Saturday 29 April 2017

Snappy families… What a Carve Up! (1961)

John Peel once introduced Pink Floyd’s post-psych, proto-rave “One of These Days (I’m Going to Cut You into Little Pieces”, as being described by Roger Waters as “a poignant appraisal of the contemporary social situation…” before adding, acerbically, “make of that what you will…”

Could the same be said of this upwardly-mobile whodunnit in which familial betrayal is seemingly at the service of monetary gain? Jonathan Coe obviously thought so when he used the title for his book critiquing 1980’s Thatcherite “greedism” but, whilst its view of human nature is broadly cynical, the Ray Cooney source material is more slapstick farce than satire. It is in truth, hilariously, no more than the standard British disregard for upper class human frailty and if anyone’s going to make it out of this one alive you know it’s more likely to be the down-to-Earth Kenneth Connor and his mate Sid… oh and Shirley Eaton, of course: have you seen those pins?!

Shirley and Ken
As Adam Faith, who makes a late appearance in this film, once sang: “what do you want if you don’t want money?” Laughs, I suppose?? As it turns out there’s quite a few of those in What a Carve Up! Which features some of the finest comedy-performers of their generation in an age-old yarn about a shadowy house of mystery…

Sid and Ken play miss-matched best mates, sharing a flat and just about managing as Syd Butler a salesman and Ernest Broughton a horror novel proof-reader with an over-active imagination. News comes of the death of a distant relative Gabriel Broughton, the owner of Blackshaw Towers, and that Ernie must attend the reading of the will.

This bolt from the blue has Ernie dreaming of an inheritance but after a long trip on a smokey train he and his newly-appointed “legal advisor”, Syd, make their way through forbidding fog to the family pile: Blackshaw? Sure it’s black… and very, very dark.

The clan is gathered
They are greeted by Fisk (Michael Gough), the ghoulish family butler and ushered into the huge sitting room to meet Ernie’s family tree… There’s Guy (Dennis Price), Earnest’s cousin, a heavy drinker whose sardonic wit is utilised in permanent battle with his grimly-grasping sister Janet (Valerie Taylor). It’s hard to believe that they’re the off-spring of the bumblingly-avuncular Dr Edward Broughton (George Woodbridge).

But the Broughton’s seem an odd bunch for whom private education has not necessarily produced a balanced outlook: Great Aunt Emily Broughton (the genius Esma Cannon!) is a little confused and is convinced that the Great War is still on (did it ever really end?) whilst cousin Malcolm (a wonderful, wide-eyed turn from Michael Gwynn) is an unbalanced musician whose clearly had one too many Mozarts… he’s convinced it’s not him though but everybody else and to some extent he’s not wrong!

Fisk catches up on his reading
The boys arrive just in time for the start of proceedings with this grim clan all gathered around the dinning table waiting to hear if they’ve been left anything by Old Man Broughton as Everett Sloane (dead-deadpan Donald Pleasence) looks out with cold neutrality from over his spectacles… They are a most peculiar lot and generally none-too-keen on the mathematical impications of additional relatives.

But there’s one more to join them, the stunning Nurse Linda Dixon (the peerless Shirley Eaton, the sexual superpower of British comedy) who had looked after the old man – is there anything in the will for her and, as far as Ernie’s concerned, is there any of her in it for him?

James, Price, Connor and Eaton
Pretty soon there’s a lot more to concern Ernie’s over-active imagination as his relatives start being killed off one by one… the murdered is surely amongst them but who? Will Sid and Ernie find out in time, will Ernie recover from seeing Nurse Dixon getting changed, is the War really still on and what’s all this got to do with Adam Faith anyway…

You’ll have to watch it to find out.

Dusty verdict: If the plot sound familiar that’s because it bears resemblance to both The Old Dark House and The Ghoul both thirties classics ripe for the Cooney treatment and updating with extra – intended – laughs for the Carry On generation. It works too even though the humour was distinctly parochial, the New York Times reviewer being especially scathing of this “vulgar”, “inept” “ostensible British farce…”

A classic Connors cor!
Pat Jackson directs with swift efficiency making the most of every creaking door, hidden passageway and shadowy figure combing their effect on nervy-Ernie with a hit on the audience. What the New York Times failed to recognise is the film’s knowing heart: a post-modern awareness that is both comforting and satirically funny. Syd and Ken are everymen – thrust into this madness so we can have a laugh on our behalf, all sat together with post-war austerity barely giving way to a decade just about to swing.

Well worth a watch and readily available from Amazon and the rest.

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