Here is Paul Bultitude (Roger Livesey), well-respected businessman about town, to tell us of the story of when, in Victorian times about twenty years ago, a surprising incident occured. He invites us to settle down as he regales us with his tale, beginning with his untrustworthy brother-in-law, Paradine (David Hutcheson) who had gone to India to escape the law and ended up at a temple there. On entering, he couldn't help but notice the idol taking pride of place, and helped himself to one of the precious stones that passed for its eyes. What he didn't know when he brought it back to Britain was that it had magical properties...
During the nineteen-eighties, there was a bunch of body swap comedies from out of Hollywood, with Big probably the best of them and a remake of this with a contemporary setting as well, which means that watching the 1948 version is like seeing an entertainment from another age. It was adapted from Victorian wit F. Antsey's celebrated novel by Peter Ustinov, who may not appear onscreen but has his stamp of personality all over it, with its ripe humour, love of the language, and eminently civilised approach. Many have criticised the film for its ridiculousness, but there's a pleasing Englishness about it that meant the results were never less than amusing.
It is the idol's jewelled eye that is at the heart of the characters' problems, as it can grant wishes - though only one per person, which is unfortunate if you should, ooh, I dunno, ask to swap bodies with your son in a fit of misplaced nostalgia. Which is precisely what Bultitude does with his fourteen-year-old offspring Dick (Anthony Newley, precociously talented), not realising that he will be stuck as a boy if he cannot get anyone to wish him back to his original state. Dick certainly doesn't like the idea, and wishes himself to be his own father, much to Bultitude's horror. Yet it's too late as the time has come for Dick to go to boarding school, and Bultitude's protestations that he is not who he appears to be fall on deaf ears.
Really it's Ustinov's fruity dialogue that makes Vice Versa so enjoyable, and nowhere more than in the rich, booming baritone of James Robertson Justice in the role of headmaster Dr Grimstone, which confirmed his newly conveyed star status. You cannot imagine anyone better to pontificate in such over-literate terms, and every sentence he speaks is a delight, especially when he is exasperated, which is often. Naturally when the grown up masquerading as a child meets him, he is outraged at his impertinence to speak to him as an equal, not to mention the other schoolboys turning against the impostor when he informs on them.
It's not all Newley sparring with Justice, of course, as Livesey gets his chance in the spotlight too, obviously taking great joy in playing the overgrown boy who at one stage will be asking the aghast maid Alice (Patricia Raine) to kiss him then the next the ludicrous development of a duel arises, with Dick finding himself the love rival for a potential new stepmother in the shape of the not entirely reliable Florence (Kay Walsh). When I tell you that the duel ends with the duelists, their assistants, some snowball-throwiing youths, policemen and a brass band all being clonked on the head by a collapsing bandstand, you can tell there's nothing Ustinov take seriously about his story, and that's all to the good as he relishes taking down the pomposity of Victorian life, from its social mores to the courtrooms and public institutions. It may go on longer than it needs to, but when the whimsy is presented with such fine humour, it's not a big complaint. Music by Antony Hopkins (and check out those superb opening titles).