Further showers

“Doubting Thomas” must be Malcolm’s other reader — inexplicably, though, Malcolm’s stat-porn has leapt dramatically these last few days.

“Doubting Thomas” frequently, and happily so, intervenes with provocative notions. And for Malcolm’s mental health (who claims to blog to keep the Alzheimer’s at bay), long may he — and  any others — do so.

Doubting Thomas’s  response to the previous post is one such:

The late Terry Thomas (no relation) used ‘an absolute shower’ in his material and the phrase seems to portray the Tories quite well now that they seem down on their luck through hubris and nemesis, as well as pulic school arrogance.

All absolutely right; but worthy of expansion.

For a start, Malcolm feels a slight affinity with Thomas Terry Hoar-Stevens by reason of propinquity. It’s a short bus ride from Redfellow Hovel to Prince’s Avenue, Finchley — Hoar-Stevens birthplace.

Beyond that, Terry-Thomas (he always insisted on that hyphen) was a good working comedian and stock actor over decades. He was a carry-over from the Music Hall, and the pantomime — a heritage which also explains the number of outstanding English character actors to this day.

Terry-Thomas came by his signature catch-phrase, which ‘Doubting Thomas’ provided as Malcolm’s peg to hang this hat on, from Private’s Progress. Terry-Thomas was “Major Hitchcock”, who spends much of his script telling the main character, “Private Windrush” (played by Ian Carmichael) he is a “bounder”, a “scoundrel” and — but of course — “an absolute shower”.

A Malcolmian aside

Private’s Progress represents something of a “rite of passage” for British cinema. It was the first of the Boulting Brothers’ social satires, a fertile stream of comedy — and subtle commentary — to come out of the Shepperton Studios. Like the rest of the sequence, the film spoke directly of and to contemporary British (in all truth, explicitly English) experience.

Towards the end of the War, Stanley Windrush is called up and leaves his university. As a university man he would be an obvious candidate for a commission, but Windrush sets out to prove himself totally unqualified. The plot, as far as there is one, exemplifies the skiving and “liberating” that was the commonplace of the time. At one extreme there is the wily Private Cox, who knows every scam and where the bodies are buried. At the other is Windrush’s uncle, Brigadier Tracepurcel, gilding his lily at the War Office. The McGuffin is a hoard of Nazi-appropriated art. The superficial moral is required to be “crime does not pay”; but the whole ethos is “they’re all at it.”

The script grew out of a novel of the same name, by Alan Hackney. He would go on to be involved in the seminal  I’m All Right Jack (another adaptation from his novel, Private Life — which was swiftly rebranded after the film’s success), and a succession of later films and TV series.

Back on track

Still barely into his sixties, Terry-Thomas was stricken by Parkinson’s disease. He disappeared from the scene, and from public appearance, until a stupendous benefit concert at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.

His alter-ego survived in Dick Dastardly of Wacky Races. Dastardly is a direct rip from “Sir Percy Ware-Armitage”, the character Terry-Thomas depicted in Ken Annakin’s 1965 romp, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. The DVD cover features Sir Percy to this day. Any mystery amounts to how two very similar films, Magnificent Men (UK release 3 June 1965) and Blake Edwards’ The Great Race (US release 1 July 1965), appeared almost simultaneously — and shared so many plot devices. Malcolm here has assumed that Terry-Thomas’s “Sir Percy” was the natural antecedent of Jack Lemmon’s “Professor Fate”. The apostolic succession was even clearer in Hanna-Barbera’s Dastardly and Muttley follow-up, Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines (they never did Stop that Pigeon).

Anyone who fears the Commedia dell’arte was lost and gone forever, can be reassured by such delightful guff. “Sir Percy Ware-Armitage” is Pantalone rendered on film-stock: Zanni, the scoundrel of a valet, becomes Eric Sykes as “Courtney” (and further transmogrified into Muttley, Dastardly’s “horrible hound”). The essential nature of human nature, and the nature of the entertainment it demands, is remarkably unchanging.

Hwæt! We Gardena         in geardagum …

“Listen! We of the spear-Danes …”

That can’t be right! Miscue! But still, Hwæt!

For Terry-Thomas has many other film credits. One deserves particular respect, largely because it’s almost unknown in Britain. He had the main acting credit in Gérard Oury‘s La Grande Vadrouille, at least when the film appeared outside France, otherwise he shared with Bourvil and Louis de Funes.

See! You hadn’t heard of it, had you? It got a US release (and an even more restricted showing in the UK) as Don’t Look Now – We’re Being Shot At. It is a film of note because, from its release in 1966 until the sinking of Titanic thirty years later, it held the record for putting French bums on cinema seats.

This scene works in any language, probably better than it did in 1967 — and may also explain why the film was so heavily cut out of its French original:

Orthopaedic humour

One last aside, here.

If you damage the ligaments of your wrist, in effect splitting them like the characteristic gap in Terry-Thomas’s front teeth, you will be told by a British surgeon that it is the “Terry-Thomas sign”. This says more about what amuses British medics than anything about their professional expertise. In the US, the nominal reference is David Letterman.

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Filed under blogging, Britain, films, Literature, London, Muswell Hill, Quotations

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