Graham MoffattMoore MarriottVal GuestCyril Chamberlain
Ask a Policeman
Medium: film
Year: 1938
Director: Marcel Varnel
Writer: Marriott Edgar, Val Guest, Sidney Gilliat, J.O.C. Orton
Keywords: comedy
Country: UK
Actor: Will Hay, Graham Moffatt, Moore Marriott, Glennis Lorimer, Peter Gawthorne, Charles Oliver, Herbert Lomas, Patrick Aherne, Cyril Chamberlain, Noel Dainton, Desmond Llewelyn, Dave O'Toole, Brian Worth
Remade as: The Boys in Blue (1982)
Format: 83 minutes
Will Hay movies previously watched: 5
Website category: Comedy
Review date: 21 August 2009
Apparently the plot of this one's very similar to Oh, Mr. Porter!, often called Will Hay's best, but I haven't watched that one yet. This one I enjoyed a lot, but also it feels different to all the other Will Hay films I've seen so far. To me it resembles a stage show, with Hay, Moffatt and Marriott bumbling around Turnbotham Round (pronounced Turnbottom) without much connection with the outside world or indeed a plot. You could almost do this film in the theatre with four actors. You'd need the three central rogues and then a fourth actor who'd show up from time to time, albeit sometimes in drag, to play whatever stooge they'd managed to find for their latest routine.
This whiff of the musical hall only becomes stronger when they go to see Marriott's even more ancient father and he's being played by Marriott himself in a comedy beard. They're not even trying to disguise the fact that it's him.
None of that makes the film bad, though. On the contrary, I love the idea of Will Hay as a policeman. As with his turn as a prison governor in Convict 99, the mere fact that he's playing a representative of law and order makes all the inappropriate things he does funny. Make no mistake, by the way, he's appalling. He reminds me of that Bernard Levin line about the Serious Crimes Squad being so named because they seemed to think their remit was to commit serious crimes. The one and only redeeming factor in Hay's Sergeant Dudfoot and his men is the fact that their criminal activities stop at deception, vandalism and petty larceny. He's stupid, ignorant of the laws he's meant to be upholding and incapable of recognising real crime even when it's under his nose.
The film opens with Hay being interviewed by the BBC about his achievement in keeping Turnbotham Round crime-free. In the ten years he's been working in this village, he's never made a single arrest! Unfortunately for Hay, the local Chief Constable isn't a complete idiot and soon it's imperative that these village policemen smarten up their act. That's right, Hay's going to have to arrest someone. Needless to say, the minor matter of guilt or innocence isn't something that's going to concern him greatly.
You can probably see where this is going. This is strong material, even if it's being played on a village idiot level in a film structured like a music-hall show. It's slightly shocking, which is what makes it funny. It's hard to imagine a similarly themed comedy going quite this far today, which why it's so ironic that this is one of the most quaintly dated films I've ever seen. It makes the 1930s look like the Victorian era! You'd think they'd just stepped off the ark, if only because Will Hay's making lots of age-related jokes about Moore Marriott. "Come on, we're going to meet Adam." Cars need hand-cranking. Someone uses a real police box. You won't believe what the police in 1938 did instead of having speed cameras. Then the villains are smugglers, of all things. Smugglers! I realise that smuggling is still with us today, even if the commodities being smuggled aren't what they used to be, but it still makes this feel like the 18th century.
The production is quite good. The night filming seems to have been actually done at night, which is a relief after all those Hammer movies, while the special effects for rendering two Marriotts are flawless. I presume that was done with split-screen. Oh, and apparently this movie contains the uncredited first film appearances of Cyril Chamberlain, Brian Worth and Desmond Llewelyn (i.e. 007's Q). I only learned that from visiting the film's imdb web page and didn't spot them while actually watching the film, though.
Graham Moffatt and Moore Marriott get huge roles and do well with them, with the latter in particular making me laugh more than he'd ever managed before. The film's structure means that they're onscreen with Hay almost from start to finish and the trio work well together.
As one often gets with Will Hay films, there's a remake. This time it's The Boys in Blue (1982) starring Cannon and Ball and directed by the same Val Guest who worked on the script of the 1938 original! That's five decades later. Wow. Unfortunately the online reviews I've skimmed make it sound horrific.
This film is funny, but also an oddity. It's wrapping up vicious, spiky material in the cosiest of rural period settings and now-antiquated plot structures. Our three heroes are appalling, but they're also so bumbling and small-minded that you forgive them. It's like Father Ted, but with criminal policemen. Let me give an example... we've all seen car chases before. Plenty of those car chases will have involved people stealing other people's cars to get away. However this is the first time I've seen the police stealing no less than three vehicles in order to continue their pursuit - and that's not counting the Chief Constable's car which they'd previously smashed up (on purpose).