Benjamin Oakes (David Hemmings) is a crusading journalist in Victorian London who thinks he has just the right story for The Times, if only he could persuade the editor (Maurice Denham) to accept it: an Italian inventor, Count Pandolfo (Warren Mitchell), has created an airship that he plans to fly around the Home Counties as demonstration of his pioneering transport, but getting people to believe this is the case proves difficult. Meanwhile, another chance at a story is brewing nearby as women’s rights campaigner Josephine Pacefoot (Joanne Pettet) marches down the street with her supporters, a collection of fallen women who she wants the Government to provide compensation for their time spent as prostitutes…
The Best House in London is a brothel, or it is according to this, one of the more respectable (and there weren’t many) sex comedies from the dawning of the boom of such productions in Britain from the late sixties onwards, on for at least a decade at any rate. It was respectable because of its screenwriter, Denis Norden, known to a couple of generations as the clipboard-wielding presenter of the finest television mistakes he could find on It’ll Be All Right on the Night, way before YouTube made such things obsolete on TV, not that it stopped the stations from trying to compete. He laced the humour with a host of historical and literary references that offered the impression of a certain intelligence behind the boobs and bums that usually were the focus of such efforts.
Unfortunately, while these were clever, they weren’t particularly funny, remaining just that, references, so there may be actors portraying Charles Dickens, Sherlock Holmes or the voice of Prince Albert, but all that did was make you go “Ah, right, got that one!” without much of a giggle. That’s not to say there were no laughs, as a comedy veteran even then Norden guaranteed he could conjure up something witty, though more often than not he relied on silly, with Hemmings playing two characters who seem to be related, one the diffident Benjamin and the other the louche Walter Leybourne, a man of influence who is contriving to set up, or at least exploit, this new high class brothel plan.
Whether a brothel can ever be high class was not a question that detained the film for long, it was of the opinion that sex was a great leveller since according to this everyone wants it but nobody wants to admit to wanting it, not in polite company anyway, and that takes in the complete society. When the powers that be want to get laid, it’s supposed to be funny since they are proving themselves to be no better or worse than the rest of us, yet it might even make them worse for they cannot broadcast their sexual antics no matter how much they get up to it or wish they did. Call it the hangover from the John Profumo scandal in British politics, but that anti-establishment air brought upon the establishment by itself was never far away.
If this had been made even a year or two later, they might have gotten away with yet more nudity and sexual references, although since one gag involves a five-year-old Emmeline Pankhurst innocently singing in the school choir a tune called “My Little Pussy” perhaps we should be relieved that all concerned restrained themselves. It wasn’t coy, exactly, but the low comedy was at odds with the more refined business, and stars Hemmings and Pettet were clearly more comfortable with the gentle romance that was building up between the Benjamin and Josephine characters. Elsewhere the cast was filled up with notable talent, from Dany Robin as a madam in the year of her retirement to Carol Friday, who only made this film and would be better known as one of the victims of the 2015 Germanwings deliberate aeroplane crash in the Alps. She played the supposedly pure virgin to be saved who actually wants to bed as many men as possible, that was the bawdy tone so you can imagine how that plays today, though who knows what the Fu Manchu business was about. It ended with a lot of running about in the brothel – Benny Hill was taking notes. Music by Mischa Spoliansky.