Thursday 4 May 2023

One Way Pendulum (1965)

Director: Peter Yates
Writer: N. F. Simpson, based on his stage play
Stars: Eric Sykes, George Cole, Julia Foster, Jonathan Miller and Peggy Mount

Index: 2023 Centennials.

As a critic, I learned long ago to avoid superlatives. This isn’t the best, it’s the best right now. That isn’t the worst, it’s the worst that I can think of. And that over there isn’t the most outrageous, it’s the most outrageous so far. That said, I would be fascinated to find a feature film more surreal than this one, especially played straight in a humdrum setting. If you know of one, please tell me about it. What’s most surprising is that it was directed by Peter Yates, not just because he would go on to direct successful features with a complete lack of surreality like Bullitt, The Deep and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, but because he’d already done that with a 1963 debut, the Cliff Richard musical, Summer Holiday. This was like nothing he’d done before or would do later and it seems that it was exactly that fact that drew him to it. It started out as a live TV play with an impressive cast—not just character actors Richard Pearson and Alison Leggatt, but John Laurie, Joan Hickson and Frank Finlay—and its author, N. F. Simpson, adapted it to the big screen himself.

It’s hard to even suggest what it’s about, because I’m still digesting how much of it, if any, has deeper meaning or whether it’s only meant to be meaningless. It revolves around the Groomkirby family, who might appear to someone who doesn’t know them to be a typically respectable bunch living in the suburbs. Arthur, whom everyone but his wife calls Mr. Groomkirby, is an accountant who works at a faceless corporate job. His wife Mabel is a housewife who juggles all the domestic duties you might expect. They’re both middle aged and they have two children: a young lady called Sylvia who’s courting a gentleman named Stan, and a son who seems to only go by Kirby. There’s also Aunt Mildred, who lives with them because she’s old enough to need help. Nothing to write home about. They seem to be ordinary in every way. Except, if we actually pay the slightest bit of attention, which we naturally do when we follow them into their semi-detached home, absolutely nothing about them is ordinary beyond their outward appearances.

Mr. Groomkirby has already stood out to us, because everyone at work leaves at 12:30pm sharp on Saturday to enjoy whatever the weekend has in store for them. He stays behind because he apparently has no luck with adding machines, possibly because he takes them apart, and finishes up by hand. In fact, he doesn’t have much luck with anything, even if it’s as simple a task as trying to leave the office or catch a bus, but George Cole as Fred gives him a ride on the back of his motorcycle, even though he has learner plates. He stops off at the dry cleaners to pick up a judge’s robes and wig, like you do, and he promptly imagines himself in them while he walks home, which almost gets him run over by a truck. It’s a striking scene, simply but effectively shot, and it sets us up neatly to question everything we see, which is exactly the mindset we should have going into this film. I’m still not sure how much happens and how much unfolds inside Mr. Groomkirby’s imagination. As we find, he lives in a world of his own, perhaps literally.

The early scenes before he gets home are alternated with scenes of Kirby, who we’re not initially told is related. He’s just a strange young man wandering around and paying special attention to weighing machines. There’s one in the street, chained to a store, so people can hear their weight spoken aloud by the device for the price of a coin. Kirby hits that with a tuning fork. There’s another one on his underground platform and he eagerly inspects its internal mechanisms while someone collects the cash. He gives off an almost creepy vibe, like he might be into some sort of deviant behaviour like underskirt photography, except that his fetish is for a mechanical device. He certainly doesn’t seem to be all there and, when he arrives at Mr. Groomkirby’s house right before him and the two don’t even acknowledge each other’s existence, we assume he must be a tolerated lodger or some such, rather than father and son. He never speaks and he never interacts directly with any member of his family at any point.

Once we get to the Groomkirbys’ home, which doesn’t take long, we stay there pretty much for the rest of the feature, because this is all about what this family gets up to on the weekend, which ought to boil down into social commentary, but rarely actually does. Sure, there’s a tradition of eccentricity in the UK that runs the gamut from professional eccentrics through gentleman scientists to retired folk writing letters to The Times to report the first cuckoo of spring. I’ve reviewed a wonderful book called Dull Men of Great Britain, which collects members of the Dull Men’s Club, celebrating the ordinary by collecting tax discs, documenting European rail timetables or surveying hills that they believe might technically be mountains. Mr. Groomkirby and his son ought to belong to the Dull Men’s Club, because the former builds replicas of famous landmarks in his house, like the Great Wall of China and Stonehenge, and the latter has a collection of weighing machines that he’s trained to sing as a choir. He conducts them in his room in the attic.

Mr. Groomkirby’s current project is to build a replica of the Old Bailey in his living room, one he’s purchased in kit form from Build It Yourself Famous Institutions. He’s so dedicated to this task that he doesn’t merely rearrange the furniture—and Aunt Mildred—to make space for a life size court scene, he also knocks a hole in the ceiling to accommodate the statue of Lady Justice, who therefore extends into the upstairs bedroom. We have no reason to doubt that it’s there, because we watch him bring in the wood, acquiring Stan’s help, to Sylvia’s horror, and Aunt Mildred is rearranged along with the furniture, ending up stuck looking out of the window, not that it matters because, in her mind, she’s in the Outer Hebrides waiting for a train back to St. Pancras. However, the editing at this point is such that we wonder if he builds the set or simply imagines it, the way that he picked up the judge’s robes but imagined himself wearing them. Certainly the cast of characters is conjured up out of the people he encountered earlier in the day.

What makes this work so well, if you can deal with the incessant nonsense of it all, is that the cast play it entirely straight, as if they were acting in something as down to earth as an episode of Coronation Street. The one exception is Jonathan Miller, playing Kirby, as he doesn’t even pretend towards sanity. He’s young here, but he’d become a name in 1960 writing, producing and acting in Beyond the Fringe at the Edinburgh Festival, which also launched the careers of Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, with whom he shared a special Tony award “for their brilliance which has shattered all the old concepts of comedy”. He had also made inroads to serious stage drama, directing a John Osborne play at the Royal Court Theatre in London, and, the same year as this movie, directed Robert Lowell’s The Old Glory in New York, a play that won five Obie awards. He wouldn’t direct opera until 1974 but it’s fantastic to watch his younger self presage that by conducting a choir of weighing machines in a rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus.

The future Sir Jonathan Miller CBE aside, this is played straight, as if nothing remotely unusual happens at the Groomkirbys on this particular Saturday. Mabel, in the form of Alison Leggatt, reprising her role from the 1961 television play, appears to be the sanest of the bunch, except that she invites Mrs. Gantry, played by the formidable stage actress, Peggy Mount, over for an unusual reason: apparently, whenever she finds that her larder is full, she pays Mrs. Gantry to binge herself at the kitchen table on whatever won’t fit, just like she might pay someone to do the laundry or clean the house. She talks with Sylvia in the matter-of-fact tone we expect from a mother, even though Julia Foster, three years on from The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, is given the unusual task of agonising over her arms being the wrong length, because they don’t reach down to her knees. Then again, Sylvia apparently went through a phase of wanting to be a pterodactyl. Suddenly, Aunt Mildred, who’s merely senile, seems to be the sanest of the bunch.

With quick mention for a couple of other notable British actors in supporting slots many Britons would recognise from television—George Cole, of Minder fame, though he was best known at this point for playing Flash Harry in the St. Trinian’s movies, and Graham Crowden, who would go on to A Very Peculiar Practice and Waiting for God—that leaves Eric Sykes, who grounds the film wonderfully as Mr. Groomkirby. He was born a hundred years ago today in Oldham, Lancashire and would kick off a half century in performing arts during the Second World War, serving in a Special Liaison Unit for the Royal Air Force. One of his colleagues was the actor Bill Fraser and it was a chance meeting with him in London after the war that landed him his first writing gig, creating comedy scripts for him and Frankie Howerd. It can’t have hurt that he also produced troop entertainment shows with Denis Norden. This writing led him to work on the radio ventriloquism show Educating Archie and it was on that show that he met Hattie Jacques.

My generation tends to know Hattie Jacques from her second stint in the Carry On movies, from 1967 to 1974, which were aired so often on British television and became cultural landmarks, but the generation before us knows her from the golden age of British comedy, that rolled from radio to early television. Her biggest TV successes were The Tony Hancock Show, Sykes and a... and Sykes. It won’t surprise to find that the latter two starred Sykes and Jacques as a double act over a combined sixteen year run, but they also worked together on the former, Sykes as a writer and Jacques as an actress. More pertinently to this film, Sykes also worked with the icons of anarchic British surreal comedy, the Goons, writing scripts for The Goon Show with famed eccentric Spike Milligan. No wonder he felt at home here, the court case trying his son for multiple murder as a scheme to ship singing weight machines to the North Pole to act as sirens to attract people to jump and down, tilt the Earth and bring about a fresh ice age. How Goon can you get?

Arguably the best scenes take place during the court case, whether it actually happens or not. Mr. Groomkirby takes the stand but refuses to swear on the Bible, because he has moral objections to certain passages, so he’s sworn in on Uncle Tom’s Cabin instead, a telling choice indeed. Once under oath, Sykes relishes the dialogue and delivers it with a twinkle in his eye as if he’s playing some sort of game with the judge and invisible jury. For a start, he immediately promises to commit perjury, though Cole, now imagined as a lawyer, explains to the judge, “The witness says he is lying but we have every reason to believe in saying this he is lying.” He’s asked about an interview he conducted the year before in Chester-le-Street, in which his first question was “Do you have anything to add?” Why did he go to Chester-le-Street? “I was a masochist at the time.” Why did he take it up? “I was at a loose end.” He later gave it up, though, because it was taking up too much of his time.

As insane as this questioning is, the back and forth between Crowden as the prosecuting counsel and Sykes as the witness has some real meaning, because it parodies the ways in which lawyers, both in film and in real life, can tie the truth up in knots, persuading a jury that black is white and vice versa. It’s a constant theme in these scenes but the most masterful section ties to how Groomkirby managed to get to Chester-le-Street. After highlighting a coincidence in the interview beginning at 3:15pm, thus with both hands of the clock pointing in the same direction, the lawyer suggests a whole slew of outrageous places not called Chester-le-Street, getting Arthur to admit to being poor at geography. That prompts a coup de grace: “Not much good at geography, Mr. Groomkirby, yet you want the court to believe that in order to be present in Chester-le-Street, you absented yourself from a whole host of places which only an expert geographer could possibly be expected to have heard of.” Suddenly, Arthur doubts where he was. The law is an ass.

However much meaning this film has or doesn’t have, it’s quite the experience and it only works, if you believe it does, because the cast is so capable and so willing to play the whole thing straight. Sykes isn’t the only member of this cast deserving of praise, but he leads it and consistently sets the tone for the whole thing. He looks entirely unremarkable but does little at any point in the picture that isn’t remarkable and that only escalates as it continues, until we reach the point that Kirby is discharged because, regardless of the seriousness of his crimes, sentencing him to death now would deprive the law of prosecuting him for future crimes that he has yet to commit. Sykes was definitely the big name at this point, the film being released soon after the end of series eight of Sykes and a... but ahead of the final series, which arrived later in 1965. He’d been named as BBC Television Personality of the Year in 1964 and would appear in three other features in 1965, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, Rotten to the Core and The Liquidator.

His career never ceased to be busy, with numerous film and television roles, along with side appearances on stage and for charity. A particular highlight is the short slapstick film, The Plank, written by Sykes from an episode of Sykes and a... in 1964, and starring both Sykes and comedian and magician Tommy Cooper. It was first aired in 1967, almost entirely silent, reissued in 1974 in shorter form and remade in 1979 for television, with Sykes moving into Cooper’s role and Arthur Lowe, of Dad’s Army fame, taking Sykes’s. It was popular in the UK but became a Christmas standard in Sweden for a couple of decades. His later films included Theatre of Blood, The Boys in Blue and the inevitable Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. On television, long after the rebirth of Sykes and a... as Sykes in the seventies, he found a new audience by providing voices on Teletubbies, including one in the title sequence and the theme tune, which landed him a number one single when it was released commercially.

It’s debatable whether he had the bigger impact as a writer or an actor, but he had a sizeable impact as both, even working at a time when so many British comedians were household names, many because they performed material that he wrote for them. He won a string of lifetime achievement awards, was awarded the freedom of the City of London and was knighted twice, receiving an OBE in 1986 and then a promotion to a CBE in 2004, following a petition by MPs. Much of this work was performed after going deaf. He had started to lose his hearing during the war and underwent a couple of operations in the early fifties to no avail. He learned to lipread and watched his colleagues to interpret cues. His trademark spectacles initially didn’t contain any lenses but functioned instead as a bone-conducting hearing aid. He was married with four children and they celebrated a sixtieth wedding anniversary in 2012, a few months before he died, at home surrounded by family.

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