|Network on Air's streaming service has hit upon the idea of using the brand's extensive film library for a series of double bills, inspired by the way to watch movies that only started to be widely phased out in the nineteen-eighties. Before that, tradition dictated that if you attended your local cinema before then, you would be treated to a set of two films, plus advertisements, trailers and even short films to supply what would be regarded as a full evening's entertainment (or indeed a full afternoon's entertainment). One of the double bills Network has offered up sees future James Bond 007 Roger Moore in support to eccentric comedian Frankie Howerd.
First, it is The Man Who Haunted Himself, a fairly small film that at the time was merely a vehicle for a television star, Moore having made his name throughout the sixties as adventurer The Saint, but he was keen to make an impact on the silver screen too. He had his eyes on the secret agent role, but for whatever reasons was unavailable when Sean Connery gave it up and was replaced by the supposedly malleable George Lazenby, who proved to be more difficult than the producers expected. But while Moore bided his time for his chance at the most famous part of his career, he dabbled in lower budget items like this, though it proved a favourite.
Indeed, Moore regarded this as containing his best performance on film, which considering how self-deprecating he was about his talents as a thespian, was saying something. Was he as good as he believed? Actually - yes, he was very fine as a staid London businessman who is driving home when he suddenly has a mania overtake his mind and begins to drive as fast as he possibly can down the motorway. He pays the price and crashes, and while injured on the operating table something strange occurs as the monitor picks up two heartbeats after it appears he will die. He doesn't, the doctors can find no brain damage, but nevertheless, he is a changed man.
Or rather, he is two changed men, for it now seems to him he has a doppelganger posing as him both in business and pleasure. Frustratingly, he cannot prove this, and every time he is just about to be in the same place as the impostor the man manages to give him the slip, leading Moore's Harold Pelham character to wonder if he is suffering a nervous breakdown. Doppelganger tales were nothing new, and this one had been filmed before as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the fifties, but thanks to the growing intensity of the star and the illogicality of his pressing problem, it proved undeniably compelling watching Moore go to pieces over his personal crisis.
In fact, for quite a bit of The Man Who Haunted Himself it was a fairly effective boardroom drama, which fittingly for the lead's origins had been a small screen obsession throughout the previous decade, being cheap to make and offering a lot of intense performances when so much was at stake. It had to be said, too, the broad-shouldered Moore wore his sharp, pinstripe suit very well, looking every inch the stuffy London capitalist, so when his more devious double makes his presence felt he made an equally satisfying villain. Culminating in a psychedelic car chase (there's something you don't see very often), it was also the very capable director Basil Dearden's final film after a long and successful career; in a macabre twist, he died not long after its release at the same spot the climactic car crash takes place.
Next, a burst of ephemera as we are treated to a selection of advertising as you would see in the sixties and seventies at your local Roxy, commencing with Mr Voiceover, Patrick Allen, telling us, nay, ordering us, to purchase snacks and soft drinks in the foyer. Then we have cinema ads for the Vauxhall Victor car, Pepsi Cola and more Walls' ice cream (a big production starring Adrienne Posta, with a cameo by Derek Griffiths) before Michael Aspel muscles in on the voiceover act to recommend the two sixties Bulldog Drummond efforts starring Richard Johnson. Once that amusing diversion is over, it's time to join Howerd in The House in Nightmare Park.
This penultimate silver screen appearance was reputedly his favourite of all his pictures, maybe because it felt more traditional to the fare he was watching as he got his start in showbusiness - you could imagine Will Hay or Arthur Askey giving this type of comic chiller a try. Except with Howerd, there was a lot more tailored to his particular delivery, which may have sounded off the cuff but as you could hear in this, was far more scripted and rehearsed than he ever let on. The plot had him back in 1907 as ripe ham actor Foster Twelvetrees, boring the provinces with his renditions of classic literature until he is offered a one-night engagement at a mansion.
Naturally, he must arrive at this location in an icy breeze and pitch darkness, with the coachman stopping half a mile before the front door since this is a place with a reputation, but on arrival he meets the Henderson family who behave very strangely, neatly offsetting the typical Howerd grimaces and noises. The script was penned by Clive Exton (a veteran of literary adaptations with Poirot and Jeeves and Wooster in his future) and Terry Nation (who needs no introduction to Doctor Who or Blake's 7 fans - he created the Daleks), both of whom had lengthy experience in humour, indeed Nation was a writer for Howerd's radio work once upon a time.
But where The House in Nightmare Park scored was in its combination of the ridiculous and the creepy; eschewing any real gore, despite a title that sounded like an Italian video nasty, it relied on a curiously uneasy atmosphere that continually threatened to overwhelm the star's oneliners. We can guess correctly that Twelvetrees is there because of a hitherto unrealised connection to the clan, and has something to do with an inheritance, but he is so self-obsessed that he doesn't twig himself until the last act, whereupon he ends up being chased around the hallways by a mad axeman, played by a much-respected actor who he had persuaded to appear with him.
It's not giving too much away to reveal this thespian was Ray Milland, whose well-regarded career had dwindled into horror roles which may have dented that respect, but won him new fans in the same way a Dennis Price or Michael Gough would have. There was support from Hugh Burden (who insists on calling Foster a swine at every opportunity) and Kenneth Griffith, among others, and the real, live marionette act the family stage was nicely weird, helped by director Peter Sykes' experience in horror and the macabre. Fun could be had with a madwoman in the attic stroking Howerd's hair (or rather, one of the most notorious, worst-looking wigs in showbiz), fluffy bunnies fed to ravenous serpents, and a backdrop of Hinduism that was also in the contemporary The Ghoul and Ghost Story, to variant effect. But it was Howerd's show all the way, and if you were on his comedy wavelength, he would have you laughing easily in a true cult item.
These double bills are a nostalgic in the right way rendition of the sort of evenings out of yesteryear that so many Brits would experience, and as the prints of the films are pristine, reminiscent of what they would be like to watch as new. Click here to join the Network website.