The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer Review
Before the IMDB and if you didn't have access to a Halliwell's Encyclopedia of Film nor a tendency to hoard old copies of the TV magazines, it was entirely possible to think that one had dreamt up a film rather than that it was viewed on television, most likely in a late-night/early-morning slot on BBC2 or Channel 4. The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer is one such film. A surreal satire on politics, polling and power, it stars Peter Cook as the titular Rimmer and is so visually bizarre and so inventive a film that it might well have been dreamt up on a night that followed a supper of particularly potent cheeses. Featuring John Cleese ballroom dancing on his own, Arthur Lowe fishing for mackerel in a zoo and Ronald Fraser as the prime minister holding a chunk of discovered gold aloft while stationed on a North Sea oil rig, it is a most odd little film. But it is also such a remarkably brazen political satire as to have no equal until Yes, Minister and, very much later, The Thick Of It.
The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer begins with Rimmer arriving at the offices of Fairburn Polls and, armed with nothing more than a clipboard, pen and an inscrutable way of working, goes from office to office and simply watches. Everyone suspects Rimmer is involved with time-and-motion but he declares himself simply as being in co-ordination. But he has the ear of Mr Fairburn (Dennis Price) and on reporting an annual deficit of £75,000, finds himself in a plush new office and ridding himself of Mr Ferret (Arthur Lowe). Success has come easily for Rimmer and as he replaces the wall charts that report failure with those that announce triumphs, he finds that Fairburn are now winning contracts and making something of a splash in business circles. Come their polling the British public over their sexual habits, Rimmer personally makes the television chat shows and the front page of the tabloids. "Is Doncaster the wife-swapping capital of Britain?", ask the broadcasters. Soon, though, Rimmer is attracting the attention of the Conservative Party, then in opposition, and its leader, Tom Hutchinson (Ronald Fraser). "There are always seats available...for the right candidate", is what Hutchinson has to say to Rimmer and come the election, Rimmer finds himself in the House Of Commons. Success has come easily indeed. But everyone must fall eventually, mustn't they?
Well, given the title of the film, there is no fall in Rimmer's future. Instead, this is a satire as seen by those around Rimmer, who witness his every golden touch and, more often than not, find themselves inventing flaws in the man while others fall helplessly for what appears to be charm. Rimmer, on the other hand, believes only in himself - he has boundless amounts of confidence - and in asking the right question. Get the questions right, says Rimmer, and the answer that you desire will follow. He seems well suited, then, to a polling agency, one that predicts the outcome of a by-election by polling everybody in the borough and, by more devious means, has 75% of the population of Nuneaton declaring themselves Buddhist. As well as polling the British public on their sexual habits, he delves into advertising with an obscene campaign for Scorpio Humbugs in which a very lonely young woman discards her clothes and finds another purpose for the extreme hardness of a tube of humbugs.
Rimmer rises effortlessly and very soon he is advising the Bishop of Cowley (Graham Crowden) on the God problem in the Church Of England - apparently, people like the services, the churches and the hymns but aren't entirely sure about God - the Conservative Party and the unpopular Labour Prime Minister, Blackett (George Cooper) who Rimmer says should be on the television more often. Then again, he also says of Blackett during one of his thrice-daily broadcasts, "Never seen a man dig his own grave before!" Rimmer's star continues rising as the Labour party collapses in the polls - not helped by Blackett swearing during a live broadcast - and the Conservative Party sweeps into power. He is offered a seat when he assists in throwing an aging politician to the wolves of the press - "A fragile old lady of ninety-two...a group of ten immigrants who...finally forced her to use a newspaper photograph of Enoch Powell in a way that...I'd rather not go into here! I wonder are we mad to allow in this country fragile old ladies to be ruthlessly poked by blacks? Are we mad? ARE WE MAD?" - and is appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer. Rimmer, however, is not finished yet.
Peter Cook is absolutely marvellous in the title role, a man who does little more than tell people what it is they want to hear but does so with a winning smile. In the end, he achieves almost everything but the success in the film is watching him do it. Every scenes contains not only great physical comedy but some beautifully played satire in which the hopelessness of government is laid completely bare when a charismatic politician rises to the very top. One suspects that Anthony Charles Lynton Blair would have had a youthful liking of The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer and might well have cemented his friendships with Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson over a shared liking of this film. Certainly, there's much of Michael Rimmer in Blair in the way he ran government, not least Rimmer's, "I've never thought of myself as a socialist", which Blair could also have said while Blair and Rimmer look to have been at their happiest running government almost single-handedly while others loll about. In Rimmer's case, it's enjoying high tea while he sets off to storm Switzerland with germ warfare - Unionjackulitis...concentrated English common cold - and to steal all their gold. Any politician who feel from grace during those Blair years will see a parallel in the ease with which Rimmer rids his party of anything like principles. It really does feel like a film make some thirty years before its time, something that director Billington notes that Harold Pinter told him following a recent viewing of it. Odd indeed, that the film that best describes the Blair years was made in 1969.
However, there's as much to enjoy in that as simply in watching a group of wonderful comedians on the screen together. By the time The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer was filmed, Peter Cook had already begun The Establishment and Private Eye while John Cleese and Graham Chapman were preparing for Monty Python. Arthur Lowe, Ronnie Corbett, Graham Crowden and Frank Thornton are all in here. Arthur Lowe appears to have a wonderful time as the put-upon Ferret who begins the film in his version of Old England watching cricket on the television, enjoying cream tea and fondling his beautiful secretary (Valerie Leon) but who, when ousted by Rimmer, must sell all of his possessions to remain afloat. He even invents a wonderful running gag of the new Fors Ale to disguise the FOR SALE sign in the window of his car, which leads him to scribbling new labels for his bottles of beer. Denholm Elliott is charming and so very suave as Peter Niss, Rimmer's partner throughout many of his more unpleasant dealings and there's even a cameo appearance by famed British bird impersonator Percy Edwards. But more than all of that, The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer features a group of comedians (Cleese, Corbett, Chapman and Cook) who were rising as quickly as was Rimmer. Here, they do indeed look as they could do no wrong. Perfect, then, to feature in this film if not quite the offer of the presidency gifted to Rimmer.
The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer is the kind of film that, with something of a cult around it, could have crept into the shops with a fairly dreadful transfer and while there might have been much grumbling, it would still have found its audience. Happily, The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer has been brought to DVD in a rather good condition. There is a very small amount of wobble in the picture and there is a little print damage throughout but, on the whole, it's a fine job. It is interlaced and there's a noticeable amount of ghosting in some scenes but the only real problem to note is that the picture does tend to break apart in the last split-second before a cut. It's not a problem, as such, other than it reveals all too clearly the encoding but watching this on a plasma screen, it was the one fault with the picture that drew my attention.
Otherwise, the DD2.0 audio track does a fine job. There's nothing in The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer that would have demanded a DD5.1 remix and thankfully we've been spared one but what we have here is, other than a little background noise, clear. There may be four of five moments in the film when it's hard to hear what's being said, which is when subtitles would have been useful, but it tends towards being a good release and actually quite a bit better than I had expected.
Commentary: Kevin Billington is on his own for this track, in which he begins by describing the members of the cast and the Pete'n'Dud'n'John Cleese-fired lunches they used to have during the making of The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer before taking the film a scene at a time and occasionally discussing the satirical merits of the film as a whole. With a good memory for events nearly forty years ago, Billington is a good listen. He does leave the very odd gap in the commentary but when he immediately catches the silence, more often than not he storms back into another anecdote about the filming or its politicking. He is also charming to the very end, making this a thoroughly enjoyable listen from someone who appears to be awfully decent but who didn't allow that to stop him making a very pointed satire.
There is also a Stills Gallery (5m38s) and the Original Film Poster (Still Image).