Friday 12 September 2008

Heaven's Above (1963)

The name Despard is everywhere in Orbiston Parva. They're the local gentry and over the centuries various Lords Despard have donated the funds to build what seems like half the town. Nowadays the Despards still bring most of the money in through Sir Geoffrey's Tranquilax factory, which produces a three in one sedative, stimulant and laxative. The current Lady Despard, the Lord's mother, is Church of England and through pure habit she gets to choose the new priest, the Revd John Smallwood.

Unfortunately a little slipup in the Archdeacon's office means that they don't hire the expected Revd John Smallwood, the son of someone that the Archdeacon knew at Oxford, and hire instead the Revd John Smallwood, prison chaplain. The prison is hardly unhappy to get rid of him and the high muckety mucks who make up the establishment and the sparse congregation at Holy Trinity in Orbiston Parva really don't know what's hit them. What we know but they don't is that Smallwood is played by Peter Sellers, at his driest and most infuriatingly calm, and so we can happily imagine how much chaos he's going to wreak.

He arrives at the vicarage in a rubbish lorry driven by Matthew Robinson, a black dustman played by Brock Peters, the unjustly accused in To Kill a Mockingbird. In his first few days he hires Robinson over the well established Major Fowler as his vicar's warden, he refuses Lady Despard's donation to the organ fund and moves the Smith family into the vicarage. They're a big family of squatters that the Despards have been trying to get rid of for ages, and they're played by exactly the right people: Eric Sykes and Irene Handl, plus eleven kids, along with Miriam Karlin as Smith's sister-in-law, with her three to boot.

In normal circumstances he'd be out on his ear, but he manages to sow a seed in the ear of Lady Despard about it being harder for the rich to enter Heaven and after a few days of thought she starts up the non-denominational Good Neighbour Fellowship to give away all the produce from her farms in the Church Hall and sell her half interest in Tranquilax. Before long all their good intentions turn the local economy upside down and before long there's hell to pay.

There's always been a lot of talent in classic English comedy but this one may just trump all the rest. Not only do we have Peter Sellers and Peters, Sykes, Handl and Karlin but a whole slew of others. When we first meet Revd Smallwood he's tied up in a prison cell where prisoner 181 has left him in hopes of escape in priestly garb, prisoner 181 being no less a comedic talent than Roy Kinnear. The intended Smallwood is Ian Carmichael; Major Fowler is the first Doctor Who, William Hartnell; and Lady Despard is played by Isabel Jeans. There's Miles Malleson, Cecil Parker and Ludovic Kennedy as himself; Thorley Walters, Derek Nimmo and Malcolm Muggeridge, who came up with the original idea for the story.

Most memorable to my eyes in supporting roles are Joan Hickson as a joyously hypocritical housewife and Bernard Miles as Lady Despard's butler. He has a major presence in this film for a lot of reasons and he makes a lot of difference to how the story ends up. He's a joy to watch, all hunched over and stumbling; and to listen to, with his awesomely broken voice. What's most ironic is that while he's playing a butler of long and loyal service to the Lords and Ladies Despard, he became one of the gentry himself, made Baron Miles of Blackfriars in 1979.

The other major names here are the Boulting brothers, John and Roy Boulting, who had a number of films of this sort of quality out there over the years: Carlton-Browne of the FO and I'm All Right Jack spring quickly to mind. There are big stories here to think about but there are little touches everywhere too, if only you're paying enough attention to see them. Sometimes they're piled on top of each other and it's hard to see all of them. Yet another gem from the days when all the very best in comedy was whatever came out of Shepperton or Ealing Studios.

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