RETRO FUN

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Ask us what our favourite TV channel is and we have to say Talking Pictures, which is run by the folks at Renown Video. Here’s something wot I writ earlier about some vintage treats from the Renown catalogue which you will find for free now on Talking Pictures…

When I was a nipper, one of the most popular comedians around with the kiddies was a certain Mr. Pastry, an old man with a walrus moustache in a black suit or raincoat, and wearing a bowler hat. His slapstick TV show was essential viewing back then, which shows how starved of proper entertainment we all were.

Mr. Pastry’s real name was Richard Hearne and he was the first performer to be known as a television star and also the first to have his own programme, which had the theme tune Pop Goes the Weasel. Each week the bumbling old chap would have silly adventures with two young friends. Nowadays he’d probably be on the Scotland Yard ‘watch’ list…

Hearne was actually interviewed for the starring role of Doctor Who after the departure of Jon Pertwee, but a disagreement over his interpretation of the role (he wanted to play the Doctor as Mr. Pastry) led to no offer being made by the producer, Barry Letts. The role was subsequently given to Tom Baker and the rest is history.

Anyway, to get to the point, a Mr Pastry film was made in 1954 and it’s available from Renown. The title is The Time of His Life and the storyline has Mr Pastry’s social climbing daughter, the president of a society for the rehabilitation for ex-convicts, hiding the fact that her father is himself a prisoner. When he is released and arrives at her home, she panics and locks him in the attic until a job can be found for him, preferably abroad!

Totally different from the TV series, The Time of His Life shows Mr. Pastry as a pathetic figure instead of the bumbling comic so popular with the British public, and because of this it flopped miserably. Seen today it’s rather stiff and stilted, but nevertheless a likeable enough time-filler, pleasant Sunday afternoon viewing which reminds you of a time when even street urchins spoke posh!

 

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FRANKIE FUN

A Touch of The Sun (1956) stars another vintage comic, but one who achieved a markedly longer career, namely Francis Alick Howerd. Titter ye not, but this was one of Frankie’s earliest movies after a successful music hall career and it sees him cast as Mr. Darling, the unofficial “Mr. Fixit” at London’s swanky Royal Connought Hotel. He’s the man who knows everything and can get you anything, and as such is indispensable to his employers. However, one day he comes into a fortune and decides to pack his bags and head for a new life on the French Riviera.

Of course things don’t work out quite as well as he had planned and his life of luxury leaves him unsatisfied. But when he returns he finds the hotel is in big financial trouble and he has to use all his fixing skills to save their bacon with a scheme to persuade some northern businessmen to invest in the place. You’ll laugh at the over-the-top Northern stereotypes more than you will at the rather feeble jokes to be found elsewhere, but it’s an amiable little movie despite all that. Oh, and Frankie gets the girl at the end, which is more than he did in real life. By the way, when is someone going to release Frankie’s House In Nightmare Park on DVD – I love that movie!

Some comedians just never made a successful transition to the big screen and among that number we can count the late Bob Monkhouse. His sole movie of note is in the Renown catalogue: Dentist in The Chair. I seem to recall that this was also released as Dentist On The Job, which makes it sound a whole lot smuttier than it actually is!

Life at the King Alfred Dental Hospital is going all wrong for final year student David (Monkhouse). He has to treat his first live patients in a couple of days, he’s made the big mistake of falling in love with the Dean’s niece Peggy (Peggy Cummins from Curse of the Demon) – and he may just have made Britain’s most wanted list!

This is very much a sub-Carry On effort in which Monkhouse gives a very poor performance indeed. As a scriptwriter, TV gameshow host and stand up comic he was generally very good, but he’s painful to watch here and it makes you wish you could get Bernie the Bolt to stick one right between his eyes – remember the Golden Shot?

Mind you, Bob is the Sir Laurence Olivier of farce compared to Old Mother Riley. ‘She’ was the star of a music hall act which ran from about 1934 to 1954. The part of the Irish washerwoman was played by Arthur Lucan (born Arthur Towle), and his real-life wife Kitty McShane played Old Mother Riley’s daughter, Kitty. It was essentially a drag act but also a double act. They were hugely successful at the time, playing music halls, theatres, radio and films, but it was a well-known fact that the couple rowed incessantly and it was a surprise they lasted so long together.

 

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THERE WAS AN OLD LADY

Renown has two Old Mother Riley double bills, the best of which is the twin threat of Old Mother Riley: Meets the Vampire and OMR Meets The Headmistress. The first is also known as My Son, The Vampire and guest stars a rather poorly looking Bela Lugosi, who was paid a miserable $5,000 for doing his Dracula bit as a crazed scientist who has built a cardboard robot with which he intends to take over the world. Lugosi’s character is not actually a vampire, but has an unexplained fondness for sleeping in coffins. Thirty beautiful girls have gone missing in one week alone – and Old Mother Riley fears she’ll be next, but her ridiculous comedy routines don’t sit comfortably alongside the bemused performance of the ailing Lugosi. What humour there is, is very British, which explains why the film didn’t get released in the States until 1963, seven years after Lugosi’s death.

In the second movie, Old Mother Riley is rather proud of her education – after all, she went to an approved school. But never in her wildest dreams did she ever imagine she’d rise to become the headmistress of an exclusive girls’ finishing school. However, thanks to an unexpected inheritance from a distant relative in Ireland, she and daughter Kitty find themselves the proud owners of St. Mildred’s School for Young Ladies. It’s difficult to explain how bad this is, but fans of old time music hall may want to torture themselves, and the print quality (fullscreen) is very good.

For the record, the other OMR double consists of Old Mother Riley’s New Venture and OMR’s Jungle Treasure. In Venture, the proprietor of a posh London hotel mysteriously decides to take a break, so he promotes Old Mother Riley straight from kitchen dishwasher to the head of the hotel. The gags here come from the daft old washerwoman being a fish out of water in polite society and to be fair it’s one of the more enjoyable of her screen adventures.

In the second film, Old Mother Riley has always had trouble with the spirits, but this time it’s the ghost of infamous pirate Captain Morgan that’s troubling her! She thinks he wants to sweep her off to bed, but really all he wants is to show her the location of his lost treasure map! Having found the map the Captain’s old bed, now she, daughter Kitty and an assortment of adventurers are bound for the deepest, darkest West Indies in search of a fabulous treasure trove! Not one of the best of the series, this latter-day entry is probably most of interest because it features an early appearance by Carry On stalwart Peter Butterworth.

 

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WITCH REPORT

Let’s move away from comedy now and check out some of the vintage horrors in the Renown library, starting with Legend Of The Witches, a movie that got plenty of coverage in salacious publications like Cinema X and Continental Film Review when it opened at London sex cinemas in 1970. I remember being somewhat disappointed when I first saw it because it was nowhere near as racy as I was hoping it would be!

The movie is a documentary which traces the development of witchcraft from its pre-Christian origins to modern day black masses. The rather scattershot approach the filmmakers take to the subject brings in interviews with fortune tellers and questions why children like to play ‘ring a ring a roses’ – it’s a throwback to the black plague, apparently.

Director Malcolm Leigh has a good visual eye and comes up with plenty of striking compositions, but the film only really comes into its own in the scenes of black masses, the plentiful nudity in these earning the movie its ‘X’ certificate back then. Now it all seems a bit tame, however, and there’s probably more male nudity than there is female nakedness. The director went on to make the British sex feature Games That Lovers Play starring Joanna Lumley. This is a nice print of the movie and completely uncut, despite false claims that there was originally a two hour version.

Back in the late 50s Britain was in the grip of Quatermass fever, and pubs emptied out as people gathered in front of their goggle boxes to watch Nigel Kneale’s nerve-shredding sci-fi/horror trilogy. The BBC were inspired to follow up Kneale’s efforts with a series called The Strange World Of Planet X, but that didn’t achieve the same popularity. Like the Quatermass shows it was also adapted into a feature movie, and this is also available from Renown.

Forrest Tucker (fresh from an encounter with Hammer’s The Abominable Snowman) stars in this one as a scientist who causes big trouble for Earth by accidentally blowing a hole in the ionisphere. Big bugs invade the planet from another dimension, closely followed by an alien (Martin Benson) who offers to help fight off the threat. There’s rather too much chat and too few monsters in this silly but diverting effort, but as a rule of thumb I always say that any film with a giant spider scene is worth tuning in for. The transfer here is exceptionally nice in 1.85:1 anamorphic.

Tucker also turns up in The Trollenberg Terror (1958), which was also adapted from the BBC teleserial and released in the USA under the more salacious title of The Crawling Eye. Once again Tucker is the imported hero who stops by a research institute in Switzerland at the base of the Trollenberg mountain to visit his boffin pal Warren Mitchell (excellent in this). He also meets Jennifer Jayne and Janet Munro, a sister act with telepathic powers.

Mitchell reveals that he came to this place to study a radioactive, stationary cloud at the top of the mountain. This seems linked to some gruesome deaths on the mountain with climbers being found minus their bonces. There’s a nice creepy opening scene where a climber meets this fate and falls, but one might question how he screams on the way down when his head has been severed from his body!

Obviously done on a very low budget, the movie gives us some fabulously hokey monsters at the end – they really are just crawling eyes with tentacles. The print is very good indeed, in fact so good that you can clearly see the shots of the mysterious cloud at the summit of the Trollenberg were achieved by the simple expedient of pinning a blob of cotton wool to a photograph!

Also from 1958 comes Blood of the Vampire. Often mistakenly credited as a Hammer production, this one in fact comes from the same producers as Jack the Ripper and The Saint. Classic Shakespearean actor Donald Wolfit slums it with arched eyebrows as the sinister Dr Callistratus, a vampire who has been executed and brought back to life by the hunchbacked Victor Maddern and now runs a Bedlam-like insane asylum. Barbara Shelley falls into Wolfit’s clutches but is rescued by the bland hero, Vincent Ball. Written by Jimmy Sangster, the film strives hard for Hammer quality and achieves it in sets and camerawork. It doesn’t have the pacing of the early Hammer hits, though, and much of the direction is routine.

Surprisingly grisly for its time, the highlight of the movie is Maddern’s make-up – he has a dead eye bulging out of his cheek that looks like a joke shop surplus! Filmed in lurid Eastman Colour, the movie looks terrific here and is well worth picking up if you’re a collector of early Brit horror.

 

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BODIES FOR SALE

One that’s very much an acquired taste is Burke and Hare (1971). Can any film with a theme song by The Scaffold (Lily The Pink!) be worth seeing? Probably not, but this dreadful re-telling of the story of the eponymous body snatchers (already well chronicled in The Flesh and The Fiends) is one of those movies that may very well re-emerge one day as an Ed Wood type classic. Poorly produced and badly directed, it features rubber-lipped Derren Nesbitt as the scheming Burke, and Glynn Edwards (better known as Dave the barman in Minder) as Hare. His real-life wife Yootha Joyce (of George and Mildred) plays his wife in the picture. The accent is on sick comedy, and there are also lots of bare boobs on offer as the two drunken Irishmen set about robbing graves and murdering people to supply specimens for the pioneering medico Dr Knox (Harry Andrews). Look out for Yutte Stensgaard (Lust For A Vampire) as one of their prettiest victims. The transfer is in 1.85:1 anamorphic and looks good, though the image does have a dated look with plenty of grain in evidence.

Last but not least we come to Behemoth The Sea Monster (1959). Scientists track a radioactive sea monster off the coast of Britain in this tense, underrated science fiction thriller. The low budget scuppers some of the Willis O’Brien/Pete Peterson effects, but what remains is an involving yarn climaxing in some neat destruction of well-known landmarks like London Bridge – which the creature demolishes with one swish of its scaly tail.

I always liked this movie, but it’s one of those that always seems to be released in a substandard transfer. Though Renown’s effort is perfectly acceptable, it’s also rather dark in places and overly contrasty in others. I’d love to see a remastered version, but then I guess you’ve got to keep the costs down when you’re selling movies for under a tenner a pop.

 

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