Written and directed by Eric Sykes
Why Did I Get This?
I’m pretty sure I picked this one up as part of a fundraising sale at an old job – the offices always had a load of old books, CDs and DVDs knocking around, and every once in a while (when we needed new shelf space), they’d all go onto a table in the middle of the room with an honesty box and the proceeds would be given to charity.
Since I bought it (some time in the last five to 15 years), this has never been out of its case, but I’m not even sure why I got it in the first place.
I’m a fan of some old British comedy, always found Eric Sykes an interesting fella, and it wasn’t until reading the case ahead of my first viewing I realised these were both 28-minute silent features (well, more or less silent, but we’ll get to that). Naturally, I love a bit of old-fashioned silent comedy too, so fingers crossed these raise a few chuckles.
NOTE: I’d normally put a trailer for the film here, but it appears both Rhubarb Rhubarb and Mr H Is Late are both available to watch in full on YouTube, so feel free to head over there and check them out.
Late Review – Rhubarb Rhubarb
Eric Sykes plays police Inspector Rhubarb, who cheats his way round a game of golf with his Vicar friend (Bob Todd), with assistance from his Constable (Jimmy Edwards, with a terrific sideburn/moustache combo that you just don’t see on the force these days).
Teeing off (sorry!), with Sykes practicing his short game in his office before chipping a golf ball through a window into the street, the first thing I noticed was the laugh track – I’m not sure why, but I wasn’t expecting it. I also wouldn’t expect a keen golfer to be practicing his putting with an iron, but that seemed to be what Rhubarb was doing – genuinely not sure if that’s an intentional gag or not, but there we are.
There’s a nice gag as he accuses a boy (played by Nicholas Bond-Owen), of breaking the window his ball just smashed, only for the boy to mime that the ball struck him in the street below, and he’s sent on his way.
From there, we go to a Vicar leading a sermon in church who then, while reciting “rhubarb, rhubarb” to the service, allows his spirit to leave his body, nip into the vestry and change into golf gear before heading to the course to meet Sykes for a match.
We basically follow Eric Sykes and what I can only assume is the astral projection of Bob Todd as they make their way round the course, with the inspector doing all he can to put off the vicar, his constable sneakily assisting by lobbing balls out from the rough back onto the fairway, and the vicar summoning divine intervention to improve his shots.
Yes, in this universe, God is real, and he’s got plenty of time to help a vicar make an impossible putt during a friendly game of golf. He also likes to cast up massive winds or magically move wooden sheds for a second to prevent the Inspector from taking his shots and help the man of the cloth to win.
He really does move in mysterious ways, going so far as to help the vicar walk on water (a favourite trick of His son, of course), but strikes him down with a lightning bolt when a crowd of passers-by (who have all been infuriated by the golfers for various reasons), see him cheating.
These passers-by, it should be noted, include Roy Kinnear as an angry man who lives next to the course and had a window smashed by Sykes’ ball, Beryl Reid as his wife, Hattie Jacques as a nanny who ends up pulling a golf trolley instead of a pushchair in an ‘hilarious’ moment, Charlie Drake as the club pro and April Walker as his pupil (or, rather, an attractive distraction for the Inspector, who keeps picturing her wearing less than she is).
I mean, it’s certainly dated – not least in its treatment of women, though certainly in that area too – so it wasn’t a surprise to learn Rhubarb Rhubarb is actually a remake of Sykes’ own 1969 37-minute film Rhubarb, starring himself as the Inspector, Harry Secombe as the Vicar, Jimmy Edwards as the Constable and also featuring Hattie Jacques.
It’s unclear exactly why it was remade, to be honest, but if anyone has any idea, feel free to let me know – I’d assume it’s potentially to do with being able to broadcast it more freely on the TV in the eighties, but potentially some of the technical sight gags would have been easier to achieve a decade or so down the line? I suppose some might say this is the British silent comedy equivalent of George Lucas tinkering with his Special Editions, or Hitchcock remaking The Man Who Knew Too Much, but those people might be overthinking it.
Oh, and the big reveal at the end is that the whole thing took place in the Vicar’s mind – after he explodes, Bob Todd returns to his corporeal shell and is revealed to be marrying Sykes and Walker as the rest of the characters who appear in the film sit in the pews in their Sunday bests.
Late Review – Mr H Is Late
Eric Sykes leads a team of undertakers who must collect a coffin from a high-rise tower block and transport it to the church where the funeral will take place, but from the second the hearse pulls up outside the block of flats, everything starts to go wrong.
Try to imagine The Raid or Dredd, only instead of a one-man murder machine fighting his way to the top of a tower block, you’ve got five men in black suits and bowler hats basically tripping over a lot and having misadventures with a coffin on a stairwell. That’s pretty much the first half of Mr H Is Late. Well, that or the “PIVOT!” scene from Friends but silent and more smartly dressed.
We start with a bit of physical business as the undertakers get out of the car and encounter a traffic warden writing a ticket for an upright piano in the street (Jimmy Edwards again), then watch a bagpiper (Roy Kinnear, again!), take a swig from a hipflask before leading the empty hearse round the block to avoid getting a ticket while the casket is collected.
There’s humour to be had by putting too many people in a cramped space on a solemn occasion and giving them a Sisyphean task, and Sykes and the gang wring it for all they can, with plenty of gurning, grimacing and adjusting of ties and hats that Laurel and Hardy would be proud of – though I think it’s fair to say their interpretation of ‘suited lads get a heavy wooden object up some stairs’ beats this one hands down.
Naturally, the coffin goes down a few flights of stairs along with the grieving family, before the men think about taking it up to the roof to make use of the window cleaner’s pulley system to lower it down the outside of the building (which for some reason carries the piano to the roof too), and there’s a good gag as the piano hurtles down the stairwell after Sykes, before emerging into the street with the widow (Kathy Staff), riding atop it.
Lots more familiar faces from the British comedy scene here too, with Spike Milligan (in a baffling cameo as a simple, happy street sweeper), Freddie Starr (giving it his best Norman Wisdom), Bob Todd (again!), Sylvia Sims, Paul Shane (who gets one of the best visual gags involving a peephole), Norman Collier, Charlie Drake and Cannon and Ball all making appearances.
In fairness, despite expecting this to be a bit of a hokey collection of gags with the odd bit of misogyny thrown in, I found myself laughing out loud a few times – Paul Shane’s peephole gag, Freddie Starr surreptitiously measuring up a colleague who looks unwell, Bobby Ball drenched and angry, and an incident with a low bridge all got a chuckle out of me.
Naturally, chaos ensues. The coffin is lost, found, dropped on top of a lorry, heavily damaged, drenched by an unrelenting downpour, but eventually makes it to the church along with the now-bedraggled team of undertakers, having delayed numerous other services, and interrupting the wedding of Rula Lenska and Dennis Waterman (because of course it does), while the parking warden – having survived being buried in sand – gives every car in the street a ticket.
The final shot sees the grieving wife and daughter (Kathy Staff and Gabrielle Drake), return to their flat after an emotionally exhausting day, only to realise Mr H wasn’t in the coffin, and is still lying in state on his marital bed.
If Rhubarb Rhubarb’s twist ending wasn’t enough for you, then this one is practically Shyamalan-esque.
As mentioned earlier, elements of these shorts have not aged well. The women in each film are either stern, matronly caricatures or saucy postcard fantasy figures whose sole purpose is to distract the lecherous men from their tasks.
Even putting that aside, the debt owed to The Music Box by Mr H Is Late is enormous, and while Sykes and the cast do well with the sets and limited budget, I’d return to Laurel and Hardy over this one any day.
That being said, there are some strong gags here, and each film is an enjoyably old-fashioned way to pass a half hour. As someone who grew up when Mr Bean was drawing decent viewing figures, I had no idea these were forerunners of Rowan Atkinson’s creation, so it’s nice to see the influence down the line.
They feel like something I might once have watched with a grandparent, but will I watch either of them again? I dunno, but I won’t write it off – certainly, from a technical point of view, I want to see Rhubarb Rhubarb again to see if I can work out how they pulled off one or two of the practical effects on the putting green, but honestly, I’m not in that much of a rush.
Entertaining enough to enjoy with a cup of tea on a rainy afternoon and spot some once-famous faces though, and the sort of episodes I could easily see becoming fan favourites if Talking Pictures TV managed to get the rights to them.