Many of our British readers will have no problems recognizing the title of this week’s film — it is based on a farce which set a theatrical record for being the longest-running comedy in the history of London’s West End (6,761 performances from 1971 to 1987). But for nearly all of the American readers and many of the younger British readers, “No Sex Please, We’re British” is a virtually unknown commodity. This is a major shame, since the film is a very funny romp of the slamming-door, mistaken-identity, misunderstanding-heavy, falling down physical knockabout school.
“No Sex Please, We’re British” takes place at a Barclay’s Bank branch in Windsor. The bank manager (Arthur Lowe, best-known for his TV roles in “Dad’s Army” and “Bless Me, Father”) is a staunch anti-pornography activist who becomes apoplectic when he discovers a pornographic bookstore has opened near the bank. Above the bank is the flat of a young banker and his new bride (Ian Ogilvy and Susan Penhaligon). How they wound up with a residence directly above the bank branch is never clear. They are in a dither because his overbearing mother (Beryl Reid) is sweeping into town for an unexpected visit.
Then, through a clerical error, the young couple suddenly find themselves receiving endless shipments of merchandise destined for the local porno shop. To their amazement, horror and shock, they open parcel after parcel to discover pornographic postcards, pornographic magazines, pornographic literature, and reels of pornographic movies (which include such titles as “Jack and Jill Forgot the Pill” and “Winnie the Poof”). The X-rated material is not British, mind you — it all comes exported from Sweden.
The couple drag in a high-strung bank clerk named Brian Runnicles (Ronnie Corbett) to help them move the blue material out for disposal. But in typical farcical arrangements, their well-timed plans go hopeless awry when a seemingly endless stream of interlopers (the bank manager, the young banker’s mother, the stern police constable on the local beat, a dotty vicar, a visiting bank auditor and, incredibly, two ripe call girls) wind up interfering with their plans. Some of the material winds up in the wrong hands (the vicar gets the reels of dirty movies and unknowingly screens it for a church gathering of elderly ladies expecting a nature travelogue), and some of the various characters get crossed in the process as well (the call girls mistake the timid bank auditor for a kinky john).
At this point, I don’t want to go into great detail about what transpires or how it all gets sorted out, because I truly want you to look up “No Sex Please, We’re British.” Yes, the film is extremely dated in its view of the porno industry (this was the pre-home video, pre-Internet world where you had to go out to get your hands on the X-rated stuff). And, yes, it plays up all of the well-worn British comic stereotypes imaginable. And, no, you never actually get to see any of the material which gets the cast into such a flutter. But the film is pricelessly funny in its non-stop chaos of embarrassments, chases, subterfuges and narrow escapes. When viewing this film for the first time recently, I laughed so hard that I literally ached.
Much of the success here is pegged to Ronnie Corbett, a bespectacled and diminutive comic best known to American audiences for the TV comedy show “The Two Ronnies.” Corbett’s specialty was primarily as a monologuist, yet he adapted to the wild physical comedy of “No Sex Please, We’re British” with unparalleled gusto. Whether fighting a losing battle in feeding porno movies into a trash compactor, diving into a Superman-worthy propulsion across a room to head off the call girls’ from jollying the bank auditor, or leading a zany finale chase through the streets of Windsor, Corbett is a pint-sized dynamo of frenetic energy. The role of Brian Runnicles was originated on stage by Michael Crawford, yet it is difficult to imagine anyone but Corbett playing the part on film.
So if “No Sex Please, We’re British” is such a marvel, why isn’t it better known? There are a few reasons. First, the original play was a monster hit on the West End, but it was a catastrophe when it was brought to Broadway. The show opened in February 1973 with great expectations and hype but closed after 16 performances following dismal reviews and dangerously low box-office. Although the show would later become a staple of community and dinner theater across the U.S. throughout the 1970s and 1980s, it carried the stigma of failure in many entertainment circles because of the Broadway flop.
Second, the film did not have well-known stars to bolster its American box office. While Corbett and Lowe were beloved in England for their TV work, Americans in 1973 were unfamiliar with them. The only recognizable name, from an American standpoint, was Beryl Reid due to her memorable performance in “The Killing of Sister George.” But her role in this film was a relatively small supporting part.
Third, the film enjoyed moderate success when it opened in England, but it failed to dent the West End run. Rather than allow the movie to find wider audiences via television, the stage producer John Gale reportedly paid TV companies not to show the film version while his play was on stage in London (where, ironically, a large portion of its audience consisted of American tourists).
Finally, “No Sex Please, We’re British” did turn up in New York in 1979 after Ronnie Corbett’s TV series “The Two Ronnies” became popular on PBS. But the film’s New York run was a critical and commercial failure, and further American engagements were not considered.
“No Sex Please, We’re British” is available in the UK on home video and DVD. In the US, it never had an official commercial release. But copies can be obtained from Video Search of Miami, and the film is also online at MovieFlix.com. Whether you watch it on VHS, DVD or broadband, please check this one out. At the risk of sounding like a quote whore, I can attest this is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen.
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