Cheeky cockney Horace Pope is always on the lookout to make some money, and the fact that a war is on won’t hinder him! Hence the nature of his arrest, selling dodgy gear out of a suitcase to chaps queuing up to enlist. When he explains to the court that he was only doing it whilst waiting to sign up the judge decides he shouldn’t be imprisoned but help the war effort by joining the military. Meeting a rather slow witted gypsy he decides that present circumstances aren’t going to stop his scheming ways and starts going On the Fiddle.
The fun tone of this British gem is immediately established with its opening score, a brassy marching main theme to which, if one were so inclined, the films title could be sung along to. It is a likeable film with two likeable leads in the shape of Alfred Lynch and a then less well known Sean Connery. Lynch brings to life the work shy Horace Pope with aplomb. The familiar loveable rogue character he is a spiv who sees all the angles, whether its selling leave passes or redistributing Army meat for a few bob he can never let a chance slip by. Probably reflecting a far more realistic soldier, one who doesn’t want to be shot at but just survive. In many ways the character of Pope comes across as an English version of that other military con artist Sgt Bilko. Well, every Bilko needs an accomplice and in On the Fiddle Connery plays that role as Pedlar Pascoe, a low on intelligence but high on honesty gypsy. For a modern audience it is strange to see Connery, obviously now most well known around the world as 007, in this role which was his last prior to acquiring a Licence To Kill. Nevertheless, after the initial shock you almost forget all that as he brings a likeable naivety to the role.
With the set up established within the first ten minutes the film quickly gets on with the job in hand as after a brief few scenes of training, Pope has met and befriended Pascoe and upon arrival at their first posting is already on to a scam within minutes! The constant movement of the main characters is in keeping with the reality of the day, as is the depiction of war torn Britain with its rationing and the yank ‘invasion’ playing important parts. Stock footage is also used, obviously cost effective but reminds the audience of the ever present danger of attack. But this film is less concerned with a country at war and more with the daily life of those posted around the British Isles.
Such is the nature of the film, the two heroes moving from one posting to another, that at times it does feel like a series of comic sketches and situations rather than a complete movie. However this is also a plus point as the pace is lively, moving from one humorous scam to another. It also allows for plenty of cameos from a whole host of popular comic actors of the day. Lance Percival briefly turns up as a Scottish solider, then there is John Le Mesurier as a stiff upper lipped by the book Sergeant, Stanley Holloway as a local butcher and another effortless piece of scene stealing by Wilfrid Hyde-White. There is even time to jam in a small role for Barbara Windsor! Amongst all the comic episodes there isn’t much room for drama. But there are a couple of more serious elements, such as Pope’s return home to meet his father, during which a depth to his character is added that is unexpected in a film such as this. It is only in its final act, however, that the serious tone dominates when the duo finally see some action. From this addition it could be assumed that On the Fiddle was a propaganda film of the war years, surprisingly though it was made in 1961. Whether this affected its popularity upon release is hard to judge, it may have been seen as a bit old fashioned in its theme by the beginning of the sixties.
On the Fiddle appears to have been neglected somewhat. But is definitely worth seeking out. It contains many of the standard ingredients for a British classic, working class heroes up to no good, gentle ribbing of the establishment and a good old British cheeky feeling to the whole thing. Many of the cast are rightly seen as masters of comedy acting and this movie is a great chance to see a handful of them giving their all. Alfred Lynch’s performance is also worth noting, he was one of the few working class actors at the time, the film arriving on screens just before the rise of such performers as Michael Caine. Also of note for film anoraks is the presence of a certain Scottish gentleman who would go on to become one of the most well known and iconic actors on the planet.
British director who made the star-packed war comedy On the Fiddle and was uncredited co-director on School for Scoundrels, as well as working on such TV shows as Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), The Avengers, Jason King and UFO.