WFTB Score: 10/20
The plot: Through a calculating catalogue of interventions, inscrutable Michael Rimmer rises from a nobody to the head of a marketing and polling company, attracting the attention of leading politicians as he goes. Gaining a pretty wife and a safe Tory seat, Rimmer continues to climb the greasy pole until he becomes unopposed ruler of the country. Will nobody stop him?
When he walks into the tatty offices of Fairburn marketing agency claiming to work in ‘Coordination’, no-one gives smartly-dressed Michael Rimmer (Peter Cook) a second glance; certainly not Mr Ferret (Arthur Lowe), whose gaze is firmly fixed on secretary Tanya (Valerie Leon). However, once Rimmer has his foot in the door, he starts making huge changes: firstly, out goes Ferret, leaving Rimmer in charge of day-today business such as sexing up a campaign for humble humbugs; next, he sexes up the company’s surveys in the name of publicity, acquiring the talents of rival pollster Peter Niss (Denholm Elliott) and using them to destroy the credibility of Peter’s former employers.
As Michael’s star rises, he comes to the attention of Conservative leader Tom Hutchinson (Ronald Fraser); Michael duly helps to get the Tories elected, partly by sending out signals that the party is anti-immigration (much to the horror of Richard Pearson’s shadow Home Secretary), partly by giving terrible advice to the Labour incumbent at No. 10, Blacket (George A. Cooper). He also manages to acquire his own safe seat and a trophy wife in fallen show-jumper Pat (Vanessa Howard), though – as she is to find out – Rimmer’s ambition is all-consuming, and apparently without morals or limits.
Grrr. I’ve seen The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer twice in fairly short succession, and I have no idea whether I actually like it or not. I should, by rights, love it, since it features a host of the best British comic/satirical faces that the 1970s – or any time period – has to offer. I’ve not even referred to John Cleese’s wonderfully fawning performance as Pumer above, so you can imagine that the cast is pretty stellar: aficionados of British comedy will lap up the brilliance of Lowe and Fraser, while enjoying cameos by Ronnie Corbett, Diana Coupland, Graham Crowden, Frank Thornton and many more.
What’s more, the script, by Cleese, Graham Chapman, Cook and director Kevin Billington, is full of sharp little jokes that get to the heart of the game played by all politicians, ie. break your manifesto promises and ‘blame the last lot’. I particularly like Hutchinson’s line ‘I will act…in matters of principle I’m always acting.’ Much of the material feels remarkably fresh, showing how little politics has moved on in forty years – where West Indians used to be the bogeymen, it’s now East Europeans; summits with the US President are trumpeted to the hilt, however pointless they turn out to be. Plus, in the jaw-droppingly rude advert for Scorpio humbugs, the film absolutely nails the maxim “sex sells”. Satisfyingly – if that’s the word – the scene is clever, funny, quite a turn-on and makes a point.
On the other hand, I’m not convinced that Michael Rimmer quite works as a film, especially at this distance of time. Most obviously, there are the 1970s references that you’ll need a history guide to appreciate: Cooper puffs a good pipe as the PM, but the Harold Wilson stuff is pretty meaningless – did he use tarot cards and follow astrology? Was he obsessed with being on television? Does it matter? Then there’s the inevitable crumpet factor deployed in Billington’s entirely un-satirical close-ups – at times the film could almost be Carry On Conniving.
Furthermore, although the film manages to drive a story line through material that could have felt a lot sketchier, the subplots aren’t developed fully: Niss’s play for Pat peters out, Vanessa Howard baring all for no great reward; and Ferret’s humiliations build rather awkwardly to his own pay-off. On which note, while the penultimate idea – granting a referendum on everything, then promising an end to the referenda in exchange for dictatorship – is smart, Michael Rimmer’s parting shot is poorly chosen.
The parallels to the JFK shooting are pretty close to the knuckle; not only that, the scene is without any obvious satirical or comic content – apart from the would-be assassins cancelling each other out – and results in the viewer leaving the film with an oddly numb sensation, not helped by the sinister, abrupt freeze frame (Billington’s direction in general is workmanlike). It’s not as if everything in the main plot sings, either; the assault on Swiss gold via a very British cold makes for a picturesque but unfunny five or six minutes.
Then there’s the issue of the lead turn. I prefer Cook here compared to Bedazzled, but he glides through the film with a single, self-satisfied expression on his face. It’s clearly done for a reason, to show the calculating, emotionless way people can slide their way up the greasy pole, and in a sense it’s right that Rimmer should be something of a blank; but Cook’s one-note performance doesn’t do much for the film as entertainment – we don’t feel connected to him as either hero or villain. Compare Cook to Lowe, or Elliott, or anyone else who injects nuance into his or her performance (or, to put it another way, acts) and you’ll see what I mean.
Most comedies suffer from a paucity of acting and writing talent: Michael Rimmer’s tragedy is that it has too much, and the writers haven’t been able to marshal it all: who in their right minds lets a brilliant Cleese slip quietly out of their movie; a befuddled Corbett; a gorgeous Leon? I’m relieved that the film lacks the scabrous misanthropy of The Magic Christian, disappointed that there are only rare glimpses of Pythonesque glee (the Election night coverage offers rare glimpses), and overall…no, still can’t tell you. If it helps, I picked this up for 99p in a high street store; at that price, it’s worth every penny.