Monday, 29 August 2022

Plenty of filling… The Sandwich Man (1966), Network Blu-ray out now


This is something of a city symphony from the fourth Goon and full of gentle charm to match the multiple locations across the capital, some of which have hardly changed, with others long since gone leaving no trace of “Swinging” London left. As a story the narrative is very thin and essentially just an excuse to see those sights as well as to allow dozens of guest stars to performing skits of varying levels of humour. The commentary from Producer/Cinematographer Peter Newbrook confirms that the entire picture was shot on location and that whilst they hit all their main targets, subterfuge was required to film certain scenes in the West End, given the unhelpful attitude of the authorities. This is a great advert for the vibrancy of the dirty old town and is a quirky near-classic!

Written by Michael Bentine together with Robert Hartford-Davis who also directs, great credit should also go to Newbrook’s cinematography and Peter Taylor’s editing. If it were nothing else, The Sandwich Man would stand as eloquent testimony to the time and place but it’s the guest stars that make it and only someone with Bentine’s address book could have pulled this off: Norman Wisdom, Diana Dors, Harry H. Corbett, Dora Bryan, Bernard Cribbins and Terry-Thomas… even Brian Cant pops up in a cameo. Delays also pushed them into the late summer/early autumn and the weather then became an issue. So, light comedy it may be, but we shouldn’t doubt the determination to get it made and it’s hard to keep sunny smiling when the cool wind come off the Thames…

It begins and ends with a street and some pigeons as the camera swoops down from the foggy East End sun to a row of colourful Victorian cottages. Out of the first comes Da Sikhars, two Indian jazz musicians played by Leon Thau (Ram) and Hugh Futcher (Gogi) in now-jarring brown-face – what was it about the Goons and playing Indians? Thau worked with Bentine in It’s a Square World before producing and directing Michael Bentine's Potty Time complete with legendary ant circus!

Dora and Michael

Next door along sees Roger Delgado emerge as Abdul, the carpet seller, followed by Burt Kwouk who defies racial stereotyping by jumping into an Italian ice cream van… just as cringeworthy today but in the context of 1966 all of a piece with a warm comment on the emerging diversity.

Next door to Burt is Horace Quilby (Bentine) pigeon fancier and sandwich man employed, for those of you from the 21st Century, to walk the streets of central London advertising services on cardboard signs slung over his shoulders, in this case Finklebaum & O’Casey Gents Bespoke Overcoats & West End Suits. His neighbour is played by the legendary Dora O’Brien, who takes a break from beating her carpet to inquire about his racing pigeon, Esmerelda, who is involved in a major race from Bordeaux to London. There’s a frisson between the two… the promise of more just as Horace’s feathered friend might bring him greater success in the sporting world of Columba livia domestica. 

Horace is a man of small pleasures, always looking on the bright side and enjoying people watching during his endless days of mobile advertising. He greats his neighbours and talks to a stunning young woman, Sue (Suzy Kendall, one of the faces of the era, star of Up the Junction and, in the seventies, many a Giallo film) who is having a falling out with her luxury car salesman boyfriend, Steven (David Buck). Steven arrives in one of many lovely period cars and there’s a great reaction shot from the bus queue as they look from side to side as the couple argue.

Super Suzy Kendall
Sue and Steven form the main thread with a running argument throughout the film exacerbated by the former’s job as a model being photographed by Bernard Cribbins who is, as always, a joy with more than a few improvised lines as he, literally, falls dahn an ‘ole in the grahnd being dug by David Lodge and his men. Da Sikhars also spend most of the film, erm, seeking to get to an Indian jazz festival and, Horace sees it all.

But the biggest hits come from the incredible list of stars. At the time they didn’t come much bigger than Norman Wisdom who plays a boxing vicar at a boys’ club near St Pauls. He has an “oirish” accent and does all his own stunts some of which are quite remarkable for a 51-year old. He’s positively Chaplinesque as indeed is Charlie’s son from his marriage to Oona, Michael J Chaplin, who plays a pavement artist during the Cribbins-Kendall-working men sequence. As with all of Chaplin’s kids, the most famous face in the world gives them a familiarity. Striking that we’re further away from this film than it was from The Great Dictator, Modern Times and even his classic period with Keystone, Mutual and Essanay.

Elsewhere we’re gifted with Terry Thomas as a scout leader trying to give Da Sikhars a lift before falling foul of a traffic policeman played by Ian Hendry, who shows his range as the comedically-tense copper on a bad day which culminates in his packing it all in when two cars collide (near Tolworth Tower on the A3, not central London) and the drivers are men in costume, a Kangaroo – who possibly jumped a red light – and a Polar Bear. Many of these sketches were drawn from Bentine’s It’s a Square World, they can be hit and miss but everyone contains those guest stars.

Norman nurses his bruises...

There’s a lovely sequence in Billingsgate Fish Market with Diana Dors debating the relative values of Doctor Kildare with Anna Quayle, and the camera keeps cutting to fish getting gutted, by Frank Findlay no less, as the women discuss TV operations… it’s well observed. We also get Abdul haggling with Sydney Tafler over exchanging one of his carpets for 30 pounds… of fish.

Sometimes the stars are in extended skits, Harry H. Corbett as a Stage-Door Keeper amidst a West-End chorus line rehearsal – lots of legs in that one – then Stanley Holloway as Park Gardener engaged in a running battle with Alfie Bass’ model yachtsman. Other times you blink and you miss them, and I was pleased with myself for spotting a young Georgina Hale as the motorcycle pillion rider who loses the bottom half of her leathers in Soho.

Still they keep on coming, Wilfrid Hyde-White as a rather confused Lord Uffingham, confusing pigeon owner Horace with a horse owner at the Hilton, Warren Mitchell as Gypsy Sid, reading tea leaves in a café and John Le Mesurier as the Senior Sandwich Man, Zebadiah, the almost mystical head of this peculiar group of workers.

Terry Thomas, what an absolutely spiffing idea!
There’s too many to mention and you’ll just have to make like Horace when he hits the tope of the stairs between Pall Mall and the Mall and stretches out his arms in appreciation of the Sun’s strengthening rays. I worked two summer seasons at a Butlins in North Wales and one of the comics there used to travel the whole north west coast and beyond. I asked him how he put up with so much travelling and he said just by enjoying the journey, people watching and making the most of each day.

I reckon Michael Bentine, and so many of his co-stars, knew that feeling all too well and there’s a Zen-like quality to this film. All will be well, just keep o keeping on and hope for the best… it’s the best you can hope for.

A quick tip of the hat to composer Mike Vickers whose music plays such a part in the film’s coherence and mood. The Sandwich man was well liked by those who saw it according to Peter Newbrook but it wasn’t the commercial success they hoped. Maybe the style was already slightly behind the times for the younger audience but this excellent transfer from Network brings to life again those locations and those ace faces.

The film comes with a host of special features:

·         Brand-new interviews with composer Mike Vickers, production accountant Maureen Newman, actor Hugh Futcher and draughtsman Alan Cassie

·         Archive interview with Michael Medwin

·         Archive commentary with producer/cinematographer Peter Newbrook

·         Theatrical Trailers

·         Soho Bites podcast with image gallery

·         Limited edition booklet written by Melanie Williams

It’s out now and you can order direct from Network – another hugely enjoyable winner and at a very reasonable price too!



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