Inflatable Bikinis, Erotic Soup Bowls and Randy Nignogs

During the 70s the British film industry churned out more than twenty sitcom-based flicks, probably more than any other country in the world. I’m gonna put my cards on the table and declare the vast majority as dire.

Fucking dire.

It didn’t stop Joe Public from flocking to see them, though. A handful, such as Up Pompeii! and Steptoe and Son, even produced sequels. However, the problem with most of these cheaply shot efforts is their marked inability to escape their sitcom confines. Most feel like a typical episode stretched to snapping point, especially as they were happy to recycle gags, scenes and even storylines. Then again, consuming such movies can be a bit like life itself: occasionally you have to wade through shit to find a pearl.

On the Buses (1971)

This one focuses on the ‘two lecherous layabouts’ Stan and Jack (Reg Varney and Bob Grant). Now I know women have a thing for pilots and firemen (hell, when I excelled at these jobs I was always fighting ’em off) but a bus driver and conductor? Not only that but the short, cash-strapped Stan is well over fifty and still living at home with his mum and pickled onion-eating sister while the guffawing, balding Jack is pushing middle age and a long way from matching Paul Newman’s good looks. Apart from that, they’re hopelessly adrift in a sea of retarded sexuality. Both suffer from bad cases of wandering eyes, double-entendres, and borderline indecent assaults, although it’s curious how the women’s responses vary between being unaware of the leering sexism, blithely going along with the drooling attention or eagerly succumbing to their crude advances. This might have something to do with the male-penned script. Anyhow, the opening scenes set the bawdy tone by having Stan and Jack happily stare up a colleague’s short skirt before making tit jokes. Five minutes later the bus is being stopped so Jack can have it away with a negligee-clad, adulterous housewife. I guess on the plus side there tends to be an earthy enjoyment of sex on both sides without guilt or embarrassment.

Stan and Jack not only lead a charmed life when it comes to avoiding arrest for sexual harassment, but also their ability to stay in the job. These are not responsible employees, a fact that their immediate boss Blakey (Stephen Lewis) is well aware of. The hapless Blakey is a terrific comic creation, a twitchy, unpopular manager with a Hitler tash that no one takes seriously. At various points he’s accused of being homosexual, a cross-dresser, a knickers-snatcher and, worst of all, not getting any sex. Interestingly, he isn’t sexist, does his best to protect the girls, and is far more progressive than Stan and Jack, setting the plot in motion by taking the ‘diabolical’ decision to hire female bus drivers (who tend to be polite, professional, middle-aged, hefty, weepy and scared of spiders).

On the Buses was the second biggest British hit of the year and so successful that two sequels rapidly followed. As you’ve probably gathered, this is not sophisticated entertainment. Indeed, film snobs, feminists and the politically correct will throw their hands up at this banter-filled depiction of the war of the sexes in which men don’t go near a washing machine or a crying baby. Mind you, I couldn’t help enjoying its funny one-liners and distinctive array of character actors. Gawd knows what that says about me.

Rating: A fairly brisk 85 minutes with a near-exhausting fixation on birds and crumpet. The sexism is exaggerated for comic effect, but I sense this might otherwise be a fairly authentic depiction of working class London life. Six out of ten.

Please Sir! (1971)

Another big local hit, this school-based flick focuses on 5C, a class of unruly teenagers that we British would politely refer to as scallywags and ruffians. They’re led by Mr. Hedges (John Alderton), an idealistic, goodhearted, easily flustered sap. His colleagues include a Welsh cynic, a lovelorn ginger, a doddery, faintly clueless headmaster, a battle-axe, and an officious, toadying janitor who allegedly served in WW2.

Penned by talented writers John Esmonde and Bob Larbey (who went onto deliver the vastly superior sitcoms The Good Life and Ever Decreasing Circles) this might be plotless but it still flirts with class, gender, race, female sexual jealousy, illiteracy and religion. Like Buses, it’s nicely performed by memorable character actors, even if it’s got the usual problem of the kids being in their twenties.

Then again, this works in its favor when it comes to the extraordinary relationship between Mrs. Abbott (Barbara Mitchell), who always refers to herself in the third person as ‘mummy’, and her ‘little soldier’ Frankie (David Barry, who was pushing 30 during filming). In a classic case of overcompensation, Frankie is the school’s wannabe tough guy, usually clad in a Hell’s Angels leather jacket while punching his palm and flexing his shoulders. However, it’s clear he couldn’t blow the skin off a rice pudding, no doubt the direct result of his mother’s endless babying. When the chance arrives for 5C to go on a two-week camping trip, Mrs. Abbott initially refuses permission, a stance that makes her only child threaten to set fire to her hair. Eventually she changes her mind, accompanying her sixteen-year-old son all the way to the coach. “One vital thing, Mr. Hedges,” she says, clutching the teacher’s arm while handing over a teddy bear. “Promise to make him do his number twos every day.”

Shame there was no sequel as I could see such an intense bond ending with an alcoholic, knife-wielding Frankie dressed in his mother’s clothes as her corpse molders in the basement.

Rating: A severely padded 100 minutes, but not without its charms. Five.

Bless This House (1972)

The trials and tribulations of suburbia and the generation gap form the backbone of this feebly written comedy. Featuring a fair few Carry On regulars, the ‘plot’ appears to center on Sid James getting a shed. Yes, it really is that exciting. Now while the incomparable Mr. James, owner of humanity’s most recognizable laugh, is always worth ten minutes of your time, his hangdog face and traditionalist manner can’t save a flick that rarely gets out of first gear. Instead, we have to make do with the thinnest of pleasures, such as buying a second-hand car for twelve quid, the often-appalling fashion, and nascent concerns about the environment and female demands for greater freedoms. Elsewhere, pratfalls and neighborly spats are the order of the day. Blokes of a certain age, however, might appreciate the portrait of a pipe smoking, quietly exasperated father who just wants a bit of peace and quiet.

Rating: After ten minutes you get the idea. Shame it’s still going after an hour. Two.

Love Thy Neighbour (1973)

When it comes to humor, I don’t believe in sacred cows. Tell me a joke about rape in Auschwitz if you want. Just make it funny. And then show me pictures. Racial humor? Bring it on. There’s nothing wrong with whites taking the piss out of blacks and vice versa. For confirmation see the wonderfully abrasive 48 Hrs in which Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy fight like cat and dog, especially the classic scene where the latter strides into a redneck bar impersonating a cop.

But, boy, oh boy, Love Thy Neighbour’s deadening take on race (in which a white working-class bigot lives next door to a black educated Tory) is like being bludgeoned for eighty-five minutes straight. There’s no wit, no flair and no insight. One of its many major problems is that the main white dude is such a boring, childish, miserable twat. With his misplaced sense of superiority, he abuses Sikhs, Pakistanis and women, although his favorite target is ‘nignogs’, especially when it comes to their alleged breeding habits. To be fair, he’s not living on a one-way street as his black counterpart (although more intelligent and mature) is equally obsessed with race. The first words he speaks are ‘Hey, white boy’ while a few minutes afterwards he’s calling him a ‘loudmouth, pale-skin poof’. An hour later nothing had changed. I don’t see Love Thy Neighbour as racist, though. It’s merely crap. Just check out the baffling opening scenes in which black and white neighbors trash each other’s houses. One even brandishes an ax. It has nothing to do with anything and a sound indication of the terrible quality of writing. And yes, this was a box-office hit. I haven’t been this dismayed since the derivative, nonsensical Get Out won an Oscar for Best Screenplay.

Rating: I think we’re supposed to infer that racism is self-defeating, but it would’ve been nice to have chuckled at least once during such a lesson. Alas, I just stared stone-faced at the screen as a bunch of mainly poor actors went about their implausible business. Zero.

Man About the House (1974)

Despite this box-office hit being about a greedy property developer trying to snaffle up some terraced London houses, I think the only way to get through its painful ninety minutes is to instead concentrate on its presentation of the so-called permissive society. The swinging sixties have come and gone. We are at the midway point of an even more liberated decade, but Man About the House prefers to highlight the repressed nature of British sex.

Basically, no one’s getting any. Not the married, not the young, not the attractive, not the gay, not even the oversexed. It’s a world in which a man in his mid-20s tries to make progress by telling his date he was born a girl and that he’s ‘not had a chance to find out if it works’ since the operation. Then there’s a lingerie-clad, nympho neighbor who drags a potential lover into her flat to show him one of her self-made ‘erotic soup bowls’, the sight of whatever its sculpted interior contains causing him to shudder and run away. Another man is so averse to conjugal relations with his domineering wife that he prefers to shower affection on his budgie. The only bloke who’s getting any sort of sexual contact is a married MP with a kept mistress. He, of course, merely wants to wear her gymslips.

Rating: I’ve picked out the best bits. Honest. Two.

The Likely Lads (1976)

Do women take you to places you don’t want to go? The Likely Lads suggests so whether it’s marriage or a crappy caravanning holiday. Working class childhood friends Bob and Terry (Rodney Bewes and James Bolam) are now pushing middle age, but hardly the most mature of adults. This is illustrated during the start in which they choose to spend their Sunday afternoon playing soccer with a bunch of lippy kids, a kick-around that results in Bob’s ‘strong clearance’ putting the ball on a nearby roof and a fire brigade rescue after he foolishly shins up a drainpipe to retrieve it.

This public embarrassment only adds to Bob’s burgeoning disillusionment. After having gone straight from living with his mum to living with a wife, he’s become envious of Terry’s footloose ways. Catch the scene where he meets his best mate’s exotic new Finnish girlfriend at a clothing boutique while his homely wife twitters about buying an expensive dress. “What do you think, darling?” she asks, after putting the dress on and in obvious need of a compliment. Bob merely stares into space, enabling us to almost see his joie de vivre physically evaporate. And the eventual reply? “I couldn’t give a shit.”

The Likely Lads differs from many British sitcom-flicks in that it’s got a proper budget. There’s a lot of outdoor filming and it’s nicely directed and performed. It was also written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, a talented pair of writers who helped bring to life Richard Burton as a psychotic, mother-fixated gangster in 1971’s Villain, as well as an Irish soul band in The Commitments, the classic first series of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, and the prison sitcom, Porridge (see below). The anti-glamorous, Newcastle-set Lads remains one of their best-regarded creations. As for this big-screen effort, the comedy might get a little strained and farcical in the second half, but it’s mainly an amusing step above most sitcom-flicks.

Rating: Lads meanders, refusing to stick with one development, but this adds to its nuances and slight unpredictability. There’s a lot of excellent dialogue as it explores male camaraderie, nostalgia and disenchantment. Six.

Are You Being Served? (1977)

A master class in lame British comedy, this one peppers us with so many double-entendres that a straight sentence is barely said in ninety minutes. Perhaps this emphasis on toilet humor, inflatable bikinis, rampant campness, and the bizarre immaturity generated by being near a scantily dressed mannequin is Served’s way of trying to brush past its central problem: setting a sitcom in a weirdly underpopulated department store is both limiting and contrived. And so, once the double-entendres reach their peak grating point after half an hour, the cast is shuffled off for a Spanish holiday in a bid to broaden its approach. Misunderstandings follow. Oh, and so do the fucking double-entendres.

Rating: The weakest of scripts is worsened by static direction and OTT performances. Despite spending an hour in Spain, it’s obviously filmed in a studio. Carry On Abroad is genius next to this feeble pile of shit. Zero.

Porridge (1979)

One of the major problems with bilge like Love Thy Neighbour and Are You Being Served? is the ineptness of the writing. In Neighbour our lovely white bigot slopes off work for an afternoon nap only for his black colleague to get a tin of house paint and coat his face while he’s dozing (no doubt dreaming of the master race reasserting control). He wakes up and wanders around in blackface as everyone sniggers, somehow unable to smell his new skin color or feel it drying. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with putting a racist in unknowing blackface, but the mechanics of the process are not even remotely plausible. The start of Served is just as bad. A cleaner in his 70s is vacuuming the store and decides to amuse himself by sticking the hose up a mannequin’s skirt. Suitably enchanted, he does it again with the next one. On the third go, he manages to inadvertently suck the panties off an actual woman, a process that would surely involve a gigantic amount of suction and his victim jumping up to allow the underwear to pass over her feet.

I dunno, perhaps I’m being picky, but Porridge’s sharply written believability is a mighty relief. Its only flirtation with farce is a guard’s curry powder-induced sneezing attack. Otherwise, it’s rooted in a melancholy reality that generates its abundance of laughs by acutely observing the numbing, repetitive minutiae of prison life while reveling in the smallest victory over them.

The action centers on a ‘showbiz eleven’ visiting Slade Prison to take part in a supposedly morale-boosting soccer match. The prisoners are hoping for the likes of Rod Stewart, Michael Parkinson and one of The Goodies, but get ‘a weatherman, eight small parts and a Widow Twankey.’ Nevertheless, the match is a pricelessly funny affair on a par with the gloriously pompous Brian Glover strutting around the pitch in Kes bullying malnourished schoolchildren. Trainer Fletch (Ronnie Barker) puts out a side that is a ‘blend of youth, experience, flair and brutality’ telling the lads in the moments before kickoff: “Whatever happens, don’t let them panic you into playing football.”

Nearly every scene in Porridge is written and performed to the highest standard.

Rating: A valuable record of outstanding character actors at the peak of their game, complemented by a deft script, delightful dialogue and many laugh out loud scenes. It was so successful at the British box office that it even managed to secure a US release under the title Doing Time. Eight and a half.

Porridge is far and away the high point of big screen sitcoms. The next year it was followed by the dreadful Rising Damp and George and Mildred spin-offs before the newly elected Thatcher decided enough damage had been done to the reputation of British film. She promptly changed the tax laws to favor high earners, enabling the many heavily taxed film stars who’d fled abroad under the earlier Labour Government to return. Suddenly blown-up, cheapo sitcom flicks were yesterday’s news.

And there was me thinking Thatcher never had a day off from being a bitch.

Amazingly, this sea change wasn’t the end of the story. Sitcom-movies have become a thing again. Just like the disaster movie appeared to die with 1980’s lukewarm volcano drama When Time Ran Out, it reared its zombie-like head again at the end of the 90s with shit like Deep Impact, Dante’s Peak and Armageddon. Mirroring this trend was the somewhat less ambitious sitcom-flick. Nearly two decades after George and Mildred limped toward the horizon with soiled pants, the great British public rediscovered their love of such dreck when 1997’s Bean grossed over a quarter of a billion dollars worldwide. Bottom, Absolutely Fabulous, The League of Gentlemen, The Inbetweeners, Mrs. Brown’s Boys, I’m Alan Partridge, Bad Education and The Office subsequently tried with varying degrees of financial success to hang onto those flapping coattails.

Excuse me, while I’m sick.

About Dave Franklin

Dismayed by the state of post-2000 cinema, Dave Franklin hasn't visited a movie house in more than a decade. He can usually be found in a dingy room dressed up as Marilyn Monroe, pining for the lost days of 70's cinema. Saying that, he will visit you for an appropriate fee to read excruciating excerpts from his novels.