In the history of comedy, as with everything else, there will always be those who sadly fall by the wayside, after having their moment in the spotlight. Comedy historian and writer Robert Ross released a book about some of those forgotten comedy heroes in 2021, highlighting some performers who had sadly slipped into obscurity, or failed to get the enduring level of recognition they deserved.
One of the most egregious examples of this would probably have to be Michael Bentine. Having graced the nation’s TV screens during the mid-to-late 1970s with the children’s show Michael Bentine’s Potty Time, and also being one of the original lineup in The Goons on radio, Bentine should arguably be more highly lauded. Since his passing in 1996, however, his name and works seem rather to have slipped away from the public’s consciousness, which does seem to be rather an injustice.
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Hopefully, his body of work will start to get a reappraisal in the near future, a process which might be helped along the way by Network Distributing’s Blu-ray release of the 1966 comedy film The Sandwich Man. Co-written by Bentine, he stars as Horace Quilby, a pigeon fancier who – as his bread and butter – parades around London’s streets dressed in a full morning suit, including top hat, and bearing a sandwich board carrying an advert for a West End purveyor of bespoke gents’ apparel.
The story itself is rather on the thin side – Quilby is waiting for news of his pigeon Esmerelda, who is racing back from Bordeaux as he does his rounds. During the course of his day, he comes across a whole parade of different characters, and acts mostly as an observer while all manner of escapades and hijinks unfold before him. Those characters, however, just so happen to be portrayed by a veritable wealth of British comic and acting talent.
Looking at the cover alone, without even viewing the actual movie, you can see the names of such luminaries as Harry H. Corbett, Bernard Cribbins, Norman Wisdom, Terry-Thomas, Ron Moody, and Diana Dors, to name but a few. There just so happen to be many more examples not listed on there, such as Warren Mitchell, John Le Mesurier, Burt Kwouk, and Roger Delgado (who would later go on to play the first incarnation of The Master to be seen in Doctor Who).
There is little in the way of a plot to speak of, other than the efforts of Quilby to reconcile a warring couple. The point of The Sandwich Man is to use the titular lead to take us from location to location, acting as the glue which binds the whole piece together. Quilby is our guide here, and he is the linking material which ties together a whole series of what would be otherwise disconnected skits, vignettes and set pieces. The best way to experience The Sandwich Man is just to sit back and let it all wash over you.
The London we see here is a blend of grit and grime, sitting alongside creeping modernity, as the Big Smoke gets ready to start swinging. Coming in the aftermath of then-current PM Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” speech, and shortly before the contraceptive pill was legalised, here we have a capital on the cusp of a social revolution, and signs of the multicultural integrated future start to appear here, with the teeming metropolis being a melting pot and microcosm of the country.
In much the same way that The Sandwich Man manages to capture a snapshot of a bygone London, it also happens to show us what has now become something of a rarity, due to sandwich boards having increasingly become a thing of the past. In 2008, Westminster City Council took measures to clamp down on and remove sandwich boards, along with a range of other forms of mobile advertising, from the streets of the West End, claiming that they were blighting the area, and had become a nuisance.
There are a few ‘prevailing attitudes’ moments throughout which do tend to jar somewhat, especially with a number of white actors – including Bentine – ‘browning up’ in order to play Sikhs. While this was common practice at the time, and it seems clear that the intention was not to offend, this still sits somewhat uncomfortably when viewed through modern eyes. Awkward racial stereotypes notwithstanding, the film is rather fun and, if not groundbreaking, is still a reasonably enjoyable flick.
Given the film’s relatively modest standing, despite its all-star cast list, Network’s release of The Sandwich Man has managed to assemble an impressive slate of bonus material here. There are standalone interviews with talent from both sides of the camera, including a lengthy featurette focusing on the late actor Michael Medwin, whose part in the movie lasts only slightly longer than it takes to read this paragraph, yet he gets a well-deserved career retrospective, and this is as good a place as any to put it.
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We also get UK and US trailers for the film, both of which are of a distinctively cringeworthy sensibility, where hyperbole and trampling all over the jokes appear to be the order of the day. The commentary track by producer Peter Newbrook is convivial enough for the most part, and does deliver some useful insight into the film’s production. However, the most outstanding feature is an episode of the podcast Soho Bites, which goes beyond just the confines of The Sandwich Man, and it entices you to want to track down further instalments after putting away the disc.
Showcasing a nicely remastered print of the main feature as well, Network’s release of The Sandwich Man is crisp, fresh, and comes with plenty of filling, although a few morsels may be a bit hard to swallow. Definitely an upper crust title, which may tempt you back for a second helping.
The Sandwich Man is out on Blu-ray on 29th August from Network Distributing.