Beyond the Pale

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 [1963], Billy Liar [1963]). 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.

Director Peter Yates on the set of ONE WAY PENDULUM (1965).

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.

Other links of interest:

https://www.scotsman.com/news/obituaries/nf-simpson-1662646

http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/1058088/index.html

http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/468508/index.html

8 thoughts on “Beyond the Pale

  1. I love your reviews, because the always, or nearly always, deal with truly oddball, totally forgotten movies. I then go and search for them online and quite often I am lucky and find an easy way to watch them.

    And guess what? I´ve never regretted watching any of the movies you recommended! 🙂

    So now I´m gonna try to find the ONE WAY PENDULUM online.

    Thanx mate!

    • Thanks for that and cinephiles like you are the reason I do this: To shine a light on obscure, offbeat or forgotten films that are worth seeing and might end up favorite movies. Not everything I write about is a favorite though like One Way Pendulum but it is strange enough with a great British cast and production values to merit a look. Theater of the Absurd sometimes works better on the stage than film.

      • Thanx so much for getting back!

        I want you to know that I really do cheerish your work, it´s marvellous! I wish I´d have the time and could write like that (I´m not a native English speaker, so it´s difficult for me to write elaborate reviews).

        I just found ONE WAY PENDULUM on YT, it´s there in 2 parts, strangely it only adds up to 79/80 minutes whilst the IMDB says it´s running time is 90 minutes, so hopefully the IMDB is wrong, but even if 10 minutes miss I´m gonna watch it tomorrow. 🙂

        I love offbeat movies and absurd ones, too, and I´m sure I´l like it (just watched the trailer and it is lovely weired). Besides I´ve seen allmost everything Peter Yates did, so from this alone it´s a must-see (EDDIE COYLE is maybe his best, but he made a couple of really GREAT GREAT movies).

        I wanna return some of your help: ever seen CASH ON DEMAND (UK 1961)? If not, then go see it, I KNOW you´ll love it! Clever plot, sparkling dialogue, superb acting, colourful black-and-white cinematography, … this one has everything!

        Ever heard of JAMES ROBERTON JUSTICE (the name alone is worth a bucket of gold!)? Once seen, never forgotten, an unforgettable UK character actor of the 50ies and 60ies. I´m far from having seen most he did, but I´ve seen quite a few and he´s always a joy to watch: you might, if you don´t know them already, start with THE FAST LADY and FATHER CAME TOO (“rise and shine”). They´re not hidden anymore, but still pretty unknown (despite Julie Christie in the 1st of them!) so maybe you´ve not yet seem them …

        Cheers from Austria, Wolfgang

      • Your English is fine and I don’t speak any international languages – so American. Yes, Cash on Demand is a tense, twisty little thriller with excellent performances. Justice is a wonderful character actor often dismissed as the poor man’s Peter Ustinov. But U.S. viewers of a certain age know him as Lord Scrumptious from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I particularly like him in Pool of London (1951) and as the master tomb architect in Land of the Pharoahs (1955). I’ve not seen Father Came Too. Thanks.

      • Thanx so much for your kind words!

        Actually I wanted to tell you about some unknown gems, but it ends up you hinting me to movies I didn´t know yet. 🙂 I could have forseen that, haha. Yes, C.O.D. is superb, thanx to the “Czar of Noir” recommendation it´s now enjoying the praise it deserves.

        I read reviews about POOL OF LONDON, which is now on my must-see list, but I could not find the movie yet. As you say “good things come to those who can wait”, I´ll wait, it´ll surely show up somewhere some day.

        Guess I have to give LAND OF THE PHARAOAHS another viewing, it´s been ages that I´ve seen this one and can´t remember James Robertson Justice in it at all (I agree: he´s definitly much more than a “poor man´s Peter Ustinov”). Though I am not a huge fan of historical epics (aside from FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE and EL CID, which are fabulous as practically everything Anthony-“the naked spur”-Mann did, and BEN HUR, which is an unforgettable spectacle) I like to see Jack Hawkins (I like this type of actors: no fuss, taciturn, on point, same as Randolph Scott, Charles Bronson, …), which certainly helps. 🙂

        Unf. I could not watch ONE WAY PENDULUM, bec. when I tried I got a message that it can´t be seen due to copyright reasons/infringements. Well, gotta wait for that, too. I watched DEATH LAID AN EGG (LA MORTE HA FATTO L´UOVO) instead, which I had on my list for quite some time. Definitly one for the ages and much ahead of its time with all its references to labor lay-offs (right at the start), the absurdity of advertising, scientific animal experiments/food “enhancement” and so on and on. Some of the scenery (factory interior, the buidlings) reminded me at PLAYTIME by Jaques Tati, which was released just one year before, so it´s safe to assume that Questi has been influenced by PLAYTIME a bit (many of the directors back then knew each other even personally, but at least all the other important movies released by peers).

        You should watch FATHER CAME, TOO some day. It´s even on YT (I checked). It´s a variation of MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE (Gary Grant, 1948), but more than just a simple remake or copy of the older, it´s a transformation into something equally good. It turns into slapstick in the last third act, but very very well made and truly funny (I don´t mind slapstick at all, it´s a difficult kind of humor to make and requires enormous talent to do it right). J.R.J. is superb in it, I would NOT want such a FIL at all, hahaha.

        One more word on slapstick: are you familiar with NORMAN WISDOM? If you look at lists of the best UK comedies of the 1950ies and 60ies he´s practically never mentioned (a shame!!), because of the general disregard of slapstick, but his movies are superb, just superb (and at least equally good as some of the praised Alec Guiness/Peter Sellers comedies)! If you watch JUST MY LUCK or any of his Norman Pitkin movies, one can´t but help to admire the way he develops – he wrote most of the gags! – the situations and their timing. I found myself literally laughing my a** of SEVERAL times, because when you think a gag is over (and some take up to 10 minutes!!), then there comes one last shot, which is so unblevievably funny, that it really makes one crack (I never had such outbursts of laughter watching an Alec Guiness movie, because their humor is more “intellectual”). I watched all the movies WISDOM did, ranked on the IMDB from 1 to 12 or 13, and love each one (plus some of the lower ranked ones). I won´t be surprised if you know genius WISDOM anyway, but I simply had to mention him.

        I don´t think I need to recommend Alastair SIM, you surely know this great great UK actor already. 🙂

      • I will be on the lookout for Father Came Too. I admit I haven’t seen any Norman Wisdom films. There are never shown on American TV and his films weren’t distributed in the South (in the U.S.) when I was growing up. Maybe they were considered “too British” for the average American viewer. Here is a link to a website that offers free streaming of countless films that have fallen out of copyright. You might find some long lost films on your must see list here – https://rarefilmm.com/film-index/

      • >>>https://rarefilmm.com/film-index/<<&lt;

        OMG, this site is AWESOME! Like a dream-come-true! 🙂 Thanx a million for letting me know! I already watched my first one, BOY/SHONEN (Japan 69) by Nagisa Ôshima. And yes, it deserves all the praise it received & receives, a masterpiece. I love Japanese movies from the 40ies to 70ies (Ozu and peers), because I like the way they handled the stories there: slow moving, long shots, honest and earnest story-telling for the thinking viewer, a lot not being shown, but just hinted or talked about. Whereas Western movies, at least from the 80ies upwards, tell a story AND already suggest what you gonna think about what you see ("guided thinking"), Japanese movies tell a story – usually in a documentary kind of way – and let the viewer decide to think what comes to his mind ("free thinking"). I love that!

        I have done a lot of reading today, just going through that site I found nearly a dozen movies I´m gonna watch within the next days and many great Italian (even one by Vittorio Cottafavi!) and Japanese ones. And to be frank, I have never heard about at least 50% of the titles mentioned there! That site will gonna keep me "busy" for over a year, for sure! 🙂 Just marvellous!

        Re Norman WISDOM he´s an aquired taste and yes, very British, but not in the sense one usually associates with Alec Guiness or Peter Sellers: it´s not that sophisticated/stiff upper lipp-British humor, but the archaic anti-establishment "lower-class" (no harm intended!) humor. I suggest you start with THE EARLY BIRD. it´s one of his best 3, 4 movies and it´s got all the ingredients of a top notch "physical" comedy Norman Wisdom-style: it´s got that looong opening gag, which lasts for 10+ minutes and starts slow & low and builds and buils and builds and … until total chaos is achieved and a house pretty much damaged. One easily underestimates this kind of gags, seen them once – seen them all, but this is master-class, it does not end when it usually ends, it goes beyond that. It´s got that anarchic against-upper-class, against-authority sense of humor, it´s got the small guy versus the big guys never-give-up approach, it´s got sublime anti-capitalist attitude, it´s got all the staple actors, whom one can often see in Wisdom-movies, in short: this is as good as it gets. If you like that one, you´ll like all the others as well, if you don´t, then forget about N. Wisdom.

        The first one I saw was TROUBLE IN STORE, actually his first big screen part (before that he´d only done TV and one movie, which seems to be lost: I forgot the title, it was mentioned in a N. W-docu, maybe it was DATE WITH A DREAM?) and TROUBLE IN STORE made my day: I watched all other of his comedies I could find on YT and actually they are ALL there, every one of them (at least that was the case app. 1 1/2 years ago). The Brits don´t forget their top artists (in fact the Europeans don´t).

        And yes, you´re right in assuming they were not shown aboroad or hardly so: none of his movies have ever been dubbed in German (as far as I know) and I doubt they had larger screenings in the USA. Jerry Lewis/Frank Tashlin/etc definitly knew some or all of them, because you can trace gags from N.W.-comedies in J.L./Dean Martin comedies, but the normal movie lover outside the UK hasn´t heard the name N.W. even up to today. He´s a Brit phenomenon.

        FATHER CAME, TOO is on YT, a pretty sharp print. Just type the name & year and you got it. Or I can copy the link.

        Thanx again for rarefilmm.com!

      • Thanks for the info on Father Came Too via YT. Will check it out when I am back from vacation. Glad you can access CofFF….lots of films to keep you busy there.

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