Skip to main content

I was toying with the idea of translating Kafka into Welsh, but how do you translate his values?

Only Two Can Play

(SPOILERS) There aren’t very many occasions when Peter Sellers immersed himself in “proper” characters, as opposed to caricatures or sketches. Probably because, in such instances, he had too little foliage with which to conceal himself. Mostly, these were straight roles (Mr. Topaze, Hoffman, The Blockhouse), but there’s also this, a curiosity of a kitchen-sink comedy from Launder and Gilliat. Only Two Can Play’s far from the top of their game, an adaption of Kingsley Amis’ second (published) novel That Uncertain Feeling – his first, Lucky Jim, had earlier been made by the Boulting Brothers – but it’s an interesting performance from Sellers, filtered through a Welsh accent and a dry wit.

Bryan Forbes, at that point never more prolific and having just turned his hand to directing to boot, penned the screenplay. Luckily, there isn’t a Nanette Newman in sight. Which doesn’t mean there weren’t other casting problems. Virginia Maskell – probably most familiar to many, myself included, for the first episode of The Prisoner – apparently did not meet with Sellers’ approval (this was near the beginning of his difficult phase); he was rebuffed by Gilliat when he requested she be replaced. So convinced was Sellers of her deleterious influence, he sold his profit share back to Launder and Gilliat, thinking Only Two Can Play would bomb (it was Number Three at the British box office that year; interesting, given how obscure it is now).

Perhaps Sellers was secretly unnerved by how authentic Maskell is as Jean, the wife of John Lewis (Sellers). They live with their two children in shared accommodation in a South Wales town (Aberdarcy, Amis’ take on Swansea). John is a librarian and theatre critic for the local Chronicle. Much to Jean’s stoic sufferance, he has a wandering eye and an easy charm, and the picture’s best balance is struck in the early sequences where we glimpse John’s frustrations. Our empathy with him is never to an extent that we aren’t more sympathetic towards Jean, however.

Indeed, the rundown bedsit life is a make-do nightmare with a precocious daughter and annoying co-tenants; Jean has to make do with it all day, while John gets to escape to flirtation on the bus (a recurring appearance by the becoming Marjie Lawrence – Sarah Greene’s mum) and further flirtation at the library. The picture is told very much through his eyes; Jean’s appearances form reactive bookends to John’s days, fully aware of his carry ons but realistic about the situation (“Just give me my housekeeping each week and stay out of my way” she tells him at one point). The picture ends with a too-cosy reconciliation, the pair sharing duties in a travelling library where she can keep an eye on his roving one; it’s a little too smug and illustrative of Only Two Can Play’s habit of veering from fine observational comedy to something rather broader and closer to the expected Sellers “brand”.

Because the movie’s first half, prior to John embarking – or attempting to embark – on an affair with Liz (Mai Zetterling), the wife of local councillor Vernon (Raymond Huntley), features some strong material. The picture’s populated by colourful supporting characters, including Graham Stark’s perv – “Pages 28 to 34 inclusive are the ones you’re looking for, Mr Hyman”, John informs him of a scurrilous tome – and Kenneth Griffiths’ dishrag of a fellow librarian Ieuan Jenkins. When Liz, active in the local dramatic arts, breezes in and takes a fancy to John – we quickly learn she’s a serial adulteress, with her ex-bit-on-the-side Bill, John Arnatt, still hanging off her every word – he can’t believe his luck.

There isn’t too much chemistry between Sellers and Zetterling, but that rather works to the benefit of the objectification at the heart of their affair, and the manner in which she attempts to manipulate him into dependency on her boosting his career (she engineers a promotion, which he rejects in due course, when he realises it was entirely fixed). The big problem is that, having brought them together, Only Two Can Play devolves into lame farce hijinks whenever they attempt to consummate. First, she invites him back to hers and titillates him in her bathroom before – inevitably – her husband returns, accompanied by a never-ending procession of fellow councillors. This provides an opportunity for Sellers to deliver some misplaced slapstick as, unable to escape, he mugs frantically to a bemused John Le Mesurier, pretending to be a plumber. Later, John and Liz head out to canoodle in the countryside but are intruded upon by a cow, a car radio that won’t turn off, and then the farmer with his gun.

Such proceedings suggest someone involved was concerned this might not offer the laughs Sellers was best known for, so best get some lowbrow yuks in. Unfortunately, it torpedoes the tone at a vital moment. There are some decent later scenes as Jean confronts John, and the job interview is amusing (inevitably, Le Mesurier is on the panel, and presses John for a family connection to the plumbing business: “Well, as a matter of fact, my father once had an unfortunate experience at Euston Station during the blackout. Uh, what happened was... You see, it was dark at the time and he didn't realize that the train was actually standing at the station at the time... Apart from that, no.”)

John: I was ploughing through your novel today. Nourished is the Grass. Or perhaps I should say Nourish-ed is the Grass. We have an unsigned first edition. I believe they’re the rare ones, aren’t they?

The highlight is undoubtedly the party where John and Liz first kiss. There’s consistently fine observational writing and characterisation here, from Liz’s unmistakably diminishing comment on Jean’s dress to the fireworks between John and adored “bard” Gareth L Probert (Richard Attenborough). Probert is putting on a production of Bowen Thomas: Tailor of Llandidno. It’s a magnificent self-regarding turn from Sir Dickie, complete with chin beard and condescending manner (“The original white-collar slave, how are you Lewis?”) that meets its merciless match. Vernon is particularly amused when John offers his unfiltered view of the poet (John: A puffed up, undersized, four-eyed little twit; Vernon: Fascinating).

Indeed, if the entire film had been of that standard, perfectly judged dialogue and parrying, Only Two Can Play might be regarded as one of the Sellers classics. This was the same year as Lolita, and the actor was certainly flirting with more serious notions of artistic approval at this point (ultimately, his ego and insecurity would be his own worst enemy). With Clouseau and Strangelove, he had found the perfect balance that appealed to all bases, but rather than capitalise on such roles, he fell into scattershot hits and misses that strikingly contrast with the run of unmatched work he delivered from The Ladykillers to this point. Also popping up are Damaris Hayman (Doctor Who’s The Daemons, on the interview panel), Desmond Llewellyn (a clergyman) and Gerald Sim (thieving cigarettes at the party).

Popular posts from this blog

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

If this were a hoax, would we have six dead men up on that mountain?

The X-Files 4.24: Gethsemane   Season Four is undoubtedly the point at which the duff arc episodes begin to amass, encroaching upon the decent ones for dominance. Fortunately, however, the season finale is a considerable improvement’s on Three’s, even if it’s a long way from the cliffhanger high of 2.25: Anasazi .

My hands hurt from galloping.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021) (SPOILERS) Say what you like about the 2016 reboot, at least it wasn’t labouring under the illusion it was an Amblin movie. Ghostbusters 3.5 features the odd laugh, but it isn’t funny, and it most definitely isn’t scary. It is, however, shamelessly nostalgic for, and reverential towards, the original(s), which appears to have granted it a free pass in fan circles. It didn’t deserve one.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

I’ve heard the dancing’s amazing, but the music sucks.

Tick, Tick… Boom! (2021) (SPOILERS) At one point in Tick, Tick… Boom! – which really ought to have been the title of an early ’90s Steven Seagal vehicle – Andrew Garfield’s Jonathan Larson is given some sage advice on how to find success in his chosen field: “ On the next, maybe try writing about what you know ”. Unfortunately, the very autobiographical, very-meta result – I’m only surprised the musical doesn’t end with Larson finishing writing this musical, in which he is finishing writing his musical, in which he is finishing writing his musical… – takes that acutely literally.

Out of my way, you lubberly oaf, or I’ll slit your gullet and shove it down your gizzard!

The Princess and the Pirate (1944) (SPOILERS) As I suggested when revisiting The Lemon Drop Kid , you’re unlikely to find many confessing to liking Bob Hope movies these days. Even Chevy Chase gets higher approval ratings. If asked to attest to the excruciating stand-up comedy Hope, the presenter and host, I doubt even diehards would proffer an endorsement. Probably even fewer would admit to having a hankering for Hope, were they aware of, or further still gave credence to, alleged MKUltra activities. But the movie comedy Hope, the fourth-wall breaking, Road -travelling quipster-coward of (loosely) 1939-1952? That Hope’s a funny guy, mostly, and many of his movies during that period are hugely inventive, creative comedies that are too easily dismissed under the “Bob Hope sucks” banner. The Princess and the Pirate is one of them.

Who gave you the crusade franchise? Tell me that.

The Star Chamber (1983) (SPOILERS) Peter Hyams’ conspiracy thriller might simply have offered sauce too weak to satisfy, reining in the vast machinations of an all-powerful hidden government found commonly during ’70s fare and substituting it with a more ’80s brand that failed to include that decade’s requisite facile resolution. There’s a good enough idea here – instead of Charles Bronson, it’s the upper echelons of the legal system resorting to vigilante justice – but The Star Chamber suffers from a failure of nerve, repenting its premise just as it’s about to dig into the ramifications.

You’re going to make me drop a donkey.

Encanto (2021) (SPOILERS) By my estimation, Disney brand pictures are currently edging ahead of the Pixars. Not that there’s a whole lot in it, since neither have been at full wattage for a few years now. Raya and the Last Dragon and now Encanto are collectively just about superior to Soul and Luca . Generally, the animation arm’s attempts to take in as much cultural representation as they possibly can, to make up for their historic lack of woke quotas, has – ironically – had the effect of homogenising the product to whole new levels. So here we have Colombia, renowned the world over for the US’s benign intervention in their region, not to mention providing the CIA with subsistence income, beneficently showered with gifts from the US’s greatest artistic benefactor.