27 September 2004 | Oct
The Taming of the Sid
Ostensibly "Bless This House" is a cinema spin-off from a hit television sitcom, and a rapid one at that. But it can also be treated as a continuation of the "Carry On" film series, by far the most successful comedies in British screen history.
That cycle, already over 20 years old, was near exhaustion: too many of its repertory company were looking and feeling their years to remain funny in saucily physical capers. "Bless This House" guides them into middle aged domesticity without forfeiting all the "Carry On" spirit of mischief and misrule.
Behind the camera, the producer, director and composer were "Carry On" veterans too, though screenplay duties passed from the incomparably lewd Talbot Rothwell to Dave Freeman. The TV concept is intact: Sid James, too long in the tooth to chase girls, is now a modestly prosperous semi-detached suburban salesman. His taste for football and booze is constrained by his duties to a wife who wants more independence, a disheveled art student son and a naive schoolgirl daughter. The arrival of a stuffy next-door neighbour gives Sid more headaches, but after mild pratfalls and back chat, all ends well at the altar. "Animal House" it isn't.
James, now pipe smoking and cardigan, retains the most suggestive laugh on screen. Diana Coupland, a band singer turned actress, is a nicely supportive, sometimes indignant foil. As the simian son, Robin Askwith gives his buttocks less of a rhythmical workout than in the contemporary "Confessions" films. Sally Geeson, sister of Judy, squeaks and flaps as the idealistic daughter.
A ripe selection of character comedians surrounds the family, led by Terry Scott and June Whitfield as the new neighbors. They almost make the production a spin-off of their long-running marital sitcom as well, albeit Scott's film character is more pompous.
Allusions to hippiedom, Women's Lib and ecological doom-mongering (Geeson devours an Ehrlich-like tract called "Mankind is Doomed" and leads the Junior Anti-Pollution League) place the film firmly in the glamrock Seventies, but its core is pretty timeless domestic humour. Sid looks weary and too much under the cosh of domesticity at times, but his timing and delivery are crisp as ever. The move from TV allows more expansive slapstick and quicker storytelling; the spirit of the original, which ran till James's death four years later, is preserved.
Like the "Carry Ons", these sitcom spin-offs were critically derided when released. They look far better now. "Porridge" and "Dad's Army" are the cream; as on television, "Bless This House" is not in their league, but it remains a mildly funny and endearing time killer 30 years on, like "On the Buses" and "For the Love of Ada". It seemed this domestic kind of sitcom had been banished for ever by the pseudo-sophisticates and neophilias who run British television, but the success of BBC1's "My Family" (created by an American abroad) echoes the Abbotts in their tree-lined ITV avenue.