Simon and Laura (1955)

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I have acted with octogenarians, dipsomaniacs, dope-fiends, amnesiacs, and veteran cars. When television producers select warring married actors Simon Foster (Peter Finch) and his wife Laura (Kay Kendall), to be the subjects of a live television series documenting a completely happy marriage, they appear to be the perfect choice by chirpy producer David Prentice (Ian Carmichael) but they’re only chosen because the Oliviers aren’t available. On camera, the couple is caring and supportive of each other in the daily one-hour long show. In reality their relationship is rocky but because the show is a hit, Simon and Laura try to keep up the facade until cracks start to surface and romantic complications with the production staff threaten to upset the publicity machine and finally they go off-script on live TV … Do you know what happens when you allow yourself to be regularly exhibited in that glass rectangle? As a response to the incoming threat of TV which was more than existential but factual with the introduction of a new independent channel in addition to BBC, this adaptation of Alan Melville’s stage play by Peter Blackmore elides the situation into a marital farce in which the battling opposites learn to live with one another. The running joke about scripted reality shows is surprisingly pertinent today. See that the script stresses the solidarity of the home. Even what once was called a public intellectual, in the shape of journalist and commentator Gilbert Harding, makes an appearance, describing the dangers inherent in appearing on television:  the  reflexive ironies proliferate.  I find the rapier thrust of Madam’s conversation highly stimulating! The inimitably elegant Kendall is perfectly cast and gets a few barbs that recall her real-life (as it were) career as well as having some opportunities for slapstick antics; while Muriel Pavlow is terrific as the show’s scriptwriter Janet Honeyman, in an engaging cast filled with familiar faces like Richard Wattis, Thora Hird and Alan Wheatley. Finch is good in his first leading role in a British film as the put-upon middle-aged hubby who thinks it’s all rather beneath him but he’s almost upstaged by the obnoxious know it all kid (Clive Parritt) playing his TV son. Television? You call that a wonderful job? Three weeks’ rehearsal, not enough money to cover your bus fares out to Lime Grove, technical breakdown in your one big scene, and no repeat performance? No, thank you. (The line about the Oliviers must have been a little odd for him to hear after his affair with Vivien Leigh). A terrific satirical premise that blends Taming of the Shrew with the growing pains of TV, played at a rate of knots. Great fun. Directed by Muriel Box with beautiful production design by Carmen Dillon and costumes by Julie Harris. We’ll mirror the lives of an ordinary, happily married husband and wife!

 

Eyewitness (1956)

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Did you see her buried?  After an argument with her husband Jay (Michael Craig) about his spending habits when he brings home a TV set on hire purchase, Lucy Church (Muriel Pavlow) storms out of her house and goes to see a film at the local cinema. While coming back from making a phone call, she stumbles across the office where she witnesses the murder of the cinema manager by two criminals Wade (Donald Sinden) and his soft-minded associate Barney (Nigel Stock) who are in the process of robbing the cinema’s safe. When they pursue her, she is hit by a bus and is taken to hospital. Unable to leave the town until they know what has happened to her, the two robbers head to the hospital to observe her. Meanwhile, her husband has grown concerned and scours the town searching for her. An older woman patient’s cries for help each time she sees two men skulking in the hospital garden are ignored while Wade and Barney enter the hospital to make sure Lucy is never able to bear witness … She’s a pretty little thing. Wouldn’t mind claiming her myself.  Low on both suspense and thrills, this Sydney Box production is based on the premise that Donald Sinden is a dangerous criminal – surely an in-joke at the expense of the audience and the story. What’s of infinitely more interest is the performance of tragic starlet and socialite Lee as the sexy bleached blonde nurse Penny Marston who has (inevitably) an American airman fiancé (David Knight).  The screenplay is by Janet Green, a playwright (including the work that would provide the basis for Doris Day’s Midnight Lace) and screenwriter who had many good films on her resumé like Sapphire and Victim and John Ford’s final film, 7 Women. This is mild stuff indeed, with the opening scene of domestic dissatisfaction soon sliding into an under-dramatised crime outing, enlivened only by the constant put-downs of the eagle-eyed patients by the bitchy nursing staff while Pavlow enjoys a very long beauty sleep.  Keen viewers will enjoy appearances  by Richard Wattis as an anaesthetist and Nicholas Parsons as a surgeon. Directed by Muriel Box.

The Beachcomber (1954)

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Muriel Box was a rare bird in British cinema:  a woman writer/director. This adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s story The Vessel of Wrath was written by her husband producer Sydney Box and stars the inimitable Robert Newton as Ted, a boozer sent by his family to the Welcome Islands where he encounters Resident Ewart Gray (Donald Sinden) and a missionary, Owen Jones (Paul Rogers) and his do-gooding nursing sister (Martha) the marvellous Glynis Johns. They take him in for a while but he finds their religiosity oppressive. He winds up in court after getting a local girl to steal money from the mission to fund his drinking. Martha decides he’s innately good after she gets stuck overnight with him on an island where he’s doing hard labour. Shot on location in Ceylon it was the second adaptation of the book and the colour cinematography greatly assists the atmosphere. A cholera breakout puts everyone on the back foot and Martha goes to the profoundly unwelcoming northern islands with Ted and they narrowly avoid being killed by the natives whom they’ve helped survive a disease the natives think they’ve brought. There’s a wonderful payoff with an elephant that Martha cured earlier in the film – these are probably the best scenes in the film. Although Maugham was a great writer this feels like mild stuff indeed but worth catching for that cast. Newton died a couple of years later, succumbing to alcoholism at just 50.

The Seventh Veil (1945)

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Classical pianist Ann Todd is hypnotised by psychiatrist Herbert Lom to try to rid her of the obsession that she will never play again. He takes her back through her life and relationships to work out her problem. She’s the ward of second cousin James Mason, a brooding monster whose ambition for her knows no bounds and he takes her out of the country just when she seems to be settling for a loving relationship with bandleader Hugh McDermott. When she’s in love with another man, Albert Lieven, her cousin causes another cataclysmic situation. The Oscar-winning screenplay by Muriel and Sydney Box (directed by Compton Bennett) successfully blends elements of Victorian melodrama and au courant ideas about psychiatry onto a version of Jane Eyre with a bit of de Sade thrown in for good measure. And it all concludes with Lom doing an Hercule Poirot assembling all the men in her life for Ann Todd to choose between them to lift the seventh veil of her unconscious. This did huge business and made Mason a household name. Fabulous tosh!

Rattle of a Simple Man (1964)

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Charles Dyer’s play was a valuable property and producer Sydney Box came out of retirement to acquire it for £50,000 – a large amount at the time. Muriel Box (his wife) and he were hoping that Peter Sellers would take the lead role of the Northern naif in London for the football finals who ends up with an upper class prostitute for the evening after a bet involving his mate Michael Medwin who likes to flash the cash. Harry H. Corbett (famous for Steptoe and Son by then) substituted for Sellers who proved too expensive and the stunning Diane Cilento plays the well educated call girl with whom he spends his time discussing her upbringing, his mother and life back home. Neither will tell on the other about what they did. The play’s flaws are not ironed out and Box doesn’t really get more from the actors than they’re capable of and the sidebar antics – her pimp, his mates – don’t really add much and it doesn’t wholly work either as comedy or drama. However there is some nice scene setting and while Corbett is good,  Cilento is terrific even if she’s playing something of an archetype, albeit with the family revelations. It was Box’s final film. She left filmmaking (where she had experienced sexist behaviour – even from actresses like Jean Simmons and Kay Kendall) and founded feminist imprint Femina the following year.