School for Scoundrels (1960)

When it’s on: Saturday, 28 February (6.15 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

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: ****

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 31 December (11.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

I shot an arrow in the air, she fell to earth in Berkeley Square.

1949 was a watershed year for Ealing Studios. After a fine early dip into the waters of comedy with the post-war Hue and Cry, the year heralded an explosion of great work with Whiskey Galore!, Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets. All three work beautifully. Not only are they very funny films, they’re also consummately British and explore different aspects of life and manners, capturing to sublime effect the mood and spirit of Great Britain in the years following World War Two.

Each film deserves a gushing entry of its own, but my favourite of the golden trio is without doubt Kind Hearts and Coronets, a delicious black comedy about a series of murders. The subject matter is dark indeed; a disinherited young man seeks his fortune, his place as the Duke of Chalfont, by killing all the family members that stand between him and his prestigious position as head of the ennobled family. And yet it’s told with real charm, and the story has such an agreeable lead in the impeccably mannered Dennis Price, that it’s impossible not to fall in love with him, his objective and finding oneself cheering on his efforts, hoping he actually achieves his ghoulish dream.

Price, in reality raised in the kind of privileged upbringing that would no doubt have pleased his character, plays Louis Mancini, the son of a lady from the noble D’Ascoyne clan, who eloped with an itinerant opera singer and for her pains ended up in poverty. The family refuses to acknowledge his existence, so Louis has little choice but to take a humble shop assistant’s job. When his mother dies and the D’Ascoynes deny her a place in the family crypt, Louis’s thoughts on his heritage turn to those of vengeance, the germ of an idea to put himself high in the pecking order for the Dukedom. At the same time, he’s friends from childhood with Lionel (John Penrose) and Sibella (Joan Greenwood). It’s clear he adores the latter, and those feelings are returned, but the flighty Sibella does not see the young Louis with slim prospects as suitable for her, so she chooses to marry Lionel as our hero attempts to improve his outlook by removing the obstacles, one by one…

In a casting stroke of genius, the D’Ascoyne family are all played by the same actor – Alec Guinness. Aged 35 at the time of filming, Guinness’s reputation – gained mainly on the stage – was that of someone who looked anonymous and unmemorable, unlike many of his rather striking thespian peers, such as Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, and this was played up to great effect with him donning various wigs and prosthetics to fit himself like a chameleon into the skin of each D’Ascoyne, young and old, male and female. A skilled and flexible performer, Guinness was more than capable of breathing life into all his characters, whether the vain and ignorant Young Ascoyne, the more likeable Young Henry, the doddering Parson, the blustering General. What none of his personae sees coming is the spirit of revenge in the shape of Louis, who finds increasingly imaginative ways of doing away with them. The General meets his demise after an encounter with exploding caviar. The Parson drinks poisoned port. An unfortunate drowning ‘accident’ sees off Young Ascoyne.

It could be grim fare, but it’s actually riotously funny thanks to the gregarious narration from Louis, as he recalls how he made it to the top of the family business. Charismatic and effortlessly pithy, there’s no doubt that what he’s doing is wrong and indeed he’s the first to acknowledge it, yet there’s something entirely winning about Louis’s anti-hero as he goes about his grisly work. Structurally, the story is told in flashback, Louis recounting the events that led to the prison where we first meet him, presumably (though not necessarily) having eventually been caught for the string of D’Ascoyne murders and awaiting the hangman’s noose. Even with death before him, however, there’s no crying or worry. He’s the picture of patrician calm, quoting Doctor Johnson to his gaoler with little sign that he has a care in the world.

Kind Hearts and Coronets was directed by Robert Hamer, already an Ealing veteran with the superior working class drama, It Always Rains on Sunday, and he was also responsible for the ‘Haunted Mirror’ segment from Dead of Night, the studio’s quite brilliant portmanteau horror film. Had it not been for the even scarier ‘The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’, Hamer’s deeply unsettling tale is the one you would remember, and perhaps it’s the complicated narrative framing Dead of Night that helped make the equally complex Kind Hearts and Coronets so easy to follow. Hamer’s last directorial effort was 1960’s School for Scoundrels, another saga about bad men turning out to be the film’s unlikely heroes though, much like Louis, Ian Carmichael’s morally mixed up Henry Palfrey would no doubt approve of the sympathetic treatment he receives.

Kind Hearts and Coronets: *****

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