When you think of British film comedies, titles like Whiskey Galore (1949), The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), and other popular Ealing releases, many with Alec Guinness, probably spring to mind. Or maybe something starring Peter Sellers or any comedies featuring graduates of the Goon Show, Beyond the Fringe or Monty Python TV shows that mix black comedy with Theatre of the Absurd antics. But few people, outside of the U.K., are unlikely to recall One Way Pendulum (1964) with fondness and there are obvious reasons for that. It is the sort of surreal farce that is so deeply rooted in its own culture, setting and time – the sixties – that audiences of today might not get the jokes at all. Even the average Englishman might have sat dumbfounded at the film before him in 1964.
Based on the 1959 stage play by N.F. Simpson, the storyline of One Way Pendulum depicts the eccentric behavior of the Groomkirby family, each one of them certifiable and ready for the asylum. Mr. Groomkirby (Eric Sykes), the patriarch, works as a lowly accountant at a large firm but spends his off hours recreating the Old Bailey courtroom in his living room, complete with mock trials. In the attic, his son Kirby (Jonathan Miller) is amassing a collection of talking weight machines, which he has stolen, in the hopes of training them to sing and eventually conduct them in a recital of Handel’s Hallelujah chorus.
Mrs. Groomkirby (Alison Leggatt), the matriarch, is so fixated on her cooking that she hires a neighbor (Peggy Mount) to come in regularly and eat the leftovers. Sylvia (Julia Foster), the daughter, has developed a complex that her arms are growing shorter after too many visits to the primate house at the zoo. Last but not least is wheelchair bound Aunt Mildred (Mona Washbourne) who lives in an imaginary world of constant train travel with the Outer Hebrides as her final destination. You can probably tell from the above description if One Way Pendulum is your cup of tea or not.
The movie was a rather unlikely project for Woodfall Film Productions, the independent company that director Tony Richardson and playwright/screenwriter John Osborne initially set up to distribute their 1959 film adaptation of Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger. Woodfall, which lasted from 1959 until 1984, focused primarily on producing Richardson-Osborne collaborations like The Entertainer (1960) and Tom Jones (1963) but they occasionally took on solo ventures like Girl with Green Eyes (1964), directed by Desmond Davis from a screenplay by Edna O’Brien, and this stage play adaptation.
One Way Pendulum was the second directorial effort of Peter Yates (Bullitt, 1968); his first feature was the Cliff Richard musical romance Summer Holiday (1963). Yates has attempted to open up the stage-bound nature of Simpson’s play with outdoor location shooting in London and the distinctive cinematography of Denys N. Coop (This Sporting Life , Billy Liar ). And a jazzy music score by Richard Rodney Bennett (Murder on the Orient Express, 1974) performed by the Johnny Scott Quintet helps propel the foolishness along.
Still, the essential claustrophobic quality of the Groomkirby home where most of the story takes place and the untethered nonsense on display has a flat, lifeless quality. What might have worked on stage seems forced and humorless on film in the same manner as Arthur Kopit’s absurdist stage play, Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad, which failed miserably as a movie adaptation (it was filmed in 1965 but not released until 1967 with guest star inserts of Jonathan Winters added after production).
As unlikely as it seems, One Way Pendulum may have a small but adoring fan base out there somewhere but the majority opinion at the time it was released was not favorable. According to the BritMovie web site, “…this Goon-inspired comedy was a box-office flop on release and still an acquired taste today as its veiled mockery of human nature and prejudice fails to transfer to the screen.”
Howard Thompson of The New York Times was more vitriolic in his response: “It arrived at the Baronet yesterday and it’s awful. We refer to One Way Pendulum, a new serving of British-stirred froth that weighs almost as much as Big Ben. And how it got those friendly notices back in the homeland, we’ll never know. The picture is excruciatingly coy and flat…This modern romp has to do with a family of middle-class eccentrics…All this is supposed to be frightfully funny, and the simpering cast plays it accordingly, under Peter Yates’ anvil direction. Mr. Miller, previously “Beyond the Fringe” and now beyond the pale, is the luckiest, never having to open his mouth–just conducting those weight machines with a knowing smirk.”
Despite the film’s poor reception in the U.S., One Way Pendulum didn’t have negative repercussions on Peter Yates’ directing career and his next feature film Robbery (1967) was a taut, well executed heist thriller (based on the real 1963 Great Train Robbery at Bridego Railway Bridge in England) that led Steve McQueen to hire Yates to direct Bullitt the next year.
One Way Pendulum is not currently available on DVD or Blu-ray in the U.S. but you might be able to stream it on Amazon Prime if you are a member.
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