Saturday, August 29, 2009

Bank Holiday Film Festival, part the first

Given that some time in the next year we'll be swamped with politicians kissing babies I thought it might be interesting to review how the machineries of our political masters have been portrayed in film.

Prime Minister Amphibulos introduces Carlton-Brown to his senior ministers
Carlton-Browne of the F.0. (1959)

"The Island of Gaillardia was discovered in 1720 when an English vessel with a cargo of oranges ran into it in the dark. As a result, Great Britain gained a colony, the captain lost his ticket, and the inhabitants lived on marmalade for months."

This is pretty much one of the weakest of the Boulting Brothers' satires, which is surprising given that it has an impeccably strong cast and some wonderfully funny dialogue. There is an emptiness about the core of it, largely because unlike many other Boultings efforts there is no central human figure to act as foil to the idiocies on display. The eponymous hero, Cadogan de Vere Carlton-Browne, is as much part of the machine as anybody else. And throughout the film there is a sense of half-heartedness - ideas are started, show promise, and are given up on. In the end there are so many easy targets - the hypocrisies of politics and diplomacy; the cold war; banana republics; bureaucracy - that none are effectively lampooned.

Which is not to say that the film's a dead loss.

lobby cards: the military parade - the glorious Royal Air Force; King Loris and Princess Ilyena at the pictures; Tufton-Slade and Carlton-Browne prepare for the ceremony

Carlton-Browne (Terry-Thomas) is a career Foreign Office desk jockey, Permanent Assistant Political Secretary for the Miscellaneous Territories, the disappointing son of a great ambassador of the nation. He is called unexpectedly to the office one day after the F.O. receives a dispatch from its representative on the island of Gaillardia.

"Who's our fellow out there?"
"That's just it: there shouldn't be anyone. The dispatch is signed 'Davidson' but he should have come back in 1916."
"I wonder if anything's wrong, I mean, he's not really on the ball is he? What was the last thing we heard?"
"A message of loyalty on the accession of the queen, sir."
"I say! That's frightfully slack! That's nearly six years."
"Not this queen, sir. Victoria."

The report states that a group of Russians, posing as a Cossack Dance troupe, are surveying the island for reasons unknown. On hearing this, the Foreign Secretary (Raymond Huntley) takes a typically idealistic view of the matter:

"There'll be questions in the House. If there's anything worth having, we should have it, not the Russians."

British surveyors, in deep cover as Morris Dancers, are sent over in a British Council dancing exhibition. Alas, King Loris and his Heir Apparent, are assisinated at the theatre, leaving the field wide open for a power struggle between Young King Loris (Ian Bannen) and Grand Duke Alexis (John le Mesurier).

In an effort to display a show of strength Young King Loris is persuaded by Prime Minister Amphibulos (Peter Sellers) to put on a military march past. The result is a treat. The commentary is garbled and overblown and wickedly funny. The military strength of the same sort of order as that of the town council of a small provincial borough. Perhaps the highlight is the appearance of the glorious Royal Air Force - a delapidated Gypsy Moth pulled by donkeys because it's got no engine.

lobby cards: the British delegation meets the King; Archipolagos brings news to Carlton-Browne; Grand Duke Alexis surveys his troops

Needless to say, the situation deteriorates and civil war ensues, egged on by Great Nations squabbling over mineral rights on the island. That great tool of 20th Century diplomacy - partition - is employed. (The farcical element of the partition is blunted by the fact that exactly this logic was employed in real life at the time.) The eminences gris of the two new nations - Duke Alexis and Prime Minister Amphibulos - pull strings to consolidate their power bases and conspire for riches.

And King Loris and Princess Ilyena go to the pictures...

A few more choice cuts:

"We danced our way in. We'll have to dance our way out."

"I'm very happy to tell you that you're now in the position of being able to blow the world to smithereens."
"But that's tremendous! My dear fellow, how could we ever thank you enough?"

"If you do marry her you'll have to live there part of the year."
"Anything to shoot?"
"Only the natives."

"As polling day grows near in the Gosford Green by-election excitement mounts rapidly to fever pitch. Here at first hand a typical housewife gives our roving camera her views on the burning issues of the day."

"What do you think of the cold war Mrs. Carter?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"The international situation, do you think it's getting any easier?"
"Well, I don't really know."
"No, of course not."


willow said...

This was a great post.

My toes are wiggling.

Jimmy Bastard said...

You cannae beat the classics.

Kevin Musgrove said...

Ta Willow!

True, Jimmy, true!

Madame DeFarge said...

Superb stuff. Reminds me of many days in work.

Kevin Musgrove said...

Madame DF: I see many parallels in my own workplace, too.