Few obituaries of the late Michael Winner mentioned one of his most vibrant productions – 1962's The Cool Mikado – which is a shameful neglect of one his most individual films.
Who else but Winner could have directed a musical containing the rousing number “Tit Willow Twist”, as played by the John Barry Seven and as interpreted by Lionel Blair and His Dancers? To this day, Winner's bold attempt to combine Gilbert and Sullivan with the comic talents of Mike and Bernie Winters stands as a prime example of how British cinema can, occasionally but always memorably, produce films that are the celluloid equivalent of those relatives who are only wheeled out at family weddings, and who are then studiously avoided at the reception.
Such films range from the justifiably forgotten 1969 sex comedy What's Good for the Goose – apparently made for 10/6d and aimed at that select group of cinemagoers who wanted to see a naked Norman Wisdom – to pictures that demand constantly re-winding, such are the pleasures of the dialogue. “ You're a fast thinker, Nostradamus,” observes George Coulouris of the seer's recently re-animated head in the 1957 masterpiece, The Man without a Body, while 20 years later Killer's Moon – four bowler-hatted “escaped lunatics” in pursuit of a coachload of 27-year-old “schoolgirls” is worth watching for the screenplay alone. “Blood on the moon, one mangled dog, one missing axe, and a girl who's just found a body at the wrong end of the axe. How's that for the great British outdoors?”
Some of the most infelicitous moments in British films generally occur when middle-aged film-makers try to anticipate the tastes of “the kids”. In Hammer's Dracula AD 1972, a “King's Road swinger” actually says “Dig the music, kids!”. The appearance of Barry Humphries in the 1975 “disco-comedy” Side by Side is not easily forgotten, even after intensive therapy, while 1973's Take Me High is unique in the annals of cinema as a fusion of Cliff Richard musical and Birmingham travelogue; the sight of Cliff cruising along the M6 in his black Mini 1275GT will truly stun all who see it.
A high point for this particular sub-genre was 1965, which saw the release of The Cuckoo Patrol, in which Freddie & the Dreamers become boy scouts, and a bold attempt to make a musical concerning gonk puppets. Gonks Go Beat did for British cinema what the Austin Allegro did for the British motor industry, as “Intergalactic Ambassador Wilco Roger” (Kenneth Connor acting as though he is in a very deep coma) is despatched by the “Ruler of the Galactic Federation” (Jerry Desmonde in a pink jumpsuit) to Earth somewhere in the future. There, the tribes of Beat Land and Ballad Isle are in perpetual conflict over the annual “Golden Guitar” competition.
Yes, this is a film that has absolutely everything – music from the Graham Bond Organisation (with a short-haired Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker), Lulu & the Luvvers and Derek “Charlie from Casualty” Thompson, all of whom rub shoulders with a silver-suited Frank Thornton and a crash-helmeted Terry Scott at the helm of a fleet of mini-skirted storm troopers on Lambrettas. All this, plus choreography that can only be compared with propping two tailor's dummies together and a “battle of the guitars” that defies all reason.
As with all fine pictures, Gonks raises many important issues: Why do the “space patrols” favour Second World War surplus ARP helmets combined with replica Ray Bans? Was the director, Robert Hartford-Davis, also in a coma or did he actually leave the studio during filming? Was the production assigned approximately 10 sq ft of floor space? Who devised the dream sequence of “The Dancing Gonk Girls” and have they recently been released back into society?
However, the most wonderfully deranged film in the history of British cinema is Psychomania. When it went into production in Shepperton Studios in late 1971, this was to be the first ever quality zombie-biker-in-Middlesex horror film to feature Beryl Reid. The leading man is Nicky Henson, playing Tom, an upper-class delinquent who still lives with his mummy and has many questions of Shadwell the butler (a profoundly unhappy-looking George Sanders), who manages to double as an agent of Lucifer on his afternoons off.
According to Psychomania, all that is necessary to return from the grave as an invincible zombie is to enter a wardrobe while wearing NHS glasses prior to committing suicide. An excited Tom then meets with his gang, virtually all of whom sport the brand of stage-cockney accent last heard in Here Come the Double Deckers, and before becoming zombiefied they embark on a jolly trip to Shepperton shopping precinct, where they immediately invade Fine Fare in order to check on the price of Jammie Dodgers.
Naturally, it all ends badly, with Beryl being turned into a toad “for all eternity”. But despite its faults and restricted budget, Psychomania admirably fulfils its brief of entertaining the viewing public. Contrast Nicky & Co with 1983's Yellowbeard, celluloid proof of the almost infallible rule that a prestige cast is no guarantee of 90-plus minutes of hilarity, especially if self-indulgent cameos and stellar egos are used as a substitute for a decent script or coherent direction.
Yellowbeard boasted a cast that ranged from James Mason and Marty Feldman to Peter Cook, a third of the Monty Python team, and a cameo from David Bowie but the result was still a comedy marginally less amusing than Threads. Similarly, guest appearances from Ben Kingsley and John Cleese could not hope to save Michael Winner's last film, Parting Shots. Allegedly a black comedy, this centres on Chris Rea, acting with all of the verve and passion of a doleful traffic bollard, and often has audiences begging for the humorous subtleties of Death Wish II. Or even The Cool Mikado.