Norman Wisdom’s ill-fated step into Swinging London is more interesting than its reputation might suggest.
Norman Wisdom had been a huge film star in Britain since the early 1950’s, much to the disdain of critics, who universally loathed his trademark blend of slapstick and sentimentality, and his fans were remarkably devoted. I once attended an event a decade ago where Wisdom was making an appearance, and even then, the love his fans – far from the usual fandom suspects – had for him was obvious and remarkable. But by the end of the 1960s, tastes were changing and Wisdom was getting older, and looking to move on. The result was this, his final starring role before he moved onto the small screen.
In this film, Wisdom plays stuffy assistant bank manager Timothy Bartlett, who is sent to a banking conference in Southport after his superior has a heart attack. En route, he picks up – or most accurately, is picked up – by two teenage hippy girls, Nikki (Sally Geeson) and Meg (Sarah Atkinson). While annoyed by their presence and their antics at first, Bartlett soon begins to warm to their free-spirited approach to life, and is especially taken with Nikki. Feeling that he doesn’t fit in with the banking crowd, he takes off to find alternative entertainment, and eventually winds up at a hippy club where The Pretty Things seem to be the resident band and where he once again encounters Nikki. Before long, the two of them have embarked on an affair. But while Bartlett thinks this is love, for Nikki it’s just a fling with no ties. While Bartlett is swapping his suit and bowler hat for loud shirts and beads – and impressing his banker colleagues with what they think are new approaches to business – Nikki is getting off with hippy boys, inevitably leading to a confrontation. Bartlett. Feeling crushed, calls his wife and invites her down, attempting to recreate the moments of excitement he shared with Nikki – an effort that is doomed to failure.
What’s Good for the Goose is a curious effort – a sometimes successful, sometimes not mix of knockabout comedy, more sophisticated sex comedy, drama and social comment. In the end, this is about the culture clash taking place in the late Sixties, with both sides of the divide looked down on. The stuffed shirts of the banking culture are shown to be pompous, humourless and lifeless, but equally, the hippies are shown as vacuous, self-centered – Nikki isn’t trying to hurt Bartlett, but she’s too self-absorbed to see what the result of her actions would be – and rather arrogant. Both fairly accurate observations, I imagine.
Unfortunately, Wisdom’s back catalogue works against him here – we’ve seen too many films of him bumbling about to find him convincing as either a sober bank manager or a romantic lover, and he can’t resist a bit of prat-falling and mugging for the camera here. As a writer and producer on the project, this is clearly a film his had some dedication to (he also strips off, so those of you with the need to see his bum will be very happy), and his performance is pretty good – but it’s hard to accept him in the role. Geeson, however, is very cute and very charming – it’s not hard to see why anyone would fall in love with her.
While not the British Sex Film that it’s often referred to as – its PG-rating should be a clue – this is rather more frank than a film you’d expect to find a wholesome family entertainer like Wisdom starring in. There’s some brief nudity, though this version has a fairly obvious couple of cuts – there’s a topless shot of Geeson that was in TV prints missing. Odeon have generally done a good job of finding complete versions of their British releases, so it’s a shame that this is an edited version.
While not for the hardened Wisdom fan, this is nevertheless a film of some charm, and a brave move from the veteran comedian – even if it did effectively bring his movie career to an end. Brit-Smut fans might not find much here to enjoy, but as a slice of pop culture, it’s well worth a look, even in this truncated form.