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Oh, I know a lot of old rhymes.


Ask a Policeman


Will Hay’s studied ineptitude takes aim at the profession of policing this time, resulting in one of his best comedies and arguably his most fruitful teaming with sidekicks Graham Moffatt and Moore Marriott (as invariably happens with their egocentric profession, Hay ended up nixing the arrangement as he felt they were hogging all his attention. Which, when you clock Marriott’s duel performances here, perhaps wasn’t an entirely unreasonable position).

Constable Harbottle: Help, police! 
Sergeant Dudfoot: We are the police.

Ask a Policeman has the dubious distinction – or compliment, depending on how you look at it – of having been remade as Cannon and Ball vehicle, 1983’s The Boys in Blue. It also has in common co-writer Val Guest. He graduated to directing four years after Ask a Policeman and would call the shots of a number of Nigel Kneale big-screen adaptations, as well as The Day the Earth Caught Fire, parts of Casino Royale and… Confessions of a Window Cleaner. The latter makes The Boys in Blue, his final cinema outing, seem rather less regrettable. Notably too, one Sidney Gilliat is another of the credited writers (for story). He should need little introduction, but it’s a reminder of Hay’s profile that the previous year he’d penned The Lady Vanishes for Hitchcock and would become a director himself a few years later.

Hay’s pictures, or a good portion of them, tended to take expert aim at the establishment through casting him as a particularly incompetent member of their ranks; while the rank itself invariably rejects his idiocy, the key feature is that they allowed him in there in the first place. He played a vicar (Dandy Dick), a teacher/headmaster/sham teacher (Boys Will Be Boys, Old Bones of the River, The Ghost of St. Michael’s, The Black Sheep of Whitehall, The Goose Steps out; he was Dr Benjamin Twist in Good Morning, Boys, Convict 99 and Hey! Hey! USA), a lawyer/solicitor (Where There’s a Will, My Learned Friend), a stationmaster (Oh, Mr Porter! – this down to nepotism) and a fire captain (Where’s That Fire?) The only dampener on this would be that, for his WWII efforts, in the spirit of patriotism and propaganda, he’d come out on top in spite of his towering deficiencies.

So here, he is Sergeant Samuel Dudfoot, principle plod of the “sleepy little hamlet” of Turnbotham Round (fnar, indeed). We open on a BBC radio broadcast detailing the hamlet’s remarkable status; it has been ten years, five week and four days since there has been an arrest there, clearly a sign of how Indefatigable Sergeant Dudfoot is, and making it the crime-free envy of all England. Typically, the broadcast proceeds to evidence this is far from the case. 

Sergeant Dudfoot: Don’t you know that’s an offence?
Postman: Yes, and so was your broadcast.

Constables Albert Brown (Moffatt) and Jerry Harbottle (Marriott) arrive with fresh poaches (upon his utterance, “I haven’t seen a poacher since…” Dudfoot sees them at the window). Speeding has to be explained as the doctor on call, and drunks in the distance as choirboys singing. The broadcast is duly cut short (“You know how it is. The BBC always fade out the best items” (a reference to a Hay radio show making room for the PM in 1937. It might also be argued as representative of the BBC’s entirely partial approach to genuine news). Despite this incriminating evidence and the reaction of the local postie (who has been opening police mail, per the above), the Chief Constable (Peter Gawthorne) informs Dudfoot that, due to the negligible crime rate, there will be an investigation to see if the station is necessary, with the likely result of transfer or retirement. Which means “We’ve gotta find some crime, that’s all”.

We’ve already seen this shouldn’t be much of a problem, so rather than getting on with the plot proper, there’s some further preamble as the trio attempt to set up a speed trap. This elicits some delightfully baffling Hay logic as he clocks a motorist (Patrick Aherne) who claims, by Hay’s calculations, he was actually going only 20 mph. “Yeah, but there’s three of us. That makes it 60” comes the response. After which, the motorist admits to having neither licence nor insurance; Dudfoot is forced to let him go, however, as “Well, I can’t endorse your licence if you haven’t got one, can I?

Chief Constable: Good heavens, man. I can’t hit the windscreen with the back of my head.
Constable Harbottle: Oo, maybe you was in reverse?

They then stop an individual who turns out to be the Chief Constable… after they have accused him of speeding, and of being drunk. They’re forced to cosh him unconscious, upon which, Albert points out he wasn’t going fast at all: “Well, fast or slow. It doesn’t matter. The law’s the law”. On rousing him, they attempt to persuade him he drove his car into Harbottle’s store (which Dudfoot did) and that he’s hallucinating. 

The Chief Constable forms the conclusion this is a “den of incompetence”, something we’re forced to concur with when they allow a hulking loon to put a light on the station roof to signal to his brother in the lighthouse – “I’ve lived 60 years, and I’ve never seen a lighthouse” remarks Harbottle, after the fact –  that his poor grandma is still alive (Harbottle keeps bursting into tears over the thought of the poor grandma). That, along with the perpetrators – smugglers! – using the station’s own cellar to store their smuggled goods, lends itself to a rather black scenario for our foolish heroes. Far from staging a smuggle, they now have to catch the smugglers, as the Chief Constable has formed the view they are actually responsible.

Constable Harbottle: I haven’t been out so late since my father got married.
Sergeant Dudfoot: Ay?
Constable Albert Brown: His fourth wife.

Key to the smuggling operation is a ruse worthy of Scooby Doo its- (or his – unless you’re watching Velma, and why would you?) self. Indeed, Ask a Policeman does a sterling job of assembling traditional horror/adventure yarn tropes and undercutting them. There’s a headless horseman riding around the hamlet at night, scaring the living daylights out of anyone who sees him (especially Harbottle). While Dudfoot is no less prone to being petrified by a confrontation with the horseman – Q’s Desmond Llewelyn, no less, not that you’d be able to spot him, for obvious reasons – he does cotton on that something is fishy, on account of their being pursued by the carriage into the grounds of the manor, where it proceeds to enter a garage. He also scoffs at Harbottle’s concern the horseman might ring them up (“If he hasn’t got an ’ed, ’ow’s he going to talk into the phone?”)

Constable Harbottle: When the tide runs love in the devil’s/smuggler’s cove
And the headless horseman is seen above
He drives along with his wild “hello”
Licekty-spit, lickety-spit.

It’s Harbottle, however, who yields some vital information, by way of a clue to the legend – one Dudfoot has never heard of – in the form of a rhyme. Alas, Harbottle cannot remember the crucial last line (curiously, as per above, he recites “devil’s” in the first line, but after that, it’s always “smugglers’”). Which necessitates a highly unlikely visit to his father, also played by Marriott (with some seamless split screen).

Constable Harbottle: Oh, I know a lot of old rhymes.
Sergeant Dudfoot: Yes, I’ll be you do. But it’s not one of those.

We’ve already established that Harbottle, who not unlike Clive Dunn was much younger than he played (he was in his mid-fifties at this point), is very elderly, owing to frequent comments about “You’re ten years older than the pyramids now”. Even the Chief Constable is having none of his professed age of 42 (“Look more like 82 to me”). 

Harbottle Senior: When the tide runs love in the smuggler’s cove
And the headless horseman is seen above
He drives along with his wild “hello”
That’s the time when the smugglers go out in their little boats to the schooner and bring back the kegs of brandy and rum and put ’em in the Devil’s Cove below.

“Daddy” has no trouble remembering the last line, which isn’t so much a line as an essay. As Dudfoot observes:

Sergeant Dudfoot: Is that the rhyme you couldn’t remember?
Constable Harbottle: Yes, that’s right.
Sergeant Dudfoot: Blimey, I’m not surprised.

As noted, Marriott is playing a blinder here, doubtless helped along by some very good lines. The cave only appears at low tide. Harbottle Senior assures him this is so because he’s “been there hundreds of times”. “What for?” asks Dudfoot: “Smugglin’”. To which end, when they later reencounter the man who hanged the light, Harbottle pipes up “Hello. How’s daddy?” There’s also reference to Senior’s ma. Luckily, she’s only his wife: he married again in ’96.

Constable Harbottle: I’m going to climb round, see if I can find any pork pies.

The rest of Ask a Policeman is taken up with an increasingly desperate pursuit of the smugglers (led by Charles Oliver’s Squire), the trio are handcuffed together as they appropriate a milk cart, then a snack van, then a double decker bus (taking on passengers at every traffic lights: “Now they’re on, they can stay on” avers Dudfoot unsympathetically), with the climax taking place on a racetrack. The villains are apprehended, but the trio’s innocence falls on deaf ears – “Arrest the lot of them!” – leading to a sock on the jaw from Dudfoot and a rapid escape on foot (we last see them overtaking back-projected race cars).

Director Marcel Varnel was a fixture of Hay’s pictures until the latter decided he’d rather call the shots himself. He ensures this is effortless, keeping his distance so the performers can do their stuff. Where Ask a Policeman stands out, though, in a manner in common with several of Hay’s other ’40s pictures, is in the script department; it’s an inventive delight. It seems about six minutes went missing over the years (hence the misleading Wiki running time), but it must be said that one of the best things about these comedies is that they’re short, snappy and to the point. And, of course, very funny.

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