Monday, 21 April 2014

Cooler than it sounds… Eskimo Nell (1975)

There are few things more mutually exclusive than the phrase combining the words “sex" and "comedy” especially in Britain which experienced a plague of the things post Carry on involving window cleaners, night nurses and cab drivers. In most cases they were simply excuses to show off as much female flesh as possible with a few bon mots thrown in as an alibi: as if the nudity was only in fun and the exploitation therefore didn’t count.

Eskimo Nell is – arguably – a cut above… it has a good cast, a cohesive script and never takes itself too seriously. There’s also a lot of talk but not much action in the skin department with even a famous appearance by Mary Millington being limited to a fast-forward strip – almost taking the micky out of those who really would have appreciated a much more drawn out exposure to her iconic curves.

Michael Armstrong plays the director in the film he wrote...
It’s also directed by Martin Campbell who, after a few similar films, spent the 80’s directing TV like Shoestring, Minder and the great Edge of Darkness before graduating to Hollywood epics like The Mark of Zorro, Green Lantern (which is better than people say if you’re a DC comics fan…) and James Bond – Golden Eye and Casino Royale. He does well and sequences a convoluted narrative well.

The film’s writer and star, Michael Armstrong, is also another very interesting character who is still enjoying a long career as director, cinematographer and author (his website is here): a renaissance man who obviously had enough experience of the trade by this point to take a pot-shot or three at the faulty mechanisms of film finance… creativity crushed by creditors.

Roy Kinnear and Diane Langton
The story starts with a young film graduate Dennis Morrison (Armstrong) who heads off to Wardour Street secure in the knowledge that his degree will grant him instant access to the business of film. He is quickly disabused but grabs his last chance at the seedy top floor offices of B.U.M. studios. Run by the persuasive and single-minded mogul Benny U. Murdoch (Roy Kinnear) B.U.M. specialises in films that stick to the point (or points if you want to be honest) yet he persuades young Morrison to put together a film based on the epically bad-taste poem Eskimo Nell. Murdoch is keen on casting genre specialist Gladys Armitage (Diane Langton) as Nell as, for him, she has all the right characteristics…

The seriously talented Prudence Drage impresses the boys
Dennis enlists his mate Clive (Terence Edmond) as producer and asks Harris Tweedle (Christopher Timothy) – who knows more about penguins than women – to script the film and the three set off with Murdoch to find backers.

Dennis’ girlfriend, Hermione (the legend that is Katy Manning, Jon Pertwee’s second assistant in Doctor Who) is part of a family fighting for moral standards, her brother Jeremy (the always unlikely Christopher Biggins…) and mother Lady Longhorn (Rosalind Knight). They are delighted that their young friend will be making a moral film…

Nell I - not subtle...
Yet, as the would be film-makers do the rounds they find that each backer will only stump up funds if a) the film can be made to their agenda and b) Eskimo Nell be played by the actor of their choice.

Nell II - Kung fu meets the Sound of Music...
So it is that the production ends up being committed to being a kung-fu film, Britain’s first all gay western and a hardcore sex film to star, respectively, a martial arts trained opera singer, a transvestite and a gum chewing sex starlette of no fixed American accent…

Nell III... lots of cowboys
But it gets worse as Murdoch has taken a trip with the money and has left the three friends liable with hastily-signed contracts: if the films don’t get made they’ll pay the price.

Cue a trip to a lovely-looking mid-seventies alehouse and a spark of inebriated inspiration from Hermione: why not get mummy’s crusaders to pay for another version of the film, one with a clean moral message that pays full tribute to the great work of art that inspired the film?  All they have to do is to work out how to film four films at once?

Terence Edmond, Michael Armstrong and Christopher Timothy start casting
The lads start casting their four films and there’s some funny auditions, a Viking and Miss Mary Millington dressed as a traffic warden and performing a double-quick strip – any longer and the narrative would have dropped into softcore but the film keeps it relatively clean.

Mary Millington auditions
Onto the filming and we see the prissy “clean” version with Biggins dressed like an Edwardian child followed by the kung fu, cowboys and hardcore versions… it’s a chaotic juggling act and still funny in places with all genres spoofed.

The film finished, Lady Longhorn’s connections get them a Royal gala premier in Leicester Square, wouldn’t it be funny if the versions somehow got mixed up?!

Can the pals ensure that all of their hard work is rewarded? You’ll have to watch to find out.

Dusty verdict: Eskimo Nell is better than I expected and, whilst not exactly a classic is never the less and interesting period piece that shows the difficulties of getting a film made in genre-obsessed seventies Britain when it felt like the industry had almost ground to a halt.

Nell IV... Katie Manning gives it some hat
The cast and crew do a splendid job with uniformly excellent exaggerations from the obsessives wanting to make the film. Christopher Timothy stands out as the conflicted penguin-fancier and Roy Kinnear is excellently greasy as the boob-fixated porn baron. It’s also good to see Miss Manning showing that there is more to her acting than Doctor Who sometimes allowed! She doesn’t scream or run away once...

Eskimo Nell is still available on DVD from Amazon – it looks to be mildly collectible from the prices so don’t waver if you want a light-hearted Seventies smile or three!

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