Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Funniest Film Ever Made?

by Geoff Collins

Ronnie Barker is dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. He is as dead as a door-nail. Yet in spite of this, the British television stations, especially the BBC, seem intent on bludgeoning us with a surfeit of Barker until we can take no more. Every single night, for months on end: Porridge, Open All Hours, The Two Ronnies... There's no question that the man was an exceptionally talented comedy actor and writer; but I'd like to turn on the TV just once in a while without encountering his podgy features, whether as wily con Fletcher, stingy "stuttering-is-funny" shopkeeper Arkwright, or in some lame, over-laughtracked sketch with Ronnie Corbett about two dullards at a party, one of whom has sociopathic tendencies. Over-laughtracked? We Brits are seriously over-Barkered.

But there are advantages. Thanks to Britain's current atmosphere of "Ronnie Barker is Flavour-of-the-Month", digitalclassicsdvd.co.uk have resurrected on DVD one of the Great Lost Films. Certainly it's hardly been seen anywhere since 1964. A Home of Your Own, produced by Bob Kellett and directed by Jay Lewis, was initially made to entertain the executives of the building firm Tersons at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London. Fully aware, through previous experience, of the Grosvenor's crummy acoustics, they made it as a 40-minute silent comedy with sound effects and mutterings, ironically chronicling the delays and sheer incompetence to be encountered on British building sites. (At the beginning an engaged couple sign the documents for their new home; by the time it's completed they have three children and another on the way.) In fact there's no dialogue at all; so it's the ancestor and inspiration for all those later Sykes/Barker efforts: The Plank, Futtock's End, It's Your Move, etc. etc.

The "special feature" of the DVD is a filmed interview with producer Kellett, in which he relates the movie's progression through its initial rejection by an ABPC exec ("much too sophisticated for our audience!") to its placement by an overjoyed British Lion into a thousand cinemas as a support film for A Shot in the Dark. And this is where the trouble starts.

At the premiere of A Shot in the Dark, A Home of Your Own was shown first and the audience rocked. It got a standing ovation. At one point the distinguished, disgruntled voice of George Sanders was heard to remark: "This is much funnier than our film. I can't see why they showed it first - it's gonna make us look extremely dull!"

And so it did, all over the country. I saw it in Bedford; Ivy saw it in Bristol. People were falling out of their seats with laughter, to such an extent that when the main feature came on it was anticlimactic and looked like a complete dud. Now, after entering the realms of legend - many people in Britain remember this little film about a building site - it's back, thanks to the demise of Ronnie Barker who is one of an astonishing number of 1960s British comedy stars in the cast. After all this time, does A Home of Your Own still work? More importantly, does it work on DVD?

Well, yes it does. Ivy and I watched it and we laughed a lot. Admittedly the effect would be stronger in a full cinema with an audience nearly peeing themselves - laughter is the best sort of contagion - but the gags still hit the mark. Ronnie Barker is a cement worker who takes great pride in his newly-laid patio, only to see it indented with footprints when a distracted coworker walks across it to bring him a cup of tea. Forget about Porridge, or Open All Hours, or any of that over-repeated BBC stuff; Ronnie's pained, shocked expression, seen in a close-up, is a beauty. Later in the film, having painstakingly smoothed it all over again, he sees the same thing about to happen once more; so he walks across it to collect his tea. Three or four steps and he realises what he's done. Another crushed "oh no!" close-up. Later still he's smoothed it over yet again, and the camera holds the long-shot for a very long time - then the architect's car drives right across it. Barker's reaction is drastic: he rolls over and over on the cement, banging his fists on it in frustration before finally doing a sort of mad ballet pirouette across it - by which time, according to Ivy's recollection, the audience in the cinema was in need of medical assistance.

There are so many other delightful running gags: burly, weak-bladdered shop-steward Bill Fraser (one of the great comic baddies and a true candidate for Third Bananaship) bursting for a pee but determined not to let his urgent need interfere with the allotted tea break - and continually thwarted by others nipping into the toilet hut just ahead of him; short-sighted carpenter Peter Butterworth, happily unaware of his visual deficiency (he stirs his tea with a succession of inappropriate objects) sawing through a plank and the trestle, before discarding the remains of the trestle onto a huge stack of previously-sawn-through trestles; and the massed hordes of the Post Office Telephones and the Electricity and Gas Boards, digging up and filling in exactly the same stretch of road. In each case the real work is accomplished by two or three men while the other ten or twelve stand around and watch. Each character or set of characters has an appropriate theme tune, courtesy of Ron Goodwin's catchy score.

Best of all is the Stonemason. We see the huge block of stone being delivered, and nervy mason Bernard Cribbins (accompanied by a nautical theme - was this because he'd been such a hit in Carry On Jack?) chipping away at the inscription. One tiny slip in the second line and crack! the entire block splits in two. Later, an increasingly agitated Cribbins is gently mocked, in mime, by one of the building workers; as he chips away at the second block we see the shadows cast by others as they watch and wait for it to happen again - and crack! it happens again. His confidence completely shot, we finally see just the shape of Cribbins as he works on the third block underneath the flag which covers the statue prior to its unveiling. Cribbins' pride and relief soon turn to bewildered embarrassment as the unveiling ceremony reveals his inscription: THE MONEY FOR THIS ERECTION WAS RAISED BY PUBIC SUBSCRIPTIONS.

By sheer coincidence, a recent exhibition at The Finest Art Gallery Outside London was advertised in a local newspaper as containing "loans from pubic and private collections". Coincidence? Or was the God of Comedy at work?

The God of Comedy: that cheeky little fellow was certainly at work on A Home of Your Own. Gleefully satirising the chronic malaise and inefficiency of postwar Britain, it has more laughs per minute than any film I've ever seen. American audiences might not "get it", in the same way that we've never taken to people like Milton Berle or Don Rickles; but I suspect that it would travel well, especially as many of the gags are set up with Keaton-like precision and composition. The cinematography by Denys Coop is exemplary. Although I'm sick of the sight of Ronnie Barker (not his fault, being dead and all) I'll make an exception here; for this was The Film That Undermined A Shot In the Dark. Find it if you can.

Humour is entirely dependent on personal taste; but if you can find a funnier film than this, let me know.

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