Sunday, 15 December 2019

Russian around… Not Now, Comrade (1976)

OK, I watched this because Carol Hawkins is in it; is that so wrong? There are many British films from the seventies that fall under the “guilty pleasure” category as “sex comedies” a term that is usually a contra-indication in terms of both elements and content. Not Now, Comrade, to my surprise, proved to be a well-constructed farce, with a strong cast camping it up in style and plenty of humour. Granted Carol does give us plenty of “show” but it’s for comic effect and not (just) titillation if that’s an acceptable defence in 2019?

Written by Ray Cooney – who directed with Harold Snoad - it’s perhaps one of the more successful translations of his classic farces onto film and, largely based on one set, it does have the feel of a stage performance especially with the camera following the actors as they move from one understanding to the next. Cooney was hugely successful in the West End at the time and had 17 plays performed there including Run for Your Wife which ran for nine years. He made a number of film versions but not all were critically well-regarded…

Not Now, Comrade is not great art but it’s fun and allows so many character actors to indulge their comic chops even if their only wearing briefs and nipple tassels in Carol’s case.

Now, if you’re sitting comfortably, let’s sort out the plot… We start off at the Royal Albert Hall where a Russian ballet troop is meeting the press. Rudi Petrovyan (Lewis Fiander) is the star dancer and looks nervously at two KGB agents making sure he behaves. An attractive blonde burlesque dancer, Barbara Wilcox (Carol Hawkins) leaves her club and climbs into an open-top Triumph sportscar stripping off down to her work clothes as she speeds off to Kensington.

Beautiful Babs – that’s her name too! – parks up in Kensington Gore and runs over to perform a startling distraction in front of the ballet troop thereby allowing Rudi to make a break for it. He is supposed to climb into the boot of her car but, in the confusion, he gets into the boot of a Rolls Royce driven by a naval Commander Rimmington (Leslie Phillips, yay!!). Off sails Rimmington with Barbara in hot pursuit followed by the two Russian agents as the scene is set in Cooney style.

"Oh, I say... ding, dong." etc
The Commander parks up outside his country house and, as Barbra looks on, goes in to meet his daughter, Nancy played by the excellent Michele Dotrice. Watching Dotrice and Philips work you appreciate the skill involved in this particularly British genre; the trick is to keep a straight face but to be as earnest as possible, it’s real life just switched up a tad… and with fewer clothes, albeit not as few as you’d expect.

There follows many enjoyable near misses as Barbra tries to hide Rudi from Rimmington who is sent fishing only to return early by which time Nancy is in on the game and has enlisted her finance Gerry Buss (Ian Lavender). Among all these doings is the world-worn-down gardener Hoskins (Roy Kinnear) who’s confused already without the unnecessary complications of his “betters”.

Carol Hawkins and Lewis Fiander
Cooney plays Mr. Laver, a man from the ministry sent with a message for the Commander only to find Bob impersonating the father-in-law to be (who hasn’t met him). In all the commotion a Constable arrives played by Windsor Davies who, somewhat inevitably, ends up meeting with a cheeky guest, Bobby, played by his TV partner Don Estelle.

The top-quality cast is rounded off by the ageless June Whitfield as Janet Rimmington. Together they make the most out of a situation that in lesser hands could spin humourlessly out of control. But they know exactly how to play Conney’s lines and situations and Not Now Comrade surprises with genuinely funny moments and oodles of charm. It’s classy not rude.

Michelle Dotrice and Ian Lavender
Dusty Verdict: Funny and not sleazy, apart from that one chilly tasselled dance from the lovely Carol, this is well worth whiling away a rainy afternoon watching. See some of the cream of British stage actors working on film and be grateful.

The film is available on DVD and is also shown from time to time on Talking Pictures TV.

Ray Cooney, Ian Lavender and Carol Hawkins

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Rock goes to college… Curriculee Curricula (1978 TV Movie)

Now this is rare indeed and, since I last watched it back on BBC2 in 1978 – with simultaneous broadcast on Radio 4 – I have not seen this mini-epic, rock opera written by Alan Plater and with music from Dave Greenslade.

At the time I was chiefly excited to see one of my rock pin-ups, Sonja Kristina of Curved Air fame, on telly and it was always a thrill to see someone from my sub-culture of the music press, make it onto mainstream broadcast. Greenslade’s music was also a big selling point as his band had been among my favourite progressive bands; not as flashy as Yes or ELP, but very melodic with Roger Dean covers and a studious cool that seemed very connected in my teenage mind with universities and the pursuit of knowledge and beer that I was aiming for after o levels of course.

Sonja Kristina, still touring and sounding fantastic!
My memories of the first viewing are mostly Sonja-centred – loved seeing her as I’d been way too young to see Curved Air in the prime with Darryl Way and Francis Monkman two well-educated players at the heart fi their sound. Sonja’s reformed band were only touring as I shifter my allegiance to punk – and more readily accessible live experiences in Liverpool’s Eric’s Club. So, it also followed that my 16-year old self probably thought that Curriculee Curricula was a bit old hat with the flares, the hip talk and what was now seen as retro and not progressive by the NME and Sounds in a world of Siouxsie, Buzzcocks and X-Ray Spex.

Chris Farlowe and Sonja Kristina
FOUR decades later I have an altogether more tolerant view of the music and style as the intensity of that shift from 14, to 15 to 16… was more fashion reaction than aesthetically driven although I still think much of the progressive rock movement had played itself out by 1978 with a few exceptions.

Dave Greenslade’s music here is varied and well-played by his band which included some of those who had played for Greenslade such as Tony Reeves on bass and Mick Rogers on lead guitar, along with John Lingwood and Ian Mosely on drums. All feature at the play’s climax in a gig in the main hall as rock takes over college and, Plater’s contention that study for study’s sake is no replacement for living the life you want. So, here we have progressive rock as a symbol of rebellion… and why not?

Benny comes between Simon and Maggie
Events begin as our narrator, Magnus Magnusson – former Mastermind presenter – introduces proceedings in the guise of a TV reporter here for the university’s annual prestigious lecture, due to be delivered by astronomer Sir Patrick Moore. Magnusson is excellent, tongue in cheek through out as a one-man Icelandic Chorus.

The star of the show is Chris Farlowe as Benny, an odd-job man wearing an Arsenal scarf, who arrives to do some work and goes on a search for some spanners on campus. Farlowe was before my time as a legend of the British blues boom and lead singer with Colosseum, whose keyboard play was… Dave Greenslade! He can act a bit and has a likeable persona as his take it as you find approach to life rubs up against earnest academia.

Definitely not that earnest is cool Maggie (Sonja Kristina) who likes Benny from the start, which puts her snobby sports science lecturer boyfriend Simon’s (Richard Barnes) nose out of joint and he proceeds to try and humiliate the competition only making himself look daft: what’s the point of “winning” mate if the other guy’s not playing? University rules are not Life’s rules… Maggie and Benny know it.

Next up on his Spanner Odyssey, Benny encounters a researcher, Jo (Gaye Brown) who proceeds to ask him lots of questions about things he has no opinion about… again, university is out of touch with Benny’s world: he ain’t bothered. Jo then sings us through the mad professors at the college, all gently dug down into boxes of their own making and obsessed with detail that has little practical purpose.

I don’t think Alan Plater is a great believer in knowledge for knowledge’s sake… but he was one of the main playwrights of the era with many of the most notable TV plays including: the ground breaking Shoulder to Shoulder (1974), the *magnificent* Beiderbecke Trilogy (1985-88), A Very British Coup (1988) and many more.

Maggie and Benny end up down in the basement where the encounter Chas the Boilerman, the great Scottish comedian, Chic Murray who proceeds to chide them for entering his underground domain and sings of the wonders of piping and heating machinery in general.

Chic Murray's pipes!
Directed by Alastair Reid Curriculee Curricula works very well as a musical and when, expecting Patrick Moore to step up and give his speech, the Vice Chancellor (Michael Aldridge) is surprised to find Benny ready to take the stage. Before you know it there’s the full band on stage with Simon and Maggie taking vocal duties alongside Farlowe for a rousing finish.

Benny ends up with an honorary degree for his troubles but, as he rides off into the sunset with Maggie, she chucks it off the back of his motorbike: they don’t need degrees where they’re going! At the same time, Patrick Moore arrives late and flustered, he walks past as the two leave and shaking his head… heads towards his appointment on the podium.

Chris in his natural environment
Dusty Verdict: Period piece it may be but I really enjoyed the energy of Curriculee Curricula. The singing’s great and Kristina has acting chops having appeared in Hair before joining Curved Air. It is a shame and very surprising that as Sonja and Curved Air, Chris Farlowe and Greenslade are all still active and are issuing deluxe archives or their work, that this show does not get a proper DVD/Blu-ray release, I’m sure that the interest is there and far worse things have been made available from this period!

But Curriculee Curricula is good on its own merits and deserves to be shown again either by someone like Taking Pictures or on digital release. I watched a VHS recorded from the original broadcast – and it shows but the film is out there somewhere along with the soundtrack recording. After all, they may be someone at the very university used for the filming who is even now doing a Masters in Progressive Rock?! This is invaluable primary source material for them and everyone