The most surprising thing about Bottoms Up is that is was a spin-off from a TV show –Whack-O! – which lasted until 1971. God knows who was still impressed by the public school antics of posh boys and their corporal punishment obsessed headmaster by that point. Unsurprisingly, both the TV series and the film have pretty much been confined to the dustbin of history (most episodes are lost and no one seems to be looking too hard to find them), so this new release is welcome from a purely historical perspective. As for an artistic one… well, perhaps not so much.
In the grand tradition of comedy stars at the time, Jimmy Edwards plays Jimmy Edwards – or, more accurately, in this case James Edwards, headmaster of Chiselbury School, a place for wealthy posh people so send their offspring. Much like St Trinians, Chiselbury is a terrible school (but presumably still better than the ghastly state schools that us grotty little commoners had to attend, or why pay for it), full of delinquent little children who you imagine grew up to be Tory MPs. But things are not well at Chiselbury – the school is in financial trouble and its new governor Lady Gore-Willoughby is pressuring Edwards to improve the situation. Luckily for him, an Indian Prince is due to start his education, incognito, at an English school, and so the head decides to kill two birds with one stone – being hassled by his bookie to pay off a debt by accepting his delinquent cockney son (played by notoriously rough character Melvin Hayes), the boy is blacked up and passed off to the governor as the prince. Unfortunately, like all working-class people, Melvin turns out to be a bit of a trouble maker, causing unrest in the school and taking advantage of Edwards’ inability to punish him. This eventually leads to rebellion, led by the breathtakingly posh Peregrine Wendover, as war is waged against the teachers. Meanwhile, the real prince has arrived at the school, quickly followed by rough types intent on kidnapping him.
Bottoms Up is a fascinating curiosity, so far removed from any concept of modern life as to be less relatable than a film about prehistoric monsters. This is a world where children are routinely beaten with a cane for minor transgressions and yet will still pull the sort of japes that would make even the most tolerant teacher give them a slap. It’s a world where a family who can afford a chauffeur will still send their horrible little brat to a notoriously awful school. And a world where no one questions a blacked-up cockney. Kids watching this will be just baffled.
There are some chuckles to be had, mostly through Edwards, who is an amusing, scheming bungler – by all accounts, the TV show portrayed him as a Bilko style con man, and there are hints of that here, but not as much as it needs. Instead, the film concentrates on Peregrine Wendover, who the film attempts to portray as a cheeky chappy, in conflict with Edwards but a good egg really. When he leads the rebellion against Prince Melvin’s reign of terror and the headmaster’s compliance in it, we’re obviously supposed to support him and his fellow students, as if they are some sort of oppressed minority. But he’s such a smug little bastard with a clear sense of entitlement and superiority that within five minutes of his appearance on screen, even the most tolerant of you will be looking up the subscription rates for Class War.
Directed by Mario Zampi – who made a handful of rather better British comedy films around the same time – and written by Michael Pertwee alongside series creators Frank Muir and Denis Norden, it’s a strange look at a world that few of us can relate to, but which was presumably thought to be a film that a mass audience would relate to. Now, it seems like a real curio that is mildly entertaining, but not exactly a forgotten comedy classic.
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Sad, middle-aged gay Edwards now seems like a tragic figure whereas, in his prime, he seemed a key TV icon of his age. I remember seeing him, a couple of decades back, in the bar at St Pancras Station, desperate for anyone to recognise him and give him some self esteem. Nobody did. He was already a forgotten figure from music hall and early TV comedy…
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