Welcome, brethren, to a gathering of some of the loopiest British films you'll ever see, freshly squeezed from the Comedy Archives and videofied for your insane delight...
Until about 1905 British cinema led the world, but by the early 1920s it had fallen into a deep slumber, while France, Germany and the USA raced ahead. The main problem was that Britain had such a strong tradition of theatre that nobody ever really took cinema seriously. But in the mid 1920s a group of young artists and critics formed The Film Society in London, which showed the latest art films from around the world, including Russian works banned in commercial cinemas for their political content, most notably Eisenstein's Potemkin. Most of the society's members were critics, constantly bemoaning the poor state of the British film industry but doing little about it (what's new?), but a few actually put the things their ideas into practice, and as a consequence the late 1920s saw a sudden flowering of talent in British cinema. The most innovative directors of this period (among them Anthony Asquith and Alfred Hitchcock) were almost all Film Society members.
Adrian Brunel is not so well known as Asquith or Hitchcock (his best known films are probably the Ivor Novello vehicles The Constant Nymph (1927) and The Vortex (1928)), but he was quickest off the mark when it came to experimenting with the new medium. This short film is a spoof of travel documentaries, and quite simply, it's hilarious. When you consider that it was made the same year as Keaton's seminal work of film criticism Sherlock Junior, it seems all the more extraordinary. This is a film so confident in its use of editing and so knowing in its parody of a genre still recognisable today, it's light years ahead of almost anything else Britain was making at the time. Absolutely unique!
You may wonder why a company making advertisements for the Post Office is worthy of inclusion in an Aaardvark Video Night, but these were no ordinary adverts. The unit was founded by the celebrated Scottish film producer (and Film Society member) John Grierson, who had previously helmed an almost identical body for the Empire Marketing Board, which released such classic documentaries as Drifters (1929) and Song of Ceylon (1934). Grierson was at the forefront of what critics now call the British Documentary Movement, often hailed as Britain's finest cinematic achievement pre-war. The GPO Film Unit included some of the most radical young film-makers in the country, all ostensibly making adverts for the Post Office, but in reality creating unparalleled works of avant-garde cinema. The films varied hugely in style and content, and under the loose heading of "documentary" they included drama, comedy, musicals and animated cartoons. The most famous these days is probably Night Mail (1936), for which W H Auden wrote some of his best loved verse, but there are dozens even more extraordinary. The two we're showing tonight are among my favourites, if only because they're so bizarre. The Fairy of the Phone (1936) is a musical comedy dramatisation of the Instruction Page of the London Telephone Directory, and if you think that sounds weird, wait till you see it! Love on the Wing (1939) is one of the first of many breathtaking flights of fancy made by the Scottish animator Norman McLaren, here creating an extraordinary stream of Freudian consciousness in front of colourful Magritte-like backdrops.
When the war came the unit was requisitioned, and was retitled the Crown Film Unit. It went on to create some of the greatest masterpieces of British cinema - Listen to Britain (1942), Fires were Started (1943) and A Diary for Timothy (1945) among them. But that's another story...
This delightful film stars and was produced and co-written by another Scot, the debonair Jack Buchanan. Best known now for his cinematic comeback in the MGM musical The Band Wagon (1954), Buchanan spent most of his career as a revue artiste on stage. His film career kicked off in the mid-1920s playing Bulldog Drummond, but when sound came in his talents for light comedy gave him an instant screen appeal. The most successful of his 30s comedies was Brewster's Millions (1933), remade several times, but he was perhaps at his best (as in tonight's offering) opposite fellow revue star Elsie Randolph. This film may not be a masterpiece, but it's a hugely entertaining romp in which Jack plays an insurance investigator more interested in playing with his model train set than pursuing claims!
What else could we end on but some choice cuts from our last gathering, carefully re-assembled by your most gregarious Video Co-Ordinator - and featuring the first all-new Aaardvark sketches in... oh, ages!