The Adventures of a Plumber in Outer Space
Director: Jan Manthey
Gather round, children, and I will tell you of a time long ago. A time called ‘The Mid 1970s’ when the British cinema industry was all but extinct. The glory days of great comedies, thrillers, horrors and dramas had long since faded, the studios were shabby, Dean Street and Wardour Street were just two dingy thoroughfares on the less salubrious side of Oxford Street and you certainly wouldn’t want to stroll through Soho Square on your own.
What talent and money remained in the country was either working in television or farmed out to a few visiting US productions. Actual, honest-to-goodness British films were desperately few and far between. Hammer was coughing up blood (appropriate, if not healthy) and scrabbling around for co-production funds. Norman J Warren and Pete Walker were attempting to do for British horror what pictures like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had done for American fright cinema but few audiences and even fewer critics noticed them. Even the Carry Ons had gone rubbish, ditching costumes and genre spoofs for busty young women in bikinis and churning out dull, formulaic gags where they had once rejoiced in funny, formulaic gags.
Basically, there were only two types of British film making any sort of money at the rapidly wilting British box office (cinemas were being converted into bingo halls, nightclubs and supermarkets at an unprecedented rate). One was the TV spin-off, trading on the success of popular sitcoms in those pre-VHS days by giving audiences longer stories and bigger locations. The reason why there are three On the Buses feature films is because the first two made, by the standards of the day, a pot of cash. For Hammer, interestingly enough.
And the other sort of British film was the sex comedy.
Now, British sex comedies of the 1970s were a sort of ‘red rock cider’ in that they weren’t comic and there was no sex in them. They were a grim, pleasureless experience for all concerned - and audiences lapped them up.
Let us be absolutely clear here in case you have never seen one of these movies. These are not Carry Ons, not even 1970s-era, not-very-funny Carry Ons. Carry Ons were never sex comedies (except possibly Carry On Emmannuelle, about which the less said the better). Where the Carry Ons were vintage music hall, sex comedies were dingy Working Men’s Clubs. Where the Carry Ons were Donald McGill postcards, sex comedies were the cartoons in Knave. The jokes were obvious, laboured, only occasionally rising to the heights of being corny. The women were not overly glamorous and what lingerie they wore was desperately unsexy in a way that staggers belief. Not unsexy in a prudish or functional way but just cut wrong, hanging wrong, as if it was designed by someone who had never actually met a real woman - or at least, not seen one naked. In the 1970s women’s underwear wasn’t advertised on television or on billboards and was discretely kept at the back of department stores. There were no Ann Summers shops. People just accepted that this was what it looked like because blokes never saw women wearing lingerie except their wives and the dolly birds in these films.
And that was the women, some of whom were actually majorly cute. We’re talking the Geeson sisters here. But as for the blokes... well, male models they most certainly were not.
The best known and most successful sex comedies were the Confessions series starring loveable jack-the-lad Robin Askwith as loveable jack-the-lad Timothy Lea who from 1974 to 1977 was variously a window cleaner, taxi driver, pop performer and holiday camp resident (Askwith paused only briefly to star in Queen Kong which infamously attempted to meld the British sex comedy with the giant monster genre).
The second rung down from the Confessions films (and bear in mind that this was an incredibly short ladder) was occupied by the Adventures trilogy directed by Stanley Long. Barry Evans, another loveable jack-the-lad, starred as Joe North in 1976’s Adventures of a Taxi Driver and then handed the mantle onto Christopher Neil for the two follow-ups, ...Private Eye and ...Plumber’s Mate, the character‘s name changing to Bob West and Sid South respectively.
These were the franchises, the ones which still have some degree of cultural currency. But there were other films in this genre: grubbier, cheaper, even less funny and definitely less sexy. I recall a few years ago staying up to catch a rare screening of The Ups and Downs of a Handyman, a film which really stripped the concept back to its bare bones as Barry Stokes bedded a succession of women (whilst keeping his underpants on, as was traditional). Yet, as I recall, it’s very simplicity made it, in places, almost erotic. There’s a three-way bath scene where it actually looks like the actors are having fun and you see considerably more flesh than was normal in such films, simply because no-one had the time or inclination to shoot or edit it properly.
And in among the romps, sometimes actually involved in them, were the stars. The aforementioned Ups and Downs (which never spawned a sequel although one was planned) featured Bob Todd, Valerie Leon and Robert Dorning. Depending on which Adventures film you watched, you could have seen some combination of Diana Dors, Harry H Corbett, Liz Fraser, Irene Handl, Ian Lavender, Jon Pertwee, Willie Rushton, Adrienne Posta, Arthur Mullard, Stephen Lewis, Christopher Biggins, Anna Quayle, Robert Lindsay, Henry McGee or Brian Wilde. While the Confessions casts included Dandy Nichols, John Le Mesurier, Bill Maynard, Linda Hayden, Joan Hickson, Bob Todd (again), Peter Jones, Windsor Davies, Irene Handl (again), Liz Fraser (again), George Layton, Ballard Berkeley, Lance Percival, John Junkin and Tony Blair’s future father-in-law Anthony Booth.
Behind the camera, talented directors like Val Guest and the aforementioned Stanley Long and talented writers like David McGillivray and Michael Armstrong toiled manfully away, bashing these things out for producers who knew they could make a couple of quid profit if they kept costs low and audience expectations high.
Hey, it was work and there wasn’t much else being made in this country at that time. From the producers’ point of view, these were names and faces that could go on posters and lobby cards. And audiences would flock to see these films, apparently forgetting quite how rubbish they were and going back for more. It must be a great sex comedy, went the reasoning, because the posters promise untold amounts of naked female flesh and it stars some of the leading players from my favourite sitcoms. It must at least be better than the last one we saw. And so tickets were purchased for a few pence - those being the days - and audiences settled down to watch unfunny, unsexy, all-British, honest-to-goodness cinematic tripe.
For the best part of fifteen years or more this entire cinematic subgenre lay forgotten. Then in the early 1990s, a few of these films started emerging on VHS, properly packaged as if they were, you know, real movies. In 1992, there was even a book published on the subject. David McGillivray - who, inbetween penning such horror hoopla as Frightmare, Schizo and Terror also found time to write the magnificently titled I’m Not Feeling Myself Tonight (featuring Brian Murphy, Rita Webb, Graham Stark and James Booth) - documented this lowliest of cinematic movements in Doing Rude Things: The History of the British Sex Films 1957-1981. I bought McGillivray’s book because, while I wasn’t massively interested in the films, I thought that no-one would ever write anything else about them so I should snap up the one and only work on the subject before the films disappeared back into obscurity.
How wrong I was. Gradually, through increased interest in British cinema of the 1970s, through the almost inevitable re-evaluation that every ‘trashy’ aspect of pop culture eventually receives, and especially through DVD releases, the humble British sex comedy has been documented in more and more detail (and in other books), finally receiving its due accord. There is pleasure to be had from these films and not just in a post-modern, ironic way. Hey, some of us like Working Men’s Club comedians, some of us were brought up on dog-eared (and worse!) copies of Knave. For those of us who have attained a certain age, the mid-1970s was a glorious time of gobstoppers, Glitter Band and girls. Bring back the 1970s, bring back the British sex comedy, it’s time stand up and be proud of something uniquely British.
Oh sure, the Italians and French made sex comedies but their films were actually sexy and that defeated the point. The Americans made sort of overblown, big-budget sex comedies but those were sometimes actually funny and again, that missed the whole raison d’etre of these films. British sex comedies are something of which we can all be proud: they’re smutty, they’re corny, they’re cheap and cheerful and they’re ours. God save the Queen!
All of which preamble leads us, eventually, to the subject of tonight’s lecture, Jan Manthey’s sincere homage, The Adventures of a Plumber in Outer Space. Manthey loves these films - and why not? Under the aegis of mysterious producer ‘Fred Karno’, Manthey made his previous homage to the genre in 2004, a 16-minute epic entitled Can You Keep It Up with This, That and the Other for a Week? (although he has been banging out Happy Shopper cinematic fun since the early 1990s). CYKIUWTTATOFAW? (surely one of the longest film titles ever) was actually screened in Berlin as part of a Troma festival. You can find this on YouTube if you search around.
Emboldened by this success, Jan and his stock company of players and crew embarked on the comparitively snappily titled The Adventures of a Plumber in Outer Space which clocks in at just over 45 minutes and is an altogether slicker production - although not too slick of course! In fact, the very cheapness of the originals gives Manthey’s latter-day sex comedies a degree of verisimilitude, much as the legions of Blair Witch rip-offs which followed that overhyped film were able to achieve remarkably similar production values without any effort. Also Plumber is, of course, not just a return to the good old days of fine, upstanding British rubbish but is also an entry in the pantheon of British science fiction films (which has come a long way since The Quatermass Xperiment!). It’s not the first sci-fi sex comedy made here either; other examples include Norman J Warren’s Spaced Out and the late 1960s curiosity Zeta One (Charles Hawtrey and Yutte Stensgaard, together at last!).
Vic Pratt returns as Robin Evans, named after the genre’s two greatest leading men. By day (and under his real name) this fine fellow actually works for a national film archive and research body which I shan’t name publicly, hem hem, to maintain his anonymity. A reference to having packed in window cleaning for plumbing makes this an actual direct sequel to Can You Keep Etc.
The director’s wife Diana (who was actually pregnant at the time) plays frustrated housewife Mrs Zucker with Robert Wainwright (who played the demonic Lincoln in Harold Gasnier’s The Demon Within and had a brief role in the prologue of Bloodmyth) as her police sergeant husband who comes home early and catches his Mrs hiding a plumber under the bubbles in her bath. Time for a swift exit?
Ah but, on a distant planet, a matriarchal society is in trouble because none of the men can satisfy their ruler Queen Azizazz (saucy Swedish actress Marie Magnusson who was in the 2006 horror flick Murder Island). Her chief scientists are thin, effete Dr Defghi (Kevin James; not the American actor, not the magician) and portly, camp Hepesh (Quinn Patrick; not the mezzo-soprano) and they have identified that the most fertile man on Earth is Robin Evans. The Queen demands that this Earthman be teleported before her, especially as he carries a sceptre similar to hers - which is, of course, shaped like a plunger.
Now, a word on Robin Evans’ plunger. This isn’t just any old prop bought down the local hardware store, oh no. This is the exact same sink plunger that was used by Christopher Neil in The Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate, kept all these years by Stanley Long (possibly in a display cabinet, possibly in his bathroom, I didn’t ask). Enterprising young Mr Manthey slipped Stanley a copy of Can You Keep... when he met him at a film screening and this maestro of mucky humour has now become a sort of mentor to Jan. He even makes a cameo appearance in the film as ‘angry motorist’.
Through Stanley, Jan was introduced to Michael Armstrong, best known for writing Mark of the Devil, The Haunted House of Horror and House of Long Shadows. Armstrong wrote It Could Happen to You and also wrote (and starred in) Eskimo Nell, the legendarily recursive sex comedy which spoofed sex comedies. That film was produced by Stanley Long and directed by Martin Campbell some twenty years before he made GoldenEye. Campbell and Armstrong also collaborated on The Sex Thief, starring David Warbeck, who told me he was once considered for the role of 007.
Anyway, Michael Armstrong, though uncredited on TAOAPIOS, provided some advice and assistance on the film, not least in casting some real actors from his own acting troupe. Both Mike and Stanley were at the premiere screening where I saw this film and I spent a considerable portion of the later evening chatting with Mike (although as I was also knocking back the booze I have no real idea what we discussed).
Anyway anyway, Robin Evans is teleported to the alien world but the Zuckers are accidentally transported with him. Once there, our hapless hero is taken away by Queen Azizazz while Sgt Zucker finds himself in bed with the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, Lady Gygax (Ella Grace: Return to Ravenswood, Human Residue). Meanwhile, Mrs Zucker is able to restore the flagging libidos of Dr Defghi and Hepesh. This is the cue for much larking about in various stages of partial undress, including a battle between Robin Evans and Bok, the Queen’s champion (shaven-headed Paul Rowe, managing to look fierce and silly at the same time) and an alien wedding, before everyone somehow gets transported back to Earth for the traditional undercranked chase through the shrubbery.
Also in the cast are Smeaton Westbury as Professor Gaylord, Will Fowler as the ‘Alien Holy Man’ presiding at the wedding of Robin and Azizazz, ‘Norman Stebson’ (Grange Hill homage there!) as a Royal Guard, Jenny Hammerton, Mark Duqueno (whose association with Jan Manthey goes right back to the infamous 1990 obscurity Robot Gorilla Rampage) and someone called Pashalifi who is credited as ‘Tannoy Voice’. And, on the very sound basis that all comedy chases are required to feature gorillas, whether or not they are actually relevant to the action or plot: ‘Ethel the Ape as herself.’ Most of the cast are good, some are very good, none are notably bad. Not even Ethel the Ape.
What to make of The Adventures of a Plumber in Outer Space? Sure it’s corny but it’s an homage to corny films. Certainly it’s cheap but it’s a tribute to films that cost about £2.80 to make. If you expect a slick, polish, entertaining, professional production you will assuredly be disappointed - but this film was inspired by, and seeks to recreate for a new generation, an entire subgenre which was virtually defined by its consistent ability to disappoint audiences.
Jan Manthey and the curious Karno clan (costumes designed by Vincent De Karno, cinematography by Boris Von Karno...) have done a marvellous job in bringing the 1970s British sex comedy into the 21st century. The mannered acting, the desperately weak jokes, the half-hearted eroticism. It would be easy to classify British sex comedies as films which wanted to be porn movies when they grew up but I think that is misleading. These were films that could have been porn films but frankly were more interested in larking about, leaving that sort of thing to the continentals. It is surely no coincidence that the countries most closely associated with hardcore porn - Germany, Sweden, Denmark ... Los Angeles, even - are all places full of po-faced, miserable or serious people where a sense of humour would stick out like a pair of bloomers on a washing line.
But in Britain, the country that gave the world Benny Hill, Ben Elton, Are You Being Served?, The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, the Krankies and the Chuckle Brothers - where we will laugh at anything - the porn film was twisted into something new, something different, something uniquely British. God bless Jan Manthey and his pals for keeping this tradition alive.
Let me stress that this is not a spoof or a parody, it does not seek to mock or sneer. There is no way that Mike Armstrong and Stanley Long would have been associated with this movie if it was like that. This is a sincere homage, a celebration of all that was great about these films and most of what was terrible about them but which audiences sat through anyway.
The threadbare wobbly sets, the Bacofoil costumes, the overdone make-up, the underpants - oh, the underpants. You can’t even buy underpants like that anymore; where did they get them? (Please don’t say Stanley Long has been holding onto those for thirty years too...) And the music is spot on too. It sounds like it was recorded using a Bontempi organ and manages to be both utterly bland and irritatingly memorable at the same time: “The advent-ures! Of a plumb-er! In out-er space, in out-er space!” Vic Pratt composed most of the songs himself although Jon Cockerell and Alan Mills also provided tunes.
If you enjoyed the films to which this paid tribute, then it goes without saying that you will love The Adventures of a Plumber in Outer Space. Quite apart from anything else, this is something very different among all the indie stuff that’s out there. It’s smashing.
It’s also only three quarters of an hour long which is an awkward running time, although it did have a screening at the Portobello Film Festival a couple of weeks after its glittering West End premiere (in a room above a pub). The festival audience were reported to be ‘confused’ which I fear will be the response of those viewers unfamiliar with the genre that this film revives.
In a way this reminded me of Grindhouse (not just because I was reading a review of that film shortly before I watched this one). Tarantino and Rodriguez were fully familiar with the films that they were homaging but many audiences were perplexed. What occurred to me - and I suggested this to Jan - was that if he had another film of similar length, similarly inspired by another typical 1970s British genre, he could combine the two. Throw in a few fake trailers and adverts (“Just 500 yards from this cinema!” - as if audiences would think, “That’s handy, we could pop in and buy a roll of carpet on the way home.”) and you would have a British answer to Grindhouse. Perhaps you could call it Fleapit.
Anyway, I wholeheartedly recommend The Adventures of a Plumber in Outer Space and I look forward to Jan Manthey’s further work as he continues to drag British independent cinema kicking and screaming into the mid-1970s. (You can find out more about Jan’s earlier films here.)
MJS rating: A-