A series of superficially threadbare army films enshrining the formidable talents of Lancashire music hall legend Frank Randle. Somewhere in England (1940), a patriotic barracks scenario, swaggers on screen with all the dishevelled pride of Randle himself. Before we get to Randle, however, the plot must be set up. As is traditional for a music hall act’s cinematic vehicle, this is as dull, predictable and half-heartedly executed as can be imagined. In Randle’s case, it’s an almost entirely separate film, too. The romantic lead is a seventeen-year-old squaddie who looks about eight, fighting for the affections of the colonel’s daughter with a slightly older-looking rival, who sets him up as the thief of a cigarette case. And that’s it. All three sides of this barren romantic triangle, and indeed every non-comic part in the film, are resolutely non-provincial. In the days before regional accents were accepted on the dramatic stage, let alone film, these talky segments play out in full-on strangulated RADA tones, with every vowel audibly gulped back. And the acting is of the diabolically over-expository kind, the actors finding themselves delivering lines such as: ‘Do you lahve me, Jane? Do you?’ and ‘Did you get in touch with the ordnance people about the new heating scheme?’ Presumably in the cinema these scenes would be the audience’s cue to chat amongst themselves until Frank came on.
Thankfully, he soon arrives, along with his comedy cohorts. Via the standard-issue ‘parade drill’ sketch, we’re introduced not only to Private Randle, trousers at half-mast, outsize parade boots on wrong feet and priapic rifle held upside-down, but also the rest of his platoon, who would accompany him for the first three Somewheres.
Dan Young: ‘The celebrated “dude” comedian’. In brilliantined hair, monocle and Chaplin tache, Young never lapses out of his slightly fruity ebullient toff persona, midway between Michael Bentine and Ken Dodd. (He was to mentor the latter throughout the fifties in his touring revue.) Signature bits of business include all manner of giggly, hyperactive twitching, and an oft-performed routine where he doesn’t realise he’s holding his cane upside down. ‘I say! I’ve been robbed! There was a knob on the end of here when I left the house!’ He’s credited with writing the original of Sid Field’s legendary golf routine, to boot.
Robbie Vincent: Diminutive jazz drummer who speaks in a far-away, far-too-loud droning shout. Catchphrase: ‘Let meeee tell yoooou…’ Vincent made his name as Our Enoch, the hapless dogsbody to Harry Korris’s music hall manager in radio series Happidrome.
Harry Korris: Plump, avuncular comic given to long-suffering roles of authority (he’s the sergeant here). Catchphrase: ‘Eee, if ever a man suffered!’ Probably the most accomplished of Randle’s accomplices, exhibiting a delicate dexterity reminiscent of Oliver Hardy (in the dainty, borderline-camp way he carries his weight, and cherubic demeanour) and Fred Elliot (in accent and eye-rolling despair). …England was conceived more as a vehicle for Korris than Randle, and as such he’s given the job of being the sole link between the comics and the actors in these films.
So we’re set up for the rest of the picture. Comedy scene follows ‘straight’ scene. The comics’ delivery in these early films is still of the stage variety – gag lines delivered long and loud into the Gods, contrasting jarringly with the endless scenes of poshoes explaining things of little import to each other on telephones. Still, that’s how a comedy feature was made in those days. The Marx Brothers had a go at subverting the formula, knowingly playing the straight leads for the bunch of saps they, and the audience, knew they were, but it wasn’t to catch on.
Still, the gags are fine enough when they come, and delivered with manic relish by the barmy quartet. ‘Open your mouth – blimey, there’s a hole in your sock!’ ‘You know how I became a sergeant?’ ‘Bravery?’ ‘No, bribery!’ ‘A boil in the kettle’s worth two on the neck!’ ‘Do you know, it took me three months to train two performing fleas to do the splits on a circular saw?’ ‘Your mother, she’s all bulge and bargain basement!’ ‘He’s one in a thousand, is Charlie.’ ‘He looks like he was won in a raffle!’ This is just as well, as there’s precious little else of note. The sets are as desultory as the plot. In fact, towards the end of the films, any pretence at putting these turns into a fictional context is thrown away for an extended scene wherein Randle and co, as ordinary soldiers, put on a show for the other troops, appearing as Randle and co, famous real life comics.
Korris shines in his segment of …England’s show-within-the-show, capering on in bowler hat and exhibiting a line in ‘wife’s mother’ jokes halfway between Les Dawson and Vic Reeves. ‘Have you seen my mother-in-law? Oooh, what a face. She’s got two eyes. One’s on a pivot, the other’s a ball-and-socket arrangement!’ It all leads up, of course, to Randle, in each film taking to the stage in one of his old codger personas. Thus, the Somewheres constitute the sole extant audio-visual record of his legendary Old Hiker. Shambling on in hob-nail boots with a stick a good foot taller than himself and a brown-bagged ale bottle, the 82-year-old reprobate looks like the victim of a comedy gas explosion in terms of hair, skin and teeth, and delivers his lines about suppin’ and fightin’ in a dive bomber of a voice that swoops and soars in volume and tone so wildly it’s all Blakely’s sound equipment – antiquated even for the time – can do to keep him audible. ‘I don’t feel so good today. I had some of that cheese – Ironburger or Steinburger…’ ‘You mean Limburger!’ ‘Aye, that’s the burger!’ All the beloved old gags from the Winter Gardens are here, along with the odd uncharacteristically topical line. ‘This Mae West I’ve been hearing about – she’s a bit of a hot ‘un!’
Other staples of the unchanging Somewhere… formula include: Randle and Korris visiting their respective wives (Randle performs some randy gymnastics, Korris gets henpecked); a comedy boxing/wrestling tournament; a scene where Randle’s left to tidy something up and ends up wrecking the place; a tea dance in which waltzing couples pause to deliver gags to each other, similar to those in the later Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and The Muppet Show; and an ensemble comedy drunk scene, in which Korris shows off his one-gulp pint-sinking gift, and Randle, never the model of sobriety to begin with, takes slurring and staggering into new realms. His head turns into that of a ventriloquist’s dummy, swivelling hither and yon. His voice takes on an ominously breathy quality. Randle did possibly the best British drunk act after Jimmy James, and certainly the most original. In …England, there’s a neat little bar-side tableau formed when Randle, incoherent and randomly violent, is flanked to the left by a tipsy Young trying to chat up the barmaid, and to the right by comic Ernie Dale, playing some tramp Randle’s drunkenly picked up, in the final stages of eye-popping alcoholic oblivion. There’s enough booze sunk in a Frank Randle film to put WC Fields on the wagon.
Somewhere in Camp (1941) and Somewhere on Leave (1943) deviate from the original formula not one jot, save to introduce Toni Lupino as romantic lead and Randle foil. While Cousin Ida was smouldering on screen with the likes of Bogart, Toni was being dubbed ‘Frozen Fanny’ by Randle, and dragged unceremoniously round a dance floor with her gusset on show to the strains of Percival Mackey and his orchestra. (‘Do you dance the jitterbug?’ ‘ Yes, I’m a great jitterbugger!’) Still, as one RADA type puts it in …Leave, ‘Never mind, Toni. You’re still young and attractive with the world ahead of you!’
There’s a noticeable progression through the three films, however, which is partly down to the increased budget, which for …Leave is merely microscopic, whereas today’s production accountants would need to commandeer a particle accelerator to count the cost of …England. But still, the plot and musical numbers (especially …England’s morale-boosting mass chorus of Beat on the Drum, sung by the entire cast in, for some reason, Pierrot outfits) are as superfluous and unwanted as ever. Exquisitely crafted films these are not.
It was all change for Somewhere in Civvies (1943), as Randle temporarily left Mancunian to venture down south and get into bed with notorious cut-price b-movie outfit Butcher’s Film Service. Young, Korris and Vincent are out. Randle’s unequivocally the star of this film, with only his Scandals protégé, Charles Hawtrey-esque cross-dresser Gus Aubrey coming over from the Mancunian films. He even gets a writing credit: ‘Gags by Frank Randle’. Things appear to be looking up.
The old formula’s been ditched, too. Randle quits the army in the first few minutes, after a grand entrance playing the bagpipes astride a mule. (‘What the devil are you playing at?’ ‘I’m sat on me ass!’) Waving the barracks goodbye (‘I’m out! You can finish the war yourself!’) Randle falls into a weird story of a massive inheritance destined for his unwitting pockets, while his no-good cousin stages a series of bizarre events to convince Randle he’s going mad, so he can trouser the loot himself. (Incidentally, the cousin looks uncannily like Gilbert Harding, who in the ‘50s would take to the West End in a stage version of What’s My Line, accompanied by Randle, who would enter alongside a showgirl holding a velvet cushion, upon which Randle would place his extracted false teeth before crying, ‘Right, let’s get on with it!’ Harding and Randle didn’t exactly gel on stage, and the show closed in short order.)
The cast have improved no end. Instead of the RADA types, we get the likes of the great HF Maltby as a bluff colonel, and Brummie comedienne Suzette Tarri as Mrs Spam, a rude and randy madam with an Irene Handl voice and some genuinely great scenes of her own. A one-sided phone conversation ends with Tarri indignantly exclaiming: ”What? Well, I’ve never been so insulted in all my life! You’re no gentleman and I’ll have you know I’ve never even been on a farm!’ She proves a match for Randle when she goes after him for his cash (‘I know there’s plenty more fish in the sea, but my bait’s not as fresh as it was!’), and the hunter becomes the hunted.
The production’s noticeably more lavish too. Whereas in …Camp, Randle had to content himself with wrecking a billiard table, here he gets a whole hospital set to destroy with a paint cart. Most fancy of all is a weird interlude set in a mansion the nefarious cousin is trying to convince Randle is haunted, with all manner of flying knives and booby traps, culminating in Randle being levitated in a coffin by a gigantic magnet. Special effects, yet!
Despite all this, something falls short of the previous entries, and it’s the most important aspect of all – the use that’s made of Randle himself. While there’s less dead dramatic exposition than before, what comedy there is has little of the joy of the best of the Somewhere… routines. The set pieces are mostly bog-standard, paintbrush in face slapstick, iffy ensemble floundering instead of Randle and Young’s deft acrobatics. And the unremarkable Aubrey really is second banana, in a way Korris and Young never were. Still, everything ends with a big concert once more, this time a big band parody, courtesy Frank Randle and his Ravishing Tankbusting Refugees. It’s huge in scale – the whole bandstand collapses – but there’s little of Randle’s personal stamp on proceedings, although we do get to hear Rachmaninov’s Prelude in A# Minor played on a banjolele.