Archive for The Goon Show


Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2022 by dcairns
Some of these insert shots have an Argentoesque intensity

TV director William Sterling’s one feature film, ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND (1972) assembles lots of great people and looks nice. It’s not my idea of wonderland, though.

As you can see, the copy I scraped up isn’t very good, so I may not be doing the film justice. It’s a lot better than most adaptations — fairly true to the text. It doesn’t become an incoherent mishmash of Wonderland and Looking Glass, as so many do. But being true to the story and characters isn’t the same as capturing the spirit. On the other hand, you can legitimately aim to capture a DIFFERENT spirit. I’m not sure if that’s what happens here.

I remember some piece that discussed the film, and spoke very critically of Michael Jayston’s visible panty line. He plays Charles Dodgson, and the film begins with a boat outing with the Liddell sisters, but does NOT have these characters reappear in Wonderland, disguised, as Lewis Carroll does: he, the stammering Do-do-dodgson, becomes the Dodo. But Jayston doesn’t stutter, he speaks beautifully. Seductively, in fact. He also neglects historical accuracy in his choice of Y-fronts, which show through his white trousers in a way sure to inspire disapproval in a Von Stroheim undie perfectionist.

Fiona Fullerton, a perky Alice, has been told to smile a lot, and does. Her perplexing adventures seem to amuse her greatly. This strikes me as wrong, but given what she’s been asked to do, she does it charmingly, though she’s too old. But if the film is about anything, which isn’t certain, it may be about coming of age — indeed, the soft-focus boat ride looks very much like what I imagine a David Hamilton adolescent smut film must be like (haven’t seen one).

Wonderland is all sets. Quite big ones, but things still get to seem a little airless. The transition occurs when the dream begins, rather than when Alice goes done the rabbit hole, which is a distortion, but an acceptable one. The budget allows for some very interesting visuals. A well decorated rabbithole, a Dali-meets-Geiger sky, an infinite corridor for the key business.

One blunder is carried over directly from the Paramount version: there’s a terrific cast, and most of them are rendered unrecognisable under Stuart Freeborn’s makeups. As usual, the humanoid characters come off best in such circumstances: this may be the only adaptation of the book where the most amusing character is the Duchess’s cook, played in a maelstrom of fury by Patsy Rowlands. Robert Helpmann is a perfect Mad Hatter (though I don’t understand why Kenneth Williams never did it). Peter Bull is a pretty unbeatable Duchess, Flora Robson slightly out of her element as the Queen of Hearts, Dennis Price very much IN his as the King (he does nothing but recite Lewis Carroll in the same year’s PULP). Tiny playing card parts are stuffed with familiar faces like Rodney Bewes, Dennis Waterman, Ray Brooks and Richard Warwick.

Smothered under prosthetics, Peter Sellers still does well as the March Hare, Dudley Moore copes as the Dormouse, Spike Milligan capers and goons as the Griffin, but it’s all schtick and no character. The only bit of Michael Hordern you can see in his Mock Turtle outfit is his lower face, but the rest of the makeup gives him some kind of jowl-lift, so even that part doesn’t look like it’s his. Michael Crawford’s stylish White Rabbit ears and whiskers allow him to do his thing relatively unimpeded (as with Sellers, it’s all in the eyes and voice) but Roy Kinnear has lost most of the Cheshire Cat’s lines AND business, and barely registers, an astonishing fate for such a great scene-stealer. Ralph Richardson has quite wisely refused to don a caterpillar’s head, and can be seen and enjoyed.

There are fewer laughs, I’d say, than in Jonathan Miller’s BBC version, which only had a few. Miller, however, had decided that this was a Victorian child’s dream, and his choices were mainly consistent with that. I’m just not sure what Sterling has decided on. A panto, perhaps. We have songs by John Barry with lyrics by Stanley Black, which edge out many of Carroll’s own superior words. Barry has gone fully into soupy strings mode, with a bit of the pizzicato guff he did in the early sixties. His main theme is almost identical to the one he foist onto ROBIN AND MARIAN.

Not as alienating as TALES OF BEATRIX POTTER, another children’s film from this period (it looks amazing but positively declines to deliver any tales, or any entertainment at all), it still feels like it would have baffled me as a kid. The Disney version made me feel stoned, as I recall, though I didn’t know what that was. I may have made some suggestions in the past for how the books should be treated, but if I did I’ve forgotten, so here goes —

Get good actors, and I don’t know that they have to be comedians. Give them some signifiers — the White Rabbit can have ears, for instance. Otherwise, dress them like the Tenniel illustrations and leave their faces on display and let them act. I hate hate hate the Tim Burton version but the idea of using CG to turn actors into live-action cartoons (giving Bonham-Carter a huge(r) head) was decent.

I would tend to favour locations over sets, even though Michael Stringer’s were very good here.

I think, controversially I know, that Alice should be a child. Get one who can act (which Miller inexplicably failed to do).

I think it should be a bit like Welles’ THE TRIAL, really, just slightly funnier, slightly less sinister. But A BIT sinister. (And the Welles is already pretty funny, funnier than this anyway).

When I read the book I was struck by how funny it was, which the films rarely seemed to be. I wonder if Richard Lester would have wanted to do this: it has eleven of his actors and numerous crew. And there’s the Goons connection. Carroll isn’t as rambunctious as The Goon Show, but he has his moments. It’s a funny thing: the book has almost never been filmed by a comedy specialist.

Of bannisters and beer

Posted in Comics, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2022 by dcairns

“The time has come,” Satanik said / “To speak of hope and fear / Of spies alive and spies quite dead / Of bannisters and beer.”

SATANIK (1968) is a kind of crossbreed of DIABOLIK and A WOMAN’S FACE, or maybe THE WASP WOMAN. Like the Bava film, it’s based on a fumetti, like the Cukor and Corman, it deals with a disfigured woman whose beauty is restored, but in a manner that thrusts her into CRIME!

In fact, Dr. Marnie Bannister (yes, we kept calling her “Minnie,” and spoke to each other in Goon Show voices throughout) is already evil, stabbing the discoverer of the youth-and-beauty formula just because he wants to do more tests before allowing her to munch his magic crystals. Probably her really dreadful monster makeup has driven her crazy.

The film is really a crime movie, but it has a spy movie vibe — DIABOLIK, after all, is just a crime movie with a supercool espionage flavour. Unfortunately, SATANIK isn’t supercool, despite varied locations in Spain and Switzerland and a reasonably snazzy credits sequence. Our girl only dons the catsuit and mask to do a striptease; she’s not a likable or even clever protag; the cops chasing her are bores.

But it’s amusing the way director Piero Vivarelli (also a songwriter!) keeps framing her with or through bannisters, as if to remind us of her name. Even when the cops are discussing her crimes, there’s a bannister. The organized crime guy she takes up with has a totally weird horizontal bannister dividing his room in two. Can you call it a bannister when it has no stairs and doesn’t go at an angle? Wouldn’t that be a fence? But who has a fence in their lounge?

Slightly better, but only slightly, is LIGHTNING BOLT, aka OPERAZIONE GOLDMAN. Directed by Antonio Margheritti, with extra cheese, it’s at least a proper spy film, with some terrific sets including a really impressive control room, it has lots of people in black catsuits (but no red one: the poster lied), rocket ships, cryogenic freezing (not QUITE women in tubes, but near as makes no difference) and hilarious model shots — you can spot a tiny paper cutout of a man folding over as the red paint “lava” bursts in, with a dubbed “Aargh!” to make us believe in him. It’s extremely touching.

One of the main action sequences consists entirely of NASA stock footage, a tiny model car wobbling across a diorama, and rear-projection shot of the hero jerking his steering wheel: a kind of holy trinity of cheapniz.

The English dub shows signs of trying for laconic hardboiled wit, but on the other hand they spell the composer’s name wrong (“Ritz” Ortolani). Margheriti hides behind his Anthony M. Dawson pseudonym as usual.

Anyway, the villain owns a brewery, and his product forms a kind of light beer leitmotif throughout, established far earlier in the film than in needs to be, proving that somebody, maybe talented screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, actually thought about this. Which was arguably a waste of his time and talent, but nevertheless I salute him, if it was him.

When the redheaded villain falls to his death, the redheaded hero quips, “I didn’t like your beer either.”

SATANIK and LIGHTNING BOLT star nobody at all.

The Nod

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on July 15, 2020 by dcairns

I decided to read, after discovering to my surprise that it’s available online, the screenplay for ROMANCE OF THE PINK PANTHER, the Inspector Clouseau films scripted by Peter Sellers and one Jim Moloney, to be directed by Clive Donner, Sellers having successfully elbowed out Blake Edwards.

Since Sellers had reportedly been bored of playing Clouseau by the second time he did it (which was the first film in which the bumbling inspector was lead character), his eagerness to revisit the role can only have been an attempt to prove to the world, and Edwards, and himself, that he, Sellers, had always been the principal genius behind the most successful comedy franchise in screen history. I had a feeling the script, left unfilmed after the star’s death, wasn’t going to do that — after all, the same pair of “writers” were to blame for THE FIENDISH PLOT OF DR. FU MANCHU, an absolute steaming load of cack which became Sellers’ last film, rather marring the beautiful valediction that is BEING THERE.

Sure enough, ROMANCE is dreadful. Scene one, in which Professor Auguste Balls, master of disguise-making, sells Clouseau a Louis XIV chair disguise, did make me laugh out loud, actually. Well, FIENDISH PLOT had one good bit — the “elephants on the knees” routine, in which somebody looks through a microscope and sees archive film of elephants. It’s very much Goon Show humour, which is Sellers’ default mode, borrowed wholesale from his chum Spike Milligan, and you can hear him dropping Milliganesque catchphrases into the Clouseau films and elsewhere (“It must be hell in there,”) from the very beginning.

It wouldn’t have really worked onscreen, because a Louis XIV isn’t something a man of woman born can hide in. So you’d have an unavoidable surrealism that has nothing to do with the PINK PANTHER series’ style. But it was amusing to read, and to think of Sellers maybe being somehow influenced by Edogawa Rampo.

The rest of the thing is dross, though you can imagine Sellers, if he was on good form, getting some laughs out of the deeply inane, underplotted material. He’d done it in the past. What really interested me was this ~


The writing, you will note, is clunky and childish. Moloney was an actor, like Sellers, and clearly the junior party, lucky to be in on the thing. One pictures Sellers pacing while Moloney types. What seemed odd to me, given that there were two men present for the writing, was that an obvious idiosyncrasy, the idea of people nodding to indicate “NO” rather than shaking their heads, like humans, had survived the collaborative process.

But OK, it’s a one-off, I thought.


Argh. There it is again. So I think we can project ourselves into the writing room now…

SELLERS: …and she nods ‘no’ almost imperceptibly.

MOLONEY: Nods ‘no’?

SELLERS: What was that?

MOLONEY: You said, “Nods ‘no.'”

SELLERS: I know that.

MOLONEY: Don’t you mean…?

SELLERS: I know what I mean!

Moloney shrugs, types “…and she nods ‘no’ almost imperceptibly.”

OK, maybe I’m making too much of this.


I’m definitely not making too much of this. I know this looks almost like the same passage but it’s not, it’s another, nearly identical passage from much later on.

SELLERS: Clouseau nods ‘no’ almost imperceptibly.


SELLERS (a note of warning): Yes?

MOLONEY: Nothing.


A theory can be formed. Perhaps some of Sellers’ craziness, his temper tantrums and paranoia and resentment, is that he really did think people nodded no. Being a Hollywood star, he would be surrounded by yes men, but sometimes, as is the way of those things, those yes men would have varied things up a bit and nodded instead of saying yes. And Sellers, the poor deluded fool, would have thought they were refusing him, defying him. Some of those instances would have been really disturbing, as they would seem to be changing their minds capriciously in mid-sentence. It would be enough to destabilize the sanest man. The effects on a raving maniac can barely be calculated.Footnote 1: the neanderthals in William Golding’s wonderful novel The Inheritors shake their heads in agreement.

Footnote 2: experts in micro-body language say that a “barely perceptible nod” when saying “no” indicates a lie. Like the truth is trying to blast out of you even as you fib, like Gepetto yelling from inside Monstro the whale.

Footnote 3: I once knew a chap who shook his head yes and nodded no. There seemed no reason behind it. He clearly wasn’t lying about whether he’d had breakfast. He missed his vocation as personal assistant to Peter Sellers.