|Network on Air's streaming service is continuing 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 such double features two varying looks at British comedy of the nineteen-seventies: character-based and sketch-based.
First up is Benny Hill, showcased in a selection of his skits from Thames Television, where he found a home for the best part of two decades from 1969 to the late eighties, whereupon he was told his services were no longer required thanks to the changing tastes in humour Britain was seeing. The popular notion is that thanks the alternative comedy the kids were enjoying, there was no room for the likes of Hill, but the fact remained he wasn't getting any younger and neither was his material as he preferred to recycle his past glories somewhat relentlessly by the close of his career. Ironically, as his programmes continued to sell worldwide, Hill was negotiating a new contract at time of his death.
So, go back to The Best of Benny Hill from 1974 to see him at somewhere near his prime, this being a compilation of some of his sketches from earlier television series circa 1970, some shot on film, others on video. The film footage did tend to look slicker but lacked the intimacy of a studio-based video camera, though really it was the material that was important: would it make you laugh? Commonly Hill is believed to be completely out of date in the twenty-first century, but his brand of cheeky smut never really went out of fashion as Brits are as enamoured of a good double entendre now as much as they ever have been, and Benny was the man always ready to give you one. Naturally, some of these are funnier than others, and the racial stereotypes look a little painful, but in the main it was the saucy seaside postcard gags he was an employer of.
This was pre-fireworks in the break bumpers, Hill's Angels littering the screen, variety show format of his later, perhaps better remembered programmes, though if you recall those you may not be too surprised to recognise a bunch of jokes from them as Benny was a terrible plagiarist of himself. What he was an expert at, aside from the nudge-nudge stuff, was parodies, specifically television parodies, and his impersonation of Simon Dee's chat show is one of the strongest extracts here (especially if you have seen footage of Dee in action). Also superb was Hill's mickey take of a vintage film, a shipboard musical, that is deteriorating before our eyes: frames missing, slowing down and so on, a reminder that he was considered one of British television comedy's great innovators when he initially became famous. His reliable stooges, Bob Todd, Henry McGee and Jackie Wright (tap tap tap) are present and correct, and his wordplay often gives the best laughs.
If Benny Hill's cheek makes you laugh, what would you think of The Likely Lads, or rather, the sequel to that popular BBC2 sitcom, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? from the early seventies? Before that arrives, there's the intermission, where the projectionist takes a gulp of Kia-Ora, we are sold cigarettes in an expensive advert featuring a giant pack of coffin nails, some lizards, a helicopter and a swimming pool, and to keep us returning to this cinema, there's an enticement to buy gift vouchers for as little as 50p (!). In addition, there are trailers for The Quiller Memorandum and Deadlier Than the Male, which technically were sixties movies, but one supposes they could have been revived.
"Hello Thelma. Pet." The Likely Lads were created by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais but this grittier 1976 film we are served up here was based on their seventies TV revival, the classic Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? At this time, it seemed as if the only thing propping up the British film industry were feature-length versions of popular sitcoms, but while many of these adaptations haven't aged well (assuming they were actually any good in the first place), The Likely Lads emerges as possibly the best of them (sorry, On the Buses fans), sustaining the melancholy humour and finely drawn characters of the original.
Clement and La Frenais put this sustained quality in translation down to their experience in writing actual film scripts during the sixties, before they moved to television, but were assisted by excellent performances, especially in the leads. Bewes and Bolam are an unbeatable team, with aspirational, pretentious Bob brought down to earth by wounded cynic Terry, you can't imagine anyone else as effective (though there was a remake of one episode decades later that's best ignored). Nostalgic for their childhoods and the not-so-far-away years as hard drinking, bird-chasing blokes, it's difficult to admit they're starting to get on a bit. The mundanity of the modern world gets them down, and they spend their lives either at work (Terry is now a milkman), in the pub or in the supermarket.
It's getting to be a bit of a grind. So they do what happens so often in sitcom movies - go on holiday (see also Please Sir, Are You Being Served? and the legendary Holiday On the Buses - even latecomers like The Inbetweeners Movie and Absolutely Fabulous). But this is the great British caravan holiday in its undeniable heyday of the seventies; dull, rainy, boring and generally miserable, summed up by the scene where one night during a game of cards, Terry takes a piss on the side of the caravan and everyone inside can hear it. It's no surprise they'd prefer to be at home, leading to a comedy of embarrassment when Bob and Terry decide to curtail the trip early one morning, accidentally leaving Thelma and Terry's partner behind in their nighties.
The jokes are surprisingly good in comparison to contemporaries: "I'd offer you a beer, but I've only got six cans", "She's not as pretty as the last one", and even the coarsening of the humour, such as more frank sexual talk and mild swearing ("I couldn't give a shit!"), doesn't seem too out of place, not as much as in some of its peers. These were now adults crushed with grown-up responsibilities, contrasted with the near-feral kids continually haring around outside who don't have a care in the world. Unfortunately there isn't enough plot to last the full ninety minutes, and the ending resolves itself into a letdown of a trouserless bedroom farce that is mildly amusing, but not exactly witty when the dialogue is not relied upon. Yet those characters remain as great as they were on television (special mention to Brigit Forsyth as the terminally unimpressed Thelma, Bob's embodiment of his middle class aspiration), and the downbeat comedy still works like a charm. One thing, though: it doesn't include the memorable "Oh, what happened to you?" theme tune of the series).
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.