Wednesday 8 February 2023

The Night We Got the Bird (1961)

Director: Darcy Conyers
Writers: Ray Cooney, Tony Hilton and Darcy Conyers, freely based on the play The Lovebirds by Basil Thomas
Stars: Brian Rix and Dora Bryan, with a special disappearance by Ronald Shiner

Index: 2023 Centennials.

One of the problems I have as an ex-pat Brit living in the States is that I have to keep coming up with equivalents. When Americans don’t know what this phrase or that reference is from my British cultural heritage, I have to translate into something that they may know and sometimes there just isn’t anything. This 1961 comedy, with a title that has at least three separate British meanings even before the script adds a fourth, is a thematic follow-up to 1959’s The Night We Dropped a Clanger, a title with a double meaning, and it would be hard to cram more Britishness into them if the filmmakers had tried. And that rather fits when talking about Dora Bryan, who would have been a hundred years old today, because she was a British cultural treasure who’s best known for a whole slew of other British cultural treasures, most of which Americans wouldn’t recognise and few of which are able to be translated across the pond to American equivalents. They’re almost all too quintessentially British.

She started in pantomime (no equivalent) and ventured into the West End (the equivalent of Broadway, where she also eventually appeared). She found success in both serious and comic roles, from the requisite Shakespeare, Noël Coward and Harold Pinter to a selection of modern classics, like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Hello, Dolly! She appeared on wireless programs (radio) like Hancock’s Half Hour and Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh. She had a hit single in 1963 with All I Want for Christmas is a Beatle, lending an immediately recognisable voice to a novelty song. She ended a sixty year career on the world’s longest running sitcom, Last of the Summer Wine. And she appeared in a whole slew of pivotal movies, like The Blue Lamp, for Ealing in 1950, which spawned the long running police show, Dixon of Dock Green; Carry On Sergeant, the first of what would eventually stretch to thirty Carry On films; and the last entry in the original run of St. Trinian’s pictures, as the headmistress in The Great St. Trinian’s Train Robbery. All these are British bedrock.

I chose to remember her with this film, not only because she played the female lead but because it’s a quintessential British farce. I wouldn’t call it the best example of such ever written, or even in the top half, but anyone who’s ever trod the boards in an amateur dramatic society production, of the sort staged in most villages up and down the country, will instantly recognise its tropes. It’s fun and it remains fun however often we roll our eyes at the jokes, one liners, double entendres, slapstick comedy skits, satirical jabs at authority and saucy seaside postcard humour. Half the time, our response is to almost cringe at the fact that they went there, while the other half, we laugh aloud so instinctively that, by the time we’re about to cringe, the moment has passed and we’re hurled into another one. It certainly doesn’t hang about and the earliest scenes are almost dizzying to anyone who isn’t grounded in this sort of material. The film was “freely based” on a play, The Lovebirds, in which both Ronald Shiner and Dora Bryan appeared on stage.

So let’s all take a breath and dive in. Shiner, in his final big screen appearance, plays Cecil Gibson of Cecil Gibson & Co., an antiques shop that sells fakes, believable ones created in the back by Chippendale Charlie, in the form of the ever reliable Reginald Beckwith. Realising that they’ll both be for it if the police ever twig to what they’re up to, they hire an expert, Bertie Skidmore, as the perfect frontman. “He’s dependable, honest, reliable and utterly sound,” says Cecil and that means that he’s a well-meaning idiot, the sort of bumbling fool who would be played in 2001 by Hugh Grant but in 1961 by Brian Rix, only playing one role here instead of the two he played in The Night We Dropped a Clanger. So far, so good, because the tourists are idiots too, right down to an American who buys the wheel of the Mayflower. Of course, not everyone travels that far. Cecil’s mother-in-law puts an ornate mirror that used to be a toilet seat on the wall above a French sideboard made out of shipping crates for sugar. They still have Tate & Lyle stamped on them.

And I should introduce the family. Cecil’s married to Julie, played by Dora Bryan, who puts up with plenty from him. Her younger sister Fay appears in the welcome form of Liz Fraser, Carry On series regular who was kept in work by almost every risque comedy with a need for a blonde next door. Ma is Irene Handl, with a voice as instantly recognisable as Bryan’s. She also appeared in a pair of Carry On movies and it only takes one scene to realise that dad isn’t played by Sid James, because it starts out as such a Sid James kind of role in a Carry On kind of script. Instead, it’s Leo Franklyn, a regular in Brian Rix’s stage company who specialised in farces such as this. It’s a lively family and they all live in the same house, with Fay’s boyfriend Ben right across the street. One of a whole slew of running gags is that he always arrives to pick her up on his noisy motorbike and drops her off too, before driving the mere yards across the street to park directly opposite.

Bertie works out great for Cecil and things go swimmingly until the honesty Cecil wanted from him trips them up. He realises that the Prince Regent’s commode that he’s sold has to be fake because the real one’s in the British Museum, according to an exhibition catalogue, so he should buy it back. Cecil’s happy with him doing that—and paying for his mistake out of his own pocket—until he lets slip on the way out that the purchaser was Wolfie Green, a notorious gangster who’s listed in the end credits, for some reason, as Wolf Mannheim. So Cecil jumps into the rickety van with no brakes, Bertie proceeds unabated and calamity ensues. After nearly running over a policeman and causing an unwarranted incursion into a nudist colony, they crash at the bottom of a steep hill. One magical segue takes us from Cecil’s funeral to the wedding of his widow Julie and Bertie, held at the same church. And, if it appears surprising that one of the lead characters is killed off only twenty minutes into the picture, don’t worry. He’ll be back. Kinda sorta.

While Shiner’s rapid fire comedic approach to crime dominates the early scenes, Julie and Bertie firmly take over after his death in scenes that seem like live action seaside postcards. The family somehow leave them at the church, so they run for a double decker bus. With Julie in his arms still in her wedding dress, he shouts up to the conductor, “Any room on top?” The response comes back, “Depends what you want to do, mate!” back at the house, there are a whole collection of back and forth gags. “I’m going to make you a good husband,” Bertie promises. “And I’m going to make sure you do,” replies Julie. “How many times do I have to tell you?” Ma tells Victor, after he spills champagne on the fake sideboard. “That’s what I’ve been wondering,” he quips back, once more in a thoroughly Sid James fashion. “Oh Bertie,” cries Julie. “We’ve had our first quarrel!” “Don’t worry, love,” he responds. “We’ll have plenty more.” Yes, you’ve heard all these before, in some form or other. No, that doesn’t mean they aren’t still funny.

That first quarrel, by the way, is where the multiple meanings of the title start to manifest. The overt one is that the happy couple are gifted an actual bird as a wedding present. It’s a blue backed Amazon, a South American parrot, and it talks with the voice and knowledge of Julie’s first husband, Cecil Gibson. See, I told you he’d be back. Now you understand why the poster details a “special disappearance by Ronald Shiner”. In British slang, getting the bird also means being derided or booed and, while that’s usually in a context of public performance, it also applies to Bertie being insulted by the parrot. Furthermore, it means to be dismissed or fired, which Bertie has just been by Julie, who tells him that, if Polly can’t go with them on their honeymoon, Bertie will have to go alone. The fourth meaning shows up in the final scene when, after many shenanigans, they finally do get to drive away to Weston-super-Mare. Bertie does indeed get the bird, in the sense of it meaning a young woman or girlfriend, the derivation perhaps in “bride”.

While Rix and Bryan, and for a while Shiner, dominate the cast with hilarious performances, whether the material they’re given is good or not, there are a slew of supporting actors deserving of mention too. The most frequent to appear is Terry Scott, as a bobby whose beat includes the street on which this extended family live. He’s there at the beginning when Cecil sneaks home in the early hours, while Victor is trying to sleep and Fay has no intention of letting him. He’s there as Bertie, exiled up to the attic for isolation, climbs out of the window to sneak into his new wife’s bedroom. And he’s there when Bertie attempts to throw the parrot, still in its cage, into the English Channel, which means that he’s also there to testify in front of Kynaston Reeves, in fine fettle as a thoroughly confused and thoroughly deaf magistrate, Mr. W. D. Warre-Monger, J.P. The court scenes are utterly ridiculous and I still laughed. I should mention that I appreciated the justice but also John le Mesurier as his clerk, as always capable but long-suffering.

But I’m watching for Dora Bryan, who gets far more screen time than any of those worthy character actors. She had plenty of small roles in her time, often as prostitutes, barmaids or “other women”, because she was so good at elevating characters who tend to be looked down upon by endowing them with heart, charm or just a little class. Her most celebrated role, which won her a BAFTA, was as Helen, the promiscuous alcoholic mother in A Taste of Honey, a quintessential kitchen sink drama. That’s a uniquely British form of realism in cinema that’s often hard to watch because of how depressing it gets, but as selfish and manipulative as Helen becomes, she remains watchable not only because of Bryan’s skill but also her vulnerability. By comparison, Julie Sellars/Gibson/Skidmore is the sort of role she could play in her sleep but it highlights her pristine comedic timing and her ability to shift emotions at the drop of a hat, both talents especially useful in farce comedy, whether on stage or in film.

I’ve seen her in many roles over the years and I’ve never seen her give a poor performance, even in dire material—and they don’t come much more dire than Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, with Arthur Lucan in drag as Old Mother Riley for the last time and Bela Lugosi slumming it yet again as the vampire. Favourites of mine include The Green Man (1956) with the dream team of Alastair Sim, George Cole and Terry-Thomas; the Edgar Wallace thriller, The Ringer (1952); and the Hammer horror Hands of the Ripper (1971). I’d forgotten that she was in MirrorMask (2005) and I haven’t got round to Apartment Zero (1988) yet, though it would have been one of my centennial reviews in 2021, for Liz Smith. Those highlight how long Bryan’s career was, beginning with an uncredited role in a 1947 James Mason picture called Odd Man Out and a first credit in the Grahame Greene-penned film noir, The Fallen Idol, in 1948, all the way to MirrorMask, Last of the Summer Wine and a couple of short films in the mid-noughties.

I haven’t read her autobiography, According to Dora, so I don’t know much about her personal life outside of performance. She was born in Southport, Lancashire and her father was a salesman but she went straight into acting in her teens, quickly moving up from the Oldham Repertory to the West End right before the Second World War. She made her way into film right after it and continued to rack up roles on stage, on radio and in film, adding television in the mid-fifties. She met Bill Lawton during the war and married him in 1954. He seems to be known as a cricketer, though he only played in two first class matches for Lancashire, having played a lot more football games for Oldham Athletic. One claim to fame was that Dora and Bill owned the Clarges Hotel in Brighton, which was used as an exterior location in a couple of Carry On movies. This movie was also set in Brighton, meaning a short commute for her, and she died there in 2014, at the age of ninety-one, leaving a long and much beloved career behind her.

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