Fun at St. Fanny's Review
Reviewing any of the BFI’s British cinema-devoted releases there is always the strong likelihood that the words ‘discovery’ or ‘re-discovery’ will come up. The Flipside strand is especially prone to such descriptions as more and more hitherto neglected features and shorts make their way onto shiny disc. Similarly, the documentary sets have a tendency to throw up plenty of previously overlooked gems. The Adelphi Collection is a little different as the films released so far, whilst unseen for many years and therefore possessing a certain curiosity factor, capture their stars and directors either on the way up or the way down. Thus we have Peter Sellers and his fellow Goons making some of their earliest big screen appearances or a director such as Maurice Elvey (once upon a time responsible for The Life Story of David Lloyd George, the 1927 version of Hindle Wakes and plenty more besides) working on his final pictures. Other times we find a star in limbo, as in this month’s You Lucky People! - see yesterday’s review - and its lead role being occupied by a post-film star, pre-television star Tommy Trinder. This isn’t to say that the discs released so far haven’t thrown up their fair share of pleasures - I’ve been especially fond of Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary and Song of Paris despite their lightweight nature - but genuine discoveries have yet to surface. With that said, I am somewhat tempted to use the term when it comes to Fun at St Fanny’s. Not so much for the film itself, but rather its star, Cardew ‘The Cad’ Robinson.
In truth Robinson shouldn’t be that obscure a figure given his presence across various media during his career. He started out in the variety halls of thirties, occasionally took on more serious theatrical roles (including Frankenstein’s monster), made the move into radio following the war and even, thanks to the creation of his Cardew the Cad character, became the subject of a comic strip. The odd film role cropped up early in his career, but it was only after Fun at St Fanny’s that he began to find regular work on the big and small screens. Looking through his credits you find the various branches of sixties and seventies entertainment: a guest appearance in The Avengers here, a Carry On role there, not to mention a number of smaller parts alongside Peter Sellers, a credit on the Children’s Film Foundation favourite Go Kart Go, and a turn in the most successful of all British sex comedies, George Harrison Marks’ Come Play With Me. Yet in each and every case these were essentially cameos, visible only the keenest of connoisseurs’ eyes, and as such Robinson has never really been remembered. Indeed, compare him to the other stars of Adelphi productions - the various Goons, Diana Dors, Tommy Trinder, Max Bygraves, Petula Clark - and he’s arguably the least well-known nowadays. Yet with the release of Fun at St Fanny’s we’re able to sample his one and only starring role for the cinema. Whilst the appearances on the television, stage and radio have largely faded with memory, here we have The Cad preserved for prosperity, in widescreen no less and lovingly restored.
Robinson’s first job as a performer came as part of Joe Boganny’s touring company, the Crazy College Boys. He would later dismiss them as “a sort of downmarket Will Hay team”, a decidedly fitting reference given how Hay would inform his subsequent career. Cardew the Cad - initially conceived for a monologue piece whilst performing in RAF Gang Shows, but soon to become of his entire solo comedy act - was a public schoolboy as per those found in the magazines of Robinson’s youth. His fictional school, St Fanny’s, would be the location for his regular appearances on the BBC’s Variety Box radio show, ones involving plenty of banter and wordplay much like the Will Hay classroom comedies of the 1930s (Boys Will Be Boys, Good Morning Boys, The Ghost of St Michael’s). The same was true when St Fanny’s and its characters were translated into comic strip form for Radio Fun at the end of the forties. And so, of course, it makes perfect sense that when the Cad’s big screen debut was to materialise it too would follow the Hay framework.
If you’ve seen any of those earlier films then you’ll know exactly what to expect from Fun at St Fanny’s. Essentially we have nothing more than a series of routines, either comic or musical, thrown together alongside the barest of plotlines so as creation the requisite running time. The only difference between the two is that Hay always played the schoolmaster whereas here we have a schoolboy in the lead role and the slight shift in focus this creates. Nonetheless, classroom banter takes precedent as a succession of teachers (from headmaster Fred Emney to saucy French mistress Aud Johansen) field the various quickfire quips. A sample, from a lesson in English grammar:
TEACHER: “‘I didn’t have no fun over the weekend’ How do I correct that?”
PUPIL: “Get yourself a boyfriend.”
This kind of call-and-response approach to scriptwriting (and comedy) is prevalent throughout. One character makes a statement or asks a question, another provides the punchline. It’s the kind of thing that could get tiresome, but there’s also a perverse appeal to its sheer incessantness, not to mention that the fact that so many of the jokes are ridiculously old. I’ll also admit that personal taste will no doubt play a part in some viewer’s tolerance of Fun at St Fanny’s, though for my part the sense of silliness and emphasis on the rubbish pun made for a chucklesome 77 minutes. At times Robinson even goes into more out-there territory, as when he converses with Peter Butterworth through a television.
Butterworth is just one in a string of cameos and early performances that pepper the film and add to the overall appeal. The fact that each one is also in some way cartoon-ish helps immensely too. There’s various baby-faced types intermingled with the actual child extras to occupy the speaking part, including a very young Ronnie Corbett looking and sounding, unexpectedly enough, just like Michael MacIntyre. (Cardew the Cad, according the plot, is supposed to be a 25-year-old schoolboy owing to his failure to pass his exams, though Robinson would have been 38 at the time and distinctly un-baby-faced.) There’s also Gerald Campion, credited here as Gerald ‘Billy Bunter’ Campion so as to capitalise on his still-ongoing appearances in the BBC’s Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School. In the ‘adult’ roles we find familiar names and faces such as Stanley Unwin, Vera Day (arguably the only ‘straight’ character in the entire film) and - drawing an explicit line back to the Will Hay school comedies - Claude Hubert. Ex-championship boxer Freddie Mills also gets a supporting role as a teddy boy tough guy and is incredibly wooden. But then he also looks the part which is arguably just as important in the cartoon-ish, comic strip-derived world of Fun at St Fanny’s. A quick note should also be made of Francis Langford’s Singing Scholars who pop up for the finale with a succession of numbers ranging from a mambo to a ballad. No proper reason is given for their appearance but, given the array of comic performers on show, their presence does enhance the overall feeling that this is simply Robinson and his pals putting on a show in a manner they’ve become accustomed to over the years.
This last point is arguably key to whether Fun at St Fanny’s appeals or not. Despite the widescreen framing and the reliable hands of Maurice Elvey at the helm, this isn’t great cinema. Visually the film isn’t particularly interesting and as a piece of storytelling it’s an undoubted mess what with its various cribs from the previous year’s Blue Murder at St. Trinian’s and some nonsense involving an inheritance, a Scot, a brassy American dame, Mills’ teddy boy and his spiv-ish pal. However, as a record of Cardew and cohorts going through their routines and mugging shamelessly to the camera it’s an intriguing little record and, if you’re so attuned, really quite amusing. A cautious recommendation, but I’m convinced, and also quite tempted to return to those other film appearances of Robinson and reassess his impact (even Come Play With Me).
As with this month’s other Adelphi release from the BFI - You Lucky People!, reviewed here - Fun at St Fanny’s is arriving onto DVD as a single-layered disc housing just the feature. Restored and remastered, the film is in very good shape and looks terrific (arguably edging You Lucky People! in terms of presentation quality). The original CameraScope frame of 2.35:1 is retained (and anamorphically enhanced) as is the original mono soundtrack. In both cases the occasional sign of damage or wear is apparent, though such instances are rare and by no means a distraction. Indeed, as with all Adelphi releases to date this is no doubt the best the film has ever looked since its premiere. There will be no Blu-ray as initially appeared on some e-tailers, but otherwise the standard BFI Adelphi additions are in place, namely optional English subtitles and a fully illustrated booklet. Here we find a piece on the film by Vic Pratt, Norman Wright on the representation of British schooldays on screen, reminiscences from Ronnie Corbett (“one of the strangest casts I think I’ve ever been in”) and Vera Day, plus a bio for Maurice Elvey and Kate Lees on Adelphi Films. With the exception of the latter two (which have appeared in all of the previous Adelphi booklets where applicable) these are all newly commissioned pieces and worthy of a read. Rounding off things we also find the expected full credits, notes on the transfer and acknowledgements.