After watching this film, I made a throwaway comment on Facebook that it was 81 minutes of my life that I wouldn’t get back. While that was may have been an overly harsh assessment of this Benny Hill-starring comedy – and one that Steve Chibnall called me on, noting that any film featuring Belinda Lee tearing telephone directories in half can’t be all bad – this falls short of revitalising Ealing Studios’ comic heritage in the mid-1950s, but offers some useful links back to the star-driven humour seen in its 1930s and 40s films.
It is soon clear, however, that Benny Hill is no Tommy Trinder, George Formby or Will Hay.
Hill plays Hugo Dill, a crime-thriller-loving actor who, after winning a writing competition (£100 and a bloodhound), sets up his own detective agency. With the occasionally-willing help of actress Frankie Mayne (Belinda Lee), Hugo inadvertently gets involved in a spy ring’s plans to smuggle Professor Stumpf (Denis Shaw) and his weather-changing invention out of Britain to Uralia. The spy chief Zacco (David Kossoff) hires Hugo to impersonate the professor, but Hugo’s bumbling sends the plans into disarray, leading to an extended chase sequence through a radio show at Earls Court and, finally, into the centre of a stock car race.
As a child of the 1970s, my memory of Benny Hill is likely the one that dominates: a ruddy-faced older and chubby television personality permanently chasing scantily-clad women in sped-up footage to the same repetitive piece of music. In that sense at least, this film is a partial revelation, because his younger persona is given a (limited) chance to act – his voice is deeper and stronger than my (unreliable) memory of the later television appearances, and his physical acting (particularly in some of the disguises he adopts) is largely strong. It is a shame that he is playing that stalwart of the Ealing star-driven comedies, the innocent naïf (innocent in the larger world, as well as sexually), rather than a role that would have stretched his acting in some way. It is also a shame that the film tends to fall back on reliable clichés – Hugo trying to be a hard-boiled American detective, cross-dressing as a wronged woman with strangled high-pitched voice – clichés that may play to Hill’s own limitations or skills, but ones that do little to enliven the comedy here.
Lee’s character is frustratingly underused: preternaturally strong (ripping up telephone directories, lifting furniture with one hand), she pretends to be weak around men so they won’t be put off by her strength. A strong woman hiding her power would be fertile comic ground for most films, but Lee is largely reduced to running around after Hill and occasionally punching / throwing the Uralian spies out of windows (which is a useful trick, given how inept Hugo is). She also falls in with actresses such as Googie Withers, Phyllis Calvert, Diana Decker and Patricia Kirkwood, as the underdeveloped female role who falls (inexplicably) in love with their comic star, be it George Formby, Tommy Trinder or Benny Hill. While this is an obvious narrative development that goes well beyond Ealing’s films, it remains problematic when (as here) the stars have no obvious chemistry.
The highlight of the film is a personal one that has little to do with the actual narrative or performances, but does relate to the power of Ealing’s tendency for location filming. It is rare to see an Ealing Studios film that is actually filmed on the streets of Ealing – obviously any set-based work was filmed within the walls of Ealing Studios, but location work ranged throughout London, depending on requirements. Here, for the first time, I spotted an actual Ealing location – Pitshanger Manor and Walpole Park (which are next to the Studios themselves), are used for the scene where the Professor demonstrates his weather controlling invention. As Sir Walter (Ernest Thesiger) greets the Professor (Hill, in disguise), they walk past the entrance to Pitshanger Manor, then into the Park itself, where the demonstration takes place. Having lived in Ealing for ten years, and regularly walked past that spot, it was perhaps the moment where I was most interested in, and engaged by, the film.
For the rest, I can see the potential appeal – the use of set pieces, mistaken identity, physical slapstick and chase sequences – but, almost halfway through this Ealing challenge, they are too reminiscent of earlier (and better) star-driven Ealing comedies. The star turn here is never as strong as it needed to be, with Hill an unconvincing figure to build this thin narrative around. The film’s struggle to create its own identity (yet hark back to earlier comedies) is underlined by the inclusion of a pair of snooty, patronising characters who dismiss the professor’s invention – roles that, fifteen years previously, would have been perfect for a Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne cameo, yet have little impact here.
Next time, we stick with comedy, but with a darker tone, in My Learned Friend (1943)...