Carlton-Browne of the F.O.
aka Man in a Cocked Hat
I’d always mentally grouped this Boulting Brothers’ colonial satire with the best of their comedy output (such as Private’s Progress and I’m All Right Jack), but a belated revisit reveals Carlton-Browne of the F.O. as decidedly second tier, despite the top rank cast. Terry-Thomas’ title character bungles his way through diplomatic duties pertaining to forgotten ex-colony Gaillardia while its new king, Loris (Ian Bannen), proves exceedingly competent at mitigating the isle’s corrupt institutional framework, not least Peter Sellers’ Prime Minister Amphibulos.
In the real world, no revolutionary leader – doubling as a monarch or otherwise – is getting away with calling the shots their way, unless it’s at the express permission of a power, super or otherwise affiliated. Such independent rule appears to be in the offing at the end of Carlton-Browne of the F.O., as Loris, having been side-lined by the British in talks in favour of his uncle, the Grand Duke Alexis (John Le Mesurier, on uncharacteristically imperious form), takes matters into his own cunning hands. The upshot being the Grand Duke is out, as is the Prime Minister (both spending their remaining years in a hotel in Portugal).
Historical Note: The Island of Gaillardia was discovered in 1720 when an English vessel with a cargo of oranges ran into it in the dark. As a result, Great Britain gained a colony, the captain lost his ticket, and the inhabitants lived on marmalade for months.
Great Britain little knew what she was taking on. With two branches of the Royal Family at daggers drawn, war between the North and South had long been the national pastime, and neither side took kindly to interference. After two hundred infuriating years, Great Britain threw in the sponge and, with a sigh of relief, granted the islanders self-government.
Unfortunately, through an oversight, the representative on the spot was not informed, and in 1959, in the best tradition of the Foreign Service, he was still at his post.
Again, in those real-world terms, it’s certainly feasible that an island state’s complete lack of importance could have left it relatively unattended to, but once its strategic and mineral value have been established, one can’t really see anyone laying off long term. The picture’s events kick off after Russians have been sighted on the island, which is located along the 33rd parallel. Per the introductory crawl above, Gaillardia had been returned to the islanders without reluctance, forgetting about Davidson, the Foreign Service rep (“Have we paid him?”; “Not for the last forty years”).
The upshot is that everybody is digging on the island, mostly in the dark about what they are digging for, an effective distillation of Cold War principles, since its perpetuation was, essentially, its purpose. Indeed, it turns out Gaillardia boasts “tremendously large deposits of cobalt” (“It’s what you paint on a hydrogen bomb to get an explosion of 93 GX2”), thus making the backwater suddenly very attractive. Whether Loris is set to feed the fake arms race via such mining is something for a never-made sequel, but it would certainly enable him to attend to all those areas he deems important (“Poverty, no education, no roads, hospitals, nothing”). Most amusing is the FO’s response to the news “we’ve found enough to blow up the entire world”: “That’s terrific. Congratulations”.
As a depiction of political principles or lack thereof, Carlton-Browne of the F.O. is fairly on point. The British show up emphasising their treaty, because irrespective of why the Russians are there, they’re Russians (the American navy is likewise in attendance). When they discover the cobalt deposits are in the South, under the Grand Duke, a hasty switching of allegiance is called for (“We’ve got the wrong half!”), along with the noble arrival of British parachutists to put down the revolution. This falls apart through British incompetence (they attack their own HQ: “Put yourself under arrest”) and the engagement of Loris to his cousin Ilyena (Luciana Paluzzi, perhaps best known as Fiona Volpe in Thunderball; she also appeared in No Time to Die. That’s the 1958 No Time to Die).
Tufton-Slade: What about the king? Is he dependable?
Carlton-Browne: All the evidence points to it, He has his clothes made here.
The UN gets involved at one point, when Loris and Alexis are at loggerheads, and is depicted with the contempt it deserves (a collection of political interests whose decisions are unsurprisingly based on specific partiality at the time); the outcome is a white line painted between North and South (we see this subsequently being scrubbed out over the end credits).
The identity of the king and heir’s assassin is not made explicit (at least, I didn’t catch it if it was), but the Grand Duke probably would probably be a safe bet. While next-in-line Loris is British-educated, as is often the way with the ruling class of foreign powers, he isn’t so reliable (“What? A reigning monarch a member of the Labour Party?”; “He wasn’t fully paid up” comes the weak response). Amphibulous also garners a down vote.“He’s a bit of a politician” says Carlton-Browne, rephrasing after foreign secretary Tufton-Slade (Raymond Huntley) objects that he is a politician: “He’s flexible”. As if to underline the perils of democracy and the electoral process, the Grand Duke observes “You’re the best argument against them, Amphibulos”.
I think I’m right in saying this is Terry-Thomas’ first lead (and it would be a rarity; generally speaking, he’d be at his best as co-lead or part of an ensemble), and in some respects he seems to have taken a part earmarked for Ian Carmichael: that of a bungler, an incompetent but well-meaning upper-class twit. Even his father, previously in the ministry, ponders “Sometimes I wonder what exactly I’ve sired”. Carlton-Browne’s mortified “I shall miss Ascot”, on learning he is to be sent abroad, and consequent “Of course, sir. Please don’t worry about me” in response to Tufton-Slade’s sarcastic rebuke that we all have to make sacrifices, is exactly what you’d expect from Carmichael. His role heading up the Department of Miscellaneous Territories is essentially one where he can do the least harm.
To be entirely fair, though, while Tufton-Slade repeatedly calls Carlton-Browne out for ineptitude, he doesn’t really do an awful lot that’s blithering, certainly compared to everyone else involved (including Tufton-Slade). The always reliable Thorley Walters as Colonel Bellingham accompanies Carlton-Browne to Gaillardia and is relatively more competent, but only relatively. The key is that, in contrast to Carmichael characters, who are all-round clueless, Carlton-Browne isn’t a complete idiot; he’s just isn’t especially capable.
The more salient point is that this doesn’t give Terry-Thomas a great chance to be a stinker or a rotter, meaning his wolfishness only rarely displays itself (“Good show” he comments, entirely tipsy, after witnessing an alluring table dancer showing her wares; Amphibulos has been plying him with a potent local brew called Gruzianos – “Not a drop is drunk until it is three weeks old”). Indeed, the only whiff of the so-superior Terry-Thomas we adore comes when the suitor Carlton-Browne has designated for the Princess asks of the island “Anything to shoot?” Carlton-Browne responds “Only the natives”.
Sellers was in the cinematic nascent at this point, but it would be I’m All Right Jack, also for the Boultings, five months later that really announced him as landed. Amphibulos is a decent sketch, a sweaty, overweight fixer whose entire family are in the cabinet, but he isn’t a classic character (Sellers would reunite with one or both brothers for Heavens Above! There’s a Girl in My Soup and Soft Beds, Hard Battles).
The likes of Huntley and Malleson offer their tried-and-tested types, and Huntley’s particularly withering throughout. Also to be seen are Nicholas Parsons, Kenneth Griffith and Irene Handl, the latter on great form in a classic scene in miniature where a reporter asks her a string of questions beginning “What do you think of the Cold War?” and she replies with consistent absence of viewpoint (“Well, I don’t really know… Well, I couldn’t say… Well, I hadn’t really thought about it”). The reporter summarises that this gives us an insight into “What’s in the mind of the British housewife today”. That’s right, Carlton-Browne of the F.O. doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of topping the Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll.
That scene reflects Carlton-Browne of the F.O. generally, though; it musters sporadic engagement and wit, but it doesn’t sparkle throughout in its satire. Bannen’s an interesting choice for romantic lead, given his later career. On that score he does a serviceable job, but he’s very much the straight man (when he collapses into a stage, it lacks the flair Carmichael would have brought). The fanfare laid on for Carlton-Browne’s arrival, with the troops passing out progressively, is probably the scene everyone remembers, but others emphasising the funnies tend to go on a bit, such as the Morris Dancing troupe (prior to the bomb), and the parade that descends into fisticuffs between girls on bikes (the saluting mummies on stretchers raises a smile, though).
Still, the honours bestowed on Carlton-Browne for mucking up – The Star of Gaillardia, Third Class, and a knighthood for services to world peace and being a triumph of British diplomacy following being blown up when kicking a booby-trapped football, – seem like just the sort of thing you’d get from Yes, Minister. The various newspaper headlines, amid Cold War panic, also raise a smile, with the Daily Express explaining “One-Minute Guide to Gaillardia. What it is. Where it is. Why it is” and the Daily Mirror’s even less cerebral “Don’t Look Now But OI, boy A Vital (41-24-39) Gaillardia BEAUTY”.
Also of note, how the look passed between Carlton-Browne and Bellingham regarding Davidson informing them he sent a Message to St Petersburg – which was last called by that name in 1924 – would be lost on anyone unaware of its tenure as Leningrad. On the history point, it’s notable that the date of Gaillardia’s discovery by civilisation should be bang on that of “mudflood” and the enforcement on us all of rewritten history, religion and pretty much anything you care to mention. It’s curious too that 1959 also saw the release of The Mouse that Roared, also starring Sellers, in which a forgotten European principality should make its presence felt, almost as if we were being prodded to take note of forgotten history.
BFI’s Tony Whitehead noted that Monthly Film Bulletin didn’t think much of Carlton-Browne of the F.O. at the time (invidious and uncomfortable were adjectives used). Variety’s suggestion that “the comedy tends to get out of hand and, at times, develops merely into a series of not totally relevant sketches” is fairer. Good show, but not great one.