A man with a telescope (Leo McKern) is out standing in his field when he spots a washerwoman hard at work cleaning the grass. When she's finished with that region a camper (Spike Milligan) appears and wipes his feet on a welcome mat then sets about pitching his tent, but he won't get the peace and quiet he wanted: this location is a magnet for mayhem, including a method of proving man can fly... a kite.
It might look like a fluffy little item of ephemera now, but The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film does have a history behind it, and in its way proved one of the more influential examples of British nonsense comedy to emerge from the long shadow of the Goons. That legendary team were not simply radio stars, although that is where they were most celebrated, but they did make forays into the small screen as well as the big, and this was a result of a spare Sunday which saw Goons Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan experimenting with their humour in visual terms rather than the aural they had made their mark with.
On television, their handful of series episodes there had been directed by Richard Lester, an American who had big plans and was making his start in British TV, mostly in the humour side of things. He was recruited in 1959, just as Sellers' film career was taking off, to assist with direction on this, basically a series of silly sketches which in theory paid tribute to the silent classics of old, the sort of comedian like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton who were much admired by these talents. The results still have the power to raise a laugh, and some of it is quite inspired in its unadorned fashion: Bruce Lacey playing a record by running round it with a needle attached to a funnel being one of the more famous images.
Yet for some reason this essentially amateur footage, which would be a glorified home movie if it had not featured these well known faces - it was shot on Sellers' personal 16mm camera with sound and music added later by Lester - went on to be one of the more enduring works associated with the comedy of its nation. Maybe it was because it offered a handy way to fill a ten minute gap for television schedulers, or for cinemas to make up a short subject by way of introduction to the main feature, usually on a similar tack, but a surprising number of people have seen this and found it staying in the memory for its peculiar atmosphere. Monty Python's Flying Circus is a name which gets mentioned seemingly every time this arises (the beckoning hand and its punchline is very Pythonesque), but taken on its own terms it was both oddly innocent and singlemindedly lunatic, nothing hugely ambitious but with a purity about it conjured up from that English field in the late nineteen-fifties where by amusing themselves this bunch amused millions.
[This is available in The Lacey Rituals, the BFI's double disc collection of short films connected to Bruce Lacey, whether as performer, designer, director or otherwise.]
Efforts like Royal Flash, Robin and Marian, gay bathhouse comedy The Ritz and Cuba made less impact, but in the eighties Lester was called in to salvage the Superman series after Richard Donner walked off Superman II; Lester also directed Superman III. Finders Keepers was a flop comedy, and Return of the Musketeers had a tragic development when one of his regular cast, Roy Kinnear, died while filming. Lester then decided to give up directing, with Paul McCartney concert Get Back his last film.