The Aldwych Farceurs

The Aldwych Farces were a long-running series of comic plays written by playwright Ben Travers, and staged at the Aldwych Theatre by Tom Walls. Beginning in 1930, they transferred to the screen and continued to be filmed through to the mid-30s, becoming a much-loved series. Most of the films nucleated around three comic actors. Tom Walls usually played a devious reprobate, well-to-do but sly and planning some kind of scheme. Ideal foils were provided by monocled silly-ass Ralph Lynn, and bald, timid, bird-like Robertson Hare, who inevitably found himself mixed up in the middle of things, wailing “Oh Calamity!” In addition, many other regulars added to the fun: French Yvonne Arnaud, old harridan Mary Brough, or the superb, dithering Claude Hulbert

As the sound era dawned, it was possible to create faithful screen adaptations of the farces, and ROOKERY NOOK (1930) ushered in a series that would be popular throughout the early and mid-thirties. The Aldwych Farces certainly wear their heart on their sleeve as stage adaptations . Tom Walls directed the films, and has been accused of directing the actors in a stage play and then pointing the camera at them. Some of the films do indeed suffer from this, and there are some rather long scenes that need a bit more pep, closer to the stodgy, theatrical style we tend to associate with 30s films. However, this is certainly not true of all of them, and in a way this is part of their charm. In any case, the Aldwych films mostly survive their limitations to remain pleasant and entertaining examples of a bygone form of entertainment. The scripts contain many funny lines, wordplay and situations, and the performers have honed wonderful timing through their years of association. Their stock company of intrinsically British types are masterfully played, and the ensemble comedy points the way to Ealing Studios’ later comedies.

Thematically, this is very much the frothy pre-war world familiar to readers of P G Wodehouse; a world of country houses, suspicious wives and relatives. There’s nothing controversial and lots that is stereotypical, but it’s all in good fun.

Some of the best farces have been released to DVD by Network. ‘A CUCKOO IN THE NEST’ and ‘ TURKEY TIME’. ‘CUCKOO..’ centres around Ralph Lynn accidentally being forced to spend the night at a country inn with an old flame (Yvonne Arnaud) after they both miss their train, hire a car together and become stuck in the rain. To satisfy the suspicious, god-fearing harridan of a landlady (Mary Brough) they pose as a married couple. Unfortunately, Lynn’s wife has witnessed them going off together and followed, in tow with her dreadful mother and alcoholic old fruit of a father (Tom Walls). Naturally, Yvonne’s husband also turns up on the scene, leading to lots of awkward moments for Ralph. Lynn carries much of the comedy scenes, sneaking in and out to avoid the landlady, struggling to bed down on the floor, retrieving a dog in the rain, or rehearsing his excuses.

However, it’s Tom Walls’ drunken old reprobate who provides the best laughs, forever searching for a drink or a pretty girl before being beckoned by his wife’s call. As a director, Walls lives up to his reputation, though. ‘A CUCKOO IN THE NEST’ moves with the viscosity of treacle. With a bit more pep, it could have been a classic, but just misses the mark despite some funny moments.

‘TURKEY TIME’ boasts much better direction, including the interesting idea of giving each character a little vignette to introduce themselves in the opening credit sequence. It takes place at Christmas, with Walls and Lynn joined by Robertson Hare in the main nucleus of characters. Walls is a pugnacious chap, whose fights land him in bother, especially with his fiancé when he defends the honour of a showgirl on the pier. Lynn is a jolly chap who tags along with Walls, and has fallen in love with the showgirl . Their antics to help her out constantly land henpecked Robertson Hare in trouble with his wife. This one is lots of fun.

Two of the best farces (issued on Volume 2 of Network’s DVD series) featured other actors outside the main trio. ‘A CUP OF KINDNESS’ (1934) benefits from the additional presence of silly-ass Claude Hulbert, who I always find irresistible. It’s a modern day Romeo and Juliet story in suburbia: neighbours, the pompous Walls and uptight Hare constantly do battle, while Ralph Lynn and Dorothy Hyson are their star-crossed offspring. Lynn and Hulbert are both hopeless at holding down jobs but get mixed up in some dodgy shares that threaten to throw the family into disgrace. Things get a bit slow toward the end, but there are many funny sequences, including a dotty fantasy sequence that sends the whole cast back to the Stone Age.

DIRTY WORK stands slightly apart from the other farces in that Tom Walls doesn’t appear , though he still directs. In his place is the superb comic character Gordon Harker, who brings his rough-edged posh cockney (“Oh yerrrrrrs”) to the table. Harker is the doorman at Cecil Parker’s jewellery store, where Ralph Lynn and Robertson Hare also work. Thieves are targeting the store; Lynn and Harker attempt to set a trap for them, roping the reluctant Hare in to pose as a burglar. Meanwhile, the thieves have plans of their own to frame the trio for the robbery…

This one starts slowly, with lots of talk-heavy scenes in the jewellery store, but gets going at a good clip once the plans are hatched. The comic break-in scenes are excellent and this turns into maybe the funniest of all the films on the two discs. The highlight is undoubtedly Robertson Hare’s horror at being forced to shave his moustache and try on wigs to disguise himself as the burglar!

Walls, Lynn et al cranked out over a dozen of the farces, other titles including STORMY WEATHER, POT LUCK, and FIGHTING STOCK. Walls and Lynn would each make solo films as well, but their careers began to wind down in the late ’30s. The farces were very much a pre-war construct, and the troubled times made them seem a bit too inconsequential. Of the three main principals, Robertson Hare had the most enduring career, appearing in partnership with Alfred Drayton and as a supporting actor. He continued into the 1960s, appearing in TV’s ALL GAS AND GAITERS

The Aldwych Farces are undeniably dated, and sometimes just a bit too polite. But, they offer plenty of smiles and even the odd belly laugh, and point a clear way to the later character ensembles of Ealing and the Boulting Brothers. As an influential part of British comedy cinema, they’re more than worth revisiting.

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