thunder splits the sky
open over shepherds bush
and the green trembles
Last night, there being nothing on TV, and the weather being somewhat shite, we cracked open the alcohol and settled down to watch some DVDs which we’d bought and not got round to watching (as you do).
The first was the old BBC adaptation of ‘The Hound of The Baskervilles’ with Peter Cushing as Holmes and Nigel Stock as Dr Watson. Gary Raymond, a familiar face to TV and film viewers played Sir Henry Baskerville, although admittedly with an accent that kept jumping back and forth over the Atlantic.
This was from a time when the BBC were quite brilliant at this sort of thing. They knew how to build atmosphere with a studio set and some incidental music. Because of the limitations the drama had to be driven by the performances, and, one has to say, Peter Cushing was quite brilliant as Sherlock Holmes; a far more intense and edgy Holmes than he played in the film of ‘Hound’ some nine years previously with Christopher Lee.
Following this our next premiere was ‘Old Mother Riley’s Jungle Treasure’ (1951).
For those not acquainted with this odd cultural phenomenon, Old Mother Riley was a variety drag act, real name Arthur Lucan, supported in his thespian endeavours by his wife, who played (with arguable success) his daughter, Kitty.
Riley was the variety epitome of the penniless Irish washerwoman, who, in a surprisingly large number of movies, produced mostly by Butcher Films, found herself embroiled in a scheme or adventure from which she emerged somehow triumphant albeit just as badly off financially.
‘Jungle Treasure’ finds Mother Riley and Kitty working in an antique shop, about to go bankrupt, but one which holds the bed of Morgan the Pirate, in which is hidden a map showing the location of his hidden treasure. The ghost of Morgan (played by Sebastian Cabot) appears to Mother Riley and tells her to take the map and find the treasure, while at the same time, a gang of unscrupulous rich people (it seems they’ve always been around) are trying to get the map for themselves.
So, Mother Riley and her entourage set off to a version of the West Indies which contemporary viewers would find funnier than the intentional comedy. Lions and tigers abound in the jungles, as well as penguins, even more bizarrely.
I was worried that the depiction of black natives would be at least demeaning, but this is, thankfully, not the case for the most part. The central native chief turns out to be cleverer than the rest of the characters and was educated at Eton, while the performance of the obligatory Voodoo-worshipping cannibals (which seemed to appear with monotonous regulatory in ‘jungle’ films of the day) could well be described as a parody of such cinematic clichés of the time. Their language seems to consist of one or two words, repeated in various tones, another cliché of the cinema which was last used in ‘One Million Years BC’ where the word ‘Akita’ seemed to mean everything from ‘Hello’ to ‘Watch out for the Dinosaur’ and ‘Stop playing that conch, I want to go to sleep’
Mother Riley’s natives were, (I suspect) a troupe of African dancers who are given an extended showcase within the movie to show off their moves to great effect, a situation which could have been far worse had the producers chosen to adopt the generally American device of blacking white men up for the roles, (although it has to be said that the British had a tendency at one time to use white actors to play Indians or Chinese, particularly on TV, a phenomenon I may be exploring at another time).
Practically all the characters in the film are caricatures of some sort. Personally, I could find nothing offensive in this harmless and sometimes very funny rarity which I am glad has been released on DVD at long last.