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Big Willie Style: Keep It Up Downstairs on Blu-ray

  You probably know the narrative by now: in the late nineteen-sixties into the seventies, the British film industry saw the greater proportion of the Hollywood funding that had helped it flourish, evaporate, therefore as censorship was loosened, the homegrown entertainment began to resort to sex and violence as material to bring in the punters. The reasoning was, those punters could not get that sort of thing on television, so were willing to venture out to cinemas and enjoy them there - these were the days before videotapes became widely available for home use, themselves another nail in the coffin of British flicks as an attraction.

But that was the eighties, and the previous decade there was another strain of movies created to generate profits, which were the television spin-offs. Quite often sitcom adaptations, but not entirely, they proved that audiences were happy to watch what they enjoyed at home, on the silver screen, thus On the Buses spawned three films, for instance. Dramas were less likely to make the translation, but there was a Doomwatch and a Callan, though one of the most popular shows of the decade never cashed in. That was Upstairs, Downstairs, a tale of Edwardian folk which drew in millions of viewers every week as must see, appointment viewing.

Now, forty years later Downton Abbey on the same channel pulled off the same trick, and that did indeed have its own film spin-off, but there was evidently a gap in the market back in 1976, so the enterprising Hazel Adair, who had created the decidedly more downmarket soap opera Crossroads in the sixties, went on to a handful of pseudonymously produced cinematic efforts with sexual content like Keep It Up Downstairs, her cash-in on Upstairs, Downstairs (note the punning title: that's about the level of wit). Should you have sat in your lounge in the seventies watching the TV programme and found yourself idly fantasising about the characters, this was for you.

The characters in the film did not exactly match the ones on their inspiration, Adair wasn't stupid and while this was a comedy, it was not a parody, so while Neil Hallett essayed the role of a Gordon Jackson-esque Hudson the Butler, he did not put on a Scottish accent or anything identifiable in that style. Adair often used Hallett in her work, and here, though not a household name, he was given the reward of more or less being the central character in an ensemble, which brings us to the point: these British sex films of the seventies didn't half have some strange casts. The television hung heavy over them, so many recognisable faces from the box would appear.

Chief among them in Keep It Up Downstairs was Willie Rushton, who had the broadly comic villainous part to play as "Snotty Shuttleworth". Now this was not a stretch of his talents, but he was one of those comedy stars who enjoyed a mixed career of miscellany that you do not get so much in the twenty-first century. He did children's television, for example: his readings of A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh stories on Jackanory were to be treasured by all who recall them, and more subversively he voiced the stop motion animated, horror for kids five-minuter The Trap Door, a small gem of messy humour and supernatural hijinks starring various plasticine blobs.

Rushton, like many of his ilk, did adverts as well, best remembered as Clifford, the dragon in the mouthwash ads, but there were more strings to his bow as he was a popular writer too, penning many books of humour, including jokey anti-European Union jottings that a certain soon-to-be British Prime Minister ripped off wholesale for his public persona decades later. Rushton was prolific in the pages of satire magazine Private Eye, for which he provided cartoons, and also wrote on his passions for cricket and wine, though he was most identified with absurdist panel show/national audio treasure I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, though panel shows were where he was often seen.

His film career was limited, but he did show up in stuff like Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and the not-dissimilar Monte Carlo or Bust, and in the seventies, a smattering of these sex comedies specialising in placing TV personalities in roles you would not be used to seeing. In Keep It Up Downstairs there were a few, such as Diana Dors, Jack Wild (whose chronic alcoholism had relegated him to this), and The Lovely Aimi MacDonald speaking dialogue TV would not court, though also there was Mary Millington, non-acting sex symbol of the age, and Francoise Pascal, whose appearances ranged from Jean Rollin horrors to sitcom Mind Your Language. Now, in many of these efforts there would be some unlikely or surprising nudity, but rest assured Willie kept his clobber on, though he was dressed in a man-sized condom at the end. However, the casts are often the most interesting element of these oft-spurned artefacts, if you know who they are.

[Keep It Up Downstairs is available on Blu-ray from Network in their The British Film brand, and has the trailer and an image gallery as extras, plus the opportunity to watch the film unmatted in fullscreen. Click here to buy from the Network website.]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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