Tom Courtney is perfect as Gerald Arthur Otley, from Martin Waddell's series of books about a wannabe antiques dealer who makes what living he can fobbing off small items of stolen merchandise . . . but who always stumbles into involvement with some arm of the British secret service.
Otley blunders his way across four hilarious novels by author Waddell, and the movie is a pretty good version of the first, even with those aggravating changes movies always seem obliged to make. In this one the small-time deal in antiques crashes a friend's party and slips a small object d'art into his pocket, not knowing it contains a miniature tape-recorder with a recording a lot of people will kill to possess.
Among the changes in the story is a very funny chase sequence when Otley is taking his driving test, with an increasingly desperate driving instructor (James Cossins).
For the rest of the cast, Romy Schneider is a lovely Imogen (though the character is called Grace in the book and seems to be designed with Diana Rigg in mind--how perfect she would have been!) James Villiers, Edward Hardwicke, Alan Badel and Leonard Rossiter all lend their usual level of professionalism to the proceedings. Dump the lovely Schneider and you have the makings of a great Shakespeare flick. Not only that, then-child actor Kenneth Cranham has a funny little bit. And Indiana Jones' favorite Nazi, Ronald Lacy has a good but small part as a hypchonriacal hit-man. And the Likely Lads' James Bolam. They've plugged every part with a rising talent.
The great Freddie Jones is particularly amusing as the fey leader of a news agency-cum-spy ring. The episodes between Courtney and Jones are the best in the movie.
And yet the "Otley" movie as a whole never seems quite as good as the sum of its parts. It's like a series of sketches all featuring Courtney's Otley. There's Otley taking his driving exam. There's Otley humping pig swill on Leonard Rossiter's farm.
Part of this is Martin Waddell's fault. His Otley books do read like a series of events held together as a narrative by Otley's wonderfully understated first-person description of the ever deeper holes he finds himself in. Losing the narration for the movie, they have the same problem prevalent with P.G. Wodehouse or Jerome K. Jerome adaptations, in that the narration is often the best part.
They also try to cash in on the "swinging London" craze current at the time. Well, frankly, so did Waddell, though for whatever reason he made it clear that, at least to the secret service, Otley himself had far right-wing proclivities (which is good news to right-wing readers like me, who have so few heroes of my ilk in fiction).
Still, as with about seventy-five percent of cases, the book is better, though it requires some thought, which movies do not. And for those movie goers who can read, chasing down the scarce OTLEY novel will lead to a worthwhile experience, though its price is steep on the second-hand market.
Too bad. I'd have given it 10/10 with Diana Rigg.