|Silent comedy, as seen in earlier movies of the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, was supposed to have ended in the very late nineteen-twenties when sound was introduced, but of course it never really left us. Whether it was reruns, compilations or rereleases of examples down the years or homages to the classics, of which there are many, silent humour is still around, and remains popular in the older or newer varieties. Back in the sixties, producer Bob Kellett served up four projects that used the medium as supporting shorts for the main feature in cinemas, and Network release them on Blu-ray, with extras.
First up is the last, 1970's Futtocks End (a futtock is a boating term for the waterline, and not something absolutely shocking like you were thinking), which starred and was scripted by Ronnie Barker. He was to spend the seventies becoming one of the most respected comic actors and writers in Britain (as well as other parts of the world), but in the sixties he was finding his feet, appearing on television mostly, but trying the big screen as well. Kellett had worked with him earlier in the decade, but this amounted to a proper vehicle for Barker, as well as a chance to work with Shakespearean actor Michael Hordern, who hankered after humorous roles.
Barker played General Futtock, a mad old buffer who resides with a small army of maids and manservants in his crumbling, titular country pile. Hordern was the lascivious butler, who we can tell is trouble from the off when he nearly knocks the postman off his bike while roaring past on his motorbike. He had brought a letter saying the military man will be receiving visitors anon, presumably relatives though it's never entirely clear, and so he and the butler head off to the railway station the next day to pick them up. They also pick up an unfortunate Japanese businessman (Kim Lee Kim) who finds that once in the clutches of the mansion, he has trouble leaving.
Really this was all about spoofing the British twin obsessions with sex and class, not necessarily in that order, as the characters move from preoccupation with one or the other. There were interludes when, for example, rum is accidentally poured into the fruit salad which makes the diners very merry indeed, and running gags such as the windy corner of the house which is like a contained hurricane, but mostly, with mumbles and mutterings on the soundtrack, this was Barker's view of the upper and servant classes. Though some setpieces - the butler's off-colour behaviour - wouldn't pass muster in family comedy now, there were inspired moments, like the journey of the bun.
Kellett and Barker had worked together before, in 1965 on the similarly silent comedy A Home of Your Own which gleefully sent up the British building trade. Kellett produced and Barker was part of an impressive ensemble including many of the top comedic talents of the day, including Bernard Cribbins as a stonemason, Peter Butterworth as a carpenter, Richard Briers as a newlywed and Ronnie Stevens as the architect. They assembled to construct a housing estate of the sort that were springing up across Britain in the sixties, though not always completed to a high grade, hence all the many jokes at the expense of the builders who are more interested in their mugs of tea.
One, Bill Fraser, drinks so much of the stuff that he finds nature calling at regular intervals - the running gags here were somewhere near top notch, along with the more obvious such as Barker's concrete constantly getting stepped in before it sets, there were also more subtle ones like the STOP/GO sign futilely turned around after the vehicles have already raced through the entrance. This home of the title is for Briers and his bride Bridget Armstrong (one of the sharpest gags sees them with a brood of kids by the time the building is finished for them), but just about everything that can go wrong does go wrong, though they do manage to erect the homes - with caveats.
Stevens had some of the funniest bits of business as the architect who insists on showing up to oversee the work and loses his dignity over and over in the process, always thanks to his natty sports car which ends up stuck in the mud, as does he. But Cribbins won the best punchline as he attempts to chip an official message on a plinth supporting some modern sculpture; after three tries, he is satisfied he has it right, but oh dear, he really hasn't. Unafraid to be risque in places, A Home of Your Own was a very big hit considering it was a supporting feature lasting under three quarters of an hour, and is fondly remembered from its television broadcasts. It easily stands up.
If there's one source of humour that stays eternal down the years, then it's the Brits on holiday, as there's a reason why saucy seaside postcards and their jokes remain popular. But if there's a way of going better than sitting in a deckchair at the beach in Frinton-on-Sea, then it's the Brits abroad, and Kellett was back in 1965 with San Ferry Ann, a tale of precisely that as his ensemble cast of characters ventured to France on the cross-Channel ferry. With that slightly mysterious title meaning "It doesn't matter" in the French language should you pronounce it correctly, once again a collection of top comedy talent was gathered, and they genuinely filmed on the ferry and abroad.
Some of these cast had been part of Kellett's ensembles before, some were new faces, and it was interesting to see, for instance, Barbara Windsor try out for Carry On Camping as she played a backpacker opposite Ronnie Stevens as her unlucky boyfriend. The main family here was led by David Lodge and Joan Sims as the middle-aged marrieds who sally forth in their camper van with grandad Wilfred Brambell and grandma Lynne Carol accompanying them to the campsite. Though naturally, they do not initially make it to the correct site and end up settling down for the night on what looks like a small park opposite some very important council offices instead.
Brambell in particular had a very good rapport with Ron Moody who played the German tourist grandad befriends, usually for what appear to be drinking competitions that the German approaches as if they were traditional in his part of the world. Also showing up were Rodney Bewes and Catherine Feller as a pair of young lovers who see almost nothing of France other than the inside of their hotel room, and famous faces like Warren Mitchell and Graham Stark as locals, the lack of dialogue neatly passing for the language barrier between the Brits and the French (though as that public information film showed, Stark could at least give instructions on backing up a lorry).
Lastly on this compilation is 1969's Vive le Sport, the shortest item of the bunch at just under half an hour, and effectively a travelogue of various European locations under the guise of a driving adventure. It starred Dutch racing driver Liane Engeman and Welsh actress Beth Morris as two blondes who contact each other through a newspaper advert as Liane is seeking a companion to go on a trip with, and Beth replies. Off they go, starting in London and taking the ferry across to Belgium and the Alps: there was a reason they went through such differing terrain, and that was the ulterior motive for the short, as a commercial for Dunlop tyres, they being the company who had instigated the project.
With that in mind, there are many shots of the wheels on Liane's Mini Cooper going around through rain, snow and sunshine, and even more shots of said car speeding around with great manoeuvrability through Continental streets and stunning views of the countryside. There was a loose plot to this, as Barrie Gosney was a mysterious figure who has smuggled a roll of film in one of the Mini's spot light covers and spends the rest of the running time trying to get it back in a chase scenario. It was amusing and worth watching for classic driving fans, and when we finally see what was on the film it was pretty absurd. But what you'll remember were the two blondes in the Mini (and indeed wearing minis). Thus ends a collection of Kellett’s short works, he moved into television mostly thereafter, but his supporting comedies will be fondly recalled by many, and with very good reason.
[Network release these on Blu-ray and DVD as Futtocks End... and Other Short Stories with these special features:
 Brand-new 2021 interviews with Annie Kellett and cinematographer Billy Williams
 Archive commentary on Futtocks End with producer/director Bob Kellett
 8mm cutdown version of Futtocks End
 Limited edition booklet written by Melanie Williams.]