For his devotees, any footage of the comedian Sid Field is gold dust. Now largely forgotten, this English comedian who died in 1950 aged just forty-five was greatly admired by his peers and massively popular amongst theatre audiences. He appeared in three films, all of them dreadful. One in particular, London Town (1946) is acknowledged to be “one of the biggest flops in the history of British cinema” (AllMovie). More than that, London Town is also one of the most unsettlingly strange attempts at a rousing feel-good extravaganza ever committed to celluloid…but at least it features some of the best examples of Sid Field in action.
Field came to cinema late in his career. Born in Ladywood, Birmingham in 1904, he was a performer from an early age and paid his dues on the variety circuit for the best part of thirty years. During that time he honed his act in theatres across the length and breadth of pre-Second World War Britain. Gradually he made a name for himself as a spell-binding comic who not only kept his audiences in stitches playing various characters, but also seemed to inhabit those same characters in a way that transcended mere clowning. In essence, Sid Field was the unsung precursor to the likes of Peter Sellers and Tony Hancock when it came to acting the eccentric everyman who displays the kind of fractured foibles with which we can all identify. Had he lived long enough to establish himself in the television age, there is every likelihood that he would be a household name even today. As it is, however, he died relatively young and appeared in some truly lousy films.
London Town was the second of Field’s films, but the first made on the back of his sell-out success in a number of West End shows. By then he had topped the bill in two Royal Variety Performances and had already turned down a number of Hollywood offers. London Town, the first British feature-length musical to be made in Technicolor, was intended to be a lavish, all-singing and -dancing example of the kind of dizzying heights that this country’s film-making could achieve, in comparison to its transatlantic competition. The J. Arthur Rank Organisation funded the venture, roping in producer and director Wesley Ruggles, who had previously made films with the likes of Clark Gable, Bing Crosby and Mae West. Field’s supporting players were an eclectic lot, including fourteen-year-old Petula Clark, Kay Kendall (the future star of Genevieve), Claude Hulbert, Jerry Desmonde (Field’s regular straight man), and banjolele virtuoso Tessie O’Shea. With such a miscellany of talent on board, all seemed set for what should have been the start of Sid Field’s long and celebrated cinematic career.
In the film Field plays Jerry Sandford, a small-time comedian talent-spotted by Mrs Eve Barry, a steely but stylish London producer who signs him up to feature in her West End stage show ‘London Town.’ Jerry travels to the capital with his young daughter Peggy (played by Petula Clark) in tow. However, when he arrives at the theatre, Jerry soon discovers that he will actually be no more than the understudy to Charlie de Haven, the show’s established comic. Jerry’s role will be to stand in the wings each night and “Just watch Charlie – get the way he works.” However, as Jerry soon discovers, the wily Mrs Barry has brought him into the production to show Charlie that he could easily be replaced, should his temperamental ways and hypochondria get out of hand. Understandably, Jerry is upset on finding out the truth and then, on top of everything else, has to return to his lodgings and reveal the real situation to bright-eyed Peggy and their matronly landlady, Mrs Gates.
Up to this point in the film, Field has played a fairly straight role. showing himself to be an adequate if not overly accomplished actor. Equally, his singing talents are fairly unremarkable, as we hear early on in proceedings when, as he’s tucking Peggy in for the night, he gets to launch into one of London Town’s first would-be show stoppers. You Can’t Keep a Good Dreamer Down was one of a suite of songs written for the film by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, an otherwise very accomplished song-writing duo who flourished throughout the forties and early fifties (Swinging On a Star, etc) —however, on this film’s evidence they could, on occasion, have more than a few off days. Their next big number, My Heart Goes Crazy, launches the opening night of the stage show ‘London Town.’ We hear its strains as the curtains part and Tessie O’Shea, dressed as a pantomime dame-style cockney flower seller, hauls a massive basket of daffodils on-stage. A curious kind of mime show ensues in which Tessie finds herself surrounded by fashionable young men and women, who promenade around her without once stopping to buy any flowers. In an effort to make her presence known, Tessie suddenly thrusts a big bunch of daffs at one poor starlet. As eyebrow-raising as this sudden lunge is, even more alarming is the way that the young actress reacts by convulsing violently, as if in the throes of an electric shock. This remarkable incident appears to have no bearing whatsoever on the rest of the scene but does, perhaps, reveal a frenzied side to Ms O’Shea’s character that she might have done better to conceal from her public.
As if to redeem herself and prove that she’s still cuddly old Tessie after all, she then leans against one side of the proscenium arch and dreams a wonderful flower seller’s dream. A peculiar characteristic of London Town is that its song-and-dance sequences are every bit as mesmerising as Sid Field’s comic set-pieces, but for very different reasons. Whereas Field’s interludes showcase an entertainer so assured in his performance that he can afford to play about with any given situation and thereby produce sparks of absurd brilliance, when it comes to the musical numbers, to describe them as all over the place doesn’t do justice to how discordantly odd they can often be. A case in point is Tessie’s dream which —not to get too immersed in its troubling imagery— involves a twilit hillside covered with daffodils where two would-be sweethearts wander around singing to each other before the male, in attempting to embrace the female, ends up hurling her to the ground in a move which, although perhaps meant to be a balletic movement, comes across as more like common assault. Eventually the two of them run off into the background somewhere, before the flowers turn into strangely cumbersome female dancers who leap about for a bit. Unsurprisingly, this is enough to jolt Tessie out of her dream, at which point she finds herself back on stage surrounded by a ‘bevy of beauties’ whose individual close-ups only serve to reveal how thickly and aggressively their make-up has been applied. Once seen, this whole sequence tends to stay in the memory for far too long.
With our heads in need of clearing after this Tessie O’Shea-fuelled bad trip, we, the cinema audience, are transported back behind the scenes at the theatre once again. Jerry, the disappointed understudy, remains an onlooker in the wings whilst, night after night, his insufferable comic nemesis Charlie de Haven continues to steal the limelight. Charlie has by now been established as the annoying little villain of the piece whom everyone has taken against, none more so than young Peggy. Indeed, such is Peggy’s resentment of this brash egotist that at one point she engages her disappointed father in a whimsical conversation about what circumstances might lead to Charlie leaving the show. Between them they rather jaw-droppingly reach the conclusion that if he were to contract smallpox, that should do it. However, not content with this kind of idly malevolent speculation, Peggy —a pig-tailed Lucrezia Borgia when it comes to orchestrating her dad’s big break— decides to take matters into her own hands. Her next move is, in effect, the central pivot upon which the whole plot of the film turns. It involves getting hold of some joke soap and arranging for it to be used accidentally by Charlie, whose face it turns bright green for at least thirty-six hours. Consequently, Charlie can’t go on that night, meaning that her father finally gets to make his West End debut.
Cut to a nerve-wracked Jerry Sandford preparing to finally face his audience. For his debut he’s dressed as the character Slasher Green, an East End spiv with a trilby set at a rakish angle, kipper tie, pencil moustache and ridiculously long overcoat. As Jerry walks on stage the nerves subside and what we actually see is Sid Field suddenly inhabiting one of his most famous creations. Slasher was a character whom Field had first developed in the late thirties. In effect, he is the forerunner of George Cole’s Flash Harry of the St Trinian’s films, but without the guile or moody suspicion: all Slasher wants to do is perform a song-and-dance number. However, the combination of compere Jerry Desmonde standing in his way (“keep well back there, son. I keep asking you”) and a persistent heckler frustrates his efforts. This is a relatively short skit, but packed with evidence of Field’s mastery of movement, facial expression and gift for seemingly spontaneous, half-heard asides. As would become even more evident later on in the film, in full comedic flow Field is a compelling sight to behold.
Unfortunately, this sudden upgrade in the quality of what we see on screen doesn’t last long, and by the next scene the series of screeching mood changes that constitute London Town has seen it drop back into unwitting bathos. The theatre show continues as we witness the stage plunged into momentary darkness. A harpist is briefly spotlighted playing a trill, before the all-encompassing gloom once more regains its dominion. But not for long. Suddenly the lights go up and a street scene is revealed, populated by serried ranks of radiantly dazed urchins. From the midst of this legion of the damned emerges a young girl who looks no more than ten or eleven. She launches into the song If Spring Were Only Here to Stay, revealing a voice which, in its incongruous maturity of tone, sounds as if it belongs to a soprano at least ten years her senior. This angelic youngster’s rictus grin and dead-eyed composure make her performance of the song’s mawkish lyrics and simpering melodies genuinely disturbing, an impression exacerbated by the way in which her dapper little playmates accompany her efforts with a heavenly chorus of ever-soaring chirrups whilst beaming blankly into the middle distance. If the Tessie O’Shea sequence induced a state of altered consciousness, this one summons up the kind of hazy disquiet associated with a particularly merciless hangover.
At this point in the film it’s a matter of gritting the teeth in the sure and certain hope that another Sid Field sketch will be along shortly to steady the nerves. And before long, that’s exactly what happens. It’s still showtime and now the stage set is an Edwardian music hall, where Field has adopted the guise of Professor Eustace Bollinger, a specialist on the tubular bells. As a child, Field’s first comedy hero was Charlie Chaplin, whom he impersonated in his earliest ad hoc performances in front of friends and family, before eventually busking the act in front of queuing cinema audiences in order to earn pocket money. Much of Chaplin’s agile clumsiness is apparent in Professor Bollinger’s movements as he repeatedly trips over the footlights and walks into the front stage curtain. When it rises, we see a rickety set of tubular bells. The main part of the sketch involves the Professor engaging with the leader of the pit orchestra (“Keeping reasonably well? That’s right”), as well as offering some words of warning – “I hope you’ve got the boys up to concert pitch because I go at this thing tooth and nail, you know, the whole thing very, very quick. Terribly quickly. The speed I attain is absolutely colossal. Sometimes I stop before the orchestra has even started.” Chaos ensues as the Professor attempts to play in time with the music whilst tubular bells fall to the floor and the top of his mallet flies off. Calling a sudden halt to proceedings, the Professor rushes to the front of the stage. In an inspired bit of business, his scatter-gun delivery of questions about why he and the orchestra can’t seem to keep up with each other are asked at such a pace that he forgets to breathe, whilst his knees slowly buckle beneath him so that he gradually collapses onto the floor. At such moments Field’s brilliance at visual comedy combined with pinpoint delivery are timelessly hilarious. More Chaplinesque slapstick follows and again, as in the Slasher Green sketch, the Professor is the subject of heckling from the crowd, this time in the form of Jerry Desmonde as a guffawing toff who questions whether Field’s character knows anything at all about music, before asking why he is still wearing his bicycle clips. To this last taunt the Professor replies, with lofty disdain, that as a matter of fact he had to rush rather quickly from his newspaper round to get to the theatre on time.
After this delightful interlude, all too soon we find ourselves back in the gruelling world of London Town’s ramshackle plot development. Such has been Jerry’s success with the audience that impresario Eve Barry wants him to take on the lead comedy role in the show permanently. He breaks the good news to Peggy, who can only feign delight at her father’s success: by now she is haunted by the dark deed that she committed to ensure his big break, and guilt is beginning to poison her very existence. That night, after Jerry has tucked her up in bed, Peggy secretly slips out from beneath the covers to pray and weep, the embodiment of psychological torment. This insufferable moping continues into the next day when Jerry, Peggy, and several theatre chums have a jolly day-trip out together. However, on this outing Peggy hears that Charlie De Haven’s face has now returned to its normal colour, but that if he ever finds out who was responsible he will take the matter to the police. This, understandably, puts the wind up Peggy, as she contemplates the very real prospect of being sent down for a ten stretch. Anyway, to cut a long story short, it doesn’t come to that. Peggy finally confesses all to her father, who, feeling compelled to give up his stardom under the circumstances, goes to see Mrs Barry, who tells him that Charlie is perfectly happy in a new career that she has found for him in musical comedy. Jerry then rushes back to tell Peggy that everything is all right after all, Peggy cheers up considerably, and the joke soap/green face storyline is finally laid to rest.
From this point onwards all semblance of maintaining any sort of plot development is abandoned, as sketches and musical numbers are wedged together, presenting a garishly coloured feast of the senses. First up is a sketch which Field had first presented in his 1944 stage show ‘Strike It Again.’ This time he plays a flamboyantly camp photographer whose childhood friend Whittaker (played by the ever-versatile Desmonde) visits his studio to have his picture taken as the new Mayor of Bromarsh. Rather than rely on cheap homosexual innuendos (which would have been as unacceptable in the forties as they are now, but for notably different reasons), Field plays the photographer character as a fussy, highly-strung old gossip who becomes increasingly vexed at Whittaker’s inability to follow simple instructions about how he should pose. Field’s skill in this role lies in his ability to concentrate the audience’s attention on the constant frustrations which fuel his character’s frantic energy as he rushes round his studio, by turns ordering and pleading with Whittaker to do as he’s asked. Here, once again, Field is paving the way for future comedians who adopted this type of persona, such as Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick as Julian and Sandy in Round the Horne, as well as John Inman, Larry Grayson and more recently Julian Clary.
Following this sketch, more musical misdemeanours are committed. Best not to dwell on the whys and wherefores, but for no discernible reason the scene becomes a boating regatta, where a plummy-voiced young toff serenades his sweetheart as he punts them up and down a couple of square feet of suspiciously shallow water, whilst from the crowded river bank the terrifyingly rouged and lipsticked chorus girls accompany him. Then Tessie O’Shea appears on a swing from somewhere and ends up plunging headfirst in the river. This really happens.
Ah, but then we come to the Golf Sketch. Given its central place in Field’s comedy repertoire it is perhaps fitting that this has for a long time been the only widely available footage of his work on the internet. To decide whether you find Field as funny as his admirers claim, it is best to hunt down this sketch and see it for yourself. The basic premise is that Field has been brought to a golf course by Desmonde, who wants to teach him how to play the game. Field is the somewhat perplexed beginner who is introduced to a number of golfing terms which he takes too literally, much to Desmonde’s gradually increasing fury. Field becomes more and more confused and frustrated at his inability to understand Desmonde’s use of terminology, and on more than one occasion the two men square up to each other to vent their mutual exasperation. The range of Field’s comedic characterisation is fully in evidence in the Golf Sketch, so that in the space of just eight-and-half-minutes we see him fully inhabit the temperament of confused innocent, indignant stooge, childlike coward and loud-mouthed yob, all the while sporadically exclaiming “What a performance!” which became something of a Field catchphrase. Unsurprisingly, the Golf Sketch was a big favourite with theatre audiences. If London Town has few other saving graces —and debatably it hasn’t— at least it contains this gemlike few minutes of Sid Field doing what he did best.
The thunderous C major chords that bring Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to a close are often cited as the greatest ending in music, and Molly Bloom’s “yes I will Yes” is similarly seen as the ultimate conclusion to a work of literature. When it comes to film, it is safe to say that London Town’s finale is not the best in the cinematic field. In fact, consistent with most of what has gone before, it’s a right old dog’s dinner. Where to start?
It begins with Cockneys –because, after all, the show is all about London Town, so that makes sense. Loads of Cockneys are shown having a good old Cockney time at a Cockney fair. On come Sid Field and Kay Kendall dressed as, respectively, a Pearly King and Queen. They proceed to do one of those sauntering dances with thumbs tucked under armpits for which Cockneys are so celebrated. This manoeuvre is designed to introduce the audience to something called The ’Ampstead Way. This is a song with associated dance steps and is a cut-price collision between The Lambeth Walk and Let’s All Go Down the Strand, dubiously hymning the romantic charms of Hampstead. Some high-stepping Cockney choreography breaks out, and then Kay Kendall launches into My Old Man (Said Follow the Van) followed by a toothless old boy singing Give Me an Old-Fashioned Pub. Then comes the inevitable rendition of Any Old Iron, which is made singularly more life-affirming by the third and final appearance of Tessie O’Shea (who, we may recall, was last seen plummeting head-first into a boating lake a few scenes before). Tessie makes much of pronouncing the lyrics as “HHany HHold Irunnn!” whilst continually ramming into Sid Field with her tummy. How this primeval tussle would have eventually resolved itself we will never know, as suddenly the scene changes to a gala event, where Sid and Kay have exchanged their pearly costumes for evening dress. For some reason Sid pretends to be blind drunk as he descends a staircase upon which those old favourites, the bevy of beauties, have positioned themselves. This gives Sid the chance to weave his way around them and almost lose his footing before finally negotiating the bottom step. A reprise of many of the songs already featured follows, including The ’Ampstead Way, which is notable for the fact that everyone attempting to dance seems irritatingly uncertain of the moves. No matter, because then they wheel out a giant piano at which about fifteen blokes in white tie and tails are busily thumping out a tune. The curtains close, Sid and Kay come out for a cheery word to the cinema audience…and London Town is finally over.
After Sid Field died a benefit concert was given for his family at the London Palladium. It is a measure of the esteem in which he was held that forty stars of stage and screen took part including Danny Kaye, Laurence Olivier, Douglas Fairbanks, Orson Welles, Arthur Askey, Ted Ray, Judy Garland and Vivien Leigh. Bob Hope claimed that Field “was probably the best comedian of them all,” whilst Olivier said, “Of all people I have ever watched with the greatest delight [….] was Sid Field [sic]… I still borrow from him, freely and unashamedly.”
It remains a pity that, unlike in the case of Field’s great hero Chaplin, there isn’t a more substantial archive of work to show why this comedian who died so long ago was eulogised by those who saw him. London Town, the film that was meant to do wonders for Field’s standing and that of British musical cinema, remains —as the critics have described it— “an awkward cinematic experience,” as well as one which “completely underwhelmed critics and audiences.” True enough, but it can also be argued that it remains awfully fascinating because it is so fascinatingly awful.--Mark Jones