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"So fill my glass and I'll park my arse, and a tale to you I'll tell
Of Deadeye Dick and Mexico Pete, and the gentle Eskimo Nell"
When aspiring director Dennis Morrison (Michael Armstrong) leaves film school with his crisp new diploma, he feels the screen world ought to be at his feet. It's only after the major companies unanimously reject his approach for gainful artistic employment that he finds considerably less aspirational work with B.U.M. productions, the dubious outfit run by one Benny U. Murdoch (Roy Kinnear). Tit-obsessed Murdoch currently has big plans for his latest project, Eskimo Nell, a film based on the notorious gentleman's poem. On the basis of next raising necessary finance, Morrison is hired to direct the work, from a script from Penguin loving, tyro screenwriter Harris Tweedle (Christopher Timothy) and with producer Clive Potter (Terence Edmond). Murdoch even has a star lined up, the big bosomed box office favourite Gladys Armitage. Confirming the commitment of Murdoch's three potential backers, however, proves less straightforward.
One, the megaphone-mouthed American producer 'Big Dick', will stump up the cash - but only for a hardcore version of the film; the second financier Ambrose Cream, demands a kung fu musical; finally, businessman Vernon Peabody agrees to participate, but for his money expects to see a gay western. To add to the complication, each of the backers has a personal favourite, whom they demand to see in the starring role. Faced with such a chorus of expectation, Murdoch's solution is simple: Morrison, Tweedle et al will have to come up with three scripts to satisfy them all. Paperwork is duly signed, and disaster promptly follows: the wily Murdoch absconds with the advance, leaving the three legally responsible for the debts. Their only way out is to extract money from Lady Longhorn (Rosalind Knight) a leader of a moral reform group. In her turn she wants a morally uplifting family film starring her children Hermione (Katy Manning) and Jeremy (Christopher Biggins). So Armstrong and Tweedle begin shooting their four versions of 'Eskimo Nell', back-to-back...
In the artistic wasteland of 1970s' British sex comedies (and arguably a good deal of British cinema at that time altogether) Eskimo Nell shines out as a modest beacon of wit, satirical in a way that still strikes a refreshing note. These days no doubt, Morrison and Tweedle would be assigned to work on several cheap gangster films at once, as that's the genre which has lately shown the greatest lack of nerve in the home grown industry. Back then with UK in worse decline, it was such dire products as Come Play With Me (1977), that were the exemplum of a depressing wave of 'sex' films, neither sexy or arguably real cinema at all: just the sad, exploitative effects of a restrictive lack of investment and restrictive censorship. Together with the slightly more family orientated Confessions... series and the saucy postcard world of the Carry On... series; this is what represented the officially sanctioned 'adult' industry at the time.
Eskimo Nell's satire therefore had in its sights a ripe and obvious target, although it is still frequently overlooked as just another sex film of its time. It's a perception not helped by its small budget, mediocre (if enthusiastic) acting as well as a lingering air of titillation characteristic of the genre. Real life actor-screenwriter Michael Armstrong, whose previous film was the more predictable It Could Happen to You (aka: Intimate Teenage Secrets, 1975) - which would never the less make an interesting double bill with his Nell - made the hard to see crime factional drama Black Panther (1977) after this, before disappearing into TV and the humdrum. Greater things have come of the director Martin Campbell however, as he has since made such films as GoldenEye, Vertical Limit, as well as just being engaged on Casino Royale.
The present film falls into three main parts. First there is the setting up of the project, a period of the narrative dominated by the avuncular, disreputable Murdoch - a professional performance by Roy Kinnear, the sort of role at which he shined. Once he disappears and matters move onto the complicated matter of the filming, then character comedy is swapped for situational, the change bringing probably the funniest moments of the film. Finally, there is the anticipated premiere, the chase after film canisters and so on, providing a suitable wrap up. As others have pointed out, this last section changes the emphasis of the satire somewhat, from one focusing purely on the sex film industry as such to mimicking the strategies of the caper film.
Much of the pleasure of Nell comes from the incidentals, which have a real feeling of time and place, as well as a feeling that some of the principals had had first hand experience of the industry they spoof. As the guileless Morrison, Michael Armstrong makes an impression as a hopeful but little else; his pretentious cineaste-speak sounds hollow even as satire, especially when compared to the gloating, tit-centred obsessed speeches of Murdoch. Morrison's fazed expressions, to be replaced by that of creative concentration during the actual production, remind me of a similar innocent: that of Dennis Barlow, at the centre of Richardson's underrated The Loved One (1965). Both Barlow and Morrison share an initial bewilderment at encountering a strange society, and one tinged by aberrant sexuality. But while Morrison remains detached and never opportunistic (as well always slightly surprised at the brave new world in which he's suddenly found himself) Barlow is able, initially at least, to make headway of sorts. In fact one of the weaknesses of Nell is that its central trio contain no central dynamic, other than being desperate to salvage the situation in which they have been trapped. Even the penguin obsessed and virginal Tweedle, the most eccentric of the three, pales in significance compared to the outrageous characters surrounding him the sex film world.
Nell follows in the tradition of the British sex comedy in never being erotic, merely naughty. It gains an edge for us today from being so self referential, with an intelligence missing from other productions of the time, and some have compared it to Truffaut's Day For Night (1973). In truth it is far less accomplished than that, bearing more of a resemblance to Confessions Of A Blue Movie Star (1978), being less about cinema itself than the practical bluntness required for the production of porn. And its best moments appear as part of that production: the gay cowboy ripping a succession of skin tight jeans as he gets off his horse; the kung fu religious school with the bizarre juxtaposition of Sound Of Music with Bruce Lee, or just Christopher Biggins' cherubic face as he raises up a suggestively wrapped umbrella into our line of sight - with equally suggestive dialogue, naturally.
The DVD of Eskimo Nell is a very basic affair, one I am sure any Benny Murdoch would be disappointed by, especially given the chaste cover accorded it these days. Just a picture gallery and a few chapter breaks is all the punters get inside too, in addition to a reasonable transfer of the film. In an ideal world, David McGillivray would be in charge of a special edition, full of anecdotes and reminiscences from veterans of a time in British cinema output still regarded by local film historians with something like a shudder. For time being this will have to do, and if you can find it at a modest price then buy or rent it.