How Does One Make a Stuffy Script Humorous?

The BFI celebrates the obscure public information films of the eccentric British character actor and director Richard Massingham, uncovering much to enjoy.

Let’s focus, for a moment, on three unheralded yet reliable workmen of British cinema: Victor Maddern, Sam Kydd and Michael Ripper. This trio of excellent character actors each found a niche as a supporting player in a great many British films of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, across all genres.

To most casual filmgoers, their faces will be instantly recognisable, even if their names aren’t immediately familiar. (I suggest you Google them; anyone who has seen a good proportion of British fare of the period will know these men straight away, and all three actors worked with the best during their careers: Hammer Films, Peter Sellers, Sir Michael Caine, Otto Preminger, Robert Aldrich and so on).

With that in mind, How to be Eccentric: The Essential Richard Massingham is an intriguing and unusual disc from the BFI, and one that constitutes something of a tribute to the rather obscure ’30s and ’40s British character actor Richard Massingham.

With Massingham known only for his numerous leading roles in British public information films, it could certainly be argued that this DVD release comes from left field, in the sense that to modern audiences there are far more likely candidates in the “recognise-the-face-but-can’t-place-the-name” category who are worthy of further attention, the aforementioned actors among them.

This is not to suggest that Massingham doesn’t warrant modern celebration, for he surely does. A former doctor with a pudgy, pear-shaped face, hangdog eyes and air of perpetual fluster, Massingham appeared in only two mainstream theatrical releases during his career, which ended with his death in 1953 at the age of 55. Many cinema patrons in the ‘40s would have certainly seen his work prior to a main cinema feature, but in the decades since, his profile has diminished almost totally into obscurity.

The time is ripe, therefore, to rediscover all the gems in this collection of 24 films, each a fascinating historical and social document about Britain. What makes Massingham’s career particularly interesting is the fact that he himself created the niche media market that allowed him to flourish professionally.

An obviously canny fellow, the late ’30s saw Massingham create the company Public Relationship Films, a production house he started after identifying a distinct lack of dedicated British companies specialising in producing educational films and commercials, primarily for government ministries.

Massingham’s work would remain almost totally exclusive to this field for the following 20 years or so, during which time he not only appeared in the shorts his company produced, but he also directed many of them, too. It was no doubt this directorial work that lead to a brief working relationship, in the twilight of his career, with Arthur Askey, one of the highest profile British entertainers of the ‘40s.

Like most BFI releases, the material here is lovingly, fastidiously and comprehensively presented, and constitutes pretty much Massingham’s entire oeuvre. How charming it is, too.

The titles are a giveaway to the content: simplicity as cinematic art: Post Early for Christmas (1943); Down at the Local (1945); Jet-Propelled Germs (1948) and; Moving House (1950) being the most literal offerings.

Stylistically, many of the films are appealingly strange. Massingham’s second short as director, the proto-psychedelic Tell Me If It Hurts (1934), tells the story of a simple trip to the dentist; made as an amateur venture, it sees him experimenting with expressionist framing, rapid cutting and all manner of abstract images. It’s unclear whether these odd, jittery visual tics are the typical signifiers of try-hard directorial inexperience and misplaced visual bravado, or are indicative of Massingham’s bold and genuinely progressive avant-garde eye. Either way, the effect is striking, if shabbily executed, and very unusual for the time.

Massingham’s terrific sense of humour is evident throughout, which was no doubt a welcome tonic, particularly in those films of his that were intended for a wartime audience.

Coughs and Sneezes (1945), for example, instructs people how to use a simple handkerchief correctly. Aside from the film’s wonderful eccentricity, it’s also hilarious. Massingham appears in various locations – a packed cinema, in a lift, at the office – sneezing luxuriously, all over those around him. The loud, dubbed-on, howling sneezes increase in frequency during the film, until a snappily-edited machine gun run of them at the end has Massingham sounding like a barking dog.

Considering the subject matter, a film such as Coughs and Sneezes may seem patronising to modern audiences (I mean, who needs to be told how to block sneezes so as not to spread germs?), but it’s far too endearing to give any offence.

Indeed, many other titles in this collection’s timespan offer a similar “man-from-the-ministry” instruction to a nation of Britons dealing with either the build up to the Second Word War, its duration, or its direct aftermath, and the very existence of such films suggest a shell-shocked, weary country looking for practical guidance, even with the simplest of tasks. Most of the shorts do inevitably centre on the war effort, particularly with regards to conserving valuable resources.

Again, it’s all rather fascinating, particularly when each narrative is refracted through Massingham’s bizarre, skewed artistic sensibility.

How to be Eccentric: The Essential Richard Massingham is both a worthy collection of films (important in their time) and a sweet, belated tip-of-the-hat to a talented yet largely forgotten cinematic multi-tasker, one who made his potentially dry, stuffy and authoritative material oddly entertaining. The disc will appeal especially to historians and British film cineastes, and it nicely complements the other public information DVD releases from the BFI’s very large archive.

There are no extras on the disc, although a glossy booklet containing essays and full credits is included.

RATING 7 / 10