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Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?

THE PLOT: Er… can we get back to you on that one?

We’ve always been fascinated by this film. Well, the idea of it, at any rate. For one, Joan Collins is in it, which is “price of admission alone” territory round our way. Secondly, while not actually possessing a copy of the original Pop Goes the Weasel Decca 45, we’ve always had a soft spot for Anthony Newley too, and as his ratings-shedding but fondly-remembered old ATV sitcom The Strange World of Gurney Slade is often bracketed with this film, it surely demands a look. Dick Hills and Sid Green, the Slade writers, aren’t enlisted here, though – it’s almost all Newley’s own work. Could that, coupled with the quadrupled running time, prove a setback? Well…

We open on… a beach. White sand, blue skies, yadda yadda. We’re in Malta, but it hardly matters – this is the beach of Anthony Newley’s mind. Weston-Super-Mare at low tide would have done just as well. Fellini did a film which started on a beach, La Strada. This is no mere coincidence. Tone loves Fellini almost as much as he loves Tone. He’s anxious for us to know that he Knows His Stuff, Federico-wise. As such, there’ll be comparisons of the two throughout this little jaunt – oh, the possibilities!

These stills are in no particular order. Well, if the film itself can't be bothered... Arse!

And here’s the lad himself, sporting the daftest pair of outsize sunglasses since Sunnie Mann took to the world stage. As the beach scenes appear to solarise (or is it just the shoddiness of the print? As with much of the visual goings-on here, it’s hard to sift the intentional effect from the pure cockup) a knowingly portentous voiceover bigs up Our Tone. “Written in the sands of time… the magic quill of an Aristophanes…” Christ. This had better get very good very fast.

And it does! Patricia Hayes is in the house! Well, a sort of make shift beach hut to be honest, crammed with props and cans of film – it’s a symbolic hut, you understand. Hayes is Newley’s ever-doting mum Gracie here, you see, and she’s accompanied by his two kids, played by… his two kids. Yep, little Alex and Tara are sat on Pat’s lap throughout, looking confused, bored and in considerable discomfort. It’s almost like a mirror. Presumably this experience, combined with an unwieldy chunk of inherited wealth, dissuaded young Alex from following his dad into the limelight, though of course Tara is an in-demand voice-over talent, with GMTV pre-school cartoon Cubeez (she was the one with glasses, oh, you must remember!) and a concept album about garlic under her belt. Honestly.

And here’s the first outing of those singular vocal talents. “Shall we sing Happy Birthday, daddy?” Yes, it’s Tone’s 40th, and he’s feeling a tad morose. Not as morose as Pat and the Newley Juniors though, who have to sit there while Tone lays his mid-life crisis cobblers on them. He’s about to embark on a lengthy bout of soul searching, we find, to establish “the plain, bare-bottomed facts”. Fair enough, let’s get on with it.

Before we can do that, though, here comes a bloke in white suit, white gloves, white brolly and white panama hat. Emerging from a basket. Singing to himself in a gravelly baritone. Then vanishing, Rentaghost style. Fair enough, let’s get on with it.

Finally we do, as Newley gets the beach-bound projector rolling. “I’d like a Piccadilly Lilly of my own!” Yes, on the film, on a stage (but still on the beach) it’s Bruce Forsyth as Newley’s fictional uncle, one J Poindexter Limelight, dressed in bashed stovepipe hat and enormous, Union Jack-trimmed flares, belting out cockney songs on a battered upright, while Newley, in Pierrot make-up and costume and with Thunderbird-style strings emerging from limbs (Oh, the symbolism!) looks dopily on. Things are looking up.

Brucie cautions the young Tone on the perils of showbiz in his best music hall cockney toff voice. “Forget the theatre! She’s a strumpet! A harlot! A whore!” He rises from the piano and we discover he’s on stilts. Is there anything this man can’t do? But the best is yet to come, as Brucie gets his big number, On the Boards, a breakneck paean to the roar of the greasepaint. “I love the boards… those hordes of broads!” He accompanies himself with a soft-shoe shuffle, random conjuring tricks, custard pies, Groucho walks, full-on tap dancing with cane, and then a truly virtuoso rapid tap followed by mock exhaustion, after which he keels over and a lily pops up from his coat. He’s dead! Bugger, as Brucie was top fun, more on his own terms than via the film’s turgid symbolism. Even though he clearly had even less clue about what was going on than Newley.

Pat! Clownery!

“When ya gotta go, ya gotta go…” It’s that white-clad man again, who turns out to be George Jessel, a true legend in American vaudeville circles, a veteran trouper with a career stretching back to before the First World War, known as the Toastmaster General for his consummate master of ceremony skills. A man thoroughly accustomed to public speaking, then. So why is he delivering his lines in such a distant, befuddled and thoroughly limp manner? We blame the director. Clinging to a wafer-thin concept even he doesn’t fully grasp, Newley’s handling of actors makes Kubrick look like Sidney Lumet. Jessel’s not alone in his worried cluelessness. With the likes of Brucie and Pat, this doesn’t matter so much, as they can do their respective turns over the top of the ramshackle edifice, so to speak. The Americans aren’t as adaptable, however. Jessel’s the first of several respected Yanks to truly look all at sea in this production.

And it’s entirely forgivable. Jessel’s role is as The Presence, a sort of hazily-defined angel-cum-harbinger-of-death who rocks up whenever someone’s about to drop off the twig to deliver a rambling, corny old gag. And that’s it. As rock-solid, fully-thought-through premises go, it’s right up there with The Watcher off of Tom Baker’s final Dr Who excursion. So, a woolly idea, haphazardly executed. A pattern would appear to be emerging.

By now it’s becoming clear that the whole thing is a slapdash smorgasbord of whatever ’60s-endorsed tricks can be thrown at it. Jump cuts, fish-eye lenses – is anyone directing this? Despite the scenes of Newley wielding a megaphone, and expertly threading a film projector, Tone’s attempts to convince as a filmmaker are doomed from the off. There’s real talent involved – veteran Czech photographer Otto Heller, who has The Ladykillers and Peeping Tom among his credits, mans the lens, but any half-decent movie magic he can squeeze out of Pat Hayes sat in a wicker chair is undercut by El Newley’s gallumphing fists of ham.

But back to the plot, and Brucie’s sent off in a suitably Ashes to Ashes-style funeral – still on the beach, natch. Now we see Newley (as Baby Merkin) doing Brucie’s Piccadilly Lilly song, but all lifeless and with the puppet strings still attached to his limbs. Then the kid gets out of his childhood Hackney manse via a pastiche of the old-timery spinning papers/train wheels/champagne corks montage signalling a whirlwind of showbiz success. It’s looking good – even Pat’s cheered up a bit.

It doesn’t last, though. In a puff of smoke, up pops Milton Berle, clad in a furry pantomime satyr outfit, no less. Fortunately for him, and us, the thief of bad gags quickly changes into blue jacket and shorts for the rest of the picture. He is Goodtime Eddie Filth, some kind of embodiment of showbiz sleaze, who chats the nascent Newley up and introduces Little Assistance – that is to say, the scantily-attired form of Margaret Nolan, Dink off of Goldfinger and buxom stooge to Milligan and the Carry Ons, whom Tone swiftly beds as the tide comes in – From Here to Mediocrity – while Pat sits about looking forlorn and generally being criminally wasted.

Back to the bed, and this time it’s moving about – on various fairground rides, no less, as Nolan and Newley hump away. There’s even a censor-baiting blow job scene on a merry-go-round. Now we’re into the domain the film seems most comfortable with – lashings of luridly shot comedy shagging. All remarkably chaste by present day standards of course, but it’s all done with that unmistakably unpleasant Playboy keyholder undercurrent, and indeed various Playmates have supporting roles here, allowing for a tasty bit of cross-promotion.

By now Newley’s in a tent on the beach, and a queue of birds line up to shag him – along with “the occasional exotic fruit” (cue bloke in cravat looking camply askance at the camera accompanied by comedy sound effect – he may be after the New Wave in cinematic terms, but the gags are firmly Old Hat).

Explanation for this... er, somewhere Critics = witches! Metaphor dept takes rest of afternoon off

Then it all comes to a halt – thank God. One Filigree Fondle (and oh, how the Playboy mansion must have been set on a roar the night Tone and pals sat about in the sauna thinking up those comedy women’s names) is pregnant by the wayward troubadour. Said Ms Fondle is played by Judy Cornwell, adding another arrow to her quiver full of put-upon victim roles. A wedding is hastily convened, complete with choirboys and that weirdo Ashes to Ashes priest (Julian Orchard, no less), thus identifying Cornwell’s character, for those playing along at home with that Garth Bardsley biography, as Ann Lynn, Newley’s first wife and Vince’s mum off of Just Good Friends to boot.

Now we cut to Newley at the projector, heckling his own film before anyone in the auditorium gets a chance – a deft tactic. Back in the film within the film – and if you can’t handle this level of tail-chasing you might as well bail out now as it doesn’t get any simpler – Newley dumps Rita Pinner – sorry, Ann – sorry, Filigree. Now he’s Frankie Vaughan, singing the Piccadilly Lily song (it’s an admittedly nice touch to have the same song represent his entire oeuvre) in a club. He looks like someone, but who?

Now we come to the most convoluted visual symbol in this whole ordeal. A faceless Newley, played by some poor schmo in an ill-fitting latex mask, clad in a nappy and with an outsize clockwork key sticking out of his back, humping away at some hapless bird. As a clankingly obvious metaphor for the mindless hedonism celebrated throughout the picture, it’s second to none.

Time to get dark. Filigree has a son, who has spina bifida and dies, and we get a grim beach funeral, this time with a fun-size coffin, and Orchard once more doing his duties. What’s disturbing here is not the scene itself, but the fact that Newley feels able to tack up real events like this in this way. Self-importance clearly has its uses, as is demonstrated when the scene abruptly stops and we’re into a painfully drawn-out exchange between Tone as projectionist and Tone as director. If anyone cared a jot about his personal quest for the truth at the outset, even they’ll surely have packed in all toss-giving commitments by now.

We’ve now just reached the half-hour point in this film.

Dairy Box? Or the long-defunct Good News? Fellini-esque cool, purchased by the yard

Milton Berle returns to the fray, knocking up a radio-controlled animatronic bunny girl with plastic comedy breasts played, not by an actual bunny girl, but another Carry On stalwart, Sally Douglas. Appropriate, in a way, as she prances about like a clockwork Truly Scrumptious, being chased by our priapic protagonist in a sped-up chase sequence straight out of late-period Benny Hill. See, this is the sort of thing that seems so promising in theory – low comedy mixed with “high” art – but this film can’t do either with much success. The failure is perhaps more pronounced with the arty side of things. Newley clearly thinks he’s doing a Fellini with this priests/graves/beaches/double bed schtick. He isn’t. Tony Hart made more intellectually stimulating use of a beach in Vision On, and he only had use of a stick and a bit of seaweed.

Now for another heart-sinking moment, as not only do we find ourselves in yet another self-reflexive scene – this time with two scriptwriters arguing the toss over a battered IBM Golfball – but one of those writers is none other than Stubby ‘Rockin’ the boat’ Kaye. And yes, once again a big name US vaudevillian gives a confused, directionless performance. At least he looks healthier than Jessel. Tone walks up to contest the finer points of the storyline with him. “Chicken licken, what a ratfink!” The screenplay won a British Writer’s Guild award, apparently. Heady times, the late 1960s.

We’ve reached the point where Newley writes a Broadway show, which presumably must be standing in for Stop the World, I Want to Get Off. For a mercy, we’ve finally made it off that sodding beach, and into a garden at dusk. And here, at last, is Joan! In a ludicrous pink frilly number, and being escorted by top comic actor Desmond Walter-Ellis to boot! This could be good.

Then again… Newley starts off the evening with a cod-Shakespearean “we hope you enjoyeth our humble play” intro. The show itself is a lot of second-rate miming in Harlequin outfits, detailing – wheels within wheels! – the story of Merkin/Newley’s life thus far, a sort of bastardised version of Stop the World itself. Well, that’s a possibility, at least – it could just as easily be an old Three Stooges routine revived by a UCLA performing arts group. Joan seems to love it at any rate, and that’s what counts.

La Collins, really hyping up her Rank starlet elocution, plays one Polyester Poontang (oh, do stop it, Aggers!), and is clearly smitten with the white-faced Newley. But sadly she quickly fades from the story, as we get another self-pitying barroom scene. A sozzled Tone, at the peak of his theatrical triumph, drowns his sorrows by singing Poor Punchinello, although sadly it’s not the version John Walters’ ex-pipe-mending workmate used to croon – it goes on for rather longer then the optimum five seconds. In full-on musical effect Newley comes over as a cross between London Bye Ta-Ta era Bowie (fair enough, as the latter shamelessly ripped off the former, nasal wail-wise) and, it has to be said, Mike Yarwood in “This… is me” mode. It’s probably the hair that’s to blame for that, but once the resemblance is clocked it’s hard to shake off.

What’s that, you say? The film’s gone ten minutes without a tiresome bit of self-referential folderol? We can fix that, as on come The Critics, a trio of variously uptight sneering demagogues declaiming flatulent soundbites rubbishing this entire venture. Only problem is, when two of them are the excellent Rosalind Knight and Victor Spinetti, it’s difficult to side with Tone, especially when their epithets include “This whole thing is self-glorification of a masturbatory level” and “I blame Fellini for this”. This is the sound of a man self-possessed enough to make a film about making a film about his early life, but still not quite confident enough not to cover his arse with this second-guessing mock deprecation. Come on, man! If you think people will want to roll up to watch a hagiographical musical about you, go for it all the way! Turning up on screen, as you do now, to refer disparagingly to “this facuckter film”, while cute, should not be an option. Just get on with it!

Brucie! Joanie!

Milty comes to the rescue – he gives Tone some drugs, making smoke come out of his ears. In these troubled times, it’s a start. Then two blokes playing producers roll up and demand Newley come up with an ending. Tone, however, will not be cowed by the soulless demands of the bankers and moneymen. The fact that this film was mostly bank-rolled by Newley himself, and produced by him under his own production company Taralex (named after the kids – how sweet!) in no way undermines the thrust of this scene.

OK, now things get sticky again. Newley explains to Tara his predilection for “young women”. Groo. What’s coming up is The Mercy Humppe sequence. The producers and writers would rather Tone didn’t bother with this. But to hell with them, eh? Yep, Mercy Humppe waltzes on, a Playboy centrefold sat on a pig-themed merry-go-round. Tone moves in for the kill with an ice-cream. “Oh, you’re Heironymus Cockpiece!” Cue that symbolic faceless Newley. Tone croons a ditty, getting more Bowie-esque by the second. “Down’t be a-fried to laaahve!” This whole sequence is filmed aboard a merry go round spinning at full tilt – great cinema, cheers.

We’re an hour in now. Imagine the cinemas where this used to play – how many people would still be sat about at this point? Who would have turned up in the first place? Truly it was a different medium back then. Now Milty sings a gravelly number over a grim Merkin-Humppe shag in the straw. Poor Pat’s still trying to follow this shite as best she can. She looks well out of it. Don’t worry, love, only a couple of years to go until Edna.

Uh-oh. Scantily clad dancers assemble dressed as the signs of the zodiac. This could go on for a bit. Ah, here comes Joan again. “I remember you! You’re that movie star, Heironymus Jockstrap!” Well, if it works once… This is, presumably, a recreation of their first date together, which in real life Newley insisted on filming in its entirety. Here, though, film Newley enlists faceless Newley to chat up Joan in cartoon speech bubbles. It works!

And now for Joan’s song, the ineffable Chalk and Cheese. “How did you get into my horoscope, you funny, irascible, lovable dope?” Oh, lord! Plus point – the zodiac dancers strutting their stuff to the song’s cha-cha-cha middle eight. Minus point – the sight of Newley’s bare arse. “I don’t mind chalk with my cheese.” Well, that was special.

Bugger. We’re back on the beach. And the bed again. A Pink Floyd album sleeve, that’s what it is. Here comes another version of Piccadilly Lilly, in the style of Sinatra, or maybe Tony Bennett. “When the lilacs are blooming in Piccadilly Circus, the dilly that I pickle’s gonna be you.” And here’s Joan looking bored on a bed eating chocolates! This is what we came to see!

Now an extended bit of commedia physicalia eccentrique, with Tone rushing back and forth between nookie appointments with Joan on the bed and Humppe in the grass. There’s an OK bit of comedy knackered acting from Newley – he can do the physical stuff, but the end result is still painfully unfunny. Joan puts a stop to these shenanigans about a minute too late. “Hi Darling, I’m pregnant!” Newley duly marries La Collins and dumps La Humppe. Wonder who exactly she was meant to represent? This film is showcasing a fascinating variety of novelty sunglasses if nothing else.

Back outside the film-within-the-film (presumably), Tara surveys everything with a mixture of simultaneous incomprehension and disgust. Astute. Newley calms things down. “Grandma’s crying because she didn’t understand the cyclone that came out of her womb.” We’re meant to take that line seriously, it seems. On film, Thumbelina (ie. Tara) is born on the beach bed. An ecstatic Tone sings a lullaby in a voice that would shame the worst drunken Bowie impersonator. “Woooah, oh, lullabyyyy…” While dressed as Tony Jacklin. He really does look like Mike Yarwood, you know.

Career-wise, Newley’s now firmly in his “Frankie in residence at the Sands Hotel” years. Is he doing a David Frost impression here, or has his comedy voice taken over? Oh, what’s this? A black mass scene now! With Newley humping on the altar. Ooh, it’s like Satan’s Slave relocated to the Blankety Blank set. Suddenly one feels as protective toward Joan Collins as it’s possible to be without physically becoming Christopher Biggins.

Newley sings to God in a towelling robe. “I’m all I need – If I’ve got me, I’ve got rainbows.” He’s getting lyrical assistance from Herbert Kretzmer, of She and Goodness Gracious Me fame, but still it’s hard to imagine David Jacobs selecting any of these songs for his Common Denominator slot. But he does rhyme “need people” with “a man at the top of the heap who’ll”, which all but guarantees a Tony.

Stubby and the producers are sat watching all this. They just can’t understand the endless enigma that is Anthony Newley. The audience, however, may not feel quite so awestruck by the full force of Tone’s personality, or indeed that bothered. The whole film’s been one long bout of “do you see what I did there?” We do see, Tone. And you didn’t do it very well, actually. No enigma to see here.

A furtive cameo from someone who should know better but needs the money Wide-angle symbolism ahoy!

Time for a final cod-cod-cod-Fellini cocktail party on the beach, with Newley – ye gods! – sat naked on a plastic stool. Berle feeds him acid, and the resulting trip sequence is much the same as any other. Coloured filters, in other words. And sitars. And an overdubbed heartbeat. In a swimming pool.

Berle introduces his latest tempting creation – Miss Trampolina Whambang. James Joyce takes rest of afternoon off. Her appearance heralds the final section of this increasingly wearying nutfest, and the most infamous one – The Princess and the Donkey. Much sport is made of how “dangerous” this is going to be among the cast. Tone lets the grateful kids take a rain check. “Now’s as good a time as any to go to the potty!” This is well said.

What it actually is, however, is a rather tedious “saucy” song about a princess who cops off with a mule, visually rendered in a Storybook International medieval style, with previously seen cast members playing various roles. The song is something else. “They were so surprised that their knees went wonky.” This has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the film, even by the flick’s own disjointed standards. Newley probably just thought it was funny. The rest of the cast beg to differ, sodding off in short order. “Well children, you’ve been very patient.”

Oh good, there’s only one more bit. It involves Icicle Ike and his ice cream bike. Fair enough, we’re nearly done here, knock yourself out. This Ike character starts feeling up Tara. Hmm. Newley punches his lights out. Erm. Eddie sneaks off with Ike much as he introduced himself to Tone – the cosmic ballet, we’re supposed to infer, continues. There was no need for any of that, surely?

George Jessel waltzes up one last time, but Newley’s ready for him, and responds with some crap gags of his own. Presto! So he’s broken away from the follies of youth, and is now a rounded, mature human being. Albeit one who makes 107 minute-long therapy musical home movies and puts them on national release.

After one more forgettable song – “Wherever the rowd my baaaaay!” Joan turns up with the cops. “Have you been here all night?” Oh, very funny. “I’m taking the children back to Europe!” Newley’s left looking forlorn in his director’s chair. This is actually the most emotionally effective scene in the film – the miserable atmosphere of the long, tiresome clearing up job after a particularly damp and unsuccessful village fete is captured to a tee. Suddenly either the money or even Newley’s interest finally runs out, and we cut to a theatrical end credit sequence with the cast taking a bow in order of importance. It’s over. We can go home now.

Tellingly, Brucie doesn’t turn up for his curtain call, appearing in clip form only. Maybe he got wind of the lewd nature of bits of the project (rumours abound of a slightly longer, x-rated print). Maybe the Busiest Man in Showbusiness, then in the midst of a labour-intensive theatrical phase of his career, simply had other commitments and had to nip back up the Palladium.

Ashes to Asparagus A furtive cameo from someone who should know better but needs the money

Or perhaps, as we like to think, he just had enough of the whole egotistical enterprise and naffed off – as soon as contractual commitments allowed, of course, bless the old pro. Because Brucie, and to a lesser extent all the old troupers Newley dragged in to this slop, would soft-shuffle a mile rather than serve up such a punter-unfriendly heap of navel gazing musical stodge. The Mighty Atom knows he’s no Great Artist, and doesn’t pretend to be. Newley, for all his arse-covering asides, does and does, respectively. But to be any good at that you’ve first got to be able to look at, and give just a little bit of a toss about, the world outside your immediate entourage and hang-ups. Tone either can’t or won’t, and turning that weakness back on itself and making it the point of the whole thing won’t fool anyone for ten minutes, let alone 107. As his own song went, “What kind of clown am I? What do I know of life?” Discuss.

Every other filmmaker in history, even Tone’s beloved Fellini, has had to sort out those initial uncertainties before getting his hands on the camera, because they know full well the process of pondering is in itself hopelessly dull. Either take a shit or get off the shovel. Don’t just hover over it reading Take a Break and expect us to fill in the word search for you.

The saddest thing is, it’s a fascinating life story. Given a decent, non-hysterical treatment by someone with appropriate distance – a biographer, or Newley himself a little further down the line – it’d be raw material you’d have to work hard to cock-up. Right in the thick of both his own and cinema’s peak years of boundless indulgence, however, Tone shoves the manuscript straight down the dunny with one effortless flush. Still, all’s not lost – Newley’s next film project after this was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – an altogether more down to Earth venture.



  1. Pingback: TV Cream » Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?

  2. THX 1139

    January 2, 2022 at 1:27 pm

    Good to hear Joan Collins on her fantastic BBC2 documentary last night call this “That fucking film”, which is an accurate description in more ways than one. Also good to hear her mention “Doctor Spock” on Star Trek.

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