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September 2016

Man In The Moon

cast: Kenneth More, Shirley Anne Field, Michael Hordern, Charles Gray, and Norman Bird

director: Basil Dearden

95 minutes (PG) 1960
widescreen ratio 1.66:1
Network DVD Region 2

RATING: 5/10
review by Andrew Darlington

Man In The Moon

Was it ever likely that the first human on the Moon would be British, and not one of those grinning crop-haired American test-pilots, or those dark charismatic Soviet cosmonauts? Was Moon-shot 'UK1' emblazoned with the Union flag ever seriously a possibility? There was much speculation in 1960, in comics and SF magazines as well as in the mainstream media. Not one of them got it remotely right. By then we'd already rehearsed the lunar trip with Destination Moon (1950), authenticated by its Robert A. Heinlein involvement, and Rocketship XM (1950) - where the crew miss the Moon entirely and land on Mars instead. While the UK had thrilled to Nigel Kneale's The Quatermass Experiment, first as a low-budget BBC-TV serial (1953), then as a low-budget Hammer movie The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), with British experimental rocket group astronaut Victor Carroon returning from orbit as a predatory walking cactus.

It's worth remembering that the real-world space-race was very much in its infancy. No-one had actually ventured into space, yet. And when it came to fictional British space-projects they tended to be launched from secret Scottish islands, as in Angus MacVicar's radio serials Lost Planet (1954), or ATV's Target Luna (1960), in which schoolboy little Jimmy replaces the first astronaut to orbit the dark side of the Moon. Or else it was the Commonwealth space-drome at the RAAF Woomera test range, in Australia, as in Arthur C. Clarke's Prelude To Space (1951) - where it's re-named 'Luna City', or Hugh Walters' young adult novel series beginning with Blast Off At Woomera (1957). Actor-writer-director Brian Forbes - responsible for the gritty realist The L-Shaped Room (1962), also uses Woomera in his screenplay for the endearingly odd Man In The Moon (1960) - announced in the trailer as 'Kenneth More at his comedy best.'

He was a big star back then. If not everyone liked Kenneth More, it was difficult to actually dislike him. A kind of less-foppish Hugh Grant, More was the perfect English star for the 1950s, modestly charming in an un-contrived no-nonsense way. Cast as amputee RAF pilot Douglas Bader in the patriotic biopic Reach For The Sky (1956), he embodied all the self-deprecating stiff-upper-lip humour allied to steely resilience that defined the Battle of Britain's heroic 'few'. But it was playing the happy-go-lucky Ambrose Claverhouse in the carefree auto-rally comedy Genevieve (1953) that provided his original breakthrough.

There's a sense that Man In The Moon, his second film of the new decade, can't quite make up its mind exactly which guise to assume - a wacky comedy, a romance, or a toe dipped into the new-fangled sci-fi genre. It begins with a touch of typical 1960s zaniness as William Blood (More) wakes up in a brass bedstead in the middle of a field, "out in the foggy foggy dew" with birds singing in the trees. He has breakfast, munching an apple from a side-table. When Shirley Anne Field - in long feather boa and evening gown, climbs over the style beside the weir as the cows watch and chew cud. She's Polly, "a girl who could make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window." A dancer who works as a stripper, but she's escaping from unwanted amorous advances at a private engagement.

In fact, her real-life career had started out with posing for glamour shots in tame soft-core magazine spreads for Titbits, Span, and Reveille, leading to her breakthrough role in Tony Richardson's new realism movie Saturday Night And Sunday Morning (1960), playing opposite Albert Finney's rebellious working-class hero 'Arthur Seaton'. She also had roles with pop star Adam Faith, singing sinuously in Beat Girl (1960), and a part in Michael Powell's startlingly good psycho-thriller Peeping Tom (1960). Here she's the vapidly elusive object of Blood's marriage-phobic attentions.

It turns out that his extraordinary immunity earns Blood employment as a paid guinea pig for the 'Common Cold Research Centre' because "medically, he's a freak" with a graph as "straight as the Suez Canal" (a reference that held a special significance for audiences back then), which is why he's sleeping in the field. Despite a "moral obligation to catch something" he's "caught nothing in a long and distinguished career." This is the quality that attracts the attention of harassed "toxic as a crow" Dr Davidson (Michael Horden), who recognises that this ability makes him the ideal candidate for NARSTI, the Atomic Space Project. Due to abusive letters from the public about the use of dogs, or monkey 'Mabel' for experimental rocket-shots, they'll no longer "risk sending an animal into space," but less-controversially use an expendable human pathfinder instead!

There's chirpy 'Carry On' music, and occasional comedy woop-woop sound-effects to illustrate Blood's ineptitude in the gym. He voted Conservative, so 'no political bias' they quip - this is pre-Margaret Thatcher, after all! The setting is quaint Midsomer Murders of English villages with steam-railway stations, and pubs called the 'Jolly Woodman', while Blood speeds around the leafy lanes in a crazy three-wheeled Messerschmitt KR200. The sharp black-and-white film is packed to the seams with half-recognizable faces familiar from bit-parts on the small and big screen.

Herbert in the Cold Research Room is played by Norman Bird, who would later appear in Nigel Kneale's playful First Men In The Moon (1964), as well as TVs The Avengers. The imposing John Phillips as Professor Stephens was also in The Avengers... as well as Z Cars. Charles Gray - who plays Leo, Blood's rival in the pre-launch tests, would become a nastily sinister 'Blofeld' in Diamonds Are Forever (1971). And John Glyn-Jones is Dr Wilmot who reads a convincingly mocked-up hardback 'Man In Space', which closely resembles the kind of speculative science books I used to read in the school library.

There are hi-jinx as Blood goes through a series of astronaut tests, deep-freeze cabinets - his thermos of tea freezes solid, a heat chamber - he boils an egg on the unit, centrifuge - "better value than the Big Dipper," rocket sledge - "what a hell of a way to run a railway," and freefall weightless tests - "he can rise above the gravity of the situation," with the cinema-trailer DVD-bonus chortling "when they turn up the heat, he's got them cold."

Tensions escalate when a 'Daily Sketch' cover-story announces Billy Butlin offering £10,000 to the first man to set foot on the Moon. Was this genuine? Butlin was the wealthy owner of the popular holiday camp chain. The 'Daily Sketch' is a real, but long-extinct tabloid. Did he ever make such an offer? Did he fork out when Neil Armstrong stomped all over the Sea of Tranquility? Hi-De-Hi..? Anyway, this bribe leads to skullduggery and devious cunning as Leo attempts to sabotage Blood's tests, and comic bromance when he undergoes conditioning to reverse his hostility. Then there's a BOAC flight to Woomera, a pause for tea and biscuits on the launch platform... and a 72-hour radio blackout during the trip to the Moon. And then his pratfall onto the lunar surface... in Mare Imbrium, or is it?

At the risk of plot-spoiling, he finds a Heinz baked beans can, then a grizzled Aussie prospector on the desolate moon-like landscape, and it's obvious that the launch has simply returned him to Earth. "I'm sorry chaps, it's back to the old drawing board," he tells the assembled scientists cheerily. Maybe there was a loss of nerve? Maybe an actual lunar sequence would overbalance the comedy?

Because there are silly romantic capers to pursue, when Polly misses her step on the weir and falls into the stream, and they wind up chastely sharing the Cold Research brass bedstead in the middle of the field... closing the narrative loop. And the previously independent free-spirited Polly suddenly devolves into stereotype 1950s domesticity. While Blood's previous marriage-averse tendency crumbles.

Experiment six: family planning. Three baby cots... experiment complete. If Man In The Moon can't quite make up its mind exactly what it wants to be - a wacky comedy, a romance, or that new-fangled sci-fi stuff, the cinema audiences were equally divided. In attempting to cover all bases, it fails to totally succeed in any of them. Kenneth More would go on to make other, more commercially remunerative, films. Shirley Anne Field managed to extricate herself from the blonde bimbo roles she was typecast into, and proved her abilities in more mature productions. While this curious film remains an enjoyably light-hearted romp.

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