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  Ask a Policeman The Sweeney Mark 1
Year: 1939
Director: Marcel Varnel
Stars: Will Hay, Graham Moffatt, Moore Marriott, Glennis Lorimer, Peter Gawthorne, Charles Oliver, Herbert Lomas
Genre: Comedy, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: The tiny hamlet of Turnbotham Round is notable for one fact: it has been the only place in the country where there is no crime reported, such is the quiet nature of the region. Well, that's the popular opinion, but when a BBC broadcast is arranged to stage a programme about the fact, it quickly becomes clear there may be other reasons for the complete lack of arrests made. The head of the police station is Sergeant Dudfoot (Will Hay), and he oversees the two constables, the ageing Harbottle (Moore Marriott) and the younger, rotund Albert (Graham Moffatt), but when the announcer inquires about the peaceful situation they appear at the window with rabbits they have poached, drunks start carousing in the street and a car speeds by doing a hundred miles an hour...

Needless to say, the broadcast is hastily wrapped up, and the scene and personality of the film was set: these three policemen were simply so incompetent that they just haven't been making arrests, not because there is no crime, but because they cannot catch criminals. The actual plot revolved around sightings of the Headless Horseman who has his own legend passed down in a ditty that later everyone will have great difficulty remembering the crucial last line of, and when it is finally recalled you well understand why. The Horseman pulling a hearse is not a ghost at all, of course, but then if you'd seen this team's previous entry of about two years before, you would be well aware of that.

This is down to an apparent "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" philosophy of recycling the storyline of Oh, Mr Porter! which Ask a Policeman bore a strong resemblance to, in turn taking its cue from The Ghost Train play. It's probably this which prevented the later effort getting its due down the years as it does come across as a little lazy to put the same premise into practice, but this took place in a different location which gave rise to a whole new set of jokes, many of them laugh out loud funny. The butt of the gags, as so often with Hay's comedy, were the authority figures the general public suspected of being incompetent, and under his persona there was no doubt, leaving you wondering however his characters ever attained the positions of power that they did.

In this case it was likely because nobody but Sergeant Dudfoot actually wanted the job and the locals were happy for him to continue since they could get away with anything they wished. Certainly the smugglers are taking advantage, even using the police station as a location for their beacon to tell their cohorts the coast is clear, leading the coppers on with a story about an ailing granny who needs to see the lamp for her peace of mind (Harbottle is deeply moved). If this sounds a bit too much like plot, rest assured many sequences here owed plenty to the stage routines of Hay where he had honed his craft in variety, most obviously the lengthy bit where the trio of bumblers try to arrest any driver they can stop for speeding, regardless of whether they were or not.

This is one of the funniest bits the team ever enacted (they end up knocking their victim cold with the speed limit sign they've rustled up, all the better to take him back to the station!), which makes it a pity it would be their penultimate outing together (the more minor Where's That Fire? the following year would see them go their separate ways afterwards, apparently on Hay's insistence). But there were many delights in Ask a Policeman, not least the visit to the ancient Harbottle's even more ancient father (also played by Marriott) and the climactic, closing act race to catch the smugglers which lasts all night and into the next morning thanks to our heroes falling asleep at the wheel of a commandeered bus, which doesn't explain how they managed to stay on the road, never mind keep up with the bad guys. The very end offers some real life motor racing footage as a fillip, but it has been the quickfire banter among a seasoned group of comedians, led by the one British thirties comic whose pin sharp humour has lost little of its lustre, that entertains. Watch for the actual Gainsborough lady as Moffatt's girlfriend.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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