From the coming of sound to the end of the Second World War, British film comedy altered little, as it relied on music-hall and radio stars playing variations on their well-honed personas. Peacetime’s social upheavals, however, prompted new brands of screen comedy and a new breed of comic actors.
In the vanguard was Ealing Studios, which slipped a dash of subversion into the string of whimsical classics it produced into the mid-1950s, shifting the emphasis away from patter and shtick towards polish and structure.
In emulating Ealing’s more literary style, the likes of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat and twins John and Roy Boulting started reflecting the societal conflicts sparked by class, age, gender and nationality. These themes coalesced in Charles Crichton’s The Battle of the Sexes, which entered cinemas as the new decade dawned. Newly released on Blu-ray and DVD, this workplace comedy gave star billing to Peter Sellers, who played a vital role in steering comedy in the new directions it would take in the swinging 60s.
Sellers was fresh from 250 episodes of The Goon Show, the radio sketch show that profoundly influenced such 60s series as Do Not Adjust Your Set and At Last the 1948 Show – both, in turn, precursors of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Topicality meant that this satire boom was better suited to TV, which witnessed a sitcom golden age during the 1960s. But, as established stars like Norman Wisdom began to fade and TV favourites like Tony Hancock and Morecambe and Wise struggled to make the transition to cinema, film comedy recalibrated in the middle of the decade.
Now, social realism and surrealism began to shatter bourgeois taboos with a greater freedom than was possible on the small screen…
School for Scoundrels (1960)
Director Robert Hamer
How much more amusing might this watershed comedy have been had director Robert Hamer remained sober long enough to complete it? Instead, he was fired and the remaining scenes were divvied between producer Hal E. Chester and an uncredited Cyril Frankel. It was Chester who had acquired the rights to Stephen Potter’s parodic 1947 self-help book Gamesmanship, asking Peter Ustinov and Frank Tarloff to devise a script.
Working anonymously, they appear to have concocted the conceit of sending Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael) to the School of Lifemanship run by Dr Potter (Alastair Sim) after his efforts to court April Smith (Janette Scott) have been thwarted by Raymond Delauney (Terry-Thomas). Carmichael had come to epitomise the middle-class clot in several 1950s comedies. But, by besting a bounder (“hard cheese”), he struck a blow against the establishment and sounded the starting gun for a decade of unprecedented socio-cultural change.
The League of Gentlemen (1960)
Director Basil Dearden
This all-star adaptation of John Boland’s heist novel is the missing link between Ealing caper The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and that acme of swinging 60s cool, The Italian Job (1969). It was produced at the same time as the original Ocean’s 11, but there’s no Rat Pack aura pervading the band of disgraced mercenaries who are recruited for a military-style bank raid. Their ringleader is former major Jack Hawkins, who’s seeking payback for the nation forgetting the debt owed to its wartime heroes.
Cary Grant had turned down the role, which enabled Hawkins to remind the audience of his past uniformed exploits. But the misogynist reprobates under his command aren’t worthy of sympathy, and it’s this astute blend of the social realism that had characterised director Basil Dearden’s 1950s problem pictures and the immaculate comic timing that he had acquired during his wartime collaboration with Will Hay that makes this much more than a laddish lark.
The Rebel (1961)
Director Robert Day
Echoing some of the digs at the French art scene found in the MGM musical Funny Face (1957), Tony Hancock’s second feature allowed him to develop the character he had created on radio and television in Hancock’s Half-Hour (1954-60). Writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson had mocked pretension before in the 1959 radio episode ‘The Poetry Society’, and it’s amusing to watch Hancock’s office drone assume airs and graces when he goes to Paris and is mistaken for a genius.
Although he liked to hog the limelight, Hancock was at his best when he had a foil, and the standout scene in The Rebel sees him trading insults with his landlady (the peerless Irene Handl) when she takes offence at his monstrous sculpture, ‘Aphrodite at the Waterhole’. Sadly, Hancock rejected Galton and Simpson’s follow-up script, The Day Off, and settled for supporting roles after the cool reception accorded The Punch and Judy Man (1963).
Billy Liar (1963)
Director John Schlesinger
Having collaborated on A Kind of Loving (1962), director John Schlesinger and writers Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse reunited for this social realist lampoon inspired by the latter’s deceptively serious novel. Reprising the role he had taken in the West End, Tom Courtenay plays twice-engaged undertaker’s assistant Billy Fisher as an angsty young man, whose frustration with his mundane existence in an grim Yorkshire town is outweighed only by his fear of the uncertainties lurking along the escape route provided by a gag-writing gig in London.
James Thurber’s story ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ clearly influences Billy’s fantastical reveries in Ambrosia. Yet despite these absurdist set-pieces and the stinging wit of the dialogue, Schlesinger’s film has incisive things to say about gender and generational relationships, as well as the changing north’s sense of exclusion. That these issues are still pertinent half a century later is dismaying. But the harsh truth is that most of us wouldn’t have caught that train.
Tom Jones (1963)
Director Tony Richardson
Eyebrows were raised when the doyen of social realism, Tony Richardson, announced that he was going to adapt Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel about a foundling who seemed destined for the gallows. But Richardson saw this picaresque saga as a way of commenting on the contemporary scene, and resumed his partnership with Look Back in Anger playwright John Osborne. His approach, however, owed more to French New Wave flamboyance than kitchen sink starkness, as he employed a range of self-reflexive gambits and breaches of the fourth wall to debunk both costume drama convention and the British establishment.
Following an unhappy shoot, blighted by Albert Finney’s sulking and Hugh Griffith’s drinking, Richardson expected the film to flop. But, ignoring the lukewarm reviews, audiences warmed to Tom’s rascality, and set-pieces like the deer hunt and the bawdy mealtime flirtation between Finney and Joyce Redman resulted in surprise box-office success. Four Oscar wins followed, including best picture.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Director Stanley Kubrick
Among the myths surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s glorious adaptation of Peter George’s avowedly non-hilarious novel, Red Alert, is that studio executives decided to cut the climactic custard pie fight because a splattered president would appear dubious in taste so soon after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Switching between Burpelson Air Force Base and Ken Adam’s magnificently designed War Room, the action of this Swiftian satire was strewn with enough hard fact and terrifying plausibility to have had Cold War audiences ducking and covering.
An ankle injury forced Peter Sellers to let Slim Pickens ride the missile inscribed ‘Hi There’, but he still earned an Oscar nomination for his tripartite performance as Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley and the eponymous boffin, whose Germanic accent was inspired by the photographer Weegee. The ensemble playing is equally outstanding, as Kubrick and co-scenarist Terry Southern indulge in sniggering sexual innuendo to marvel at a world gone mad.
Carry On Cleo (1964)
Director Gerald Thomas
The tenth in the 31-strong cycle of Carry On films marked a decisive shift away from the workplace comedies pioneered by Norman Hudis towards the Talbot Rothwell-scripted movie spoofs that dominated the 1960s. Not one to miss a main chance and save a few quid into the bargain, producer Peter Rogers seized upon the costumes, props and sets left at Pinewood when Cleopatra (1963) decamped to Cinecittà in order to lampoon the Roman epics that Hollywood had produced to showcase its widescreen technologies.
Never again would director Gerald Thomas have such lavish production values at his disposal, and the sense of occasion seemed to inspire series regulars like Kenneth Williams and Sid James, who were impeccably cast as Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. They were nearly upstaged by Cabby alumna Amanda Barrie, who banishes all thought of Elizabeth Taylor with her delightfully ditzy display as the Egyptian queen unable to tell her asp from her elbow.
The Knack …and How to Get It (1965)
Director Richard Lester
Following his Oscar-nominated comic sketch short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959), American Richard Lester became a keystone of British screen comedy in the 1960s. Coming between Beatle assignments A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), this adaptation of Ann Jellicoe’s Royal Court play landed in his lap after Lindsay Anderson turned it down. Such was the modishness of both the observations on the nascent sexual revolution and the French New Wave-inspired visuals that the picture scooped the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
The account of jazz drummer Ray Brooks’s efforts to teach timid teacher Michael Crawford how to seduce northern newcomer Rita Tushingham is markedly less PC than similar items like Georgy Girl (1966) and Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1967). But the breathless exuberance of Lester’s dazzling blend of quips, slapstick and self-reflexivity makes this the most candid comic snapshot of its time.
Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966)
Director Karel Reisz
David Mercer wrote two BBC plays about his mental health struggles, with In Two Winds directed by Ken Loach for both TV (in 1967) and cinema (as Family Life in 1971). Karel Reisz originally filmed Mercer’s A Suitable Case for Treatment for TV in 1962, and later planned to include his adaptation in the Woodfall anthology, Red, White and Zero (1967). But Mercer’s ideas about psychiatry had changed so drastically after discovering the work of R.D. Laing that Reisz decided instead to remake it as a feature, the idea being to assess the impact on artist Morgan Delt (David Warner) of being raised by a communist mother (Irene Handl) and discarded by his social-climbing wife, Leonie (Vanessa Redgrave).
Released contemporaneously with Time magazine’s ‘London: The Swinging City’ cover, this subversively anarchic feature became identified with the zeitgeist. But Reisz claimed it was a comedy “about serious things” and its social surrealism helped radicalise British cinema by giving it permission to shout unpalatable truths from the rooftops about class, sex, nature and alienation.
Director Stanley Donen
There was something quaintly traditional about the way in which Peter Cook and Dudley Moore reached the big screen. They followed live performance (Beyond the Fringe, 1960-64) with a broadcast series (Not Only… But Also, 1964-70) before debuting as grasping cousins in the Robert Louis Stevenson romp The Wrong Box (1966).
However, there was nothing remotely old school about their cutting-edge brand of sketch comedy, which combined satire and absurdism with innovatively insurgent glee. Cook was the single most significant figure in British comedy in the 1960s, and ideas fizz in an insouciantly scattershot manner throughout this Faust update, which centres on Wimpy chef Stanley Moon (Moore) selling his soul to the satanic George Spiggott (Cook) in return for seven chances to profess his love for waitress Margaret Spencer (Eleanor Bron). Doing his best Dick Lester impression, Hollywood stalwart Stanley Donen directs with a modish musicality that treats Cook’s dialogue like a Cole Porter lyric.