Old Mother Riley in Paris / Old Mother Riley M.P. Review

Though best known for their releases of classic British war movies and documentaries (Millions Like Us, The True Glory, The Great War), DDVideo have also been known to unearth the odd gem outside of the military realm. They’ve revealed a whole other comic world beyond the Carry On Doctor in the House axis courtesy of a number of Crazy Gang/Flanagan and Allen releases not to mention various obscure sitcom spin-offs. And then there are the pre-horror Hammer titles allowing aficionados to catch up with long forgotten Terence Fisher potboilers or the trio of Dick Barton adaptations. Indeed, for the connoisseur their output represents a kind of treacherous goldmine; the likes of Dateline Diamonds with the Small Faces may entice more than they can satisfy, but then there’s always some previously veiled corner to uncover. This month [January 2006], for example, sees the release of three discs each housing two Old Mother Riley movies, a series of music hall transpositions which ran from 1937 to the early fifties.

Old Mother Riley was the creation of Arthur Lucan, a drag act which according to the sleeve blurb topped variety hall bills for almost thirty years and made film history when Lucan became the first man ever to cross-dress through an entire feature. Of course, he’s supposed to be playing a female character – a tough, working class Irish washerwoman with a short fuse – but nonetheless there’s an air of Little Britain’s Emily Howard about him/her. After all, save for a handful of camp affectations, all he makes do with is a skirt, a cheap wig, a false nose and slightly shriller voice than usual. Backing him up we also find Kitty McShane making an appearance in all but one of the fifteen screen ventures as Old Mother Riley’s daughter. For the most part she’s a decidedly bland presence, there solely to provide a slim romantic subplot or further the story along a little. In other words, she’s the UK’s equivalent of Zeppo, though of course the Marx brothers had ditched him come 1937.

This particular disc offers up screen outings two and three in the Old Mother Riley screen saga, though connections from one film to the next are tenuous enough to be inconsequential. Much like Max Miller’s big screen efforts, or those of Gracie Fields, Will Hay or Arthur Askey, what we find is nothing more than a particular comic persona dropped into the flimsiest of narratives without regard for what has come before or will happen later. Old Mother Riley in Paris sees our washerwoman get mixed up in spying shenanigans over the Channel, whilst Old Mother Riley M.P. has her run for parliament as a means of defeating a wily politician intent on demolishing her street and the local pub along with it.

As you’d expect the storytelling side of things hardly stays in the memory for long. Both films are in thrall to their lead as opposed to their narratives – and Lucan simply recreates his music hall performances for the camera. Indeed, there’s no added subtlety despite the closer proximity, but the very same brand of over the top visual humour which has satisfied the live crowds. Every single line is near shouted and underscored with a flailing of limbs. Put alongside the quieter big screen efforts of a Tommy Trinder, say, Lucan sees positively hyperactive, but then these films are so cinematically unadventurous that his exertions are the nearest we get to visual pleasures.

How much this affects your enjoyment depends largely on your response to the scripts. …in Paris is the worse offender with too much reliance on Kitty and no great set pieces (instead we get a series on individual gags which never build to anything), though …M.P. proves pleasingly snappy and in possession of the sharper wit. One of the problems with Old Mother Riley is that she isn’t especially good at interacting with characters – essentially she’s a one-man show and as such needs the dialogue to keep us occupied. Happily, …M.P. offers up a series of monologues and stage-like set pieces (an auction, public addresses) which allow Lucan to recreate the atmosphere of the music hall appearances and therefore find him closer to home. In fact, they’re not all that different from Will Hay’s schoolroom sketches and have no doubt been similarly honed over the years and multitudes of performances.

That said, Lucan remains an acquired taste and is perhaps for nostalgists or archivists only. The onscreen malarkey (probably the aptest term) is all well and good, whilst the non-PC moments raise the odd guilty chuckle – the second film presents wife beating, midgets and foreign diplomacy all with the same deficiency in tact – but if you’re looking for between the wars British comedy then there are safer places to start. Will Hay’s Oh, Mr. Porter! and the Crazy Gang’s O-Kay for Sound, for example, and perhaps even George Formby.

The Disc

Both films – which barely breach the 70 minute mark – come on the same dual-layered disc and unaccompanied by extras. It’s pretty much as you’d expect (to be honest I’ve struggled in coming up with any potential extras beyond the standard gallery and film notes) which means that we’re relying solely upon presentation qualities here. In fact, they’re not that bad considering how minor these films are in the larger context of British cinema. Both demonstrate moderate instances of damage – tramlining, flicker, dirt and scratches – but importantly the clarity of the image and the contrast are really quite good. I had expected smudgy nth generation public domain and so was pleasantly surprised by DD’s efforts. That said, the soundtracks, or at least Old Mother Riley in Paris’, aren’t perfect. Here we find distortion and plenty of crackle, though it may be the case that we shouldn’t expect any better as perhaps nothing better exists. …M.P. fares much better on the ears, but then it is worth heeding the warning which opens the disc with regards to the presentation quality. As such the lack of optional English subtitles also comes as a disappointment, though no doubt that small army of Old Mother Riley fans out there will be more than happy to finally pick up some of Lucan’s efforts on disc.

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