Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (1959)

Our next Classic Film is Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (U.S. title: Man in a Cocked Hat), a rarely seen (and difficult to obtain) British satire.

This comedy sets up a political edge by asking whether a useless, accident-prone typically British toff (Terry Thomas) could flummox both the USA and Soviet governments? And by accident! The answer it provides is: ‘Good lord, yes! That’s how the Empire was run!’


Long before the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix) or the Cohen brothers, there was Roy and John Boulting, director brothers who, having poked fun at the British Army (Private’s Progress, 1956), the legal system (Brothers in Law, 1957) and then at the educated classes (Lucky Jim, 1957), in 1959 here turned their attention to the Foreign Office.

The plot involves little more than an inept diplomat (Thomas), who is sent out to re-establish good relations with the mineral-rich island of Gaillardia, a forgotten former British colony that has attracted the attention of the USA and the USSR. In the process of making fun of the empire, the Boulting brothers have no problem taking aim at the rivalry between the new super-powers. Then, as well as ruthlessly ridiculing British colonialism and the civil service, they mock ‘banana republics’ and even pour scorn on the UN.


You can look forward to immaculate performances from Thomas and Peter Sellars (perhaps under-written here but well-judged); there is a wonderful cameo from Irene Handl and then measured performances of rivalry from John LeMesurier and Ian Bannen, who both lay claim to the throne of Gaillardia.

There is also a host of familiar faces: watch out for Sam Kidd (as a signaler); Luciana Paoluzzi (later to be Bond girl, Fiona Volpe, in 1965’s Thunderball), Thorley Walters and Miles Malleson (he names may be unfamiliar but, trust me, you will recognize them) and an uncreditted Mario Fabrizi (whose brash, handlebar moustache was to grace so many TV screens in the 1960s – click on his name to remind yourself).


By thus tearing into English incompetence, post-colonial attitudes and the ruling class, the Boulting brothers managed to rattled a few cages at the time: reviews were wary and Monthly Film Bulletin felt the directors’ position was “invidious” – so much so that the comedy was “uncomfortable”. The topicality of the film now having faded, however, perhaps we can more readily enjoy it as a timely lampoon – even though (depending on your view) it may seem that the brothers had too much affection for these people to give them the thrashing they deserved.


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