Given that this is a film with a screenplay from Monty Python’s John Cleese and Graham Chapman, along with Peter Cook and the director Kevin Billington, and that it stars Cook, Denholm Elliot and Harold Pinter, you would think this would be an enormously well known film even if it wasn’t any good. As it happens it’s not exactly a classic, and some of the humour is a little broad, but most of the time it is a pleasantly amusing satire and so it’s surprising it has largely been forgotten about.
Peter Cook plays the eponymous Michael Rimmer in the film, who starts out working for a PR / Polling company but it’s not long before he’s schmoozed his way in to politics, initially working for both sides before becoming an MP for the at the time opposition Conservative Party. And because he’s a sneaky little bastard and then some, soon these deeply unpleasant and manipulative bunch of bastards are in power, and he’s rising to the very top.
The first quarter of the film concentrates on mocking the world of advertising and polling and it’s here that the film is at its strongest. Rimmer produces an advert for mint humbug sweets that’s so that over the top in its sexuality that it would raise eyebrows if it appeared on tv this very day, and would no doubt quickly be banned, which is exactly the sort of thing that he would intend to happen. While this is going on he’s also responsible for his former boss Mr Ferret (Arthur Lowe) being all but fired, with the company head reducing his role to a very menial level and forcing him to work for a pittance while he pays back the money he’s lost for the company.
Cook’s Michael Rimmer is a flawless beast, everything he does works out perfectly, for him at least, and so after getting his company to poll the British public on their sexual habits to boost the company’s reputation he’s soon on tv, and headhunting their rival company’s best man, Peter Niss (Denholm Elliot) all so he can carry out a nefarious plan to ruin that other company by making it appear that 42% of the populace of Nuneaton are Buddhists, which might not sound hilarious but the way his scheme unfolds certainly is.
But when Rimmer becomes interested in becoming a political figure the satire stutters a little, it’s a little bit too on the nose, a little bit too obvious. Nearly all politicians are portrayed as selfish bastards with no interest in those they’re supposed to represent, and hey, even if that’s true the film could have done with a little more subtlety when suggesting such a thing. It’s at least on firmer ground when ripping in to religion, with the Bishop Of Cowley (Graham Crowden) more than happy to stop talking about God if it gets people back in to church, but while amusing it’s not laugh out loud funny.
Then the final third of the film becomes absurd and ridiculous and it only half works. Britain invades Switzerland in one over the top segment which is funny but stretches believability to breaking point, Rimmer is involved in a murder which is filmed by the news yet he still gets away scot free, while the final part involving allowing the British to have a referendum on every single thing raised in parliament is too rushed, it’s a nice idea and there are some funny moments, but it definitely could have been a lot more amusing if they’d slowed down this part of the film, and it’s a rare occasion when I want a film to last longer than it did.
Throughout there are some nicely odd moments, Mr Ferret’s decline in living circumstances and denial about this has a great pay off, John Cleese pops up as a tangoing colleague who’s amusingly subservient, and Harold Pinter’s great as a two faced media type. The dialogue is often filled with gems as you might expect given who wrote it too, a sequence featuring “Election Grandstand” is very funny, and shows that even back in the seventies the idea of reporting the news live led to a hell of a lot of time wasting and filler.
But the film has a fair few problems too, the only notable female role is of Rimmer’s wife Patricia (Vanessa Howard) who gets a pretty raw deal, at one point wanting to leave him but then changing her mind very quickly indeed, and there’s some unneeded nudity which serves no real purpose. Some of the ideas are a little too silly as well, like the invasion of Switzerland and subsequent blaming of it on Egypt, while Rimmer’s idea to save a billion pounds a year by using models of army equipment rather than the real thing is a joke which doesn’t land, especially given the rubbish nature of such models.
Also slightly off is a sequence where they tackle the racist beliefs of certain politicians, and a Tory MP is fired for telling a story that even despite being a bizarre old idiot you would imagine he would question, while one of the British scientists developing biological warfare has some deeply unpleasant views about China. It’s not that we’re supposed to think he’s right, but the way he words it is clearly meant to be funny and both of these parts have aged very poorly.
With some efficient pruning of about ten or fifteen minutes, and then a further ten or so spent expanding the final half hour of the movie and this could have gone down as something of a classic. Certainly the performances are all very strong, and Cook’s suitably suave and seductive and very believable as a bastard who’s prepared to do anything to rise to the top. I just wish the final half hour hadn’t had so many over the top moments in it, and that some of its satire was more nuanced, and that way I’ve no doubt it would have become a much loved movie instead of an almost forgotten one.