You Must Be Joking!
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ’60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ’60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joking! is not only a forgotten gem in the annals of classic British comedy, it’s that rarest of rarities; a really good Michael Winner film.
Winner’s image in the couple of decades until his death was at least as much a caricatured persona of his own making as it was a consequence of natural revulsion at the manner in which he held forth with the classic smugness and disdain of one used to rank and privilege. He was of course, a famous Tory supporter (when he switched to New Labour it was signal enough of the corrupting influences that had brought that party to a point where it had negligible association with its roots), with the corresponding unbecoming views of its worst proponents (“I want to live in an intolerant society”). He was a man who reeked of the fondness of money and luxury. And food. It so happened that one way for him to attain those things was through making movies, to hell with quality (Exhibit A: he worked with Cannon and Charles Bronson simultaneously); it was a means to an end.
It’s no doubt symptomatic that Winner worked very little from his mid-50s onwards. He had sufficient wealth, and sufficient other revenue streams. His final trio of movies, spanning the ’90s, include Caine/Moore nadir Bullseye! (they play dual roles!), Dirty Weekend (gender-swapped Death Wish, and as appetising as that sounds) and Parting Shots (Chris Rea “acts” and loads of Michael’s showbiz pals return favours). He had built up such a – I’m not sure it’s quite the right expression – cult of personality by this point, it scarcely mattered that his films were universally derided. Indeed, it seemed to be almost a point of obligation.
Winner appeared in adverts for Kenko and car insurance, guested on Shooting Stars!, his second latex incarnation following Spitting Image appeared in The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer’s “little muscle-mad puppet Michael Winner puppet”. He seemed quite content to mock himself, nothing able to penetrate his self-satisfied, cigar chomping façade (perhaps because there was nothing beneath it). To his (vague) credit, he turned down (allegedly) an OBE for services to British film, although his reasons related to the worthlessness of the gong rather than the absurdity of suggesting had in some way been of benefit to the movie industry. He was wont to less than endearing statements regarding his chosen profession (“A team effort is a lot of people doing what I say”; he sometimes edited under the moniker Arnold Crust, just so it’s clear he was wholly to blame) but also amusingly self-deprecating ones (“If you want art, don’t mess about with movies. Buy a Picasso”). Which doesn’t mean he was ever less than a boorish snob.
The 1980s found him at the peak of his uncreative powers, churning out two Death Wish sequels for the lowest rent of low rent studios (the Cannon Group) and a remake of The Wicked Lady with soft porn trappings. There was also an (inoffensive) Ustinov Poirot movie. The preceding decade found Winner engaged with ugly westerns and equally ugly crime thrillers featuring Bronson or Burt Lancaster, but he would try his hand at anything; horror (The Sentinel), a weak swill Raymond chandler (The Big Sleep), and a Brando ghost story (The Nightcomers).
While a few of his films across that decade are passable (only a few) it’s fairly evident that, with the passing of the ’60s, any pretence at standards greater than “That’ll do” filmmaking had vanished. His last collaboration with Michael Crawford (starring in films before he was sailing under trucks on roller skates and debating the merits of a cat doing woopsies. And opera singing) was 1970’s The Games (about Olympic runners) and prior to this you’d be forgiven for thinking Winner actually had an interest in making films with some merit, integrity or function above and beyond whether they could secure him his next restaurant bill.
The first half of the ’60s gives the impression that (a very young) Winner was taking anything her was offered (so no change there); filmed variety shows, a naturist comedy (Some Like it Cool) that might be considered the shape of lasciviousness to come, murder on campus (Out of the Shadow, amid the posh nibs of Cambridge University – where he secured a Third), one of the many singer-starrers of the period (Play it Cool with Billy Fury), a contemporary Gilbert and Sullivan (The Cool Mikado) and his first Oliver Reed collaboration (The Girl-Getters, concerning a group of young men’s seaside town conquests). After You Must Be Joking! came another good movie, the Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais scripted The Jokers, with Reed and Crawford stealing (or borrowing) the crown jewels. A third Reed effort followed, I’ll Never Forget Whatsisname, in which Reed’s disillusioned ad exec drops out amid Swinging London (complete with Orson Welles and implied fellatio), before a final round in Winner’s best-loved picture (outside of those adored by Bronson fans), Hannibal Brooks.
By his standards then, the last half of the ‘60s was a fruitful period, with consistently respectable output, and You Must be Joking! kicks that off (including the director’s slender frame gracing the opening titles, clearly never one for self-effacement or letting the work speak for itself). Joking is an infectiously lively, vibrant picture; it’s blessed with a chase/quest plot that means it’s always moving and Winner can always cut to one of the ensemble’s protagonists if there’s ever any danger of a lull. It’s also filled with the energy of the period, grasping at the freedoms through an Oxbridge veil of conformity and good manners. On the periphery, and sometimes up front, is the kind of youth appeal that could be found infusing Richard Lester’s films (an area Winner had dabbled in, but without anyone as auspicious as The Beatles as his stars). He isn’t so inventive, of course, but merely going with the flow of the era means he doesn’t need to be.
The screenplay came courtesy of Alan Hackney. The story is credited to Winner, who probably came up with it over a spot of lunch; to be fair he had a surprising number of story/screenplay credits, or perhaps not since it further illustrates that he was quite a rotten all-rounder. If Joking has the air of a movie that could have been made a decade previously in shape, if not in detail, that’s most likely Hackney’s influence. His start in the film industry came when the Boulting Brothers adapted his novels Private’s Progress and I’m All Right Jack, two of the best British comedies of the ’50s (both featuring the inimitable Terry-Thomas, who also graces Joking to splendid effect; it’s just a shame he lurks on the periphery of the action). Credits followed including Two Way Stretch, Sword of Sherwood Forest and Operation Snatch (T-T again, and Lionel Jeffries).
Hackney lends the picture the class struggle hues that permeated his Boulting pictures, doubling up against and emphasised by the enforceability of rank. The educated classes are, naturally officers, and either idiots or entitled snobs (or Americans, a different class entirely) – while at once being likeably deluded or buffoonish – whereas the lower ranks are working class types or, more shockingly still, Scottish.
It isn’t difficult to see where Winner found inspiration. The overblown, only partially successful It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was the treasure hunt movie to beat all treasure hunt movies (Joking’s byline “It’s a Mad-Mad Whirl of a Hunt for guys and gals and goodies” overtly invokes that picture, although this is far too good to be dismissed as a cheap cash-in); it’s the perfect loose structure for a plot, as it sets up a tangible goal and no one has to worry about messy details like acts. All that’s necessary is dividing time between the disparate protagonists. It can also be as taut or as bloated as necessary (the excess and indulgence of World is its downfall). Terry-Thomas, of course, appeared in World. As with many of his features, he’s the highlight. The subgenre has seen sporadic entries since, including 1979’s Scavenger Hunt and more recently 2001’s Rat Race.
Major Foskett: I am a major, you are a sergeant. Majors give orders, sergeants obey them.
American Sergeant: But I’m not even in your army, sir.
Major Foskett: That’s not my fault.
The treasure hunt in question is the chosen form for an army initiative test. Conscription had been over for half a decade at the time of Joking, but that doesn’t prevent the test subjects having predominately ambivalent attitudes to the armed forces (the American officer simply resigns at the end, so presumably he wasn’t conscripted). Winner famously avoided National Service by pretending to be gay, something he later said he regretted, and his willingness to mock the military is evident throughout.
The reason for the hunt is flimsy at best; we are told that, even in the age of nuclear warfare, “tricky situations still turn up”. The competitors must engage in a scenario whereby “the whole country’s been devastated” and is now enemy territory. They are required to collect “a few symbols of British life to be buried for posterity”. That at least one of these has absolutely nothing to do with the British way of life is hastily covered by “in its broadest terms of course”. The prize is a 10-day trip around the world (“As long as we can spare”) and “The first man back will be the man we’re looking for the complete soldier for today” (alert, wide awake, selfless). He will also have a firm foothold on the promotion ladder, although understandably this is considerably less of an incentive.
During the opening section authority is mostly emphasised as a collection of silly fools. Wilfred Hyde-White’s General Lockwood is the sceptical old duffer, and Terry-Thomas’ Major Foskett is an army Psychological Officer (so double the danger there). Perhaps Winner is drawing on his own experiences, although the depiction of psychology in most comedies of the period is that of a profession deserving ridicule. Foskett is no exception; this is all his bright idea, and he’s terribly enthusiastic about the whole deal (“I say, sir! That’s initiative for you!” he proclaims when a trio of contestants escape the starting point of a maze by helicopter), with apparently no awareness of the potential consequences.
The army itself is identified as thoroughly unscrupulous, sending its men out on this mission but “If any of you get into trouble we shall deny all knowledge of you”; it’s also run by the upper classes (Denholm Elliot’s competing captain is evidently a career soldier who doesn’t take soldiering seriously and treats the whole thing as an extension of his school days). Indeed, the army is a law unto itself and had to fend off questions in parliament on previous occasions when it embarked on such manoeuvres.
The competitors have 48 hours to complete the mission, and must do so “entirely on your own with no one allowed to help you” (they also have to leave their ready cash); in practice, only the ranks actually obey this rule, further underlining that rules are there for the masses and not those who make them.
There are six items to be retrieved; the Silver Lady emblem for a Rolls Royce motorcar (Foskett has already swiped the one off Lockwood’s car), the Lady Frances McDonald (“a blushing harbinger of spring”; only Sergeant Major McGregor knows it’s a rose), an electronic hare from a greyhound race track, a flight of those plaster ducks (those on tiles are also acceptable) and a lock of hair “from that rather gorgeous French pop singer, Sylvie Tarnet” (the most random and by definition un-British item; her autograph is required also as proof, but as we shall see it’s no proof at all) and the sixth item is announced as a secret they will find out in the field.
Lloyds’ employee: The world’s leading insurance organisation and we haven’t even covered our most treasured and historic possession.
This turns out to be the Lutine Bell, salvaged from the wreck of the HMS Lutine in 1859; Lloyds of London had insured the ship and hung the bell at the Royal Exchange (historically it was rung when news of overdue ships arrived). In keeping with the film’s digs at the sturdiness of any respected societal structure, the exemplar of insurance is found to have failed to cover their most iconic emblem/possession.
The joys of You Must Be Joking! derive from its comic scenarios and the parallel, and at times overlapping, adventures of its characters. So who are these behemoths of British comedy?
Terry-Thomas’ peak decade was undoubtedly the period from 1955-65 (although the subsequent five years also saw a few gems), and his persona here is only a break from the norm in that he’s not playing a frightful stinker and scoundrel. He essays a variation on his officer figure in Private’s Progress, to the extent that he quotes his most famous phrase from that film when he insists none of this is his fault, “It’s them. They’re an absolute shower, sir!” He also delivers his best-loved line, all gap tooth and broad grin, with the less than consoling “Oh hard cheese, Clegg” when Bernard Cribbins’ hapless Royal Engineer’s tunnelling again fails to set him free. Thomas is at his most fun when he’s being a complete rotter, but he’s still a delight as the hopelessly enthusiastic and misguided Foskett. “It should be rather fun, actually” he cheerfully pronounces as the test kicks off.
Winner once commented “For years in the English film business, if you wanted a Terry-Thomas-type comedian, you were lucky if you got Terry-Thomas”. The only shame here is that T-T’s very much on the periphery of the action. Nevertheless, he makes every scene count; from his natural superiority over the insolent American who should bally well obey his orders, to his complete disregard for the meeting he intrudes on between the officer ranks of his transatlantic cousins.
His psychiatrist fits the general stereotype that they have absolutely no idea about the real world, since his quest causes havoc, gets his superior arrested, and the winner proves to be absolutely the worst “complete soldier for today” since he promptly quits. Indeed, Foskett actually considers this a good thing (“I say, sir. What a gesture!”) while Lockwood has the more accurate appraisal (“More like mutiny”). Hackney doesn’t give Foskett the best of exits; while it’s appropriate that he should be arrested for conspiring to steal the Lutine Bell, his confession that a man came to his school and said the army needs a psychiatrist “and I believed him” is feeble; even T-T can’t make that one sing.
Wilfred Hyde-White is another iconic face of classic British comedy. Recently seen to unlikely effect as renowned criminal Soapy Stevens in Two-Way Stretch, his mild-voiced patrician figure is used to great effect here. Patronising Clegg (well, everyone does) and only really concerned with the effect the test might have on his status (“Do you really think I’m going to risk not getting a knighthood just to cover up for you?” he asks Foskett on learning about the Lutine Bell), he’s taken down by one of his subordinates (Lee Montague’s Mansfield, who puts the blame for all his pilfering on the General; “Oh, sir. How could you? He must have had a difficult childhood. I’d love to get the case history,” responds Foskett, gullible as ever, to the news).
It’s a feature of such pictures that the falsely entitled establishment should be toppled by the honest masses, and this is no exception, but it’s also the case that – almost without exception – the (sometimes nominal) antagonists in these pictures are the most engaging characters.
This type of picture lives or dies on the casting, and Winner’s assembled competitors complement each other marvellously. Five soldiers are ordered to take part, although it isn’t explained why an American is involved. We know why in reality; Columbia doubtless insisted its UK production office included a representative for homegrown appeal. Presumably the edict extended to his being the chief protagonist and winning, so one guesses that, beneath the surface charm, Hackney intentionally kicked against this and made him thoroughly unscrupulous and effectively a deserter.
Staff Sergeant Mansfield is probably the least memorable of the contestants. Serving in the Army Corp of Transport, he represents your classic wheeler-dealer type – the sort Dickie Attenborough played in Private’s Progress and James Beck would deliver to perfection in Dad’s Army a few years later. Insolent and entirely disinterested in the service outside of what he can make on the side, Mansfield has much potential but he’s side-lined by other plotlines. And, while Lee Montague is effective enough as the cockney wide boy who thinks any tight spot can be resolved with an army requisition form (“Better than cash”), he only really lights up when pitched opposite Lionel Jeffries’ by-the-book McGregor (“Why don’t you go and jump in Loch Lomond?”)
It might have been more effective to cast someone broader; Montague, the first storyteller on Jackanory, has the slight air of a less camp Frankie Howerd (who appeared in Winner’s The Cool Mikado two years earlier). He features in only one notable scene without other main cast members present, in which he purloins a hare from future Doctor Who and Worzel Gummidge Jon Pertwee (“What’s the army want an electronic hare for then?”; “Target practice”). But it’s Mansfield’s savvy and slyness that topples his superior officer, attesting that his criminal activities were entirely at Lockwood’s behest (“I’m just their tool they’re all in it”). The morality of the picture in this regard would appear to be that the privileged are de facto at fault, and the balance needs to be redressed by fair means or foul (very un-Winner).
Lieutenant Morton, US Air Force, is played by Michael Callan and represents spirited ‘60s youth. He’s in on the scene; he can even cut some moves. A hit with the ladies, Morton relies on dolly birds to do the hard work for him (so immediately breaking the rules). Generally, he coasts on others’ goodwill towards him.
Callan’s actually really good here, fitting in seamlessly with his British co-stars and game to have his romantic lead goof it up with the rest (his messing up of the theft of the Lutine Bell is especially memorable). The actor’s career included a fair amount of film work prior to this (he appears in the same year’s Cat Ballou) but Callan spent the remainder of his remaining career mostly doing TV guest roles.
Morton has the lion’s share of the action but, if this handsome young lead is intended to reflect callow youth, his behaviour as a shallow user out for himself is markedly not a positive image. Morton is defined by his ladies’ man ways and indifference to his career; we first see him dropped off after a heavy weekend with girlfriend Annabelle (Gabriella Licudi).
Licudi, the daughter of an Irish naval engineer father and Gibraltan mother, was educated in a number of countries before settling in England in her teens. Her career was cut short in the ‘70s when she relocated to Africa to run a safari lodge (eventually returning to London). She also had roles in the David Niven Casino Royale and Winner’s The Jokers. Staying with Bond connections, Annabelle was dubbed by Nikk Van der Zyl (it’s her posh tones that are so alluring, then). Van der Zyl also dubbed Licudi in The Jokers, and her run of Bond girls throughout the ’60s and ’70s borders on the all-inclusive (Honey Rider, Jill Masterson, Domino, Royale’s Vesper Lynd, Kissy Suzuki and Solitaire).
Annabelle is one of Joking’s most appealing characters, a posh London lass who delights in idea of a treasure hunt (“How simply marvellous!”) and is a cheerfully terrible driver. While the picture flagrantly stereotypes women drivers, it does so with amiable zest: sped-up footage; pedestrians leaping out of the way; and Annabelle’s staunch belief in her rights of the open road (“Super, they’ve had it. Serves them right!” she says of Beatles-esque super group The Cavemen when their Rolls breaks down).
There’s also giving and taking away here; fun is had with her entrance into the men-only Tweedles Club to secure the name of the final item on the list (“It’s a girl, sir”). This scene is also notable for an implied use of the f-word (Winner would go ahead and drop it plainly in a film two years later); “Oh, f-antastic!” blurts Morton on discovering the final item. “Watch your language, please sir” comes the stern warning from the club porter.
Annabelle is foolishly devoted to Morton (“Stay put, Timmy darling I’m coming round to get you”) and entirely proactive in his mission (she’d be better at the test than any of them). Her language is peppered with “supers” and “simplys”, accompanied by a feisty self-confidence. In the botanical gardens she loudly announces “The heat! Any minute and I’ll simply have to rip off every one of my clothes” next to some passing nuns. Subsequently she promises of MacGregor’s procured rose, “I’ll charm it out of his kilt in no time” and proceeds to do so. In fact, she proves a bane to the bashful “mad Scotsman”, later setting the police on him. She also helps Morton out with the Bell, lending him a pressure gun (“I saw it, in an absolutely super film”).
It’s especially galling then that Morton’s gratitude for all this is to run off with a French pop singer; we can only agree with the sentiment of Annabelle’s lovely posh totty; “After all we’ve been through together. She’ll never look after you when you’re old”.
Even before Morton inveigles himself with said star, it’s evident that he has a roving eye. You wouldn’t be able to seriously call Joking bawdy, but its strongest innuendos are laced into these scenes; his encounter with a pair of breasts through a bookshelf in the library (an obvious gag, but a funny one; he reaches the top shelf, removing a volume only to encounter a man’s bulldog face) to the demand “Hey you! Take those pants off!” (the woman whose washing line Morton stole from has clearly modified her language for American audiences, but it makes the line even more of a double entendre, given our definition of pants). James Robertson Justice, as imperious and disappointed in the human race as ever, cameos as a librarian in this scene, getting in a few shots at Americans having to import titles (the Brits are allowed to be superior, since they lose the competition).
Soon after this, Morton, taking donations of ducks “for the Peace Corps”, happens across a busty housewife (Gwendolyn Watts) alone in her flat. Presaging many a Confessions movie she removes her flimsy nightgown to reveal nowt but a negligee. And then who should turn up but her husband, louche charmer Leslie Phillips; “Hello, ducks. You been at it again?” Yes, the punchline can be seen coming, but you have to admire Hackney for aiming low; “It was only your ducks I wanted” protests Morton, before making a hasty exit. Irene Handl cameos as a neighbour, but then no comedy of the period would be complete without her.
The French pop singer is the Brigitte Bardot-alike Sylvie Tarnet, the one whom everyone in the land is besotted with and whose hair is one of the items on the treasure hunt. Her fan base comprises a great many adult men, from Foskett down (“We get lots of requests all from “nephews”. Sylvie seems to have that effect on them”).
Patricia Verbo, who died in a car crash the year after the picture’s release, is all cute smiles and dimples as Sylvie, and there’s no question of her appeal. For her part, she probably finds Morton a refreshing change from all the uptight Brits she meets every day, and he does an enthusiastic job as her dancing support. She picks up Annabelle’s mantle of aiding him in his quest such that by the final scene Morton is referring to Annabelle as his ex-girlfriend.
Morton is out for himself and has no sense of responsibility towards the (British) armed forces (“If you ever have a war, though, let me know who wins”) so it’s interesting that his indifference comes in a year when the US was significantly escalating its campaign in Vietnam. It also seems entirely appropriate that Morton’s unscrupulous behaviour should be housed beneath a winning charm, and it’s clearly a cynical comment on one level; whether this is more pointedly a judgement on the youth of the day or a reaction to enforced Yankophile casting is unclear, however.
Denholm Elliot furnishes Captain Tabasco, Brigade of Guards, with a wonderfully smooth confidence. He expects the world to come to him, and proceeds to prove it does for the next ninety minutes. Further suggesting that he’s an entitled sort is his regiment, a cushy administrative/ceremonial detail where he can relax and put his feet up. He has evidently seen action at some point (“The army’s up to its old tricks again. Still, it’s better than that campaign in the western desert”) so presumably has even healthier disdain for getting his hands dirty.
Tabasco is entirely indifferent to his task, except in as much as he feels obliged to follow it through with as little personal effort as possible. It should be for lesser mortals (everyone else) to carry out the legwork and his bidding. Chief of these is the devoted Poppy Pennington (Tracy Reed, who also appeared in Casino Royale, Dr. Strangelove, The Avengers and UFO among others). Unlike Morton, Tabasco may engage in enthusiastic debauchery (he comes undone with some suspect oysters, much to the amusement of James Villiers’ put-upon Bill) but he doesn’t desert Poppy (he needs his servants, after all). Elliot can also pull off a cape, which is something of an art.
Tabasco’s relaxed aspect is very funny and very British; he sits drinking tea while waiting for Binky’s helicopter to extract him from the maze and installs himself in the Ritz as soon as he’s on the other side. He calls on an artist friend to make him some ducks, gets his hare delivered on a silver platter (“Yes, it won the second race at Wembley”) and manipulates Bill into lifting the replica Lutine Bell through the promise of carnal indulgence with a couple of beauties once encountered during a weekend in Brighton (he also has some “lovely oysters just for your din-dins”). The extent of the louche Tabasco’s undoing is those bad oysters; he is squared with Mansfield in some respects, just higher on the pecking order, and manipulates the system to his own ends, carrying on without blemish once the escapade is over.
Sergeant Major Sidney McGregor of the Cameron Highlanders (although we’re also told he’s with the 41st), played by the late great Lionel Jeffries, is the real star turn in You Must Be Joking! Jeffries would go on to write and direct a couple of great family films a few years later (The Railway Children, The Amazing Mr Blunden). His most recognised screen roles (aside from Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) are a series of belligerent authority figures, notably hitherto opposite Peter Sellers in Two-Way Stretch and The Wrong Arm of the Law (both with Bernard Cribbins).
McGregor is a classically hamstrung character, his determination and rigour constantly undermined by his encounters, but his staunch set of codes mean that he remains unbowed even in the final frame. He is also a broad Scots stereotype, but played up for lovable eccentricity and (in Jeffries words “comic humanity”). He’s the only competitor who believes in the army, defined by crazily exaggerated standing to attention (he nearly topples backwards, his hips are thrust so far forward and his back so far backwards) and saluting, bellowing deafening orders and responses to same, and possessed of one of the most eccentric running styles ever committed to celluloid.
His cry of “Pogue mahone!” on pole-vaulting over the maze wall and crashing down in a neighbouring greenhouse is, unbeknownst to Jeffries at the time (it became a popular chat show anecdote) Gaelic for “Kiss my arse”. Later, McGregor runs headlong through a plate glass door, before noting “It’s an old commando thing”.
Annabelle: There’s this mad Scotsman chasing me!
McGregor’s nemesis proves to be Annabelle, who procures the rose from his sporran after luring him to a random couple’s residence (one of whom is Arthur Lowe). Jeffries even makes the act of taking a shower (“A wee rinse”) a miniature masterpiece (“Oh, that smarts, that smarts” as he sings The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond). It’s Annabelle who defines McGregor repeatedly as a mad Scotsman and before long everyone’s at it (“There’s a wild Scotsman on the loose”, “He’s wearing a moustache and a blue towel”).
Perhaps McGregor’s most endearing feature is his habit of talking to himself; “Oh Sidney, that’s very lucky” he notes after coming across some scaffolding. “Sidney, this could be a big mistake,” mutters McGregor on being invited aboard plastered Graham Stark’s plane (“Good show, whoever it is”, responds Foskett to the sight of Sidney parachuting to the finish line). His blissful “Quite pleasant actually” as the wind blows up his kilt carries with it the delight of an uptight man letting his mask slip for a moment. Jeffries exaggerated accent gets laughs even at inconsequential lines; startled by disturbed birds, he responds “Bards, just wee bards Frightened the life outta me”.
Mostly, though, McGregor is defined by his resolute failures; “Give me back my flower!” he cries plaintively as Annabelle careers away in her sports car. His apparently crafty plan to retrieve the Lutine Bell from the Thames is memorably curtailed by the realisation that it is low tide, so his procurement of a deep-sea divers suit is to no avail (Morton has fetched it forth earlier); Winner’s use of still frame jump cuts to show this scene is one of his better innovations in the picture, helping to maintain a sprightly, poppy tone.
There’s more poking at McGregor’s nationality when Clive Dunn (playing an old man even here, despite being 45) refers to him as a “foreign gentleman” (“I’ve had dealings with you foreigners before”). His own national pride is highlighted during a moment of wistful absurdity; his eye for the ladies comes to the fore as he notes of Miss Tarnet, “She’s a fine piece, that. A fine piece. Scots blood there alright”.
Clegg: Dig? Me? I’m a married man.
Which leaves only Sergeant Clegg of the Royal Engineers, the man who never gets out of the maze. Well, he does but he ends up right back in it again. Cribbins was at the tail end of his junior sidekick phase at the time (despite being in his late thirties), and Clegg is the epitome of the unimaginative everyman. Being an engineer, he can only think about his captivity in linear fashion. Every breakout is forlorn, whether it’s coming up in Foskett’s bedroom, under Lockwood’s chair or a soldier who has “come across him in the rhododendrons”.
Cribbins’ little man is patronised by his officers (they treat him rather like a poorly pet). Thus Clegg, who has nine kiddies (!), is losing it by the time he digs a tunnel to the finishing line, tripping up McGregor with his spade (Clegg swipes his items). He is understandably petulant when he discovers that all his effort was for nothing (“I said you know what you can do with the army”) before being barked into line by the Scotsman (“Remember you’re a soldier!”) Jeffries and Cribbins have such good chemistry, it’s a shame Cribbins is relegated to his own little plot thread throughout.
The gourmand director delivers his comic set pieces with zip if not exactly panache, from the helicopter escape and the subsequent “fox” hunt (commonly used at the time – and much dated – is the sped-up comedy footage) to the catalogue of disasters that beset the attempts to lift the Lutine Bell. Less overtly humorous are the scenes involving the Miss Tarnet’s press office, with the lines of fake autograph signers and fake hair suppliers.
There’s a sense that Winner and Hackney are taking particular delight in shattering the illusions of a youth industry that is all window dressing; The Cavemen even wear animal skins, so manufactured have pop groups become in the few years since The Beatles arrived. There’s also the competition between autograph signers, an added bizarreness (Damaris Hayman. Miss Hawthorne in Doctor Who’s The Daemons, plays one of the eager signers).
Winner’s scene transitions are continually inventive, from animated cutting to take us to Clegg still beavering away, to keyhole and bell shapes. He also favours the aforementioned fast cutting of still photos, jazzily forwarding the narrative in seconds rather than providing a whole scene. Accompanying this is a hugely enjoyable, playful score from Laurie Johnson (of The Avengers and The Professionals fame). Johnson’s contribution to the irrepressible energy of the picture is vital.
I couldn’t argue You Must Be Joking!’s case objectively (and as titles go Joking’s isn’t the most illustrative or enticing). I know it’s a Michael Winner movie. I know it’s derivative of a well-worn genre. And I know the screenplay isn’t the most finely honed of specimens. I couldn’t even argue that it ends on a satisfying note (Morton really shouldn’t have walked off with the prizes). But it’s one of the most exuberant and satisfying of British comedies, populated by a compendium of comedy performers firing on all cylinders. Sure, I can point to much sharper films – any elements of satire and commentary are incidental, rather than the result of a strong point of view –, but as a whole this a bright, irresistible confection. I’m quite sure many may disagree, but, well, that’s hard cheese.