Surprisingly topical – food banks a key element – social satire. And a surprising box office smash – among the top 12 films of the year – in Britain, although the Boulting Brothers (I’m Alright Jack, 1959), often viewed as inheriting the Ealing mantle, had both commercial and critical form.
In a case of mistaken identity, simplistic prison chaplain Rev Smallwood (Peter Sellers) is sent to rich parish Orbiston Parva, virtually endowed by the Delpard family, owners of the Tranquillax business nearby. Smallwood, an advocate of the meek inheriting the earth and making it his mission to ensure the rich can enter the kingdom of Heaven other than through a needle, convinces Lady Delpard (Isabel Jeans) to spread her wealth. This takes the form of the Good Neighbour Fellowship, whereby she sets up a food bank whose popularity soon endangers the town’s retailers and merchants, the public, naturally enough, preferring to do their shopping at the free church outlet than spend money on a butcher or baker (possibly candlestick makers escaped the impact).
Meanwhile, to show he is up to scratch in the poverty ranks, Smallwood invites into his palatial manse the Smith family who are being evicted from their plot of ground to make way for an expansion of the Tranquillax factory. Despite ruffling feathers in the ministry, Smallwood can’t be turfed out, since religious law dictates he effectively owns the manse. However, once shops have to close for lack of trade and factories, for lack of goods being sold, make thousands redundant, Smallwood’s do-gooding backfires.
While Harry Smith (Eric Sykes) is an archetypal welfare swindler (taking home £90 a week) and inclined to siphon off items from the food bank for his own entrepreneurial purposes as well as stealing lead from the church roof, the rest of his enormous brood, led by the redoubtable Rene (Irene Handl) are converted to the joys of Christianity, enough so much so that baptism and marriage (between the couple) beckon.
Most of the humour is gentle, the biggest laughs – Smallwood inadvertently eating dog biscuits, a dog peeing on his leg, choirboy reading a dirty book, the butler initiating a miraculous intervention – are straight out of the Charlie Chaplin joke book. And the timing for many lines appears out of kilter, as though the laughs were not intended.
Apart from Smallwood, his assistant Matthew (Brock Peters) and the converted Lady Despard you are hard put to find any Chistians. As one character observes “not enough decent Christians to feed one lion.” And the townspeople are generally shown as scroungers of one kind of another with the Smiths typical sex-obsessed chip-guzzling working class. The business owners, bishops, aristocrats and assorted politicians are similarly pilloried for greed and inefficiency so you could say the Boultings are being fair straight down the line.
The best scene, and the one that makes the most out of a comic situation, is when the real Rev Smallwood (Ian Camrichael) turns up, is treated as an imposter and locked up for displaying psychotic tendencies. And there’s a clever, even more topical ending, involving space exploration, which equally cleverly mimics an earlier scene. Actually, there are two scenes that echo earlier activities, and both are intelligently used.
The satire retains some of its bite. There are even more rich people around now who hold onto their wealth and there are more poor people in clear need of help, assistance that would extend far beyond food banks, a relatively recent phenomenon. You can be sure selfish big business will be as self-interested.
Peter Sellers, complete with regional accent, in pre-Pink Panther mode shows dramatic skills that he would rarely be allowed to exhibit until much later in his career and although I think he should have been permitted more leeway in his lines he doesn’t deliver them as though he is milking a joke which means dramatic intent is not diluted. He is perfectly believable as the quietly-spoken forgiving vicar surrounded by more grasping colleagues who appear to have forgotten the basics of Christianity, his immediate boss, for example, on holiday in Monte Carlo.
British television comedian Eric Sykes (The Liquidator, 1965), barely recognisable after abandoning his trademark stance and voice, is the standout as the conniver-in-chief. Brock Peters (The Pawnbroker, 1964) is effective as the bin lorry driving protégé and Isabel Jeans (A Breath of Scandal, 1960) a delight as Smallwood’s slightly dotty benefactor – her look as she realizes he has scoffed the dog biscuits worth a couple of laughs. The others, good as they are, are called upon to play little more than stock characters: Cecil Parker (The Comedy Man, 1964), Ian Carmichael (The Amorous Mr Prawn, 1962) and Irene Handl (The Wrong Box, 1966). Look out for Roy Kinnear (Lock Up Your Daughters!, 1969), the first Doctor Who William Hartnell and the future Miss Marple Joan Hickson.
Ably directed by Roy and John Boulting who easily hit all their targets, the screenplay is by Frank Harvey (I’m Alright, Jack), John Boulting and critic Malcolm Muggeridge.