24 Lies a Second: A Bit of a Dinky-Do

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A Bit of a Dinky-Do

The missive brooked no argument, coming as it did from the Editor-in-Chief of this very organ: 'June is music month for Create,' it said. 'So we feel it would behoove you to lay off the usual inane genre movies and obscure arthouse nonsense, just for one week, and write about something cultural and lyrical and melodious. Also, with songs in it. And, in the name of simple human decency, please lay off sending us any more videos of Jason Statham riding bicycles, being interviewed, or advertising chocolate bars. Our endurance is almost exhausted.'

What it is to have such a harmonious working relationship with one's editor. So, something cultural, lyrical and melodious, for Create's music month, eh? Hmm – time to break out the Second World War comedy-thriller reviews! Marcel Varnel's Let George Do It! was made in 1940, one of the (these days) less-remembered products of the famous Ealing Studios company. Made in the early days of the war, this is a film which is clearly trying hard to lift the spirits of people with a lot on their mind. Its success can be measured by the fact it was an international hit under a variety of titles – screening in the USSR under the very un-Russian title Dinky-Do. Inevitably, looking at it over seventy years later, it comes across as a bit of a curiosity.

The staff and guests at a hotel in Bergen, Norway are shocked when the resident band's ukulele player is murdered mid-performance. (If you play the uke as badly as me, this is an occupational hazard, but this guy was supposed to be a pro.) However, there is more afoot than someone taking exception to a badly-executed triplet strum – the dead ukist was in fact working for British Intelligence, on the trail of a Nazi agent feeding shipping information to German U-boats.

Back in London the spymasters of MI6 respond with alacrity – send another ukulele-playing intelligence operative to Norway at once, to replace the dead man! The theatrical agent they are working with (yes, yes, I know this is all soaringly improbable and actually quite silly) assures them this will not be a problem. However a mix-up at the docks, involving the Dinky-Do concert party which the agent also represents, culminates in the wrong man being sent to Bergen. Who can it be? Who could possibly be the leading man of a morale-boosting, rather silly comedy thriller, and do all his own ukulele playing to boot? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mr George Formby.

Formby is one of those performers who clearly does not hold with any of that 'dramatic range' business, as he plays virtually the same character in all of his films – a good-hearted, slightly dim, but ultimately resourceful Lancastrian bloke who can knock out a funny line with the best of them and is a master of the ukulele too (although, and I feel we should be technical here, he very rarely plays a genuine ukulele, more often choosing the uke's more forthright cousin, the banjolele). His star has faded somewhat in the last couple of decades, but when Let George Do It! was made he was one of the biggest stars in the UK.

Anyway, once George figures out he's in Bergen, and not Blackpool as he had been expecting, he joins forces with British Intelligence's girl on the scene (Phyllis Calvert) and together they try to work out how the bad guy (Garry Marsh) is getting his information to the German Navy.

The film doesn't hang about and all is done and dusted with a minimum of nastiness and maximum of cheer well inside an hour and a half. And I have to say that I enjoyed this film with a degree of sincerity that rather surprised me, because a lot of the comedy stuff is genuinely amusing even now. The resourcefulness of the many scriptwriters in extracting the maximum comic potential from the simple phrase 'Dinky-Do' is rather awe-inspiring, and there's a bit where George has to go through customs with the luggage of a conjuror which is a lot of fun too. On the other hand, there is perhaps a bit too much reliance on Formby blundering into any situation and wreaking complete havoc, and some of the slapstick seems laboured and primitive now. Certainly the film gets broader and more openly ridiculous as it goes on – something which starts off close in tone to a genuine thriller concludes with George being shot out of the torpedo tube of a U-boat onto the deck of a passing ship. I don't think even Tom Cruise would try to get away with something like that nowadays.

There are four big musical numbers, and – why am I even worrying about these things? – the film doesn't have to stretch credibility too much to work them in, George being a ukulele player in a band, after all. The biggest of these is 'Count your blessings and smile', a nice enough tune but one which features Formby going hands-free. I suspect a lot of people seeking this film out now will be doing so just to marvel at Formby's legendary right-hand technique, which is given due prominence in 'Grandad's Flannelette Nightshirt', 'Mr Wu's A Window Cleaner Now' and 'Don't The Wind Blow Cold' (yes, these really are the names of songs in the Formby repertoire). For all the naturalism of the way in which the songs are written into the script, George does spend a lot of the time winking and grinning at the camera while actually performing them, but listening to that syncopation I will forgive anything.

Other points of interest in this film include the usual appearances by latterly-famous actors in supporting roles – here, Coral Browne (the future Mrs Vincent Price) plays the villain's girlfriend, while Bernard Lee is unrecognisable as an angry Norwegian (Lee also appeared in The Third Man, but will probably be best remembered for playing M in the first eleven Bond movies). And, there is a very peculiar sequence in which George, off his face on truth serum, has wild hallucinations – which almost appear to anticipate some of the imagery of A Matter of Life and Death – concluding in him imagining himself flying to the heart of the Reich and sticking one on Hitler. The Americans had Captain America, we had George Formby.

Let George Do It! is generally acclaimed to be the best of Captain Lancashire's star vehicles, and I must say I'm tempted to observe that if this is the best one, I can't imagine what the worst must be like. But that would be rather unfair, because this movie is knockabout good fun, has moments of genuine class, and served a very valuable purpose in its day. If George really wants to do it, then I would say go ahead and let him.

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