HOW TO BE ECCENTRIC: THE ESSENTIAL RICHARD MASSINGHAM

PrintE-mail Written by John Knott

Well here’s a bit of an oddity from the BFI. Arguably, it’s a long overdue oddity. You might not have heard of Richard Massingham but in the ‘40s and ‘50s he was quite a familiar face to Brit-audiences (even if they didn’t know who he was either). He wrote and directed a load of short and quintessentially British films for training and public information purposes that were whimsical, surreal and, ultimately, pleasingly bonkers. He even appeared in a good few of them himself (hence his anonymous familiarity) as a sort of childlike old duffer who needed a disembodied voice to tell him how to do everything from crossing the road to blowing his own nose. The BFI have assembled nearly three hours’ worth for their latest DVD release, How to be Eccentric: The Essential Richard Massingham.

If you are at all familiar with Massingham then in all likelihood the one you’ve seen is the aforementioned (and near-legendary) Handkerchief Drill (1949) in which he gets pepper and allsorts thrown at him in order to get the hang of that tricky snot-rag. That’s because it’s one of those things the BBC used to like to wheel out when showing us just how mad the past was. You see, not only are these films pretty amusing, they’re fascinating cultural history. While we might chuckle at the lack of hygiene in the brilliant Another Case of Food Poisoning (1949), it’s also intriguing to see just how filthy our grandparents were. Down at the Local (1945) might be fairly mirth-free but there is a genuine thrill to exploring British boozers through the eyes of a couple of drinkers during the closing years of the War. And to be honest, we didn’t even understand what Elopement in France (1944) was about until we discovered that this tale of a Canadian soldier’s romantic travails was actually an advert for Rinso washing powder.

The filmmaking techniques themselves are also worth looking out for: Massingham was something of an auteur in this field and it’s not that surprising that Henri Langlois described him as “the greatest technician and the greatest poet of British cinema”, even if his tongue was in his cheek and he was actually expressing a Gallic-distain for the rest of our cinematic efforts. And see if you can spot some well-known faces in their youth. We had a confirmed sighting of a young Dick Emery in 30 Miles an Hour (1949) and we could swear that’s Kenneth Connor as the tailor in In Which We Live: Being the Story of a Suit Told by Itself (1944) but we can’t actually prove it. Yes, the suit really is the lead actor in that.

All in all this is as essential as the title suggests if you’re in the slightest bit interested in Massingham’s unique work or British cultural history. The addition of a documentary on the disc would have been nice but ultimately the things-aren’t-so-bad What a Life (1948) and water-saving with The Five-Inch Bather (1942) make it worth the price of admission.

Special Features: 32-page booklet

HOW TO BE ECCENTRIC: THE ESSENTIAL RICHARD MASSINGHAM / DIRECTORS: VARIOUS BUT MAINLY RICHARD MASSINGHAM / SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS BUT MAINLY RICHARD MASSINGHAM / STARRING RICHARD MASSINGHAM AND OTHERS / RELEASED: AUGUST 24TH

 


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