Sunday, 30 March 2014

What the barrister saw… A Pair of Briefs (1962)

Sandwiched between the Royal Courts of Justice and Lincoln’s Inn can be found one of the most characterful pubs in London: The Seven Stars. An idiosyncratic ale-house for the legal profession and all who serve them (booksellers, publishers… journalists…) it is packed full of posters and photographs tracing the adventures of its landlady as well as the pub’s legal connections.

In the snug to the right – it’s all pretty snug to be honest – is a large poster promoting A Pair of Briefs featuring an angry looking James Robertson Justice and a scantily clad woman wearing a barrister’s wig and gown along with erm, a pair of briefs… see what they did there? OK… so what’s the excuse for watching what promises to be “Carry on Judging”? Well, it’s actually quite witty and, without doubt, there is a superb cast of British acting talent.

Mary Peach
Admittedly the film’s opening credits play up to the promise of the poster, we see a young woman, Francis Pilbright (the lovely, smiley, Mary Peach, who would later feature in the recently-recovered Doctor Who serial, The Enemy of the World), getting dressed for her first day in chambers. Miss Peach is indeed as shapely as her cartoon replication but in fairness this is the most we see of her as the narrative takes on a more dialogue-driven course (well, mostly…).

E-Type and Georgian house...
She leaves a splendid Georgian house and drives an E-Type Jaguar into London at the same time as we see a young man, Tony Stevens (Michael Craig) leaving a more modest Victorian town house on a scooter. Both approach Lincolns Inn and end up almost colliding… Tony is in the wrong but tries to convince Francis that he’s a legal hot-shot… so far so rom-com.

Micheal Craig and Mary Peach
He makes his way to his chambers where he finds he is about to be displaced from the window desk by a new starter who just happens to be the head of chamber’s niece. There’s much grumbling from the impoverished barrister who bemoans his lack of legal challenges and those juicy, highly-rewarding divorce cases, with his solicitor pal, George (Jameson Clark).

Then the new starter arrives and to no one’s surprise  it’s the E-Type driver… before hostilities are resumed Tony can’t help but admire the outline of her chasse (I know, I know…just getting into the spirit of the period…) whilst George is immediately disarmed.

Away from the Inns of Court, we see a well-dressed middle-age woman, Gladys Worthing (Brenda De Banzie) going into a plush Thames-side hotel and then emerging via the back entrance, considerably dressed down and hailing a cab with confident authority. She heads south and makes her way to a dingy maisonette where she encounters wise-cracking Sidney Pudney (Ron Moody) who she claims is her husband. Sidney appears not to recognise her and is shacked up with his “cleaner” Gloria (Liz Fraser) who finds his endless “as the monkey said…” riffing most amusing.

Liz Fraser, Ron Moody and Brenda De Banzie
Gladys is devastated and in her timid northern humility seems quite different from the woman at the hotel… she’s up to something but we don’t know what!

Back in chambers, George is despatched by Uncle Sir John (Roland Culver) to obtain more graphic evidence in a trial involving alleged improprieties at an entertainment venue in Soho.  George arrives to find himself plied with drink and given a close-up view of the acts on show… 

Bill Kerr, Jameson Clark and the great Amanda Barrie
There’s one Gale Tornado (Carry on stalwart Joan Sims), a dancer who performs with a snake (Amanda Barrie, Cleo herself…) and another who dresses as a maid (Judy Carne, later to become a fixture on Laugh In… see, I told you about the cast!). The club owner (Bill Kerr) ensures that George has a whale of a time and he reports back to Sir John with a brown envelop full of incriminating evidence against himself!

Judy Carne shakes a tail feather!
 Meanwhile, as Tony struggles on with civil engineering cases, Francis is delivered of her first proper brief, a case involving the denial of conjugal rights… Deciding that he can’t miss out on such a juicy case, Tony persuades George to give him the brief for the defence without letting him know that Francis will be his opposition: very bad form.

Francis and Tony square up for their day in court as we learn that the case will involve Gladys against Sidney… the strands are pulled together.

James Robertson Justice
The parties appear before the fearsome Justice Haddon (the fearsome James Robertson Justice… who was born to be a lord, m’lud) who grows quickly frustrated with both the inexperienced barristers, the dithering Gladys and the wise-cracking Sidney. Luckily, Gloria has been sent off to the pub and she quickly gets sozzled in a small lounge bar not unlike that in the Seven Stars…

Liz Fraser in The Seven Stars?
Gladys’ case is that she married Sidney in the War and their marriage licence was destroyed in a German bombing raid. For his part, as the monkey said to the hairdresser, Sidney denies everything and you scratch your head wondering what this is all about.

No spoilers: The court scenes are well done and as the mysteries of the case develop so too does the obvious rapport between Tony and Francis… who want to win each other as much as the case. Drunken Gloria makes a timely appearance and all is, almost, revealed…

Ron Moody
Dusty verdict: I won’t reveal the ending as a) it’s partly obvious and b) it’s mostly not…  A Pair of Briefs is ultimately a well written of slight, light comedy ideal for that undemanding nostalgia-watch you need at weekends or on sick days!

The cast are uniformly excellent and there’s a lot of energy from the Carry on cameos… along with the above you also get Terry Scott as a policeman and the recently departed Graham Stark as the man bringing the case against the nightclub.

It lives up to its poster promise and, if anything, is slightly more sophisticated than the image of the pantily-clad Peach at first suggests. She acts well and makes for a good match with the experienced Michael Craig: Britain’s own Doris and Rock?

A Pair of Briefs isn’t available on DVD and so you’ll have to wait for one of its regular TV screenings… another VHS I’ll keep in the dusty box for a rainy day…

Seven Stars on the right as Michael Craig scoots off

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Roddy's scotch mist…Tam-Lin aka The Devil's Widow (1970)

Tam-Lin, aka The Ballad of Tam-Lin, The Devil's Widow and The Devil's Woman… was the only film directed by Roddy McDowall and he took a break from playing in part four of the Planet of the Apes films to make it.

On this evidence it’s a shame he never got around to directing more: there’s genuine strangeness and charm about this film that is more genuinely unsettling than most outright horror films of the period.

With a screenplay by William Spier, the story is loosely based on the traditional Scottish poem The Ballad of Tam Lin and perhaps the multiple titles reflected the distributors’ difficulty in marketing such an unusual product. The original ballad dates to as early as 1549 and has evolved into many forms as young Tam, under the protection of the Queen of the Fairies looks to be rescued from sacrifice by a young woman who has stolen his heart.

Part of the music for McDowall’s film is provided by The Pentangle – a folk super-group featuring Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Danny Thomson, Jacqui McShee and Terry Cox  – and it’s possible that he came across the story through its popularity in the sixties folk boom. From trailblazer Anne Briggs wispily mystical performances of Young Tambling through to Fairport Convention’s more muscular Tam Lin off 1969’s Liege and Leif the story was sung again through the taverns and hipster coffee houses of London and beyond.

Stephanie Beacham
It is in the capital where this film starts with a gaggle of excited youngsters who live off and around an ultra-wealthy woman Michaela Cazaret (superbly played by the iconic Ava Gardner – no doubt one of Roddy’s many showbiz buddies). Her current favourite is one Tom Lynn (Ian McShane) who seems to be madly addicted to her intoxicating presence.

Michaela and Tom leave the comforts of their conjugal bed to lead their mobile party to their cars in preparation for a journey to Scotland. They look to be in Knightsbridge or somewhere similar and the cars include an Aston Martin DBS – another classic. One young man is desperate to speak to Michaela but she casts him aside.

The convoy travels along London Wall past St Alphage Tower (currently being demolished) and then find themselves rocketing up the empty motorways of the early seventies.
St Alphage Tower on the left... London Wall as was.
Once in Michaela’s immense Scottish castle they settle down to the business of having a good time… Georgia (Joanna Lumley) reads books and makes broad philosophical statements, Rose (Sinéad Cusack) plays with Tarot cards, whilst Caroline (Jenny Hanley) plays Frisbee with the boys and the unsettlingly childlike Sue (Madeline Smith) asks for a puppy. It’s the cream of 1970’s British acting starlets, with more to come…

The local vicar’s daughter, young Janet Ainsley (Stephanie Beacham) arrives with a dog as per Sue’s requests and looks on in awe at the young, beautiful and directionless crowd but is immediately unsettled by Tom (and likewise).

Jenny Hanley and Joanna Lumley
She’s not sure whether Sue will be the right sort of person to hand over her pet too but then Michaela arrives and casts her glamour over all. She asks Janet to name her price and in a rush she asks for £50… Michaela writes her a cheque with a rueful smile whilst her secretary, Elroy (Richard Wattis) tells the young girl that she’s missed a chance to impress his mistress.

Janet returns to the vicarage…and discusses the strange new visitors with her father (Cyril Cusack) who urges her to return the £50.

Out walking she encounters Tom – on a head-clearing walk nursing a bottle of brandy as cure for a massive hang-over from an unbridled night with his mistress. Here McDowall does something experimental and stop-motions events in a series of photographs – possibly reflecting Tom’s skill in that area: he views Janet’s beauty in a professional manner and wants to capture every moment?

Ian McShane and Stephanie Beacham
The images show the couple finally recognising their love for each other and you can guess what happens next. Afterwards the couple walk back but Tom refuses to let Janet near the castle grounds as if realising the influence that shapes his own feelings in a particular direction.

Tom returns to the castle but Michaela quickly senses what has happened and from now on a course is set as Tom beings to seek out his free will.

He goes to church in order to see Janet and is spotted by his rival in the group, Oliver (David Whitman), he rejects the latter’s offer of a lift…

Back at the castle the news has obviously been relayed and Oliver goads Tom and violence erupts much to Michaela’s displeasure… Meanwhile the faithful Elroy positively relishes the opportunity to point out some home truths to Tom as he details how the unexplained deaths of certain young men in expensive motor cars are linked to Michaela. Is this to be Tom’s future: finished off once he steps out of line and stops being useful?

Tom is stubborn though and vows to leave, Michaela sends him to a caravan near the Firth of Forth promising she’ll give him a truce of eight days before hunting him down. Meanwhile, Janet discovers she is pregnant and seeks help from the local abortionist who sends her off to Edinburgh.

There’s an edge to the story now as the full cruelty of the situation is starting to be revealed: what exactly is Michaela and is there any way she will let Tom go or is he as doomed as the rest of her former lovers?

The party's over...
No spoilers: The ending I won’t give away needless to say that events slip into psychedelic overdrive and the outline of the original ballad is loosely followed as things come to a head.

Dusty verdict: Tam Lin is an oddity that lingers in the memory. McDowall’s direction is fluent and full of invention whilst his cast deliver strong performances not least Miss Gardner, relishing the chance to play a most unusual baddy. Is she the Fairie Queen or some kind of witch or is she just a very wealthy woman with a penchant for lovin’ an’ leavin’ ‘em a bit dead?

The horror is not over and is all the more remarkable for that: had this been a Hammer film it would have been a lot more… obvious. Long out of print – I’m clinging onto my old video – Tam Lin has now been released on Blu-Ray in the US. It’s available from Amazon  here.

Rolls, Bristol, Aston and Jensen...
Jenny Hanley
Madeline Smith and David Whitman