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

Empty World: Revisited

If you studied English at secondary school during the 1990s, there is every possibility you will remember reading the book, Empty World, by John Christopher.

The book tells of a disease which originates in Asia before rapidly spreading across the world and devastating the global population. Although published in 1977, with the world currently seeking to combat the spread of the Chinese Coronavirus pandemic, the book obviously has plenty of resonance to anyone reading it in 2020.

The novella focuses on a teenaged boy, Neil Miller. Neil is living with his elderly parents after having been orphaned in a road accident when he first begins to hear news reports of a new mysterious disease coming out of India. Initially, just a minor story chuntering away in the background, concern rises as the ‘Calcutta Plague’ spreads further and further across the world. Soon there are rumours it has arrived in Britain. Neil’s grandfather is old enough to remember the Second World War. He suggests spreading rumours should be made into a punishable offence again, as it was then.

Soon the Calcutta Plague’s presence in Britain is beyond doubt. One of Neil’s elderly teachers succumbs to it as do both his grandparents. The disease takes the form of a fever, before generating symptoms which appear to emulate a very rapid version of the ageing process. This is not very similar to COVID-19 at all, although the fictional plague does attack older people first. Eventually, it becomes clear that it is infecting pretty much everyone including some children Neil knows of his age (fifteen) and younger. This resembles the progress of COVID-19 in some respects. The elderly are undoubtedly being hit harder by the virus although contrary to early rumour, children can get it badly and die from it too.

The key difference, however, is that while the vast, overwhelming majority of people who get COVID-19 survive, with the exception of a few random people like Neil who get the initial fever but subsequently seem to be immune, the fictional Calcutta Plague kills anyone who gets it. As the title suggests, the book is essentially apocalyptic. Neil finds himself roaming or driving down completely empty streets, looting empty shops and  battling an inevitable brief explosion in the rat population, the disease having killed nearly every human on the Earth.

As terrible as COVID-19 is, we should be grateful it is not quite as bad as that.

Book review: Cult Filmmakers: 50 Movie Mavericks You Need To Know

Book review: Cult Filmmakers: 50 Movie Mavericks You Need To Know. By Ian Haydn Smith. Illustrated by Kristelle Rodeia. Published by: White Lion. Out now.

What makes a cult filmmaker? The key qualities seem to be distinctiveness and a degree of obscurity. Hitchcock and Spielberg were and are great filmmakers, but both are much too famous now to be included in a volume like this. Hitchcock might have appeared once. Spielberg too, perhaps in the brief interim after the release of Dual but before Jaws. But not now.

Indeed, it could argued that just by highlighting the fifty directors included in this volume in a book specifically titled, ‘Cult Filmmakers’, author Ian Haydn Smith is simultaneously undermining their cult status as much as he is re-enforcing it.

That is not to attack the book, which is a good one. The author’s choices are intriguing and it is almost as interesting to see who has been left out as it is to see who has been included. Sam Raimi doesn’t feature. Nor does Wes Anderson or the Coens. Presumably, the men behind The Evil Dead, Blood Simple and Rushmore would have been considered cult filmmakers once. However, they are now ineligible as they’ve all moved onto more mainstream successes as the men behind Spiderman, Intolerable Cruelty and Isle of Dogs.

But if this is the reason, it’s odd that the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Tim Burton and Kathryn Bigelow are. Other selections are less contentious: David Lynch, David Cronenberg and ‘Pope of Trash’ John Waters, have all achieved fame, while retaining their cult status. Some such as John Carpenter seem to have lost their initial cultiness, only to later recapture it.

The book is stylishly illustrated by Kristelle Rodeia. Occasionally, the pictures look nothing like their subjects e.g. Terry Gilliam. It doesn’t matter.

Personally, I am most grateful for the chapters shedding light on Amat Escalante, Benjamin Christensen and Barbara Loden, amongst others. Until this book, they were undeniably in my eyes, cult filmmakers: I had never heard of any of them. But now I do. And this can only be a good thing.

Imagine there were no Beatles…

Ten ways in which the world would really have been different without the Fab Four…

The hit Danny Boyle film, Yesterday envisages a world in which the biggest band of all time had never existed. But what if they really hadn’t? Consider…

First things first: the early series of Thomas The Tank Engine would not have been narrated by Ringo Starr. Someone else would have to have been found to do it instead, wasting considerable time and expense.

The career of the talented multimedia artist, Yoko Ono would have been allowed to continue without interruption, rather than being crudely sidetracked.

“Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye, crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess, man, you been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down, I am the eggman, we are the eggmen, I am the walrus, Goo goo g’joob”. Out of context, such lyrics would just sound like drug-induced nonsense. Imagine!

The career of fashion designer Stella McCartney would never have happened. This would obviously…er…have huge effects for everyone.

It is quite likely (although not certain) Linda McCartney’s vegetarian and vegan food range, would not have been launched. Julian Lennon would have not had a 1984 number 6 hit with ‘Too Late For Goodbyes’ either.

Pete Best would probably feel better about how his career has gone.

None of the Beatles’ post-Beatles careers would have occurred. Imagine no Mull of Kintyre. No Frog Chorus. So This Is Christmas. Imagine no…Imagine.

The film explicitly stated that the Beatles-influenced Oasis had never existed either, in which case, isn’t it a bit surprising Jack didn’t have a go at an Oasis track too? Although perhaps not Cigarettes and Alcohol, as cigarettes are another one of the things that don’t exist in this world. One wonders if Oasis would still have existed in some form anyway or how strongly they or other bands would have been affected by the Beatles’ absence. Would Madonna sound the same? Would Lady GaGa? Would Martin Amis have written in the same way? Ultimately, we will never know.

The Monty Python film, The Life of Brian would not exist as it owes its existence to George Harrison financially bailing the film out, as he wanted to see it himself. Eric Idle’s post-Python parody, The Rutles would also not exist.

Needless to say, the Beatles’ films, A Hard Day’s Night, Help! and Yellow Submarine would never have been made without The Beatles. Nor would any films inspired by them such as Backbeat, the little-seen Across The Universe. Or Yesterday.

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