The Agreeable World Of Wallace Arnold: Ah, when the British were the toast of all Cannes

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Stop it, I say! Stop it this minute! We've all got one! Put it away! Is there no end to the shenanigans that now constitute the Cannes Film Festival? These days, they all walk around in their birthday suits mouthing obscenities whilst "high" (dread word!) on cocaine. And where is the glamour? Highly paid British actors and actresses seem only too happy to barge into a buffet luncheon barefoot in denims and a filthy T-shirt.

But it was not ever thus. Can you imagine the great George Formby promenading along the seafront at Cannes sporting a ring through each orifice? Of course not! George was always very spruce - and his delightfully English comedies were the main beneficiary. This is not to say George had no ring at all. I have it on good authority that he had a pierced foreskin (dread word!), which may well account for his unnaturally squeaky voice. Ever the consummate professional, he kept it to himself, displaying it only to the select few, never letting it interfere with his life as an ambassador for all-round family entertainment.

In the heyday of the British cinema, our contingent at Cannes was something to be proud of. But in those days we were able to boast stars of the calibre of Diana Dors and Norman Wisdom, Frankie Vaughan and Graham Stark. In the early 1950s, I was widely credited as the man behind the renaissance of the British film industry, and my annual trips to Cannes remain a cherished memory.

It must have been '53 - or was it '54? - when I first escorted Diana Dors to Cannes. I had produced her latest vehicle, a lively update of the story of Cleopatra, set in Chiswick, with the then unknown Russ Conway as Antony and the late, great Gracie Fields turning in a legendary performance as Cleopatra's long-suffering mum. Alas, we don't seem to be able to produce home-grown films of that calibre any more, but at that point in British cinema history we were the toast of the town.

These days, we seem to have forgotten how to publicise a movie. Back then, we spared no expense, hiring the breakfast-room of a three-star hotel and serving a choice of red or white wine supplemented by a finger buffet with neatly cut sandwiches containing Gentleman's Relish, Sandwich Spread or Salmon Paste (a shilling extra). These were, you will remember, the truly great days of the publicity stunt - and sure enough we managed to create quite a splash. After all the various celebrities (two Beverley Sisters, Norman Vaughan, Reg Varney, the lot) had foregathered, I waited for a given moment and then waved for the pudding trolley to be wheeled on amidst a tumultuous fanfare from Larry Adler on his mouth organ. Atop the aforesaid trolley was a large cake, and at an agreed signal this cake exploded - and out popped little Arthur Askey dressed in brightly coloured blazer and swimming togs!

Needless to say, this glamorous, devil-may-care gesture firmly established us as a force to be reckoned with. Within weeks the film had opened to enthusiastic audiences in three major movie houses including the Bridport Astoria and the Regal, then the second largest cinema in Basingstoke. But by this stage, our attention was already being diverted to our next project: a tense, high-action thriller, Truncheon at the Ready (A), starring Reg Varney as Police Sergeant Corbett, the young cop who'll stop at nothing to get his man, Bryan Forbes as the oik on a motorbike, and George Formby as the sinister villain who leaves a little ukulele beside each of his victims, the grimmest of calling-cards.

Once again, we premiered at Cannes. The foreign critics were riddled with jealousy, even going so far as to claim it was "miscast". When award time came, the British were treated with shameless discrimination, the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman picking up the gong for a lightweight piece involving a skeleton and a chessboard, and Truncheon at the Ready refused all prizes - including, if you can believe it, Best Costumes, even though everyone featured, including the villain, was wearing a clean shirt, smart tie and well-pressed suit. Nevertheless, we pulled the rabbit out of the hat and achieved massive British press coverage with our original publicity stunt involving Miss Diana Dors driving a double-decker bus along the Cannes seafront.

0 tempora! 0 mores! Whatever happened to good old-fashioned family entertainment? I am hoping to revive it next year with a remake of Summer Holiday by Mr Gus Van Sant with Cliff Richard and Hank Marvin reproducing the roles they made so uniquely their own. Cannes, you have been warned: the British are coming!