick “Fat Bob” anymore. Coogan also once almost came to blows with early collaborator Patrick Marber (a regular on Alan Partridge’s sofa, who in one guise was accidentally shot dead on TV by Alan on the last episode of Knowing Me, Knowing You…”) and the two seem to have drifted apart, despite reconciling afterwards. Marber is now better known as a writer and screenwriter but Coogan is still clearly immensely grateful to him. “God bless Patrick Marber,” are words unlikely to crop up in Lee and Herring’s memoirs. They appear here.

In A Cock and Bull Story (and later The Trip) Steve Coogan’s character is continuously annoyed when Rob Brydon repeatedly adopts an Alan Partridge voice to impersonate Coogan. In truth, he seems far more at ease with his inner demons than tabloid mythology suggests. Let us hope so. He is a national treasure.

And the book? Lovely stuff.

coogan

DVD review: W1A Series 1 and 2

W1A DVD

The problem with peopling a comedy series with annoying characters is that the series as a whole can end up being annoying rather than funny. This is a bit of an issue for W1A, John Morton’s follow up to his own Twenty Twelve. That dealt with the farcical goings on at the fictional Olympic Deliverance Commission in the run-up to the 2012 London Games. This follows the onetime Head of Deliverance Ian Fletcher (Bonneville) as he grapples with the frustrations and inertia of life at the BBC where he has been appointed to the meaningless position of Head of Values.

Fletcher is not especially annoying himself and along with Head of Inclusivity Lucy Freeman (Sosanya) is probably the closest thing we have to a hero or at least a sympathetic character in the whole thing. Fletcher is joined by the most memorable character from Twenty Twelve, the vacuous Siobhan Sharpe (Hynes, in her best role since Daisy in Spaced). A strong cast of supporting cast notably Rufus Jones, as a camp dim-witted ideas man and Hugh Skinner as a hopeless intern.

Numerous problems confront the hapless Fletcher in these seven half-hour (plus one-hour special) episodes. A Spotlight South West presenter complains about a perceived anti-Cornish bias at the Corporation towards her, though she does not actually come from the county herself. A row emerges when details of Fletcher’s salary are leaked and chaos ensues after it is revealed Newsnight presenter Evan Davies is to appear on Strictly Come Dancing. The show wears its celebrity cameos lightly and does not rely on them too heavily for humour.

John Morton was behind the earlier “mockumentary” People Like Us (which starred the now disgraced Chris Langham) and as on that there are moments of genius in the show’s deliberately inane voiceover, here delivered by David Tennant as in Twenty Twelve (“Sting has called up Alan Yentob personally and called him an actual prick”). There is much to commend here. Another brilliant touch is that the show’s offices have all been named after comedy giants of the past. Hence “inside Frankie Howerd,” there is a huge, rather alarming backdrop featuring the face of the Up Pompeii! star.

It is admirable that the BBC has produced something that is so critical of itself. However, in general, too many of the characters either speak in catchphrases (“I’m not being funny but…”) or obstructive cliches (responding to a question with an unhelpful “brilliant” rather than answering it) that it is sometimes as frustrating as the media world it depicts.

Otherwise, and I’m not being funny or anything but it’s all good.

Release date: May 18th 2015

Certificate: 15

Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Jessica Hynes, Rufus Jones, Sarah Parish, Nina Sosanya, Jason Watkins, Hugh Skinner, Ophelia Lovibond

BBC Worldwide

Programme Name: W1A 2 - TX: n/a - Episode: Generic (No. n/a) - Picture Shows:  Jack Patterson (JONATHAN BAILEY), Will Humphries (HUGH SKINNER), Izzy Gould (OPHELIA LOVIBOND), Lucy Freeman (NINA SOSANYA), Ian Fletcher (HUGH BONNEVILLE), Siobhan Sharpe (JESSICA HYNES), Neil Reid (DAVID WESTHEAD), David Wilkes (RUFUS JONES), Anna Rampton (SARAH PARISH), Simon Harwood (JASON WATKINS), Tracey Pritchard (MONICA DOLAN) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Jack Barnes