You know that feeling you get when something catches your eye? Everybody tells you that it’s rubbish. You can tell yourself, just by looking at it, that it’s rubbish. But your curiosity has been aroused. You want to find out for yourself just how and in whay way it’s rubbish. And maybe, perhaps, given that you rarely go with the tide, might you discover that it’s actually not as bad as they say? And the DVD is so cheap on eBay…
If the paragraph above seems familiar, that’s because it is: I have repeated it, word for word, from my post about the British sexploitation film Girls of Shame a few weeks ago, to which this post is by way of a Part 2. On this occasion, I had seen the film previously, though I remembered only one part of it, and that because it was a retread of something I’d seen previously. And watching the film again, at the end of November in this year of dismay and shame, that was the only thing I remembered having seen before.
The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins is a portmanteau film, a collection of seven sketches each with different casts and mostly different writers, built upon the theme of the Seven Deadly Sins. It was made in 1971, which accounts for the profusion of ‘saucy’ girls in hot pants and knee-length boots, but also for the presence of Middle of the Road (credited as The Middle of the Road) singing the theme song: must we always take trhe rough with the smooth?
The film is full of British comedy stars, familiar faces that together recall a vanished age. The film’s a capsule in that respect, a slice of time held preserved for the memory of us who were there then, much as is Michael Bentine’s lovely The Sandwich Man, but with one crucial difference: The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins is not funny. More than that, it is anti-funny, capturing (with one glorious exception) every element of humour and sucking it into a Black Hole of deadliness.
The film’s opening demonstrates what hard work it’s going to be. It features a beautiful blonde barefoot in the woods, dressed only in a floor-length white shift which she lets slip to the ground to stand naked. But just as she turns towards us, a cartoon director and cameraman shoot onto the screen, concealing her nipples, explaining that this has nothing to do with the movie, the Director just promised to get his ‘close personal friend’ into films. Quite. The loud clunk you hear is your expectations hitting the floor, and chipping quite a deep hole in it.
Incidentally, the animation is by Bob Godfrey, and sequences of this nature separate each sketch, acting as serial credits. Godfrey was responsible for both Roobarb and Henry’s Cat, which you will wish you were watching instead.
It’s really difficult trying to find words for this film. It really is just not funny. It’s supposed humour was out of date for 1971 and fifty years on is so dead it’s ceased to smell. It begins with ‘Avarice’, in which Bruce Forsyth plays a chauffeur forced to descend into the sewers to retrieve a 50p piece dmanded by his greedy employer. It’s flat. The sketch also features Roy Hudd, Bernard Bresslaw and Joan Sims but what’s supposed to be funny is dead on the page let alone the screen, and robust performances by Hudd, Bresslaw and Sims (Forsyth doesn’t even get off the ground) cannot invest it with an instant of conviction.
The next segment, ‘Envy’, gave me the most food for thought. Written by Dave Freeman, the only writer in the piece with whom I am not familiar, it starred Harry Secombe. The ‘plot’ is irrelevant, so contrived I won’t even mention it. What astonished me was that here was Harry Secombe, a natural comedian, an ex-Goon, always a bundle of irrepressible energy busting out all over. Secombe knows comedy. It baffled me. He must have known that there was nothing at all funny about the concept, the lines and the minimal slapstick involved, yet he agreed to take part in this film. Why? His version of ‘This Is My Song’ is funnier.
‘Gluttony’, written by Graham Chapman and Barry Cryer, two guys who know which end of a joke is funny, cast Leslie Phillips slightly against type as an advertising manager for Slimmo biscuits (clunk) on a company-mandated diet of eight Slimmos a day and nothing else and who, consequently, is permanently hot for… no, not Vice-President Julie Ege, for whom the word slinky might have been invented, who wanted him to warm her bed (given the amount of fur on it, it must already have been stifling) but instead for doughnuts, rice pudding, roast duck, virgina ham – you get the picture. Philips left out his usual seducer’s mannerisms but might have been better served to throw them all in. The segment did raise my first smile of the film: Philips is shown as having food concealed all round his office, usually in filing cabinet drawers as we’ve seen a million times before, but when he flipped back the top of the globe…
Oddly enough, though it was no more funny than anything before it, I found ‘Lust’ to be strangely effective on a serious basis. There were good reasons not too. The sketch was written by credited Director Graham Stark, from an idea by Marty Feldman, it starred Harry H Corbett in a variation of his part as Harold Steptoe, and even at the time it had a creepy underpinning that now is all the more obvious. Corbett plays a lonely 38 year old man longing for a girlfriend. It’s Saturday night and he’s getting ready to go up West to try to pick a bird up. The obvious stalker impression was undervcut by Corbett’s interior monologue, which showed him to be a bit of a pathetic loser, but someone who was genuinely miserable and really lonely. Perhaps I recognised what he felt too much, but I was on his side, in a pitying way. His complete failure, and the cause of it, was foreseeable from a long way out, yet as portrayed by Corbett (who was so bloody good) it carried the inevitability of tragedy with it. A tick for this one.
Sketch five, ‘Pride’, was the one I remembered. It was actually written by the great Alan Galton and Ray Simpson for a BBC Comedy Playhouse as long ag as 1961, and changed little save in its cast (Ian Carmichael and Alfie Bass) and being set on location instead of in the studio. It’s tied up with class themes but these are now too broadly based to make any impact, whilst the sting ending was another that was completely predictable. Not one of Galton and Simpson’s best.
At last there was something funny, and genuinely funny, when we got to ‘Sloth’. This was wriiten by and starred Spike Milligan with a host of guests, filmed in deliberately cheap black and white and mostly silent. It was just a strng of running gags on the subject of laziness but it was Milligan, the master comic, the surrealist, being funny for the sake of being funny. It was the shortest segment of the film, and if I could cut it out and keep it I would do so because it was worth it on its own. Some of it was predictable, though never as clunkingly as elsewhere and the true token was that, when it arrived, I was laughing my head off anyway.
If that had been the last sketch, it would at least have given the film a warm send-off but no, we had to undergo ‘Wrath’. This was also by Chapman and Cryer, though credited in reverse order, and it was an improvement on ‘Gluttony’ only because it co-starred Stephen Lewis, playing Blakey off On the Buses as a Park Attendant, and it included a few, brief, amusing seconds of Lewis parodying the bicycle ride section of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, the one with Paul Newman and Katherine Ross.
So there you go. As well as it being a time capsule of the stars of British comedy of the time, the film deserves a begrudging preservation as a near impossibility, a demonstration of how you can gather together so many naturally funny writers and people, including Madeline Smith at her most winningly ingenue, and yet, but for the great Spike, produce such a comprehensive flop. Yes, it’s dated, and badly so now, yet even in its day, this was a text book example of the many different ways in which you can get it wrong.