The recent appearance of John Cleese and Eric Idle in Northeast Florida sent me on a trip down memory lane to two films I hadn’t seen in 25-plus years but which I remembered (somewhat vaguely, to be honest) with great fondness. Both starred former members of Monty Python, and I’m happy to say the movies proved to be even better than I remembered.
Privates on Parade (1983) stars John Cleese, and A Private Function (1984) features Michael Palin (and Maggie Smith). Both were produced by George Harrison’s Handmade Films, and each is set in 1947 – Privates in Malaya and Function in a small Yorkshire town in England. Each one is very funny, and the opening scenes of both feature a contemporary newsreel setting the background for what follows. The similarities end there.
Adapted by Peter Nichols from his own stage revue, Privates on Parade deals with a troupe of Army entertainers with the sobriquet SADUSEA (Song and Dance Unit of South East Asia) who put on shows to entertain His Majesty’s Forces involved in routing the Communists from Malaya. Cleese is Major Giles Flack, an avowed anti-Communist and English patriot devoted to God and country. The troupe of men (and one woman) under him are something else.
Denis Quilley (in a brilliant performance) is Captain Teri Davis, troupe leader and flaming queen, trying to make the best of a bad situation. His cohorts (nearly all are unfamiliar to most American audiences) sing and dance their hearts and souls out, oblivious of the chaos around them.
Like Quilley and Cleese, the musical numbers are hilarious, but Privates on Parade occasionally veers unexpectedly into drama, almost tragedy near the end, underscoring the intended satire but unfortunately upsetting the tone – at least a bit. For the most part, though, the madcap irreverent humor is right on target.
Meanwhile back in Yorkshire, the folks in the small town in A Private Function are trying to deal with the austerity programs of 1947, even as they prepare to celebrate the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. The town’s elite (headed by the marvelous Denholm Elliott as an irascible physician, openly contemptuous of the common rabble as well as his colleagues) have been secretly fattening up a pig (procured illegally) for a banquet to celebrate the royal nuptials and highlight their own social status in the process.
Mild-mannered Gilbert Chilvers (Palin), a lowly chiropodist, is trying to make ends meet by plying his trade on people’s bunions and toenails. His wife Joyce (Maggie Smith), organist at the local cinema and resident piano teacher, has her eyes on a higher social standing, though she currently has her hands full dealing with her 74-year-old mother who’s on the verge of dementia.
The answer to everyone’s immediate appetite, physical as well as social, turns out to be the plump porker (nicknamed Betty) who herself is afflicted with a nasty intestinal disorder, causing odoriferous problems for whoever is stealing her at the moment.
The wonderful supporting cast includes Richard Griffiths (Uncle Vernon in Harry Potter movies), future Oscar nominee Pete Postlethwaite, and Jim Carter (Mr. Carson of Downton Abbey). It’s no surprise that A Private Function earned three BAFTA Awards (the British Oscars) for its cast as well as two other nominations. More than 25 years later in 2011, the film was transformed into a successful stage musical with the title Betty Blue Eyes, featuring an electronic flatulent pig.
If you’re in the mood for some British humor with a Pythonesque twist, there are few much funnier than these two comic gems.