Film 2022: The Plank


Despite being under an hour in length (51 minutes, to be precise), Eric Sykes’ 1967 almost-silent comedy The Plank qualifies as a film. It was made for the cinema and I saw it in the cinema, our local cinema, the Odeon, in Burnage, South Manchester, as support film one afternoon: I cannot for the life of me remember the main film but it would have been something made for kids for I was at best twelve when I saw it.

The Plank was written and directed by the genius that was Eric Sykes, whose own brand of solemn, northern, low-key surreality was a consistent delight for many decades, under the guise of just being ordinary, everyday comedy, no different from any of the run of half-hour sitcoms of the Sixties and Seventies. Sykes co-starred in his film alongside Tommy Cooper and, in a major suporting role, the still populsr Jimmy Edwards, but also a gaggle of faces familiar from the comedy of the Sixties and before, playing numerous cameo roles in a chaotic, slapstick film whose plot was as minimal and mundane as you could wish.

Sykes and Cooper play two workmen, laying a wooden floor in a house being constructed. The room is almost done, but Sykes has cut up and burned the last plank for warmth. The pair have to go to the timberyard for another plank. Their car’s decrepit, the plank is about two and a half times longer than it’s roof and they’ve got to get it back through London traffic and people going about their business…

The film was shot entirely on location, in the streets of Barnes, in South West London. Sykes adapted and extended it from an episode of his BBC sitcom three years earlier, but what it is is a throwing together of every variation you could think of of a ‘man with a plank’ routine. If that makes it old-fashioned, and you can’t seriously argue that it doesn’t, that doesn’t keep it from being extremely funny, especially for those of us who grew up with and upon such things.

Jimmy Edwards plays a Police Constable on a bicycle in Jimmy Edwards manner, Roy Castle has asimilarly substantial supporting role as a Delivery Man who gets chucked into an old-fashioned Corporation dustcart and stinks the place out for the rest of the film. Other people, such as Jimmy Tarbuck, Kenny Lynch, Bill Oddie and Hattie Jacques, get literally only a few seconds, whilst Stratford Johns breaks ranks as a Police Station Sergeant and Graham Stark is cast as an amorous lorry driver trying to get off with an atractive young hitchhiker.

(This last scene no longer sits as well as it originally would have, in the changed sexual atttudes of comedy. It’s a re-run of the lecherous older man acting as predator which has stopped being funny, and given what has been hinted at at Stark’s private proclivities since his death in 2013, his playing the role serves only to lead it further away from the semi-innocent comedy it used to be).

The film is usually thought of as a silent film but that’s far from the case. There is a lot of dialogue, because without it the comedy wuld be left stranded, but there are no funny lines. What’s spoken is mixed down, is trivial, is purely functional, used only to help us understand the pantomime that the film consists of.

It’s incredibly silly, and there’s no real ‘story’ to it, but Sykes’ genius was able to compose a perfect ending in place of a stopping point. Much is made in the eaerly part of the film of the presence of a tiny black-and-white kitten in the house the workmen are building. It even has its own place in the credits as ‘Oh… and the cat’. So Sykes and Cooper get the plank back, they nail it in place, the floor looks perfect, jobs a good ‘un, and to Cooper’s astonishment, Sykes starts tearing the floorboards up, ripping them out, ruining the job – because he thinks the kitten has been trapped underneath them, when it’s actually sat on the stairs, looking at them, cute as a button. What happens next we hardly dare imagine…

In 1979, Sykes re-made The Plank for television, with himself in the Cooper role and Arthur Lowe playing his part. Another host of guests appeared, some of them reprising their old roles, and filmed in many of the original locations. I remember watching it without really registering my memories of the original, and trying to remember if this was what I’d once seen. No, it was a remake, largely hewing to the original, though with at least one new scene, where Charlie Drake appears as a delivery man whose face gets pushed into the cake he’s delivering (did Charlie Drake ever work with a cake that didn’t end up all over hisface?), though as the remake was 28 minutes in comparison to the film’s 51, I don’t know how it could be faithful. I enjoyed it, but a dozen years later, that slapstick style, and the old gags that sustain it, found less contemporary favour.

Sykes did other short films in the vein of The Plank, none of which I’ve seen, none of which have attained the fame, specialist as it may be, of this short and broad comedy. It made me laugh out loud, several times. What more do I ask of a comedy?


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