Saturday, 8 February 2014

Film #3: What's Up Superdoc! (1978)

'Lest we forget, the Seventies was a decade in which people bought salted pub-nuts in the hope that the landlord might pull the staple on the bag that would reveal a small square patch of Page Three stocking-top; in which millions of satisfied viewers watched speeded-up footage of Benny Hill chasing models around a car park; in which cinemagoers made Come Play With Me Britain's longest- running and most profitable domestic movie - a record it still retains. Whether you consider them evidence of depressing ideological backwardness or a refreshing absence of modern prudery, these phenomena are just as much part of the fabric of the period as Arctic Roll, Anthea Redfern and Hector, Kiki and Zaza.'
- Matthew Sweet (The Independent on Sunday, 16/05/2004) 

In this film, which opened on 21st March 1978, there are mildly grainy shots of 1970s London locations and we hear hazy disco era music in the background. A Financial Times article in April 1981 revealed that What's Up Superdoc! along with the likes of Erotic Inferno, Boobs and Diary of a Space Virgin, had received subsidy from the state-backed British Film Fund, the so-called Eady Levy. This sex-comedy tendency was the flipside of such obscure, challenging late-1970s British films as The Shout, Radio On and Jubilee. By and large, it was the Great British Sex Comedy which kept actors and film crews gainfully employed as the 1970s progressed.

I watched this, curious to see Beth Porter in another role after her central performance as Kitty Schreiber in the stupendous Rock Follies of '77. Unfortunately, What's Up Superdoc! is the anti-Rock Follies. Its writer-director Derek Ford's dialogue is thunderously inane, where Howard Schuman's is finessed and punchy.

Here is an all too liberal sampling of Ford's wit:

"Not 'arf!"
"Maybe it's on the National Health..."
"Like a bull in a china shop..."
"That word! [...] That could even give Mary Whitehouse a baby!"
"They didn't tell me he was a WANKER!"
"Bloody women..."

Christopher Mitchell's titular 'Superdoc' - Dr Robert Todd - is entirely without social context. He is a moustache and eyebrow twitching atom in a world of cardboard amorousness. He is the male 'hero' who indulges in the usual wish-fulfillment fantasies and is every bit as annoying as Robin Askwith and a good deal smugger.

Obligatory Soho strip club scene alert
What must Harry H. Corbett have been thinking when he was making this film? He plays Goodwin, a gormless, gurning ex-army caricature with occasional sad echoes of Harold Steptoe's vocal mannerisms. There is a scene in a public park where he is floored by a little kid's punch and a drenched Mitchell laughs at him, stood in a pond.

Corbett ponders the Faustian pact of being in this film
Just when you think it can't get any worse, Hughie Green enters: playing the 'humorously' named 'Bob Scatchitt'. Playing himself basically: a mountainous TV presenter and staunch British patriot with a mid-Atlantic accent (he had spent four years in Canada in his early life).

Green's massively popular talent show Opportunity Knocks had been axed in the same month this film premiered in the UK, following his regular use of the programme as a bully pulpit for his right-wing views. An open supporter of Thatcher's Tories, he had performed his reactionary monologue 'Stand Up and Be Counted' on the show in December 1976, railing against the unions, the Labour government and various shirkers. It was Thames' Head of Light Entertainment Philip Jones who sacked him and went onto commission the excellent Shelley (1979-92): a double blow for enlightenment in British television.

In July 1978, Green was booked by the peelers for drink driving. A year later, he was telling the Daily Express: "The Reds aren't under the beds. They're right in there, running the programmes [...] Evil people are putting out anti-British propaganda." (25/07/1979)

Green had complained that TV was being deluged with filth; he clearly cared so genuinely that he decided to appear in this irrefutably moral caper! And I assure you, he doesn't use the word 'wanker' three times...

The film is a deeply unedifying spectacle. We get the most gobsmackingly crass, inapt reference to Jimmy Cagney in White Heat ever committed to film; we get the apter fact that some filming was done at the troubled British Leyland Motors. We even get a Bill Pertwee cameo, with the Dad's Army actor essaying an appalling American accent. It lacks even the down-at-heel bathetic appeal that Matthew Sweet just about discerns in the most successful film of this peculiarly British genre:
Once the lights had gone down on Come Play with Me (1977), for instance, those punters who had slavered over the ads which promised "10 girls being screwed by 10 guys at the same time culminating with a group of Hell's Angels coming to an orgy party," found themselves watching Alfie Bass capering about in long-johns, bowler hat and Hitler moustache, droning his way through a weak music hall number; Irene Handl, mumbling her way through a script upon which she has only the slightest of grips; and production values so low that when Henry McGee dries up and looks into the camera for help, the shot stays in the picture. 
It is just dully preposterous bunkum: watching it is like being forced to inhabit the psyche of UKIP idiot Godfrey Bloom for ninety minutes.

The one element that momentarily beguiles is the library music-style soundtrack; lounge disco with copious guitar and those late-70s synths. It isn't Moroder or Dee D. Jackson: see a piece on neglected 1970s music that David Lichfield and I put together here. The music is proficient and curiously sedated - like those honed, becalmed recordings you used to hear on Ceefax late at night after the main BBC programming had finished.

What'S Up Super Doc by crazedigitalmovies

The strangely serene music is often cut off 'amusingly' in scenes of excruciating dialogue, for little or no purpose. While some of the music is very pleasantly of its time, I doubt the titles-song 'Hold On! I'm Coming!' will be gracing Jonny Trunk's excellent OST Show on Resonance FM anytime soon.

The film is prurient and witless: a deadening combination. You don't have to be Mary Whitehouse to find its objectification of female flesh one-note. Only Porter displays an inkling of character, albeit within the constraints of playing that sex-comedy archetype the uncontrollable nymphomaniac. The New Yorker essays a very passable Scottish accent and has a magnetism quite unlike any of the other identikit actresses who parade for the Superdoc's attention.

1978 was a year of British cinematic atrocities: this joins two other films that would have to be among my ten least favourite films: the bleak, dismal Carry On Emmannuelle and the painful Cook & Moore debacle The Hound of the Baskervilles. What's Up Superdoc! represents a mainstream British culture happy to turn out utter shite at the same time as Post Punk, disco, experimental theatre and television drama were proving far more progressive forces.

It's rubbish. It's British rubbish. No buts about it.