Sunday, 29 April 2012

Genre Specific: 'John Bull on the Moon!'

Genre Specific - voyager on the eggshell rim of cinema's event horizon - splashes down in the shallow sea of films that planted a Union Jack on the moon and Plucky Little England at the heart of the space race. Come with us as we take one small step for a gentleman, one giant leap for gentlemankind...

Genre Specific: 'John Bull on the Moon!'

The Mouse on the Moon: Plenty of hard green cheese

In the days of back-room boffins like Frank Whittle, the pencil-moustachioed inventor of the jet engine, the idea that the Russians - or, God forbid, the ruddy Americans! - might become dominant powers in space exploration was nothing more than a distant spectre. So what if the Yanks and Ivan had bagged all the top Nazi eggheads while Blighty tried to teach the Germans cricket? Britain could surely conquer the outer reaches of space with just vim, vigour and good humour aplenty - and if that failed, there were the countless subjugated peoples of the Empire whose vast oil and mineral wealth could be ransacked at the drop of a pith helmet. Briefly, even the British film industry had faith in a Sceptred Isle among the stars, where mind-mangling terror and awed wonder in the face of the infinite universe would be no reason to forget your Ps & Qs.
Luckily, maintaining decency in the face of zero-G indignity came naturally to the Victorian lunar ramblers of 1964's The First Men in the Moon. Co-adapted from HG Wells by British SF kingpin Nigel Kneale, the movie relays the adventures of Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries), the bonkers tool-shed genius behind, ahem, 'anti gravity paint'. The science here is left mercifully unexplored in favour of endless shots of Cavor going zoinky-haired in amazement as he thrusts free of the tyrannical claw of Earth's gravity in a ship seemingly shielded from the rigours of spaceflight by a fine walnut veneer. Cocooned within this snug and cosy riposte to America's show-offy silver darts, Cavor and his partner, Bedford, float free amidst Gladstone bags, shooting sticks and fruit cake. In this, they're accompanied by Bedford's fiancée, Kate, a character not in the book but inserted here to allay studio misgivings that a men-only moon-jaunt might seem a bit minty. It was a point not lost on NASA, who in early Gemini missions insisted on a dozen Miami Beach hookers in every payload, lest a contagion of stellar homosexualism take hold on their space-spangled rocket-jockeys. The most endearing image from First Men..., however, is the discovery by a clutch of US astronauts of a tiny Union Jack hanging limply on the lunar surface, announcing that Britain had been first. To British audiences in 1964 it must have provided provided a becalming moment of real pathos; a totem of their vanishing Empire coming up sharp against the brash New World Order that left Britain without a square of the post-War Battenburg.
Bumbershoots, bathyspheres and babes
There are no such qualms about ghastly foreigners in Gerry Anderson's pre-'Space 1999' mindfuck Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (aka Doppelganger), just so long as it's made abundantly clear that Englishmen are in charge. In Anderson's future, counter-espionage efforts may still rest on entirely on the phrases ''Fraid I simply couldn't say, old chum' and 'Who's for a spot of lunch?', but the Brits here are not merely a bunch of fusty tweedscratchers. This is the future made flesh on a swinging slice of 1969 Pinewood backlot, where mission control is run by kinky-booted dollybirds and all furniture must be round, plastic and - if at all possible - orange. The hip ascent of post-Profumo Britain is the launching pad for ticking off the Yanks (double-dealing wise-asses) and the French (officious bureaucrats) in a bizarre anti-reality where global space agency EuroSec is run entirely by the British officer class to whom NASA and 'the Russians' must humble themselves for a piece of the action. Who's missing out on a bit of Battenburg to go with their milky tea now, eh?!?
Statistics, yesterday
The fantastical pretensions of both these films are thrown into unforgiving relief by doubtless the most realistic take of all on what might have been if Britain had pursued its rocket dreams. The sequel to 1959's The Mouse That Roared, Mouse on the Moon missed Peter Sellers but had enough roguish eloquence to convincingly portray its homegrown space programme as the fortuitous offspring of corruption, self-interest and conniving ingenuity. Director Richard Lester re-imagines plucky Britain as the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, a (mostly) honest beacon of resourcefulness in a world buffeted by the flatulence of Cold War superpowers.
Natty tagline!
In an effort to screw cash out of both the Soviets and the Americans, the Duchy convinces the world it has a smart new, very bankable space programme, and that a little strategic investment from interested nations might bring the tiny state onside in the Great Game, when in fact, the loot is intended to shore up the leaky plumbing and loose slates of Duchess Margaret Rutherford's crumbling family pile. It's a fine long con that only goes awry when bureaucratic ineptitude ensures that every penny of international aid is spluffed on an enormous and magnificently pointless moon rocket.

As a satire on Britain's much reduced status on the global stage, the film is close to perfect. Moreover, just as with the creaking fascist state of Gilliam's Brazil, Mouse on the Moon taps the true spirit of British endeavour, where American can-do dynamism and micro-planned Soviet techno-rigour are pitted against little Albion's own endlessly malleable engine of progress: the clerical error.



Originally published in Little White Lies

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