Tuesday 1 September 2009

Two Way Stretch (1960)

Director: Robert Day
Stars: Peter Sellers and Wilfrid Hyde-White

HM Prison Huntleigh is hardly the peak of British discipline. Dodger Lane, Jelly Knight and Lennie Price may have been locked up in a cell together for the last three years but they get milk and bread delivered from the outside world, along with the papers. They have alcohol in the cupboard, posh dressing gowns and a cat called Strangeways. They don't even lock the door to their cell. There's also a widespread rehabilitation program that the governor and the visiting Ladies Committee for Penal Reform believe is reaping rewards, but is really being abused in every way you can think of and probably a few more.

The governor doesn't even rumble to the fact that the prisoners keep fleecing him dry of cigarettes, so there's no way he's going to realise that when angelic Wilfred Hyde-White comes to visit Dodger, he's not his concerned vicar but his accomplice, Soapy Stevens, the man whose perfect alibi was the cause of our heroic trio being locked up in the first place. Now he comes up with a really perfect alibi for them: he suggests that they break out of jail, steal a couple of million pounds worth of jewels, then break back in again. How much better an alibi can you get?

With Chief PO Jenkins in charge of security, it ought to be a pretty doable venture too, but he's up for retirement. Lovable old Jenkins is so popular that they even bake him a cake, putting a file in it by force of habit, but his replacement is as hardline as they come. He's Chief PO Sidney 'Sour' Crout, as much of a barking little Hitler as his name would suggest and he knows Lane and Knight from previous establishments. He's also played by Lionel Jeffries, about as perfect an establishment prick as there ever was, which means that we're in for a comedic battle between our heroes the prisoners and the villainous warden, while they try to find a way to escape under his nose.

This is fun stuff, though many of the gags are predictable in the extreme. The underlying story is solid in that traditional old English way and it's bursting at the seams with talent. Jeffries and Hyde-White are only the start. The governor is Maurice Denham. Dodger and his colleagues are Peter Sellers, David Lodge and a young Bernard Cribbins. Other prisoners include Warren Mitchell and Arthur Mullard, both well known faces in British film and television. Dodger's girlfriend is the delectable Liz Fraser and Jelly's mum is a joyous Irene Handl, who threatens to steal every scene she's in just as she always did. The inept colonel in charge of transporting the sultan's jewels is Thorley Walters.

Sometimes watching classic English comedy makes me wonder if everyone in England was a comedian in the fifties. Fraser made this in between I'm All Right Jack and Doctor in Love, with The Pure Hell of St Trinian's the same year and her first Carry On a year later. Hyde-White had made his Carry On a year earlier, Carry On Nurse and Jeffries had Doctor at Large and Blue Murder at St Trinian's behind him already, plus Up the Creek and its sequel. Up the Creek also featured Hyde-White and Sellers. Just in 1959 Handl had made Carry On Nurse, Carlton-Browne of the FO and I'm All Right Jack. Of course I'm All Right Jack was a Peter Sellers movie, along with everyone else in British comedy that wasn't in this film, plus more that were like David Lodge. The connections go on and on. If you drew them they'd look like a map of the underground.

What's most amazing is that while this isn't the greatest of the comedies of the era, it gives the impression that even the lesser attempts were just so much better than the better comedies of today. This needed tightening up in more than a few places but literally can't fail with the enthusiasm of those involved. These people seem to have made funny films like this in their sleep, churning them out without ever dropping down to the level of mediocrity. How many times have I wished that many of the great modern names of comedy would just blip out of existence and Ealing Studios would rule the roost. Maybe there's a film script in that. Now who's still alive to...

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