Archive for Not Now Darling

Dyer Straits

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2013 by dcairns

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I was very excited about Ray Cooney’s return to the cinema. The west end farceur made two films, or “films,” in the seventies, both based on his stage hits. I have shown several of them to friends. I don’t see most of those friends much now, strangely.

Those seventies classics are NOT NOW DARLING (1973) and NOT NOW COMRADE (1976) — just from those titles you can see that Mr. Cooney was empire-building, attempting to carve out a niche in the British comedy market somewhere between the CARRY ON films and the CONFESSIONS films. Just from the years of production and the fact that there’s only two of them, you can see that he didn’t succeed. I suppose nobody in those days realized that the saucy British comedy was on the way out, killed off by TV, which could replicate most of the same sauciness and be watched free of shame behind drawn curtains at home, and by the intrinsic rottenness of most of the films — those Robin Askwith movies are like one very long public service film promoting chemical castration.

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Cooney’s films don’t deserved to be considered with the very bleakest of the sex farces (along with the CONFESSIONS movies I’d include death-gasps like THE AMOROUS MILKMAN and I’M NOT FEELING MYSELF TONIGHT and of course the jaw-dropping, COME PLAY WITH ME, the release of which was equivalent to the British film industry taping a sign to its forehead reading SHOOT ME), films which I’m convinced were part of a government conspiracy to stop the working classes from breeding by depressing and disgusting them to the point of sterilisation, a scheme I have decided was almost certainly called Operation Prolewipe. But Cooney is still guilty of minor crimes against comedy, humanity, and cinema.

NOT NOW DARLING stars Leslie Phillips, who certainly has cinematic comedy chops, along with Cooney himself, who sadly doesn’t. Whatever abilities he brings to the stage as actor, writer and director simply don’t transmit to film — all his intended laughs are echoing endlessly in some twilight zone wormhole of mistimed punchlines and ill-conceived innuendo, where the translucent spectre of Arthur Askey holds illimitable dominion over all. Plot involves Phillips as a furrier trying to arrange a free fur coat for his girlfriend without his wife finding out. Julie Ege is the girlfriend, Moira Lister the wife, and a barely-clad Barbara Windsor is also included without fair warning or apology. As I recall, the film was shot multi-camera using some live vision-mixing system that saved time and money and made everything look a bit murky. So you get all the awkwardness of an under-rehearsed long take with all the awkward cutting of a live broadcast. And an insulting approach to the audience that panders by serving up nudity for inane non-reasons. “Here, you like tits, I’ve heard — let me shove this representative pair into your eyeballs.”

Cooney is apparently a nice man, but his films kind of make me want to hate him. I will resist the urge.

I don’t remember NOT NOW COMRADE so much, but it’s a “satirical” take on the cold war with defections and stripper’s pasties. Roy Kinnear is the token talented one, managing to wring just one laugh from the material, and there’s one moment of accidental genius when the cheap set is deserted by the cast, there’s an Ozu-like moment of emptiness, and then the dwarfish Don Estelle wanders myopically into frame in a loud check suit, hesitates a moment, and wanders off. Surreal and kind of beautiful, but entirely ruined when he turns up again later and turns out to have something to do with the plot.

These two movies are really among the worst things that have ever happened to British cinema, even if they’re not as ugly as the full-frontal Askwith stuff. So I was, as I said earlier, excited about RUN FOR YOUR WIFE, and the film’s reception, taking £747 at the UK box office, led me to believe that Cooney had lost none of his power to appall and stultify.

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In fact, not only has age not withered him, it has in some respects enhanced his capabilities. The film, like the play, tells the sorry tale of a London cabby with two wives who don’t know about each other. Concussed when trying to stop a mugging (some superannuated youths trying to steal a handbag from a bag lady played by Judi Dench — the first of many astonishing cameos — but why do they think this homeless lady is worth robbing?) he loses track of his careful schedule which allows him to (somehow) juggle two households. With hilarious consequences.

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One can see why Cliff opted for a disguise, considering the company he’s in.

Stuffing the film with cameos, Cooney contrives to include cast members from several decades’ worth of stage productions of this inexplicable hit, making it a bit like Alain Resnais’s YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET!, released at around the same time to slightly more acclaim. Although I think Cooney was probably aiming for something more like LE TESTAMENT D’ORPHEE, a dreamlike reiteration of all his artistic obsessions, in which dropped trousers and squashed cakes recur like leitmotifs.

Cooney is joined in the director’s chair by one John Luton, presumably brought in to enhance the technical side of things, and bringing his experience cutting a Lindsay Shonteff James Bond rip-off to the table. Filming farce is notoriously difficult — let’s be fair, here — and one thing that film history seems to tell us is that the longer the takes can be, the better it works. The greatest cinematic farce on record is Renoir’s THE RULES OF THE GAME (although it’s also much more than that), and it achieves some of its staggering effects by holding its shots even as the action seems to overflow them — we’re as breathless as the camera, which can’t seem to quite capture all the action. Cooney and Luton boldly jettison all this accumulated wisdom and set about chopping every scene into nuggets a couple of seconds long, so that nothing breathes and no honest interaction between players is ever captured.

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This might, however, be a mercy, as the actors on display include Danny Dyer (whose involvement is seemingly, somehow, enough to get any film made, whether it be repellent art film, repellent gangster film or repellent comedy); television presenter Denise Van Outen; pop singer (Girls Aloud) Sarah Harding… there are others with far more comedy experience hanging around to back them up, but by some strange bad movie alchemy, they’re even worse. Christopher Biggins and Lionel Blair play homosexuals unconvincingly — I tend to blame the writing here — and Neil Morrissey is, from what one can discern through the blipvert cutting, terribly poor. Honorable mention to the two police inspectors, Nicholas le Prevost and especially Ben Cartwright, who manage not to make you either angry or embarrassed on their behalf.

It’s best, really, not to watch the film as a comedy, but as a kind of endurance test horror film, like FUNNY GAMES or SALO. The sets are retina-scouring in their vibrancy, and one”comic climax” involves a flood of red dye that transforms half the cast into bystanders from BRAIN DEAD. The gurning faces in close-up, the chocolate cake smeared on Neil Morrissey’s buttocks, the endless cameos by elderly and half-forgotten comics (making this not only the PARTING SHOTS of the twenty-first century, but the WON TON TON, THE DOG WHO SAVED HOLLYWOOD)… There’s also the strange subplot about the breakdown of civilisation…

I should explain: since Cooney’s play was written decades ago, the plot, to work, must be protected from modern technology, which would ruin it. So mobile phones are mislaid, the internet is down, sat nav is absent, and lines of dialogue establishing this are dropped in here and there, giving the impression of a London beset by some terrible technological calamity. It’s like a version of LIFEFORCE where the space vampire apocalypse hasn’t been noticed because everybody’s trousers are falling down.

In fact, the late, lovely Richard Briers appeared in both this movie and COCKNEYS VS ZOMBIES so close together that it’s not easy to be sure which was actually his final film. But my apocalyptic subtext reading of WIFE suggests that they’re actually the same movie anyway.

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Lionel Blair was in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. Fact.

Kicking a film when it’s down is a critic’s favourite sport, of course. And there’s nothing really to be said in favour of such brutality. In this rare case, however, I would argue that my appraisal might actually make some people want to rent the film, as I did, to see how amazingly strange it could possibly be. Such fools will not be disappointed.

“…I shall think that insubstantial death is amorous…”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2008 by dcairns

I’ve given up commemorating birthdays here on Shadowplay because whenever I do it, the subject promptly keels over in a state of rigor mortis. I homaged Richard Widmark and Jules Dassin in my first month and look what happened to them. I thought about mentioning Hazel Court, missed the date, and she STILL died. So, no more birthday celebrations here.

Obituaries, however, are fair game — I can’t see what harm I can do there. And Friday’s Guardian obits page was fairly thronging with film talent: Tristram Cary and Julie Ege have both crossed the river to the Western Lands. The link between them is Hammer films.

Alec the dalek

Cary scored THE LADYKILLERS, which is enough to make him a Shadowplay hero in itself. That film is one of the most perfect feats of stylisation in British cinema, and the score plays a big part: Cary not only wrote the music, but also arranged the sound effects, to create the kind of unified effect often rendered impossible by the compartmentalisation of film production. The big bass drum that sounds as characters topple from a great height into a freight train is an example of music crossing over and BECOMING sound. The build-up to Alec Guinness’ entrance is a symphony of music and sound in perfect harmony, with Peter Sellers impersonating a parrot and a ringing doorbell as seamless parts of the mix.

The producer of THE LADYKILLERS, Seth Holt, used Cary again for the little-known but rather fine BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB, but it’s his work in electronic music, at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and elsewhere, that is Cary’s other great claim to fame. Apart from scary electronica for Dr. Who, Cary crafted many of those oddly neutral-but-bleak themes used in BBC educational programmes in the ’70s. They create quite a strange mood, like lying in a flotation tank and thinking about the relentless march of time, destroying all things.

A different sort of mood is associated with Norwegian model-turned actress Julie Ege. A genuinely guilty pleasure, Ege’s career touches on greatness with ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (the best Bond film, the best Bond!) and Robert Fuest’s THE FINAL PROGRAMME, but is more customarily found amid the depths of NOT NOW DARLING, THE AMOROUS MILKMAN, UP POMPEII, etc. A film festival gathering of her comedy output could easily induce mass suicide, but that’s not her fault. The simple fact is that prior to the late ’60s, the British low-brow sex comedy was about sexual failure — grotesque, cheerfully depraved working-class halfwits failing to get their end away. The moment anybody actually scored the laughter died in your throat, because nobody wants to picture Sid James engaged in the physical act of love. Not even with Julie Ege.

Ege’s scream queen career ought to have offered more quality, since there were some decent horror films made in the ’70s in the UK, but her roles were in LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (standing decorously by as Hammer films jump on the Kung-Fu bandwagon), CRAZE (getting picked up by Jack Palance at the Raymond Revuebar) and CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT (the third of Hammer’s dinosaur movies — the one where they left out the dinosaurs, story, and the tops halves of the fur bikinis), films that seem to compete with the sex farces for sheer depression and poverty of imagination. These are all important works for the true student of dreadfulness. Julie Ege’s beauty and casual approach to clothing makes them perhaps slightly less unwatchable than they might have been, but her greatest contribution to society was becoming a nurse, something which we really should value more highly than a willingness to appear onscreen without knickers.

My fondest memory of Ege is a parody of this archetype in The Making of the Goodies’ Disaster Movie, a spin-off book from the legendary TV comedy The Goodies. Ege appears in the book’s copious illustrations, playing a starlet who is outraged at the film-makers’ suggestion that she keep her clothes on for a part, even if it IS essential to the plot.

Julie’s movies, while nearly all terrible, provided sex-starved Brits with cheap thrills during the years when America was getting its rocks off to DEEP THROAT and the like, and by contrast the British films are quaint and sort-of innocent, if sexist. That’s really the reason I can’t celebrate Ege’s contribution to film more wholeheartedly — she made many of us happy by baring her bits, but she did so in films that were dismal celebrations of bimbosity, often portraying women not as objects, as feminist criticism usually argues, but as mentally deficient obligatrons, autonomous, apparently sentient beings whose desires and behaviour just happen to conform to the densest fantasies of the average Razzle-reader.

NOT NOW DARLING is available to rent or buy.

The Great Darkness

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2008 by dcairns

That’s what Dundee is REALLY LIKE, even today. Yes, that’s right, we’re talking about –

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Joseph McGrath’s THE GREAT MCGONAGALL, starring and co-written with Spike Milligan, is out on DVD, complete with its original censor’s certificate, signed by Lord Harlech and the ill-fated Stephen Murphy, whose stint as secretary did not long survive his passing of STRAW DOGS, LAST TANGO IN PARIS, THE DEVILS, CLOCKWORK ORANGE…

That’s what I call a DVD extra! Which is good, since it’s all you get on this disc.

I remember discussing this movie online with David Ehrenstein, a fan of the film, and complaining that the revolutionary multi-camera system used by McGrath, MultiVista*, rendered the image muddy and unreadable. He said it didn’t.

He’s right! The DVD clears up the old VHS’ image problems somewhat, giving us a pin-sharp picture of what proves to be the real problem: a very underlit film.

The Postman Always Rings Twice

The guy on the right is in black-face (a favourite, rather queasy, comic device of Milligan’s) but it really just looks like he’s in heavy shadow, because he IS in heavy shadow. During one musical number, it takes ages to realise that the singer is blacked up, and then we assume his chorus girls (including, I think, ROCKY HORROR’s Little Nell) are likewise daubed, since they’re the same hue. Only when they crowd into the spotlight do we realise they aren’t. Sometimes entire scenes look like minstrel shows. A genuine black actor (Clifton Jones, a militant leader in Godard’s ONE PLUS ONE) strains to make any impression on the emulsion, except when whited up as an Edinburgh Gentleman. Despite the low budget and numerous deliberate anachronisms, the film has a curiously strong Victorian feel, and maybe the engulfing shadows help slightly…

The Prisoner

Quite a lot of Milligan’s performance is lost to the world due to strange lighting decisions that cause his eyes and lower face to disappear into the gloom. Being a product of Britain in the ’70s, TGM is shot not only in MultiVista but also in Brownoscope, the miracle of colour processing that aimed to fully exploit the varied properties of the colour brown. Indeed, Brownoscopy sought to elevate brown from a mere colour to being a full-fledged artistic medium in its own right. Had the pioneers involved succeeded in taking their invention to its highest level, celluloid itself would have been displaced as a recording device, and films as we know them today would have been rendered wholly from brownness itself. This film is perhaps the closest Brownoscope’s creators came to realising their awful, beautiful dream.

Etre et Avoir

The presence of white on the set just confuses the cinematographer — he stops way down to avoid any risk of glare. Never mind if most of the leading man’s head disappears into the wall. When a film is devoid of colour, the lighting must separate out the planes of action to allow us to read the image. John Mackey’s work… doesn’t really do that. In a short career, he also shot micro-budget domestic horror film THE CORPSE with Michael Gough, which shares with this film a muddy texture and a creeping low-affect tone of despair. Which is WHAT I LIKE TO SEE, especially in a comedy.

The Family Way

This shot’s just RIDICULOUS — the visible source light behind the characters isn’t giving off even a strong backlight and the faces are lit by damn-all. What light there is hits the backs of their heads.

What’s not apparent from the frame-grabs here is the dubious quality of the sound recording. Shot in an old Music Hall in Whitechapel, the flick must have presented challenges to the recordist — so we get muffled and reverberant dialogue that kills comedy precision at birth and strangles any impression of lightness. At times it feels exactly like a YouTube home video of a school play. 

Nevertheless, I think Mr. Ehrenstein is right, this is in fact a LOST COMEDY MASTERPIECE. The editing is very strange but often rather fine and sensitive to performance, and often gives things an added element of surrealism. So many shots and eyelines are mismatched in the opening sequence that the editor works up a sweat with constant cross-cutting in a vain attempt to convince us that all these closeups belong to the same film. He doesn’t quite succeed, but he creates a giddy, concussed mosaic of blinks and stutters.

I put the disc on to confirm my earlier prejudices, and the first 36 minutes slipped by before I could think to pause it — no small feat considering the lack of structured plotting, characterisation, scenic variety, and the often impenetrable sound and picture. The technical shabbiness sometimes helps — many of the jokes misfire, only to ricochet around and hit you from an unexpected angle. There are a lot more laughs of surprise than the cheap jokes comprising the script would lead you to expect. Maybe a bad joke can be funnier if you don’t quite hear it at first, then figure it out after everybody’s moved on and is in the middle of some fresh inanity. This is pretty near the opposite of how good comedy is supposed to work, but it works here (unless I’ve just lost my mind, always a possibility).

The movie fits squarely into a weird and despised tradition of British cinema, where ambitious projects are shoehorned into a theatrical format at a tiny budget — Tony Richardson’s HAMLET, filmed entirely in the London Roundhouse, nearly fits the pattern, but isn’t quite open enough at being set in a theatre. Ken Russell’s SALOME’S LAST DANCE and Jim Sharman and Richard O’Brien’s SHOCK TREATMENT embody the tradition. In a fit of madness, Richard Attenborough’s OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR inflates the concept to Mr. Creosote proportions.

Mrs Brown

This… thing constantly delivers memorable hallucinatory frames like these. Peter Sellers plays Queen Victoria, kneeling down. Milligan composes a bovine poem, with accompanying imagery. (Whenever Milligan recites, an ineffably beautiful and mournful theme — Tigon films always had gorgeous scores — plays as if automatically, smothering any comedy beneath a plush cushion of melancholia.)

“The chicken is a noble beast

But the cow is much forlorner

Standing in the pouring rain

With a leg at every corner.”

We’re told that all the poetry is genuine stuff, composed by the real William McG, poet and tragedian, who is buried here in the fair city of Edinburgh. Since W.C. Fields passed through this town, pausing to take his first drink of whiskey, it is likely that he heard of McGonagall’s fame and borrowed the name, which phonetically translated becomes The Great McGonigle, protagonist of THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY.

The Dream of the Bovine

*Briefly, the MultiVista system allowed McGrath to shoot with several cameras at once and edit scenes live, as he filmed them, like a live TV director/vision mixer. The system is also used on that glorious nadir of British “cinema”, NOT NOW DARLING. Watching that one is like swimming in cement with a migraine. And Ray Cooney**.

**After I made him watch a Cooney film, my chum andy Gonzalez said, “I am now physically angry that this man has had a career.”

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