03/09/2013

Carlton-Browne Of The F.O. (1959)


I say, what a splendid topper! Wherever did you get it? 

Terry-Thomas is the inept diplomat of the title in this Boulting Brothers send-up of international relations at the fag end of the imperial age. Carlton-Browne, the nominal chief of the Foreign Office's Miscellaneous Territories department, idles away his days sipping tea and skim-reading The Times from behind his ministry desk without a care in the world. Until, that is, a sudden crisis concerning the forgotten colony of Gaillardia stirs him into action.

This tropical island, discovered by accident in the eighteenth century when a British merchant ship carrying a cargo of oranges ran into it on a moonless night, has been permitted self-governance for the last 50 years, although no one bothered to tell the British ambassador (Miles Malleson), who has diligently remained at his post ever since. It is he who unexpectedly reports back to London after a five decade silence that Gaillardia has been overrun with Russian spies dressed as Cossacks intent on digging mysterious holes all over the place. Foreign Secretary Tufton-Slade (Raymond Huntley) dispatches Carlton-Browne to investigate but our man soon becomes sidetracked by a battle for sovereignty between the Oxford-educated heir to the throne (Ian Bannen) and Princess Ilyena (Luciana Paoluzzi), the preferred choice of the Grand Duke (John Le Mesurier), a situation hardly helped by the machinations of slimy Prime Minister Amphibious (Peter Sellers). The island is soon partitioned straight down the middle, leaving the Russians and Americans holding their cards close to their chests and Carlton-Browne precisely nowhere.


Carlton-Browne Of The F.O. had its premiere at the National Film Theatre in February 1959, which Evening Standard reporter Jeremy Campbell described thusly: 

"It was considered jolly good fun that Mr. Terry-Thomas should arrive in a donkey-cart dressed in full ambassadorial kit with a sword and a red hot water bottle, the English being traditionally reluctant to abandon their creature comforts. Imitation F.O. men in bowler hats slightly too large for them were brought in from the Ballet Rambert. They sipped drinks strange to the white-collared world of Whitehall - vodka with tomato juice." 

As fun as this occasion sounds, and for all the film's bold pursuit of big targets, satirical oomph (particularly on the subject of Britain's ludicrous post-colonial geopolitical posturing) and solid character playing, it is, in truth, maddeningly slow and not especially funny. However, Carlton-Browne's shortage of jokes doesn't altogether matter as it's a charming Cold War curiosity nonetheless and there are some definite comic highlights, notably Irene Handl's short cameo as a cheerily ignorant housewife being interviewed by a TV news crew in search of a representative opinion on the Gaillardia question from a typical member of the Great British Public. T-T is rather hamstrung in the title role, which is really more in Ian Carmichael's line, as it doesn't allow him to play his usual purring cad, although he is convincing as an upper-crust nit born into privilege and entirely out of his depth. He's missing Ascot for all this and that's no small sacrifice, we're led to understand. Huntley and Malleson are enjoyable as irate bureaucrat and doddering gout-sufferer respectively, Thorley Walters is amusing as Colonel Bellingham, Sellers is nicely oily without getting carried away but the romance between Bannen and Paoluzzi is far too slight to win our affection, her part in particular sorely underwritten. Still, the very sight of that feathered pith helmet is surely enough to raise a grin.

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