by Allan Fish
(the first entry in the British TV top 100 countdown)
(UK 1972 270m) not on DVD
Absolution by return
p/d Michael Mills w Ray Galton, Alan Simpson novel Gabriel Chavallier ph James Balfour m Alan Roper art Spencer Chapman cos Valerie Spooner
Cyril Cusack (Mayor Barthelemy Piechut), Roy Dotrice (Abbé Ponosse), Kenneth Griffith (Ernest Tafardel), Wendy Hiller (Justine Putet), Micheline Presle (Baroness Courtebiche), Bernard Bresslaw (Nicholas the Beadle), Cyd Hayman (Adele Torbayon), Catherine Rouvel (Judith Toumignon), Freddie Earlle (François Toumignon), John Barrett (Poipanel), Hugh Griffith (Alexandre Bourdillat), Madeline Smith (Hortense Girodot), Nigel Green (Captain Tardinaux), Dennis Price (Alexis Luvelat), Peter Madden (Doctor Mouraille), Georgina Moon (Rose Bivaque), Gordon Rollings (Blazot), Aubrey Woods (Aristide Focart), Peter Ustinov (narrator),
During one of the hiatuses between the later series of Steptoe and Son, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson worked on a comedy that couldn’t have been further from Oil Drum Lane in Shepherds Bush if it tried. Old Albert had always been going on about how he caused scandals across the fields of Flanders, but move south a couple of hundred kilometres into the hills near Lyon and you’ll find the sleepy community of Clochemerle, where life is devoted to the growing, making and consumption of wine.
In this little village in the mid 1920s, the local Mayor Piechut is looking to try and curry favour with the locals in the vain attempt to eventually become a senator. He hits on the vote-winning idea of a public urinal in the village square, in front of the church, by the memorial to the honoured dead of 1914-18. Dignitaries are invited for its official inauguration and a politician christens the urinal by being the first to avail himself of the chance to relieve himself. Everyone seems happy…everyone except the local religious nut Justine Putet, who sees it as the devil’s work, and when a young innocent girl, Rose, is found to be pregnant, she blames the urinal as a corrupting force.
It’s the sort of thing one can imagine being made into a series of French films in the 1930s with the Pagnol repertory company and Raimu as the Mayor, yet attempts to film Chevallier’s satire were restricted to little portions of his local tapestry of bucolic naughtiness. Galton and Simpson, helped immeasurably by the devilish narration of the incomparable Peter Ustinov, set the scene for the events that will unfold over the course of a year. Who else but Ustinov could so exquisitely describe the characters, such as Presle’s old Countess who, “at the age of 49, after a lifetime devoted to the boudoir, dismissed her lovers, left her Paris apartment and retired to the family château at Clochemerle to devote herself to good causes and service to God, who she regarded as her social equal. She had entirely disregarded the French Revolution and treats the good people of Clochemerle as her serfs.” Or the delicious discussion of the relationship between the Mayor and his revolutionary town clerk Tafardel (“the wisdom of his utterances spoiled by the quality of his breath”), who he only has long discussions with while walking so as to avoid the full extent of his halitosis.
Many of the usual suspects can be found; the shopkeeper who is too stupid to notice his wife’s infidelity; said wife’s willingness to please the locals by flashing flesh and letting them stare up her dress when she’s forced to get goods from the top shelf from up a ladder. And if it’s a great shame they saw the need to dub the imperious Presle and Rouvel, the playing of Cusack, Griffith, Madden and Dotrice in particular is a constant delight, while Hiller creates a gorgon worthy of comparison to the great killjoys of the screen and worthy of a ‘present arms’ moment from local youths. Best of all, however, is the notion of the village’s annual drinking competition, with the postman and his constant shopkeeper rival finally coming down in favour of the latter on the 210th glass, the winner expiring within seconds of cirrhosis, just like the legendary former winner of 1887, who drank a world record 320 glasses and whose pictures hangs as a shrine to the worship of all. With two Up Pompeii Eroticas (Moon and Smith) thrown in as village honeys, it’s a thoroughly pleasant, civilised farce which is largely unseen today.