A strange collision of social realism, working class drama and sit-com antics in this unfairly dismissed British film.
Something weird happened to British cinema in the wake of the Angry Young Man social realism of the early 1960s. At some point, these dour films became curious hybrids of comedy and tragedy, serious drama and exploitation, as the developing sex film genre and the working class appeal of the Carry On film collided with bleak studies of frustration and bitterness. It’s the world that, on TV, brought us the likes of Steptoe and Son and The Likely Lads, sit-com off-shoots of class driven dramas like Room at the Top and Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, where the characters struggled – often unsuccessfully – to escape the world that they were born into, attempting to climb the social ladder and crack the class ceiling – often painfully unsuccessfully. Less successfully, films like All Neat in Black Stockings tried to channel the popularity of the new jack the lad character of Alfie and other films while pre-dating the Confessions comedies of a decade later (when all sense of social commentary was dropped in favour of broad sex comedy). And then there were odd films like The Best Pair of Legs in the Business, which doesn’t seem to quite know what it wants to be, but is nevertheless a fascinating study in angst and resentment, cunningly disguised – at least in the promotional material – as a knockabout comedy. Seen now, it’s a strangely messy, remarkable work that also doubles as a historical document of working class life in the early 1970s.
This 1972 movie is a real curio. If you look at the two main stars, you could be forgiven for expecting a typical bit of Seventies comedy – after all, Reg Varney was the ageing, brillcreemed would-be lothario of On the Buses and Diana Coupland was the star of Bless This House and the odd Carry On movie. None of this suggests a film that is a rather dour drama that is awash with personal misery. The fact that some comedy moments such as a pair of horny young men trying to buy condoms at chemist shops staffed by pretty girls (yes, that old gag!) are thrown in, seemingly as filler, just confuses the issue more.
Varney plays cabaret artist and drag queen ‘Sherry’ Sheridan – “a little man with a gripe against the world” as he’s described at one point. Once successful (though perhaps never as successful as he likes to pretend) he’s now trotting out his tired old act at the social club in a caravan site, performing to a generally disinterested audience and living in denial of his fall from grace. His wife Mary (Coupland) is planning to leave him for camp manager Charlie Green (Lee Montague), his son Alan (Michael Hadley) is ashamed of him and doesn’t want him to meet his future in-laws (a stuck up vicar and his wife) and the whole camp knows about his wife’s infidelity.
Varney is a real revelation in this film. Far removed from his ‘Jack the lad’ image on his hit TV show (and spin-off movies), here he is a pathetic, increasingly desperate figure who tries to hide his misery and failure behind a ‘camp’ persona – at one point, he cringingly tries to convince the camp’s new owner (Jean Harvey) that he isn’t a homosexual, stripping away his public face to reveal the frightened man within. Moments like this, the painful to watch meeting with the parents of his son’s bride to be and his bitter, hateful rant against Coupland when he discovers the truth about the affair – revealed to him in a moment of malicious spite by Harvey, who is annoyed that she has been forced to guarantee him a job as part of the contract for the camp – show Varney to be a better actor than many would give him credit for. It’s a brave role for such a then-household name to take on (even forcing him to shed his toupee at one point), and he’s excellent in it. He’s matched by Coupland, who perfectly conveys to woman torn between personal happiness and not wanting to hurt her husband.
Seen now, The Best Pair of Legs in the Business also seems a curious time capsule. This is an era of working men’s clubs putting on ‘turns’, taciturn blokes sitting drinking muddy-looking bitter, class divisions and social climbing, horny young men and bored, disinterested girls and the sort of grim, drab décor that you would never see today. The club is a grimly horrible place – yet typical of the time, with dark and depressing colour schemes. No one seems to be enjoying themselves very much – there’s a sense of boredom that pervades the place, from the customers to the staff. Sherry’s efforts to jolly people along in a place like this seem doomed to failure.
Within this downbeat atmosphere, the efforts of blokish Ron and Dai (David Lincoln and George Sweeney) to pull bored birds Glad and Eunice (Clare Sutcliffe and Penny Spencer) – all bad hair, polyester and contempt – seem crowbarred in from another sort of film entirely. I haven’t seen the 1968 TV drama that this film is based on, but if there has been new material added to pad this out to feature length, I imagine their condom capers and laddish antics may well be it. Yet these scenes too are like a weirdly dated look at a time that now feels like a different planet. Where would you find characters called Glad and Eunice now? And what modern British drama or comedy, desperate to be cool, would feature ham-fisted mating rituals taking place in a grotty working men’s club where a performer is singing Bud Flanagan numbers? I’m not sure that world even exists anymore.
The Best Pair of Legs in the Business has probably suffered from false expectations over the years – it’s unsurprising that people would expect a lightweight bit of slap and felt disappointed to be stuck with a depressing bit of social realism. But go into this with your eyes open and you might be pleasantly surprised.