Skip to main content

He hasn’t had a wink of sleep all night. He’s forgotten how.

The Black Sheep of Whitehall
(1942)

(SPOILERS) Propaganda movies never die – lockdown flicks enjoining masked subservience have been just the latest incarnation – but at least a few have exhibited a healthy, anarchic irreverence amid whichever cause they were espousing. In this case, the war effort, and what could be better fodder for the impressionable masses (because no one – well very few – would cast doubt on its legitimacy)? The Black Sheep of Whitehall finds Will Hay’s “incompetent authority figure” – © Wiki – foiling a Nazi plot, with the help of dinky little John Mills.

Sister Spooner: Do you do much work with outpatients?
Davis: No, always with.

Mills, in his second appearance alongside Hay (after 1934’s Those Were the Days), is fine when he’s called upon for straight-man heroics, but he stinks the place out when he tries to be funny. As he does during a third-act amnesia interlude; his Bobby Jessop feigns having lost his memory and pulls a lot of funny faces. Popping up too are Thora Hird, Kenneth Griffith and Katie Johnson (of The Ladykillers fame, as a train passenger). The Black Sheep of Whitehall was also Basil Dearden’s cinema debut, co-helming with Hay (also his debut as a director).

The plot finds Hay’s Professor Davis, Dean of Harrow Correspondence College, embroiled in a kidnapping plot on the part of the dastardly Hun; Mills’ Ministry of International Commerce man opts not to pay his Harrow tuition fees (the lessons are lousy) and Davis shows up at Whitehall attempting to extract them. Promised a job as compensation, Professor Davis is then mistaken for Professor Davys (Henry Hewitt), who has just been grabbed the aforementioned Hun. The ensuing shenanigans provide ample opportunity for Hay to dress up and involve himself in delirious daftness.

Davis: I’ve never heard from the BBC in my life.

First off the bat, Davis, as Davys, is called to a gathering of journalists. There, he fields press questions confidently and casually, as only one armed with an abundance of ignorance could (gems include invoking Old Moore’s Almanac to predict future events and bicarbonate of soda to beat inflation). He follows this up with a BBC interview on the subject of economics, and reveals the Corporation to be a bunch of morons (“Can you tell us what economic is?”; “What economics are” he corrects). Let loose, he advises on imports (Brazil nuts and Portuguese port) and exports and (salts from Epsom). In his element, the interviewer having long since given up, Davis then announces “I’ve got a very good tip for you” before touting his business on air.

Davis: I shouldn’t think he’s got any principles if he’s a German.

Mills is quickly on to the impostor status of the actual impostor Davys at the BBC (“Crabtree doesn’t sound like a German name to me” of his real name) and sends Hay, moustachioed and under the guise of Inspector Thorleigh of Scotland Yard, to “warn” Davys/ Crabtree (Felix Aylmer) of a kidnapping plot. Further doggedness sees Davis donning a gasmask (“I’ve got to wear this one hour a day”) in order to get the lowdown on Crabtree’s covert conversation with Costello (Basil Sydney). Hoovering in a gasmask: whoever was responsible for the sound design (Eric Williams) deserved an Oscar, or BAFTA, as Davis makes an inspired honking, snorking noise every time he inhales.

Davis: He’s taken an old lady to the parcels office, and he’s pasting labels all over her.

On the track of a fifth column at Clairmont Nursing Home, Davis then poses as a ticket inspector, and then – naturally – dons drag as a nurse (with Mills as his amnesiac patient). It “Happened during the blackout”; “He was in the park one night and he forgot himself”.

Sister Spooner: I went into the maternity ward. I had sixteen children in two weeks, until I passed out.
Davis: I’m not surprised.

What a strange woman you are” Sister Spooner (Barbara Valerie) tells Davis, having offered to share quarters for the night and witnessed his peculiar method of undressing. Dr Innsbach (Frank Celliera also The 39 Steps and Cottage to Let), like all doctors, is crazy keen to pump his patient full of drugs (“We shall soon settle the sleep problem, with a hypodermic!”: a fake jab ensues, common among celebs). And like all doctors, he’s keen to see them cut open (“Evidently, there’s some pressure on the brain. I shall operate to release that pressure”). A needle up the bum provides an effective solution to his activities.

Davis: Now I know why they call this a bath chair.

Proceedings culminate in a madcap chase, with the real Davys rescued but strapped into a bath chair trailing Davis and Jessop’s car. They have to reach London before Crabtree can wreck the Anglo-South American pact; Davis has cunningly bought them time, calling on some cohorts to play region-appropriate national anthems outside the conference room until they get there (“Viva Venezuela!” announces one of the delegates, the necessity of standing respectfully to attention ensuring they fail to sign the pact). En route, chickens, pigs, ducks, mud and water end up all over Davis (now in the bath chair). For his troubles, he is rewarded with a ministry job: air raid warden on the roof.

Butcher’s Boy: Oy, how am I going to get the grit out of my liver?

Hay would only work another year after this, health issues of various orders intruding on his life (he died in 1949). Despite having ditched Moore and Marriot (whom he considered stole his thunder somewhat), his last few pictures were good ’uns. The Black Sheep of Whitehall is also blessed with being brief and punchy, barely wasting a moment. Hay’s very underrated, but if you’re reading this, you probably know that, and if you don’t, and you’re aren’t, you’re likely blissfully ignorant he even existed.



Popular posts from this blog

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

I’m just the balloon man.

Copshop (2021) (SPOILERS) A consistent problem with Joe Carnahan’s oeuvre is that, no matter how confidently his movies begin, or how strong his premise, or how adept his direction or compelling the performances he extracts, he ends up blowing it. He blows it with Copshop , a ’70s-inspired variant on Assault on Precinct 13 that is pretty damn good during the first hour, before devolving into his standard mode of sado-nihilistic mayhem.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

When we have been subtle, then can I kill him?

The Avengers 6.16. Legacy of Death There’s scarcely any crediting the Terry Nation of Noon-Doomsday as the same Terry Nation that wrote this, let alone the Terry Nation churning out a no-frills Dalek story a season for the latter stages of the Jon Pertwee era. Of course, Nation had started out as a comedy writer (for Hancock), and it may be that the kick Brian Clemens gave him up the pants in reaction to the quality of Noon-Doomsday loosened a whole load of gags. Admittedly, a lot of them are well worn, but they come so thick and fast in Legacy of Death , accompanied by an assuredly giddy pace from director Don Chaffey (of Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts ) and a fine ensemble of supporting players, that it would be churlish to complain.

Tippy-toe! Tippy-toe!

Seinfeld 2.7: The Phone Message The Premise George and Jerry both have dates on the same night. Neither goes quite as planned, and in George’s case it results in him leaving an abusive message on his girlfriend’s answerphone. The only solution is to steal the tape before she plays it. Observational Further evidence of the gaping chasm between George and Jerry’s approaches to the world. George neurotically attacks his problems and makes them worse, while Jerry shrugs and lets them go. It’s nice to see the latter’s anal qualities announcing themselves, however; he’s so bothered that his girlfriend likes a terrible TV advert that he’s mostly relieved when she breaks things off (“ To me the dialogue rings true ”). Neither Gretchen German (as Donna, Jerry’s date) nor Tory Polone (as Carol, George’s) make a huge impression, but German has more screen time and better dialogue. The main attraction is Jerry’s reactions, which include trying to impress her with hi