Orbiston Parva is a sleepy village in England whose inhabitants do very well out of the local factory which manufactures a pep pill popular throughout the country. The leader of the community is Lady Despard (Isabel Jeans), who cares more about her pet dogs than she does everyone else, but all that is about to change when the last Reverend has stepped down and a replacement must be sought. The Archdeacon (Cecil Parker) has an idea, and decides to appoint the Reverend Smallwood - trouble is, the wrong Smallwood gets the call, and an idealistic young prison chaplain is sent for by mistake...
Heaven's Above! was the third in the trilogy of Boulting Brothers satires, starting with Private's Progress, which skewered the military, I'm All Right Jack, the one genuine classic of the three which took on British industry, and finally this. It would be nice to say that it took aim at the Church of England and hit a bullseye, but there's an important name in the credits that you will not notice until the very end. Although he is largely forgotten today, Malcolm Muggeridge was the self-appointed moral guardian of British society for two or three decades, and it is he who is credited with the idea behind this.
Which could well explain why it is not the church which is finally at fault when Smallwood starts his charitable crusade, but his parishioners, and any of the other ordinary folks who happen to come into his orbit. Was it the influence of Muggeridge who ensured that the laughs were thin on the ground and for a comedy this was frustratingly humourless? He wasn't well known for his wisecracks, after all, but the sanctimonious tone to much of the plot leaves you feeling as if you've been lectured for the best part of two hours, and while there is such a thing as academic humour, you do not even have that offered to you here.
Instead, where I'm All Right Jack made their characters all too real and identifiable, which only made the laughs more piercingly funny, here we are dealing with types who would be better off played by extras wielding placards which displayed their characteristics all the better for us to latch on to what they are meant to represent. Luckily for the Boultings, they assembled a cast of talent who knew how to make lead into gold, and at their head is Peter Sellers as Smallwood, sporting a Birmingham accent and a demeanour of well-meaning calm during crisis. Smallwood is by far the most interesting personality, a man whose faith and decency causes him to stumble badly, but by the misjudged ending he simply looks deluded.
Whether that was intentional or not is unclear, but the Reverend's big idea is to bring charity to the fore in society. To do this, he persuades Lady Despard to fund a big giveaway of comestibles and household items so that everyone may get an adequate share of what they need. The result of this is that local shops close down because all their customers are visiting the church hall for their shopping, and when Smallwood becomes the centre of a cult following, he denounces the pep pills that make the area wealthy and they suffer a drastic drop in sales. The film takes a bleak view of the public, and to a man they are petty, selfish and greedy with the exception of Matthew (Brock Peters), the optimistic refuse collector who finds Smallwood to be on the same wavelength as he is. You might glean a few chuckles from this, but it says missed opportunity all the way through. Music by Richard Rodney Bennett.