Saturday, 27 May 2017

Election special… The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970)


Ah, the more things change the more they bloody well stay the same… smart guy market researches and manipulates both establishment and general voting public alike in a drive to the top, all in an age before social media optimisation, big data news filtering and the collapse of trust.

Devised and produced by David Frost under the pseudonym "David Paradine", the script was completed by Peter Cook, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, and Kevin Billington, who also directed. It’s very knowing as you’d expect from these denizens of sixties satire who set the controls for the heart of a system that was largely run by people they’d gone to college with.

Indeed, Peter Cook later admitted to basing the character of Michael Rimmer on Mr Frost himself. None more self-referential and, indeed, a modern viewing of the film imparts it with all due benefits of doubt accrued by its major players in subsequent years: it’s got That Was The Week That Was pedigree, Beyond the Fringe all the way through to Python and Peter’s post-mortem confirmation as a national treasure.

Fraser, Cook and Elliott on WorthingPier
After the film, he was not convinced by his own performance but it’s his lack of nuanced expression that now seems to work very well as this coldly avuncular murderer and shaker: he takes everything in equal measure and has a plan for every eventuality based on a shrewd appreciation of the amorality all around him: we get the corruption we deserve.

The film is mostly funny around its lead character and not because of him as a host of top-notch character actors make their mark and a “guest appearance” by renowned playwright, Harold Pinter threatens to steal the show.

Valerie Leon and Arthur Leers...
It is however, hard to upstage Arthur Lowe and he’s the one to watch from the get-go as lazily abusive ad agency boss Ferret sitting in his complacent office ogling his secretary Tanya’s knicker line (unsurprisingly it’s Valerie Leon who is, overall, rather splendid). An agitated customer arrives and is followed in by a wide-eyed smart young man with a half-smile. The customer thumps Ferret and leaves as the young man reveals himself to be Michael Rimmer, sent to perform a time and motion study on the bureau.

He follows the nervous staff around, watching the finance director totting up the betting odds, following Pumer (John Cleese) into the gents and then catching him practising his ballroom dancing. There’s lots of time wasted in the company and before long Ferret’s test-match and skirt watching has to stop as he’s demoted to the bottom (not the one he likes) and retained only in order that he may repay the huge sums he’s wasted.

Time and motion...
I think the boys are trying to make a point… and it still resonates.

Rimmer takes over and then, impressed with Peter Niss (Denholm Elliott) a man from the biggest market research competitor, head hunts him to help undermine them. He uses shock tactics to catch attention and at the same time undermine faith in established mores, using research to show that the population is enjoying more sex than it actually is or that Britain is a nation of Buddhists.

Stephen Hench is Talking to You..
Naturally manipulation of public opinion leads him to politics and he cosies up to the leader of the opposition, Tory Tom Hutchinson (Ronald Fraser) at a reception held at London Zoo – how very modern! He can help him win, and in scenes not a million miles away from The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, he coaches Hutchinson on tone, body language and emotional control.

At the same time, he begins to work with the Labour Prime Minister, Blacket (George A. Cooper) – any resemblance to Harold Wilson being purely intentional. Knowing how little the public like seeing Blacket perform he encourages him to make daily TV appearances… it’s the one sure way to ensure Labour’s chances go down the tube (as it were).

Corbett and Cleese out polling
Michael decides he must take a wife and selects the pretty fit, Olympic equestrian Patricia Cartwright (Vanessa Howard, fit and pretty) who is soon won over by his empty charm and the two marry at Budleigh Moor (get it?).

But as Michael makes his way higher and higher, Patricia is left to alone a lot with Peter who attempts to lure her away… there’s one especially excruciating scene in which Patricia exercises her frustrations away as Niss looks on shifting uncomfortably in his seat.

The film was timed for release before the 1970 General election but some nervousness on behalf of the distributors prevented this… job done chaps!!  As it turned out the film was spot on and the Tories beat Wilson (temporarily) with, in this case Hutchinson romping to victory.

Marriage on the Moor
Rimmer instils some radical thinking in the new government with mocked up weaponry a far cheaper alternative to the development of the actual capabilities and a secret invasion of Swiss banks allowing the UK to pretend it has discovered North Sea Gold.

Tragedy soon occurs though when Hutchinson falls to his doom after holding a large chunk of gold over his head on a drilling platform… did he fall or was that a helping hand from Rimmer?

There’s no stopping him now as the party looks for a new leader, Patricia returns to the winning horse and novel ideas are put in to play that seem to promise more democracy whilst at the same time ensuring its doom. Referenda my friends… you can’t ask the public all the time; they’d much rather someone else made the decisions, good or bad…

Patricia exercises and Niss misses out
Dusty verdict: Michael Rimmer is clearly a jolly jape for the ruling satirical classes and it’s not often that political humour stands the test of time. IN this case, some of the jokes have only ripened in the age of social-media enhanced political campaign and big data thought control. Mr Rimmer is all too believable in the age of President Trump and a British government including Boris Johnson.

Peter Cook’s sly style has also stood the test of time and his vacuity only makes the character of Rimmer more believable: a post-Blair/post-Cameron man of PR and spin with little discernible core belief.

Just a stroll on the beach...
There’s superb support especially from Arthur Lowe and some of our finest character actors, Roland Culver, Dennis Price, Ronnie Corbett, Michael Bates and a sexy Diana Coupland! I also love the idea of an Election Grandstand – a TV programme with more airtime than news to break… very prescient!

The film is now available from Warner Archives on DVD and is close to Cook’s better work of the sixties such as the excellent Bedazzled (made with long-time partner, Budleigh Moore).

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