The Black Sheep of Whitehall
Propaganda movies never die – lockdown flicks enjoining masked subservience have been just the latest incarnation – but at least a few have exhibited a healthy, anarchic irreverence amid whichever cause they were espousing. In this case, the war effort, and what could be better fodder for the impressionable masses (because no one – well very few – would cast doubt on its legitimacy)? The Black Sheep of Whitehall finds Will Hay’s “incompetent authority figure” – © Wiki – foiling a Nazi plot, with the help of dinky little John Mills.
Sister Spooner: Do you do much work with outpatients?
Davis: No, always with.
Mills, in his second appearance alongside Hay (after 1934’s Those Were the Days), is fine when he’s called upon for straight-man heroics, but he stinks the place out when he tries to be funny. As he does during a third-act amnesia interlude; his Bobby Jessop feigns having lost his memory and pulls a lot of funny faces. Popping up too are Thora Hird, Kenneth Griffith and Katie Johnson (of The Ladykillers fame, as a train passenger). The Black Sheep of Whitehall was also Basil Dearden’s cinema debut, co-helming with Hay (also his debut as a director).
The plot finds Hay’s Professor Davis, Dean of Harrow Correspondence College, embroiled in a kidnapping plot on the part of the dastardly Hun; Mills’ Ministry of International Commerce man opts not to pay his Harrow tuition fees (the lessons are lousy) and Davis shows up at Whitehall attempting to extract them. Promised a job as compensation, Professor Davis is then mistaken for Professor Davys (Henry Hewitt), who has just been grabbed the aforementioned Hun. The ensuing shenanigans provide ample opportunity for Hay to dress up and involve himself in delirious daftness.
Davis: I’ve never heard from the BBC in my life.
First off the bat, Davis, as Davys, is called to a gathering of journalists. There, he fields press questions confidently and casually, as only one armed with an abundance of ignorance could (gems include invoking Old Moore’s Almanac to predict future events and bicarbonate of soda to beat inflation). He follows this up with a BBC interview on the subject of economics, and reveals the Corporation to be a bunch of morons (“Can you tell us what economics is?”; “What economics are” he corrects). Let loose, he advises on imports (Brazil nuts and Portuguese port) and exports and (salts from Epsom). In his element, the interviewer having long since given up, Davis then announces “I’ve got a very good tip for you” before touting his business on air.
Davis: I shouldn’t think he’s got any principles if he’s a German.
Mills is quickly on to the impostor status of the actual impostor Davys at the BBC (“Crabtree doesn’t sound like a German name to me” of his real name) and sends Hay, moustachioed and under the guise of Inspector Thorleigh of Scotland Yard, to “warn” Davys/ Crabtree (Felix Aylmer) of a kidnapping plot. Further doggedness sees Davis donning a gasmask (“I’ve got to wear this one hour a day”) in order to get the lowdown on Crabtree’s covert conversation with Costello (Basil Sydney). Hoovering in a gasmask: whoever was responsible for the sound design (Eric Williams) deserved an Oscar, or BAFTA, as Davis makes an inspired honking, snorking noise every time he inhales.
Davis: He’s taken an old lady to the parcels office, and he’s pasting labels all over her.
On the track of a fifth column at Clairmont Nursing Home, Davis then poses as a ticket inspector, and then – naturally – dons drag as a nurse (with Mills as his amnesiac patient). It “Happened during the blackout”; “He was in the park one night and he forgot himself”.
Sister Spooner: I went into the maternity ward. I had sixteen children in two weeks, until I passed out.
Davis: I’m not surprised.
“What a strange woman you are” Sister Spooner (Barbara Valerie) tells Davis, having offered to share quarters for the night and witnessed his peculiar method of undressing. Dr Innsbach (Frank Celliera also The 39 Steps and Cottage to Let), like all doctors, is crazy keen to pump his patient full of drugs (“We shall soon settle the sleep problem, with a hypodermic!”: a fake jab ensues, common among celebs). And like all doctors, he’s keen to see them cut open (“Evidently, there’s some pressure on the brain. I shall operate to release that pressure”). A needle up the bum provides an effective solution to his activities.
Davis: Now I know why they call this a bath chair.
Proceedings culminate in a madcap chase, with the real Davys rescued but strapped into a bath chair trailing Davis and Jessop’s car. They have to reach London before Crabtree can wreck the Anglo-South American pact; Davis has cunningly bought them time, calling on some cohorts to play region-appropriate national anthems outside the conference room until they get there (“Viva Venezuela!” announces one of the delegates, the necessity of standing respectfully to attention ensuring they fail to sign the pact). En route, chickens, pigs, ducks, mud and water end up all over Davis (now in the bath chair). For his troubles, he is rewarded with a ministry job: air raid warden on the roof.
Butcher’s Boy: Oy, how am I going to get the grit out of my liver?
Hay would only work another year after this, health issues of various orders intruding on his life (he died in 1949). Despite having ditched Moore and Marriot (whom he considered stole his thunder somewhat), his last few pictures were good ’uns. The Black Sheep of Whitehall is also blessed with being brief and punchy, barely wasting a moment. Hay’s very underrated, but if you’re reading this, you probably know that, and if you don’t, and you’re aren’t, you’re likely blissfully ignorant he even existed.
First published by Now in Full Color on 09/02/22.