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Is he one of those ghastly time and motion people?

Movie

The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer
(1970)

 

Reviews of The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer tend to focus on it as the beginning and end of Peter Cook’s big-screen leading-man career, so terrible is his performance (it seems even co-writer and featured performer John Cleese piled on). While the satire isn’t, at times, playing to Cook’s strengths as a performer, his one-note, insincerely matter-of-fact delivery works where it works and doesn’t where it doesn’t (Michael Rimmer isn’t a character – which is fine, as Cook couldn’t play characters, only comic creations – but neither is he big enough to fill a protagonist/antagonist part). The greater problem is just how piecemeal and hit-and-miss the screenplay is (from Cook, Cleese, Graham Chapman and director Kevin Billington). It pursues numerous different threads but struggles to string them together into a grand design. And yet, the picture is peculiarly compelling, belying its reputation as dud from Pete.

Michael Rimmer: Rimmer, sir. Coordination. Please carry on.

The random quality can be accounted for by its origins. Cleese and Chapman, having “no idea what we were doing”, scrawled a whole lot of ideas down, such that their sketches in search of a script were then “refined” by Cook and Billington. Ostensibly, The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer is a political satire, but it lacks the pointed precision of (say) House of Cards. The original, that is. 

On the commentary track, Billington acknowledged the influence of the Oxbridge satire boom and treasured the memories of working with Cook and Cleese; he pronounced that the “two of them were geniuses”, albeit Chapman had remained something of a mystery to him. Cook, in particular, could “go into a great riff on anything” (Cleese tended to be more serious-minded and analytical. He noted this was after Beyond the Fringe, before Monty Python). The Cleese & Chapman draft was very long, and Billington’s job was to structure it and make it like a film (he readily admitted it was open to debate whether he succeeded). Billington also recalled the presence of Dudley Moore at lunches – the location Budleigh Moor is the closest he comes to appearing in the movie – and how Cook treated him in the same manner as in their “Pete and Dud” sketches; Billington could have made a packet if he’d recorded them riffing.

Rimmer starts out as an efficiency expert – “one of those ghastly time and motion people” – at a broken-backed ad agency owned by Fairburn (Dennis Price) and “run” by Ferret (Arthur Lowe); the latter is much more seized by the test-match scores and Valerie Leon’s breastage (and knickers) than anything remotely competent. In time-honoured fashion, the mysterious Rimmer wastes no time in scaling the ladder of influence and success, effortless finishing the movie as President of the UK (that’s right) and de facto dictator.

While the ascendency from ad agency to prime minister is germane, Billington and Cook are unable to make that path seem anything but halting; in early scenes, John Cameron’s score offers a welcome sense of pace and movement – much as the otherwise inert The Magic Christian did whenever Come and Get It piped up – but it largely falls by the wayside. Rimmer’s cunning is casual, rather than engrossingly ingenious, so the picture rather strands itself on a stop-start sketch format. 

Michael Rimmer: I’m sorry about all the unpleasantness. Why don’t you take the afternoon off?

That scattershot approach yields various vignettes. Ferret is kept around by Fairburn, rather than fired, to work off the debt he has put the company in; it’s that or prison (er, really? What precisely would he be charged with?) Cleese pops up doing the tango; he’s an employee of the firm and is last seen attempting to put a spanner in the works of Ronnie Corbet’s attempts to poll Nuneaton residents on their religious attitudes. The results reveal that Nuneaton comprises 42 percent practicing Buddhists. 22 percent Mohammedans, 18 percent Church of England and 9 percent worshippers of the Great White Ram; the objective has been to bring down a rival agency (one of its employees Peter Niss – Denholm Elliott – immediately hitching his horse to Rimmer’s wagon).

Michael Rimmer: You see, 73 percent of the population find it very difficult to believe in him.
Bishop of Cowley: Well, I do think that doubt is a terribly important part of belief.

The religious angle comes up again in a conversation with Graham Crowden’s Bishop of Cowley; Rimmer tells him God is keeping the people away from church, as three-quarters of the population find it very difficult to believe in him: “Fade out the God part, get better attendances?” asks the Bishop. “Worth thinking about” advises Rimmer. This is fertile ground – as Life of Brian would prove – but it’s somewhat tangential, as is the early material on surveying the sexual habits of the British (complete with Diana Coupland’s randy housewife Mrs Spimm inviting James Cossins’ poller in for a bit of “research”); there’s a mock-up humbug advert in which Monika Ringwald – of a fair few ’70s sexploitation pictures – finds herself in the throes of ecstasy as she pops a tube of Scorpios humbugs (all very phallic). The purpose savvily being to make a virtue of the public’s dislike of the sweet’s taste and hardness.

While such elements can justify spin’s taste-and-trend-making aspect, they encourage the idea that Cleese and Chapman were just throwing whatever came to mind at the time at the wall, based on “What are the issues of the age?” rather than – as Billington notes – “What story are we trying to tell here?”. Other angles veer into the territory of the Pasteurian virus swizz, as a plan to use germ warfare to steal the Swiss’ gold reserves – the Swiss are subject to characteristic derision: “What self-respecting nation can go for 500 years without a war?” – by unleashing such beauties as Elephantiasis and Union Jackalie (a highly concentrated form of the English common cold). This plan is, subtly, called Operation Cuckoo. Once nicked, the gold will then be announced as located in “vast North Sea gold fields” (not quite the lofty peaks of satire there, gents).

Michael Rimmer: That’s all we need. Thanks to our film department, we have the finest deterrent force in the world.

The arms race floats the idea of entirely make-believe deterrents, which rather fits the nuke-hoax theory like a glove, as Rimmer reveals that mighty new weapons the hover bomb, the giant new Caligula missile and the nuclear-powered vector weasel are “Just models” (but will save £1 billion and be just as effective as the real thing, in the deterrent stakes). It’s entirely germane to the theme of the picture, of selling a lie, but it adds to the feeling Cook et al are hoovering up anything that takes their fancy at whichever juncture they thought of it.  

Is this a specifically focussed piece, taking the piss out George A Cooper’s Harold Wilson-alike Blacket (consulting the tarot over his prospects) and Enoch Powell-alike Sir Eric Bentley (Ronald Culver)? When it suits Cook, sure. Powell is furnished an outright reference when a poor woman “ruthlessly prodded by blacks” – immigrants – who have trapped her in a toilet, is forced to use a photo of Powell as loo roll.  In Sir Eric’s case encouraging his expressing his real views provides an opportunity to sack him, so as to show off leader of the opposition Tom Hutchinson (Ronald Fraser) as a man of principle while still giving the impression “that we are tougher on immigration than the socialists” (“Well, I don’t see how we can be tougher than the Labour Party. We can’t let in less than zero”). Wilting (Dan Dare’s Digby-alike Richard Pearson) is affronted at Sir Eric’s “racialism” and threatens to speak out, so Rimmer arranges for Zakes Mokae to beat him after greeting him with “Hello, Whitey”; in an otherwise entirely white line-up, Wilting has no choice but to pick him out and so appear “racialist” himself (“I couldn’t swear to it, but it might just possibly be the one in the green shirt”).

In the Hegelian sense, Rimmer is simply the manipulator, rather than the instigator, then, but he’s fully aware its problems that keep the nation turning. In fact, that notional sides have very little importance at all. When Hutchinson storms to victory – after Blackett recklessly follows Rimmer’s advice and crashes and burns – and the mess left by the socialists is noted as “disastrous”, Rimmer recommends honouring election pledges to reduced taxes and raise old-age pensions, which meets with blanket refusal (“Nobody expects that of us. No, the normal routine is to say that we are all staggered and horrified and then blame it all on the last lot!”) Consequently, Rimmer suggests they do nothing for a couple of weeks but “create the impression of some activity”. This sort of thing veers much closer to the arch knowingness of the later Yes, Minister.

Michael Rimmer: Well, I’ve never really thought of myself as a socialist.
Prime Minister: Well, I can’t see why that would be an impediment. We’re not bound by dogma.

No one in the parties stands by principles (above), and Rimmer’s strategic manoeuvres are very House of Cards in their sociopathy. He has the goods on Teddy Mandeville (Michael Trubshawe) – photos of bondage kinks – so Teddy’s on the hook to do whatever bidding he has in mind, once Rimmer comes to power (“Above all, Teddy’s a deeply human man”). He doesn’t care that Niss is after his wife Patricia (Vanessa Howard), who is strictly a trophy, because he knows Niss’ ambitions will keep him on side. As with Francis Urquhart, it’s an assassination that assures Rimmer the top slot; even captured on film and played in slow motion on TV, the story that he was trying to save the PM, rather than push him in the drink, is supported. 

And, once in power, Rimmer offers the winning salve of true democracy, announcing every major issue will be voted for by referendum; the public are soon so sick of being asked to confirm their say, such that “No more polls” becomes the rallying cry. There are demonstrations against the “new democracy”. Rimmer promises one last referendum, admitting his “experiment in participatory democracy seems to have run into some difficulties”, suggesting instead a more streamlined presidential government. Wilting objects to this dictatorship: “90 percent of population are idiots!” And so, naturally, “82% say yes” (Rimmer has also decreed all polling should be handled by the National Poll Board – to ensure “honest” polling). Some have compared this tactical craftiness to Brexit, presumably implying the public are stupid and therefore can’t be trusted with a referendum (rather than acknowledging the idiots are nevertheless too smart to trust the European Union).

But in terms of reach, The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer undoubtedly deserves credit for predicting the Tory victory over Wilson (the film was made in 1969 but released six months after the unexpected June 1970 election). It was indeed a surprise victory. Billington suggested “Wilson thought he was controlling things, but nothing to the years since”. He also commented that, as a man who became a cabinet minister at 26 – actually at 31 – he was far from the man of the people he liked to portray. Edward Heath became the new Conservative leader – don’t ask about his visits to Jersey, Haut de la Garenne children’s home and Jimmy Savile. Or do – and was mandated to join the Common Market (which gets a mention). Powell’s importance was variously described as significant and dismissed outright, in terms of winning votes. Crucially, with regard to the movie itself and the spin side, The Times noted it was an election when “the people of the United Kingdom hurled the findings of the opinion polls back into the faces of the pollsters” (one might also compare Wilson nearly drowning in 1973 to Hutchinson actually drowning in The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer).

Michael Rimmer: I loved your speech on abortion. It was really gorgeous.

So Bilington’s take was that, while someone like Teddy, with his peccadilloes, was designed to echo John Profumo and the Duchess of Argylle (ie the masked man), it was also way ahead on the spin front. In this respect, the David Frost factor is crucial. Not in political terms, but “the way he was able to use the media”; he was a master of it. Billington quotes Malcolm’s wife Kitty Muggeridge on how Frost “rose without trace”, a phrase also used to describe Rimmer; Cook used Frost mannerisms and phrases (“Super”) but insisted it was not a piss take of Frost. Lest one consider that Frost, as producer (under the pseudonym David Paradine), might have objected to such jibes, Billington stated they were allowed to do what they wanted; Frost was flying all over, while Warner Bros was also distracted, going through a tumultuous time internally. 

Cleese may have criticised Cook’s performance (it’s okay: Cook did too), but the Python is a fairly nondescript presence, despite having a bigger role than Chapman. Many commentators have noted the similarities between the saturnine Michael Rimmer and Cook’s earlier George Spiggot, the devil himself in Bedazzled, and anyone who has seen that film will surely reach a similar conclusion. Perhaps if Cook had (secretly) decided he was playing Spiggot again, his performance would have been more successful, more playful and poised. There’s an air of casual indifference to Rimmer that works in terms of his unruffled aloofness but is much less so when it comes to the various poses required of him (be it talk show earnestness or wooing a romantic partner). 

This is also partly down to the script and Billington, however; the division between Cook being slightly off in his choices and entirely on point is actually a slim one, despite Cleese’s naysaying. Rimmer has been compared to Tony Blair for his lack of principles, but there’s none of the fake obsequiousness to Rimmer. Rimmer’s entirely unapologetic, and in the final sequence – a Kennedy assassination riff in which both Ferret and Wilting kill each other attempting to kill the President, leading Rimmer to look at the camera, Machiavelli-like, as if he planned even that – the effect is closer to Spiggot than it is Urquhart (in support of Cook, it’s also worth noting that the catalogue of thesps involved all acquit themselves honourably, and that Pete never seems out of place next to a Denholm or Dennis. Howard’s a surprisingly full-bodied presence, meanwhile, but then, the movie is clearly attempting to attract attention in any way it can).

Billington said the movie’s look – the DP was Alex Thomson, later of Excalibur, Eureka and Legend – was “all surface, and the presentation of the film had to reflect it”. So again, the pitch of Cook’s performance was exactly as intended; the error may be that, cumulatively, you get something that’s rather hollow. Billington said, due to regime chance at Warner Bros, The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer was not understood, and the release reflected this; he wasn’t privy to the reasons for its delay, but per Wiki, it was held back to avoid controversy (except that, if the Tories were expected to hold the election in November 1970 and Wilson wanted to call it pre-decimalisation, it could feasibly have sat on the shelf for several years). 

Steven Hench: Anyone else here from Doncaster?

Also per Wiki, some of the gags are slightly vulgar, matching the wavering tone – there’s both supreme smarts and abject gutterism here – such as the name Rimmer alluding to analingus and Steven Hench [Harold Pinter] is Talking To You being an acronym for “SHITTY”. In publicity rounds, Billington joked it was the British Z, but Sight and Sound didn’t get it. He suggested there a snobbery towards TV transitioning to film was reflected in its frosty reception.

The broader problem might be that a number of the comedic transitions from the more junior medium occurring around then weren’t successful films because they were, essentially,  strung-together, slack-jawed sketches, from The Bedsitting Room to The Magic Christian. If it had been a little more refined in purpose, The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer would likely have attained the status of a forgotten classic rather than merely a cult curio. Even with Cook’s performance!

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