BRITISH FILM COMEDY

Once we stop to let anyone analyse us, we’re sunk

  Mack Sennett

Fatty falls over

On 10th June 1895, Louise Lumiere screened L’Arroseur Arrose, a silent black-and-white film about a gardener who is tormented by a young boy who persistently stands on his hose.  The movie was only forty-nine seconds long, but it heralded the advent of film history’s most popular genre, comedy, and within months the stars of the British music-hall were showing off their skills to camera.

The first comedies were mostly one-reel adaptations of popular stage routines or vaudeville sketches: those making an early debut on celluloid included physical performers, pantomime turns and speciality acts. Pioneer film-makers such as G.A.Smith, James Williamson (Stop Thief! - left) and the legendary duo, Hepworth & Bamforth, were the trailblazers for British film comedy.

Audiences began to attend flea-pit cinemas across the country just to catch these one-minute silents. Shorts like The Miller And The Sweep (1897) and Explosion Of A Motor Car (1900) were packing them in, and this new form of entertainment could not be ignored by theatre agents and producers. The gold rush was not for everyone: music hall stars such as Dan Leno, Marie Lloyd and Harry Champion (right) were screen-tested, but without a live audience or a voice they were unsuccessful in making the transfer.

A new breed of star was sought by a demanding public. Fred Evans created his film comedy character Pimple; Reginald Switz gave us Winky; and before he was whisked off to the Californian studios, Lupino Lane (right) performed repeatedly as both Nipper and Mr Butterbun. Although never reaching the artistic heights of James Finlayson, Stan Laurel or Charles Chaplin (all British comics who conquered Hollywood) they achieved celebrity status at home.

Lupino Lane in a poor quality clip from the film Joyland (1929). 

Can you hear me Mother?

The dawning of sound was to change everything and comedy in particular. Established patter comics who had been performing on the variety circuit for years could now get involved. Acts like Arthur Lucan & Kitty McShane, Max Miller, George Formby, Gracie Fields and The Crazy Gang were to become hugely successful in film. Their fun, knockabout films were typical of the 1930s, an era in which stage farces such as Ben Travers’ A Cuckoo In The Nest (1933) were also being remade for cinema audiences.

With the outbreak of war in 1939, politics began trickling into comedy films. Comics were making social commentaries, combining wartime scenarios with satire and slapstick. Arthur Askey’s Band Waggon (1940), George Formby’s Heil To Hitler (1940), The Crazy Gang’s Gasbags (1941) and Will Hay’s The Goose Steps Out (1942) used comedy as their propagandist weapon: Nazis were portrayed not as evil tyrants but as buffoons. It’s interesting to note, Formby was such a global crowd-winner during WWII that he was decorated with The Order of Lenin, the only comic ever to have received this award.

Producers found it easy to take a live comedian and give them free rein in front of the camera, and many acts were simply transferred wholesale to screen, but the resulting films could not attract the kind of sophisticated audiences known to grace West End theatres in London. Frank Lauder and Sidney Gilliat were to change that with their well-crafted scripts presenting a blend of social and class problems as barbed satire. Their blueprint was to be used in many British comedies of the time, none more so than the early Ealing comedies of the 1940s.

The leads were not comedians, however: studios opted instead for first-class character actors like Alistair Sim, John Mills, Margaret Rutherford and Alec Guinness. The subtle, underplayed comedy that followed was a breath of fresh air compared to the previous era’s physical, over-the-top antics. Classics such as Whisky Galore! (1949), Passport to Pimlico (1949), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Lady Killers (1955) have stood the test of time, some even being remade with the big names of today’s comedy world.

The twin Boulting brothers, Roy and John, began their film-making careers during wartime, but started lampooning in earnest by producing, writing and directing such films as I’m All Right Jack (1959), Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (1959) and Heavens Above! (1963). Their sending-up of great British institutions helped to established their kudos in populist film.

 

During the same decade, Lauder and Gilliat created their trademark movie using a story set within a school of tearaway teenage girls. Blue Murder at St Trinian’s (1957) starring Terry Thomas, George Cole, Joyce Grenfell, and as the headmistress, Alistair Sim, became such a hit, four others were made in the original series.

You lucky lucky people

In the 1950s, British studios turned to a few comics on the variety circuit to star in their films. Norman Wisdom was one such performer. His physical half-wit humour appealed to mass audiences in such features as Trouble in Store (1953), One Good Turn (1955) and Man of the Moment (1955). Although not loved by all here at home, Wisdom’s films became the biggest-selling box office success of all time in Albania. As a result, executive producers pushed Wisdom through a turnover of sixteen films in a ten-year period.

Other stage comedians who made films did not fare so well. Sandy Powell (right) failed miserably in Cup Tie Honeymoon (1948). Frank Randle’s badly-edited films did him no favours, It’s A Grand Life (1953) appearing tired in comparison to the new crop of comedies. The young Max Bygraves was teamed up with Hal Monty for not one, but two awful films: Bless ‘Em All (1948) and Skimpy in the Navy (1949). And poor Tommy Trinder appeared in a cheap army comedy, You Lucky People (1955) filmed through a flawed lens.

By the end of the 1950s, one particular British comic stood out as a unique movie character. As part of the RAF entertainment unit he had delighted troops with his different comical personae. His move into BBC radio was advanced by a self-recommendation in which he convinced a producer that he would be perfect for the medium. Working on The Goons led to a small role in the Ealing Studios black comedy The Ladykillers but it wasn’t until the end of the decade that Peter Sellers came into his own. In 1959, he received the BAFTA Best Actor Award (beating Laurence Olivier) for I’m All Right Jack.

Other radio stars would soon transfer to movies: the supporting cast for Hancock’s Half Hour was a case in point. Kenneth Williams, Sid James, June Whitfield and Hattie Jacques all went on to join one of Britain’s biggest movie franchises of all time (beating Bond): the Carry On series. Cheap, cheerful, risqué farces, these pictures were a cross between music-hall gags and seaside postcard innuendo. Thirty-one films, a TV series, three Christmas specials and three West End shows later, Carry On finally died out in 1992.

In the sixties, the light entertainment stars of (small screen) TV were also being contracted for the big screen. Morecambe & Wise enjoyed a modicum of success with The Intelligence Men (1965) and The Rivera Touch (1966). Charlie Drake made Petticoat Pirates (1961), The Cracksman (1963) and Mr Ten Per Cent (1967); and of course, Tony Hancock gained notoriety for The Punch and Judy Man (1963) and The Rebel (1961). But the audience that really adored all of these comics was the armchair one at home. 

Bedazzled Trailer 1967

Two British television comics who would flourish in film were Peter Cook and Dudley Moore: Monte Carlo Or Bust (1969) and the unequalled Bedazzled (1967) made them into household names, but it was as solo performers that they really grew into the medium. Both starred in many films and Cook’s recognised creative genius built expectations of success. It was, however, Moore’s film career that took off and The National Alliance of Theater Owners named him the Top Box Office Star-Male of the Year, 1983.

Oh you are awful...

Studios in the 1970s began to offer established TV audiences film spin-offs from their favourite sit-coms - Dad’s Army, On The Buses, Bless This House, Steptoe & Son and The Dick Emery Show were among the most popular. But none of these television crossovers would be as successful as the BBC sketch show whose distinctive brand of comedy would become famous the world over. The Monty Python’s Flying Circus team only made four films, but their novel take on life and historical subjects created one of the most exceptional, talked-about movies of all time. When polls are taken of the greatest comedies ever, Monty Python’s Life Of Brian (1979) is always in the top three.

Life of Brian also bought together businessman Denis O’Brien and former Beatle George Harrison, who stepped in to produce when EMI pulled out a week before filming was due to commence, and Handmade Films was created. Their contribution to the British comedy film output of the 1980s and 90s was significant: Privates On Parade (1982) and Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels (1998) are just two of their gems.

The six members of Python (even Eric Idle) would all individually go on to make waves in British comedy film, from fantasies such as Time Bandits (1981), to beautiful period pieces like The Missionary (1982) to silly crime capers such as A Fish Called Wanda (1988). Between them, these six comedians have been involved as actors, writers and directors in over two hundred British comedy movies.

Since the 1980s, the British film comedy industry has become more than the quaint relative of its US cousin. It has its own stable of auteurs and performers who consistently win awards. Political, regional and class issues handled by directors like Bill Forsyth, Bruce Robinson and Peter Chelsom and box-office regulars like Richard Curtis, Mike Leigh and Guy Ritchie; Hollywood casting interlopers like Rowan Atkinson, Russell Brand, Billy Connelly, Steve Coogan, Lee Evans, Eddie Izzard, Simon Pegg and Tracey Ullman.

British film comedy has gained year-on-year in quality, acclaim and financial health. Its output may be smaller and slower than that of the US, but the laughs-per-minute and innovative storylines from Withnail and I (left) to Kill List are distinctly British. One thing we know for sure, it's certainly left the French behind.