If Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, And Girly had been an American production it would probably have featured much in the way of banjos and dungarees. Being a British production, however, means our criminally-insane family are upper-class. They live in a mouldering mansion which looks as if it hasn’t been decorated since Edwardian times, and they seem idyllically happy, even if the smiles and laughter are slightly manic. Mumsy (Ursula Howells as a beautiful fading rose) is the head of the household. Nanny (Pat Hayward) is Patsy Byrne’s Nursie from Blackadder II spliced with an axe-wielding Jack Nicholson. You can picture her now, can’t you?
The two teenage children act as if they are half the age they are. Girly is Vanessa Howard in a mini-skirted school uniform that will obviously appeal to a certain demographic (in America the film’s title was shortened to Girly to play up her role), and Sonny is Howard Trevor (not Trevor Howard; that would be the equally demented Sir Henry At Rawlinson End you are thinking of).
Freddie Francis, a horror veteran by 1970, manages to imply a great deal of menace from the start, even if the initial pacing is slightly off by today’s standards (the opening scenes are almost a parody of art house in their ponderousness). Sonny and Girly skip off to play in the zoo. The zoo isn’t yet open to the public, so they are chased off by a zoo keeper (the Zelig-like Michael Ripper who must have appeared in most British films made during the last century). An early hint of menace occurs when the zoo keeper then shouts them back and demands to see what is in the small box that Sonny is holding. We can see tufts of fur sticking out of its lid…
The children move on to the park to look for a new friend while director Francis frequently cuts away to Mumsy and Nanny who are discussing their ‘new friends’. This is quite obviously not a wholesome activity despite the regularity with which it occurs. They find an alcoholic tramp and, after he inadvertently reassures them he won’t be missed, bring him home. He’s then dressed in a school blazer and is expected to follow strict rules at teatime and during the children’s games on the lawn.
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He rapidly grows stroppy and is dispatched by Girly to the surprise of no-one else in the family. All this is pretty much as expected and is merely the director’s way of establishing the family’s routine but, from then on, the film starts to get much more interesting. Sonny and Girly next come across a drunken couple who are leaving a party and take them to the park to play on the children’s play equipment. The man (Michael Bryant), a gigolo who can barely stand, is intrigued by Girly and is quite happy to play along. The considerably more sober woman (the buxom Imogen Hassall) rapidly becomes bored and consequently ‘falls’ to her death from the top of the chute.
The four of them (yes, four) return to the mansion, where the ‘new friend’ wakes up on the following morning with a raging hangover, and a belief that he is a murderer. He is, however, quite a cut above the usual standard of friends and he begins to play the three women off against each other while mostly adhering to the bizarre rules of the household. Has the equilibrium of the household been permanently moved?
That’s the thrust of the remainder of the film and it would be unfair to go further down the route of the plot. You’re quite welcome to guess but I’ll bet against you being right. This is, for the last hour at least, a gripping exploration of pathological psychosis quite unlike anything else made at the time.
Freddie Francis’s choice of filming in mostly overcast weather, whether intentional or not, gives a cold distance to the experience (none of the characters are likable) and initially in the zoo the trees are leafless and wintry. The full summer foliage of the woods around the mansion merely adds to the shadows outside and the indoor lighting is gloomy during the day and never enough to reach into the corners at night.
It feels like an empty world. It is not a murky film, however, and is impressively shot; the characters are illuminated clearly enough for the purposes of the film. The cast can be counted on one’s fingers and it helps that some are superb. Howard Trevor is no Malcolm McDowall, unfortunately, and he annoys with his archness but that heightens the uncomfortable atmosphere and becomes more acceptable as the drama builds. Michael Bryant, on the other hand, is superb and is one of the best-kept secrets of British television. It’s a great pity he never really got the chance to stretch himself in the cinema.
Credit must also go to Francis, and the viewer has the impression of being able to read Bryant’s thoughts as he moves around the house and explores his condition. The family, by contrast, are of necessity ciphers. Girly has a foul temper on her and Nanny may have a streak of malevolence running through her, for example, but these attributes are seen rather than felt.
The extras don’t add too much. We have British and Spanish cinema trailers, and a television advertisement, a selection of stills, and the American title sequence. Throw in half-a-dozen trailers for other films from the time and that’s your lot. But, really, this understated, flawed little gem doesn’t need much garnishing. There’s nothing else like it.