Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Sandwich Man (1966)


Intended as an all-star comedy extravaganza, The Sandwich Man was very poorly received upon its original release.  After a couple of TV screenings in the seventies it vanished from sight until a 2008 DVD release and, more recently, its addition to the regular rotation on Talking Pictures TV.  Seen again now, it isn't difficult to see why the film was considered such a disappointment in 1966, but is also difficult not to feel affection for the portrait of a long disappeared London that it paints.  Charting a day in the life of the eponymous 'Sandwich Man', Horace Quigley, played by Michael Bentine, the film takes us on a meandering journey through London, from docklands (back in the days when working class people lived there in terraced houses) to West End, taking in various landmarks and venues.  Along the way Quigley encounters various characters (all played by well known at the time British comics and character actors) and observes various comic vignettes.

Underpinning it all are two subplots.  One about Quigley's favourite pigeon's progress in a race from Bourdeaux to London dictates much of his route as he goes from phone to phone, awaiting news about the pigeon from his neighbour, who is watching Quigley's coop for him.  The other involves Quigley's attempts to bring together a model Sue (Suzy Kendall) and her boyfriend Steve (David Buck), who have fallen out over Steve's suspicion that model Sue is having an affair with her photographer (Bernard Cribbins).  Although these two elements should give the film some kind of structure and coherence, it stubbornly remains a directionless series of episodes, which often feel as if they've been strung together at random.  This lack of narrative drive fatally undermines the film, robbing it of pace and purpose, making it difficult to for the viewer either to fully engage with the characters or really care what is happening.

None of this would matter so much if any of the various episodes were either particularly funny or original.  Sadly, they are all too predictable:  as soon as we see that lawn mower in the park, for instance, we just know that it is going to run amok and as soon as we see the overloaded Mini-Moke driven by scoutmaster Terry-Thomas, we know that it is inevitable that there's going to be some conflagration involving the vehicle and Ian Hendy's motorcycle cop.  Frequently, they promise to build up to some kind of wild and zany conclusion, but instead just peter out.  All of which is hugely frustrating for the audience, bearing in mind star and co-writer Bentine's reputation for anarchic and surreal humour, as seen in TV series like It's a Square World and Potty Time, not to mention his tenure on the Goon Show in its early days.  Here, though, his humour just never takes off - even the climax, which is clearly meant to be a huge slapstick comedy set piece, falls flat.  Part of the problem lies in the fact that the main characters, particularly Quigley, are never participants in these vignettes, which are instead played out by characters we've only just met and therefore have no emotional investment in.

Which isn't to say that The Sandwich Man is a dead loss.  On the contrary it is, on a technical level, a very well made film, superbly photographed in colour by co-producer and cinematographer Peter Newbrook, who makes the most of the London locations.  Some of Robert Hartford-Davis' direction is pretty stylish: in particular a sequence where two housewives (Diana Dors and Anna Quayle) argue the merits of rival TV doctors (Dr Kildare and Ben Casey) whilst walking through Billingsgate fish market, their descriptions of the various operations depicted in the respective series inter cut with fish being gutted on the slabs.  Interestingly, the film also embraces the multi-culturalism of post-war London, with the opening sequence introducing Quigley's neighbours as they leave for work - a pair of Sikh jazz musicians, an Egyptian carpet salesman and a Chinese ice cream vendor (who sells Italian ice cream from his van).  The point is somewhat undermined, however, by the fact that they are all played by white actors blacked up, (except the Chinese ice cream man who is, of course, played by Burt Kwouk), with Bentine himself appearing later as an Indian club owner.  But this was par for the course at the time in British film and TV and, although the usual racial and cultural stereotyping is present, it is all relatively benign and free of the more obvious racial prejudices which were often on display in pop culture of the era.

As mentioned before, the film captures a moment in time: a summer's day in sixties London.  Everything about it - the cars, the fashions, the advertising hoardings - reminds us of how much has changed since the film was made, whilst the various landmarks remind us of how much has remained constant.  The Sandwich Man was part of the eclectic output of bargain basement independent producers Titan, who are today probably best remembered for the horror movie Corruption and who, infamously, finally went out of business part way through production of another horror flick, Incense for the Damned, (the footage from which was eventually bought by a distributor and edited into a barely coherent feature).  Before that, they made another star comedy, Press For Time, for Norman Wisdom, who also guests in The Sandwich Man.

 Although The Sandwich Man largely fails as a comedy, it still holds many other sources of entertainment for the modern viewer and is well worth watching.  Not least, it provides Michael Bentine, who, I suspect, is largely unknown to contemporary audiences, with a rare leading role.  Whilst not typical of his usual characterisations or humour, his widowed Horace Quigley remains an engaging and likeable character as he wanders his way through sixties London, trying to fill the gap left in his life by his wife's death lving vicariously through eccentrics he encounters, his activities as the honourary secretary of the sandwich board men's union and his pigeons..  

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