When it’s on: Saturday, 28 February (6.15 am)
In School for Scoundrels, Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael) regards himself as a failure. He’s overlooked for tennis matches at his club. The chief clerk at the office he manages patronises him; the staff treat him with total derision. Having run to catch up with the bus he’s missed, he accidentally barges into the lovely April Smith (Janette Scott) and asks her out for dinner, only to find his reservation at the posh restaurant has been overlooked. He goes to buy a car to impress April and winds up being sold an ancient banger by two sharks who see him coming from a mile away. Worst of all, he’s treated like a chump by rival Raymond Delauney (Terry Thomas), who charms April away from him and then thrashes him on the tennis court.
What else is a chap to do but enrol at the College of Lifemanship, an exclusive and expensive private school that promises to turn losers into winners, underdogs into top men, exhorting that if you’re not one up on the other fellow, then he’s one up on you. The college is run by Mr S Potter (Alastair Sim), who over the following weeks teaches young Palfrey how to turn any situation to his advantage, to become one up on other people. What follows is our hero going through the same situations as at the beginning of the film, only this time walking away smiling. Not only does he get the money back for his knackered car, he drives off in a racy number and ten guineas up. His rematch with Delauney on the court turns into an equally sound beating but with him on top, and of course he wins April back. But will he use the tricks he’s learned at the college to take advantage of the young lady, or be honest with her and hope she feels the same way about him?
Screened on BBC at an insanely early time, School for Scoundrels is the sort of pithy, amiable and very British comedy that simply isn’t made anymore, indeed it was rehashed in 2006, Americanised and starring Jon Heder and Billy Bob Thornton, and replaced the warm charm with dark humour and bad language. Nothing wrong with those things if applied to good comic effect, but there’s a crude and even cruel streak to the update that was less in evidence in the 1960 original. Thomas plays a cad and a bouncer, sure, but he’s all surface charm. When the empowered Palfrey starts to rattle him he loses his cool in short order, typified in the car horn that sounds like a wolf whistle until it’s applied more frequently and then it becomes as frantic as Delauney’s frazzled nerves.
Thomas is brilliantly cast, a bit of a national treasure of disreputable behaviour, gap tooted oily smarm present and correct. But even better is Sim as the elusive Mr Potter. The film is loosely based on the successful series of ‘Gamesmanship’ books by Stephen Potter, mocking the self-help titles of the era yet hardly an novel, so to add a string of narrative the screenplay created the character Mr Potter, who has turned to using his wiles gainfully in order to instruct others. Memorably eccentric and delivering every line in a mannered elucidation, Sim is perfect in the part and even gets to break the fourth wall in the film’s closing moments. Carmichael, in a rather typical role, is just fine and completely convincing as the nice guy who learns how not to finish last, though he remains essentially good. And then there’s Janette Scott, one of the lovelier British stars of the era, who has to do little but look and act pretty, and comes across as someone for whom it’s worth making the effort.
School for Scoundrels found a small role for Dennis Price as one of the grifter car salesmen, which ties in to the film’s original director, Robert Hamer (the pair worked together on the endlessly entertaining Kind Hearts and Coronets). Sadly for Hamer, he was suffering from alcoholism and, falling off the wagon during filming, wound up getting sacked from the project, never to direct again. Three years later, he was dead from pneumonia, a sad and ignominious end to someone who got the opportunity to show major talent too little. Under pseudonyms, the smart script was by Peter Ustinov and Frank Tarloff, the latter a victim of Hollywood blacklisting.
The film might be a disappointment for those expecting ‘laugh out loud’ knockabout comedy. What it does have is effortless charm and a certain sweetness at its heart. From the moment Palfrey steps off the train to Yeovil and is made to follow signs featuring big fingers pointing the way, you know you’re in for a bit of a treat, and that word, I think, sums up School for Scoundrels as well as any.
School for Scoundrels: ****