Film 2018: The Sandwich Man

Working Sundays are not conducive to the process of enjoying a film and contemplating it at leisure, especially not during the winter months, when I tend to find myself waking up nearer 9.00am than 7.00am. Which is why, for a second successive Working Sunday, I’ve chosen a film I’ve written about before.

Some films, when you see them again, years after their time, are just dull, or even embarrassing to recall that once you liked them. The Sandwich Man, a British comedy from 1966, doesn’t fall into that category. It’s a film very much of its time, a gentle, sweet comedy that featured many stars and supporting players from the comedy scene of its time, playing in a series of short cameos taking place on a summer day in London, in the middle of the Swinging Sixties.

It’s the kind of film that used to appear on Saturday afternoon, on BBC2, when Grandstand was in full swing.

The Sandwich Man was the inspiration of Michael Bentine, an original Goon, who co-wrote the screenplay, and starred in the title role, as Horace Quilby, a mild-mannered widower employed as a Sandwich man, which, for the benefit of the younger among you, was a man who was paid to walk around all day carrying advertising boards, front and back. Horace wears top hat and tails on behalf of Finkelbaum & O’Casey, Bespoke Tailors.

There’s no plot to the film. Horace gets up in the morning, as do all his neighbours, to go about his daily work. His main concern is his racing pigeon, Esmerelda, who is due back from Bordeaux at some time in the day. As he wanders from place to place, all sorts of gentle, silly, slapsticky kind of gags go on around him. Norman Wisdom distills an entire Norman Wisdom film into an eight minute cameo (which is all the better for brevity) as a Catholic Priest running an Athletic Club who thinks he can still do all the things the boys can. Harry S. Corbett, Bernard Cribbins, Stanley Holloway, Terry-Thomas, Diana Dors, Dora Bryan: everyone contributes little gems of performances, as do the actors and actresses whose faces were familiar where their names were not.

The gags are usually foreseeable, but are performed with a naiveté that still invites recognising laughter. Yet they’re performed with the subtlety that only comes from experienced performers, leaning into their roles. Everyone gets a short time to make their mark, meaning their performances become encapsulations.

Take, for instance, the early scene in which Horace checks his pigeon loft, whilst his next door neighbour, the widowed Mrs Devere (Dora Bryan) is beating her carpet over her washing line (you are probably too young to remember things like that). Forget ideas of sexual tension for this is not that kind of film, nor is it that kind of era, but it’s quickly clear, without an overt word, that she’d like to get his feet under her kitchen table and he’s shying away: all respectable and above board and married, but she’s definiitely missing a man about the house, and about one room in particular.

Bentine’s the glue of the film. Most of the time he’s just an observer, mugging and gurning as he watches the daftness go on around him, or leaving it with a high-pitched giggle. The joy is that, absurd and silly as most things are, the cast play everything seriously and normally, and the situations are all real.

It has to be admitted that the film employs racial stereotypes common to the period. This is 1966, and the film instantly acknoowledges London’s multicultural status by panning along a back-street terrace as its occupants leave for their day: two Indian musicians heading for a Jazz festival with double bass and drums (they call themselves De Sikhers, a wonderfully up to the minute pun), a Turkish carpet salesman complete with fez and a Chinese ice cream van seller. With the exception of Burt Kwouk (of course), these are white actors blacked up, but the stereotypes are gentle, they are affectionate, and there is no difference in tone between the humour derived from their antics and those of any other white English character.

But the real beauty of the film, which was a flop in 1966, is that it is a picture of London, at a time now gone, and a picture of Britain when we still expected things to get even better. In that way, it’s like The Lovers! in being a capture of a time and a place that’s now gone. That look into London has now brought the film cult fame and deservedly so. It’s optimism is dead and gone, but whilst the film plays those of us who were there for any part of it can relive what it felt like to be in the sun.

My favourite scene among the many is not even funny: it comes near the end of the film when Horace, having persuaded aspiring model Sue (Suzy Kendall) and jealous car salesman boyfriend Steve (Dennis Buck) to make up the differences they’ve been having all day, accepts a lift home from the reunited pair, only for Steve to drive the car into the River Thames.

For Steve is driving that weird car they designed in the mid-Sixties, that was only around for a short period, because it was just too goofy to catch on, that was both a land vehicle and an amphibious craft. The film had the genuine luck to be made when this mad motor was about, and thus it captures the sheer silliness, but immense appeal, of a white sports car driving along the Thames, past Parliament and under Tower Bridge: bliss it was in that dawn to be alive.

Needless to say, Horace returns to an impromptu street party, Esmerelda having won her race, and the camera pans upwards, ninety minutes having passed unnoticed, before a bizarre and utterly unrelated credits sequence as two grapplers throw each other around a wrestling ring.

It’s not a classic of any kind, and it may mean very little to the audience of today, but of its type it’s a perfect example, and it remains an illustration of what we once had, and didn’t hang on to hard enough.

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