Tommy Trinder returns to the military lifestyle for the BFI’s latest Adelphi rediscovery.
August sees the latest arrivals in the BFI’s ongoing Adelphi Collection and a slight change in approach. Gone are the dual-format double-bills housing both Blu-ray and DVD; in their place we find standalone features on standard definition disc. Clearly some thought was put into the decision and we can only conclude that hi-def and the primary audience for mostly forgotten British comedies from the 1950s do not mix. How this affects the secondary audience of classic cinema collectors fond of their cutting edge technology remains to be seen, but in the meantime everything else remains as was. In other words we’re getting more rarely seen films unearthed from the vaults, freshly restored and remastered. This month there’s an additional novelty as both were filmed in CameraScope, a little used widescreen device that never really caught on. Indeed, the first of the two and the one under review here – 1955’s You Lucky People! – was also the first ever black and white production to be shot with an anamorphic lens.
As Vic Pratt’s booklet notes inform us, the original plan for You Lucky People! was colour and ‘proper’ CinemaScope. Evidently this was another attempt on Adelphi’s part to counter their status as a very small scale family-run operation with grand production values much like The Crowded Day from the previous year (and the previous BFI double-bill). That film had ex-Ealing cinematographer Gordon Dines lending a sheen of professionalism, whilst John Gregson, fresh from success with Genevieve, headed up an impressive cast of familiar faces. There was also a ‘prestigious’ air to proceedings beyond the look and star quality courtesy of its distinctly non-Adelphi seriousness. Low comedy played a part, but it was set amongst a more prominent high drama as it detailed a day in the lives of its various female characters. You Lucky People! retains the services of Dines, shares in some of that star quality and mostly does away with the drama. Given that the lead this time around is occupied by Tommy Trinder, it should come as little surprise to discover we have a low-brow comedy on our hands.
Trinder is also the reason for the monochrome and alternate widescreen device. His fee plus colour and CinemaScope were too much to ask for Adelphi especially as The Crowded Day, for all its ambitions, didn’t quite manage to escape its ‘B’ picture shackles. Nonetheless it’s debatable as to quite what You Lucky People! would have gained from such additions beyond commercial attraction. Certainly, they were all the rage at the time in the fight for television audiences, but this is a film which has little interest in the visual. As an army-based comedy its entire duration takes place within a barracks and a mostly studio-created one at that (save for occasional exterior when a drill-based set piece is required). As a Tommy Trinder vehicle its humour is mostly derived from his line in quick patter, one that was honed on the cabaret circuit and the radio. By extension, as an adaptation of the radio play Fifteen Days by Sidney Nelson and Maurice Harrison its concreting its status as a film reliant more on its dialogue than action. There are bouts of slapstick, but the wordplay is the thing – which, of course, is exactly what Trinder would have wanted.
This latter element is important given that You Lucky People! was deemed as something of a potential comeback for its lead. Trinder’s last onscreen appearance had been five years previous in Ealing’s non-comic Australian-set pioneer drama Bitter Springs. Prior to that his last comedic performance had come in 1944’s Champagne Charlie, the last of a run of wartime successes that had made him a household name. (Indeed, he was well-known enough that his name could feature in a Ministry of Information propaganda short: Eating Out with Tommy Trinder.) In other words his star was beginning to fade. As things turned out the film turned out to be his last starring vehicle for the big screen with subsequent performances reducing him to guest performances or supporting turns, usually as himself (as in Arthur Askey vehicle Make Mine a Million) or in the slightest of variations (as in Barry McKenzie Holds His Own where he played the convict grandfather of the eponymous ‘hero’). Yet any suggestion that You Lucky People! played a major role in this should be downplayed. The same year as its release also saw Trinder’s debut on television: three days into ITV’s existence he became the first host of Saturday Night at the Palladium and stayed with the medium for the rest of the decade variously as host, presenter and panellist. In total he would do 76 editions of Saturday Night thus reigniting his wartime fame and once again becoming immediately familiar with the public at large.
Had Val Parnell not enlisted Trinder for the ITV gig it’s tempting to consider if You Lucky People! would have had the desired effect on its lead’s career. Vic Pratt’s notes inform us that the film made a profit – but that “neither the Trinder nor the Dents were made rich by it” – by doing steady business and finding favour in seaside towns. Perhaps similar big screen ventures would have followed, though hopefully they would be better than this one. It’s not a bad film just a strictly ordinary one. The plotting is very simple – and arguably somewhat telling for Trinder. It concerns a group of reservists who are recalled, for the first time since the Second World War, for a fortnight of refresher training. In other words it’s Trinder returning to his old cinematic stomping ground, a revisiting if you will of the military characters played in earlier hits: Sailors Three and its sequel Fiddlers Three, The Foreman Went to France, The Bells Go Down. Like Trinder his character has done well for himself, but deep down he’s still the same cheeky chappy willing to give the top brass a run for their money, flirt with the women and, when time permits, sing a song or two. In some respects this is all that is required – after all it presents Trinder doing what he does best. Moreover, it arguably doesn’t really matter what he is doing in terms of narrative as long as the character stays true to the public image. Indeed, the title You Lucky People! is drawn from his catchphrase, emphasising that this is all about Tommy and not really anything to do with reservists or barracks life or anything else for that matter.
Nevertheless this does feel like watered down Trinder and not a patch on his earlier efforts for Ealing. (Those who have yet to sample his work and are yet to take the plunge would be far better off starting with Optimum’s seven-film collection which contains all of his key wartime performances.) The songs aren’t particularly memorable and the routines mostly hit-and-miss (one particular highlight: when asked why he isn’t married Trinder replies “I think I’m a misogynist”). Of course, Trinder’s presence helps immensely and so you would never describe You Lucky People! as a poor effort, but the lack of any genuine narrative interest to fall back on does prevent it from being anything more than average. In truth it is some of the non-Trinder derived elements which provoke the smiles such as an unexpected appearance from Rolf Harris (and, yes, he does draw a quick sketch), an expected appearance from former military man ‘Tibby’ Brittain (aka “The Voice” and a regular on-screen Sergeant Major following his retirement from being the real thing) and an always welcome Dora Bryan. In Bryan’s case, however, her presence cannot help but recall Carry On Sergeant where she was part of the ensemble. Of course that film triggered a franchise and still stands up to this day. You Lucky People! on the other hand ultimately feels more like a footnote.
You Lucky People! arrives onto DVD as a single-layered disc encoded for all regions. Restored and remastered for this release (and previous screening on the Sky Arts channel), it retains the original 2.35:1 CameraScope framing and is anamorphically enhanced. As should be expected by now given the previous Adelphi releases, the presentation quality is very good with a clean image and a soundtrack of similar clarity. Of course the standard definition only nature of this release does prompt some disappointment when it comes to levels of detail – and knowing how things could have looked on Blu-ray – though under the circumstances we are still getting the film in a more than acceptable condition. Note that the anamorphic process used causes some distortion on either edge of the frame (during the heavily populated drill sequences, for example, we may spot a character experiencing some vertical squashing), but also that this is inherent in You Lucky People!’s production and not that of the disc. As per the previous Adelphi discs, optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing are available. Also present is the expected booklet complete with illustrations, credits, brief bios for Adelphi, Trinder and director Maurice Elvey and a superb overview of the film by Vic Pratt. The Adelphi piece is identical to the others that have appeared in previous booklets, whilst those on Trinder and Elvey are edited versions of the bios that appear on Screenonline. Interestingly John Oliver’s piece on Trinder in its original incarnation referred to You Lucky People! as “dismal”. It’s understandable as to why the BFI have omitted it for this release, but as a judgement it’s also somewhat harsh. For all my misgivings the film remains a perfectly enjoyable romp, nothing more and nothing less.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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