Matt (Bill Travers) is a struggling novelist halfway through his latest work when his wife Jean (Virginia McKenna) hands him an item of mail that has arrived that morning. It's a letter from a solicitor saying that Matt's great uncle has died and left him an inheritance, so he gets on the telephone right away to find out what it is. It turns out to be a cinema in Sloughborough, and after catching the train there, Matt and Jean stop the taxi they're in to get out and admire the Grand, a lavish picture palace they assume is now theirs. The commissionaire may insult them outside but they don't care: think of how much money they now own! However, when they get to the offices of the solicitor (Leslie Phillips) he has some unexpected news for them...
In these days where there are hardly any single or double screen cinemas left in Britain, and the entertainment companies are only interested in multiplexes with umpteen screens, The Smallest Show on Earth has an extra sheen of nostalgia to it. Scripted by William Rose and John Eldridge, it sees its nice young couple go into the motion picture business, albeit in a particularly lowly manner, as the cinema Matt has inherited is not the Grand, which they have been told is the only one in town, but another, distinctly rundown establishment called the Bijou Kinema, but better known locally as "The Fleapit".
The owner of The Grand is one Mr Hardcastle (Francis De Wolff), a no nonsense businessman who wanted to buy the Bijou for an entrance to the car park he is planning. He initially offered Matt's great uncle five thousand pounds for it, but now his offer has dropped to seven hundred and fifty which barely covers the debts. However, the solicitor has a brainwave: why not pretend to be re-opening the Bijou as competition to put up Hardcastle's asking price? There is a human element to all this, that being a trio of venerable character actors, one at the blossoming of his career, who play the elderly staff wanting to keep their jobs.
Peter Sellers plays Mr Quill, the projectionist who is overfond of a drink or three, but vows never to touch another drop as long as he works there, so inspired is he by Matt and Jean. Then there's Mrs Fazackelee, the inimitable Margaret Rutherford, who works in the ticket booth and used to play the organ for the silent pictures, and Old Tom (nobody knows his full name), played by Bernard Miles, the caretaker who unfortunately overhears Matt, Jean and the solicitor talking about their plans. The crestfallen Tom gives the game away to The Grand's commissionaire who he meets in the pub, and of course the Bijou has to open for real.
The humour is best described as gentle, and the funnier characters do tend to be nudged out the way for more screen time with the nice young couple, but the rendering of an old cinema circa 1957 is very entertaining. There's a train track close by which interrupts the showings with its locomotives jolting along and its station anouncements, forcing Mr Quill to hang onto the projector for dear life. And that projector has a habit of breaking down, with accompanying catcalls from the audience. Matt decides they need an attractive girl to sell the refreshments (June Cunningham) and so increase the takings, especially paired with a film about the desert and the heating turned all the way up. All this detail is very engaging, making the curious "crime does pay" ending all the more offputting, but for the most part The Smallest Show on Earth has plenty of quaint appeal. Music by William Alwyn.