Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Otley outstanding… Otley (1967)

Otley is a British comedy from 1967/8 that could so easily have been a lazy James Bond/Harry Palmer cash in. It could also have succumbed to the light-headed infantilism of films such as The Best House in London (winner of my Biggest Waste of David Hemmings Award for the following year!). But it doesn’t and Otley is surely one of the half-forgotten gems of late 60’s comedy.

A large part of the reason for this is the script from the Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais – two giants of British comedy writing who went on to create The Likely Lads, Porridge and many other substantial and funny shows. Otley is of its period and does have whimsical elements but is tightly written and anchored in the everyday. It could happen to anyone. The everyday improbabilities of the story help place it higher than the duo's later spy spoof, Catch Me a Spy (a pretty good effort none-the-less, starring Kirk Douglas and the sublime Marlene Jobert).

The film is well directed by Dick Clement and shows contemporary London in an excellent light. The city is the secondary star of the film and it’s fascinating to see Portobello Road and central London as it was so recently and, in the case of Notting Hill, largely still remains…the atmosphere that the mix of rediscovered Victoriana and Swinging London seems to have lysergically suspended in aspic for evermore...

That said, the real star of this film is the brilliant Tom Courtney. He is completely believable as the hapless part-time antique dealer/part-time thief who falls into a series of unlikely situations and yet who manages to emerge unscathed against all odds. Courtney’s comic timing is every bit as acute as in Billy Liar and he delivers a wordy script well. His northern sensibilities help anchor Otley in reality, the actual 1967 and not the Carnaby Street version, and thereby renders the character eminently likeable. He could be so annoying but he only wants to survive in his disorganised way and to grab that lucky break (and, if he’s really lucky, a night with his best mate’s wife!). His motives are clear and straightforward whilst pretty much all around him are mired in corrupt duplicity.

Otley is thrown into the murderous world of spying as the mate who’s sofa he’s crashed out on gets shot by an unknown gunman. Having pocketed a pricey antique containing a tape recorder, Otley is assumed to be in on the plotting and taken back to the killer’s employees for interrogation…One thing leads to another and Otley is soon narrowly escaping a variety of deaths as the participants make themselves known.

It’s skilfully done and doesn’t lapse into slapstick or slapdash, maintaining a decent pace and uncertain tension about the good and bad guys right up till the end.

The narrative is played out using an outstanding array of British supporting actors many of whom went on to great things. Leonard Rossitter is superbly funny as the casual-but-deadly, professional hitman whilst Freddie Jones excels as a camp spy, all feminine disdain and there’s James Bolam (a true god-like genius!) as Otley’s best mate Albert.

The seeds of classic 70’s comedy are all in this film along with some of the key players!

Then there is also the exquisite Romy Schneider as Imogen, a spy who may or may not be on “our side”. Ms Schneider lights up any scene and is watchable as always, aloof and inscrutable: just what every 60’s spy movie needed, a beauty with uncertain motives. Otley wants to stay in touch after the twists and turns are over but she drops him down gently: “don’t be silly Otley”. Instead he ends up with Albert’s similarly charming other half, played by the likable Fiona Lewis, whilst her hubby is off up North…life will carry on in its haphazardly harmless way for Otley.

Otley is slight but stylish and purely entertaining. It would fit very well as a BFI Flipside release but I asked the BFI who haven’t any plans as yet although their spokesman said “we’re big fans of Otley too”.

So, a minor classic undeserved of its near obscurity and hopefully one that’ll get a re-release and recognition at some point soon.

Seek it out though for a smile and a low-level dose of nostalgia!

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