Saturday, 17 April 2010

The A-Z of Britsploitation Cinema: E is for Eskimo Nell (1975)

We return now to the mucky world of the 70s sexcom. Eskimo Nell is unusual in several respects for a film of the genre, including the fact that at times it’s actually, genuinely funny – and because it means to be rather than because of its ineptitude or the cruelty of the passing years. Admittedly most of the jokes are the usual sledgehammer-subtle double entendres that make Carry On at Your Convenience look like The Importance of Being Earnest (‘My late husband was a keen ornithologist – he specialised in tits!’, that sort of thing) but where Eskimo Nell really scores is as a spoof of the British sex comedy itself, a ripe target by 1975.

Eskimo Nell is about a young director with big ideas who’s sidetracked into sexploitation as it’s the only kind of film he can get the money to make. It’s directed by Martin Campbell, a young director with big ideas who… well, you get the idea. Campbell (previously behind 1974’s The Sex Thief) would eventually see his big ideas pay off and he’d go on to much bigger things like the Bond movies Goldeneye and Casino Royale. The same seems unlikely to be true of fictional director Dennis Morrison (played, in a further level of self-reference, by Eskimo Nell’s screenwriter Michael Armstrong, himself a young director with big ideas etc etc) who hooks up with the only producer who’ll have him, Soho denizen Benny U. Murdoch of B.U.M. Productions. Benny is a brilliant comic turn from Roy Kinnear, oozing sleaze from every pore (‘Which would you rather see – an arty-crafty film or a bloody great pair of tits?’). His previous hits include She Liked It Hot and Sweaty and Midnight Forever (a film about lesbianism in a convent which did terrible business until the title was changed to Dirty Knickers). For anyone who likes to dip their toes in the murkier waters of 70s cinema this knowing humour at the expense of the sex film industry should be priceless and Campbell, Armstrong and seasoned sexploitation producer Stanley Long are clearly having a whale of time – but the humour’s good natured ribbing rather than penetrating (ooh, I say) satire. After all, Eskimo Nell is still a Soho sex film itself, and it doesn’t do to bite too hard on the hand that feeds you.

Benny assigns Dennis and virginal, penguin-obsessed screenwriter Harris Tweedle (Christopher Timothy pre-All Creatures Great and Small) to a big screen version of the famous dirty poem The Ballad of Eskimo Nell, to star Benny’s chesty girlfriend Gladys Armitage (the wonderful Diane Langton, now a star of Hollyoaks). All they need now is to raise the cash. Benny arranges meetings with a series of eccentric backers, each with their own demands for the film’s content. First up is American distributor Big Dick (Gordon Tanner), who insists that the film be hardcore and star his current squeeze, the terrifying, screech-voiced Billie (Beth Porter) (it’s significant that in a film full of brash, tasteless characters the Americans are the brashest and most tasteless of all). The next potential funder is elderly philanthropist Ambrose Cream (Richard Caldicot) who takes a special interest in the welfare of young girls and sees the film as an ideal vehicle for the particular talents of his latest protégé, soprano and Kung Fu expert Millicent (Prudence Drage). Finally they approach merchant banker Vernon Peabody (Jeremy Hawke), whose financial acumen may not be as great as he thinks, considering his idea for a surefire hit is an all-British Western starring his drag queen boyfriend Johnny (the alarming Raynor Burton, whose drag outfit makes him look like Ronald McDonald dressed as Carmen Miranda).

Benny assures the boys they’ll find a way round the various demands that have been placed with them, but then absconds with the cash. Salvation of a sort arrives in the form of Dennis’s girlfriend Hermione. She’s played by Katy Manning, shortly after her stint as Doctor Who companion Jo Grant and with the same kind of breathless enthusiasm that made her a hit in that show. She’s also the daughter of moral crusader Lady Longhorn (Rosalind Knight, best known in recentish years as the mad landlady in excruciating sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme), a gleefully unsubtle parody of Mary Whitehouse and Lord Longford. Her organisation includes The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Jonathan Adams as the droolingly hypocritical Lord Coltwind (‘I’ve studied pornography over the years and I know what effect it can have on you’) and her son Jeremy (Christopher Biggins, essentially playing a live action Walter the Softie). Lady Longhorn provides the cash for the film, but unsurprisingly wants a totally wholesome, family version of the story.

Dennis decides that the only way to please everyone who’s invested is to make all four versions of the film back-to-back on the cheap. In one night they get all four in the can (in a very odd conception of film-making which consists of just pointing the camera at on-stage action). Obviously all we see of the ‘hardcore’ version is just Benny Hill-style speeded-up romping, while the seemingly Heidi-inspired family version mainly features Manning and Biggins exchanging especially groansome innuendoes (the sight of Katy Manning having a good feel of Christopher Biggins’ big purple package is one that lingers in the memory). The stereotypes populating the gay Western are exactly what you’d expect in a 70s comedy, though the idea of what gay men find arousing is more than bizarre – camp men in full make-up smacking each other’s bottoms. On the receiving end of a spanking is Nicholas Young, in very different territory to his day job as leader of TV’s The Tomorrow People. By far the funniest of the four versions is the Kung Fu musical, a bizarre mish-mash of The Sound of Music and The King and I with added martial arts. Anna Quayle, whose screen career at the time consisted mainly of strange cameos in films like this but who my generation remember as Grange Hill ’s Mrs Monroe, turns up briefly to give a ridiculously OTT performance as a temperamental opera star playing Mother Superior.

Despite (or perhaps because of) featuring only one set and consisting mainly of two people having a tea party, the family version of the film proves a hit with Lady Longhorn and is chosen for a royal charity performance. But a series of predictable mishaps and a race to ensure the correct version of the film gets screened lie just round the corner…

Eskimo Nell is enormous fun, with the jolly, good natured feel of classic 70s sitcoms, enhanced by its jaunty, banjo-led score. True to the film’s depiction of Wardour Street philistines its publicists ignored the film’s satirical angle and promoted it straight as an adaptation of the filthy rhyme. Katy Manning, who famously once posed naked with a Dalek, remains fully clothed throughout. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Roy Kinnear.

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