Keep It Up Downstairs Review
Pick up any compilation of Michael Nyman’s film work and you’re likely to find the usual suspects: a healthy sampling of his famed collaborations with Peter Greenaway backed up with pieces from The Piano, Gattaca and The End of the Affair, plus a handful of others. What you’re unlikely to find is any sign of his very first feature film commission, Keep It Up Downstairs. Bizarre as it may sound, Nyman’s career as a composer for the big screen began with a British sex comedy and some pastiche Edwardiana. Just to add to the incongruity, the film premiered within months of his first album, Decay Music, being released on Brian Eno’s ultra-hip Obscure Records label.
Keep It Up Downstairs was initially titled Can You Keep It Up Downstairs? during the early stages of its development. Can You Keep It Up for a Week? had been a surprise success for Pyramid Films during the autumn of 1974 and called for an immediate follow-up. But whereas the earlier film was a present day sex comedy – in which Jeremy Bulloch (later to play Boba Fett) has to steer clear from other women and maintain full-time employment over the course of a week in order to marry his long-suffering girlfriend – Keep It Up Downstairs headed back to the turn of the century for some Upstairs, Downstairs-inspired hijinks. Other than some shared cast and crew, and an equally slim plotline, there was no real connection between the two. The new film would unfold at Cockshute Towers, a country house in which everybody (both upstairs and downstairs) appears to be having if off with everyone else, with the exception of Jack Wild, who is too busy inadvertently inventing the condom in the dungeon. The sexual idyll is soon interrupted by impending bankruptcy and so the Lord, Ladies and sundry servants must conspire to raise some cash.
Pyramid Films had been set up by Kent Walton and Hazel Adair in the early seventies to produce the likes of Clinic Xclusive and Virgin Witch, albeit under joint pseudonyms like Elton Hawke and Ralph Solomons. He was the wrestling commentator on ITV’s World of Sport and she was the co-creator of Crossroads – in other words, they had reputations to maintain. It was only when the BBC2 current affairs programme Man Alive decided to make a programme on the British sex film that their true identities were revealed. “I think these days you have to keep alive and you make money the only way you can,” explains Adair, “Unfortunately, these are the kind of films that make a profit.” With the cat out of the bag, she used her real name on Keep It Up Downstairs for both the producer credit and that of sole screenwriter.
Despite the misgivings about her chosen genre, Adair at least made her film look as good as she possibly could on a budget of £120,000. Cockshute Towers was in fact Knebworth House, with full advantage taken of both its grounds and the interior. (Fans of cult British cinema will recognise it as the principle location for Sir Henry at Rawlinson End.) The soft focus cinematography of Alan Pudney is also rather pleasing on the eye – just as we should expect, perhaps, from a man who honed his trade making international travelogues for Harold Baim. Plus we have Nyman lending an air of respectability, of course. This may not be The Draughtsman’s Contract, but there’s definitely a slight whiff of class to proceedings, especially when you look at some of the sex comedies gaining a release at the time.
In every other respect, though, this is a typical example of mid-seventies British smut. The dialogue revolves entirely around innuendo with every mention of “balls” or an “opening” milked for all its worth. Entirely predictable, of course, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t raise the occasion chuckle. Meanwhile, places have also been found for most of the decade’s sex comedy stars. Olivia Munday, Sue Longhurst, Françoise Pascal, Maria Coyne, Mary Millington (who also provided Pascal’s bottom double) and a pre-’Allo ’Allo! Carmen Silvera all put in an appearance, as does Diana Dors who, though only in her mid-forties, was already in the twilight of her career and had seen early stardom replaced by cameos in the likes of The Amorous Milkman and Adventures of a Private Eye. The male contingent includes Willy Rushton, Neil Hallett (reportedly Adair’s favourite actor) and Mark Singleton – all of whom seem to be enjoying themselves terribly and that proves to be quite infectious. Only young Jack Wild seems less than enthusiastic to be there. He was just 23 during production but already a registered alcoholic and, consequently, struggling to find work. Keep It Up Downstairs would be his last film appearance for some time.
Final mention should be reserved for director Robert Young. A man with a somewhat erratic career, he spent much of the seventies making industrial documentaries in-between features and much of the eighties doing episodic television (Minder, Bergerac, Robin of Sherwood and so forth). But look around and you’ll find plenty of interesting work. He made his feature debut with the underrated Hammer horror Vampire Circus, directed John Cleese and Connie Booth in the short film adaptation of Chekhov’s Romance with a Double Bass (co-writing the screenplay with his stars, too) and was responsible for all seven instalments of G.B.H., Alan Bleasdale’s superb miniseries for Channel 4. Whilst he maintains a sprightly pace and masks the slender narrative as best he can, Keep It Up Downstairs is perhaps undeserving of such company. And yet Young’s presence once again points up the fact that there’s more to this film than we would ordinarily expect. It’s no classic, certainly, but it’s no write-off either.
Keep It Up Downstairs has been released in the UK by Network Distributing as part of their ‘The British Film’ initiative. The film is presented in both 1.66:1 (anamorphically enhanced) and full-frame versions and looks to be in a fairly decent shape. There are some instances of moderate damage, but the colours are strong and the clarity sufficient given the soft focus nature of Alan Pudney’s photography. The graininess of the image occasionally translates into noise, though nothing too distracting. The original mono soundtrack is in a similarly acceptable condition – dialogue and score are perfectly audible throughout – though do be aware that there are no optional subtitles, for the hard-of-hearing or otherwise. Extras, meanwhile, extend to the theatrical trailer, a gallery of production stills, VHS sleeves and so forth, plus the original press book in PDF form.