Thursday 12 October 2017

Betty and Ralph ask: "Anyone for Sex?"


The other day I caught a slightly odd little film from the early 1970s. No, not a Carry On and nothing dodgy either. I had vaguely heard of The Love Ban (alternative title: Anyone for Sex?) before but I can't place where and as far as I recall It's never been screened on the telly. Having now viewed most of it I can kind of see why. 

It has a fine pedigree if you skim read the basic statistics. It comes from the sibling Carry On stable of producer Betty Box and director Ralph Thomas - wife of Peter Rogers and brother of Gerald Thomas. The duo are still remembered for bringing the wonderful Doctor series of films to big screen, many starring the likes of Dirk Bogarde, Donald Sinden, James Robertson Justice, Joan Sims and Muriel Pavlow. I've always had a great affection for the Doctor films and think their better production values and lighter touch mark them apart from the Carry Ons. 

1970 had seen the last in the series, Doctor in Trouble (not a favourite of mine) so the Box/Thomas partnership set their sights on new horizons. The saucy Seventies were upon us and the decade began with the duo releasing the first male member transplant comedy film into cinemas up and down the land. The film marked a significant swift in tone for Betty Box and Ralph Thomas, probably much more suited to the times. It featured an enviable cast led by Hywel Bennett, Elke Sommer and Denholm Elliott. Sommer's casting in this film led to a long friendship with both Betty and husband Peter and inevitably led to her joining the cast of Carry On Behind in 1975. 

Percy was successful enough to warrant a sequel, Percy's Progress, in 1974, with Sommer and Elliott returning but with a new lead character played by Leigh Lawson. This film also co-starred future Carry On England star Judy Geeson, Dame Edna's very own Barry Humphries, Harry H Corbett, Vincent Price, Carol Hawkins, Madeline Smith and Judy Matheson. Quite a cast. 

In between these two films, Betty and Ralph brought The Love Ban to the big screen in 1973. Originally written in 1969 by Kevin Laffan, the man who created the ITV soap opera Emmerdale, the play had been called It's a 2'6' Above the Ground World. Laffan was one of 14 children from a devout Roman Catholic family and his critical view on the Church's stance on birth control was a recurring theme of his work. The play starred Prunella Scales in a production at the Bristol Old Vic, and was a hit, moving to the Wyndham Theatre. The story focuses on a married couple with six children experiencing marital difficulties. Wife Kate refuses to sleep with husband Mick until he uses birth control, while their live-in au-pair falls pregnant.

The film is very much of its time I suppose and one of the main plus points must be an opportunity to wallow in a very 1970s domestic sitcom arrangement. The new town living, the furniture, clothes, cars and music. Despite being an interesting idea and featuring a cast of good actors, the film just doesn't come off for me. It all feels rather lame, forced and uncomfortable. Heading the cast is Hywel Bennett once again alongside Nanette Newman, wife of Bryan Forbes and she of the oh so soft Fairy hands. Milo O'Shea provides reliable support as an Irish priest while future Poldark star Angharad Rees plays the au-pair Kate. There's a cameo role for Monty Python and Fawlty Towers star John Cleese as a Contraceptives Lecturer too (!) Also of note is an early supporting role for the instantly recognisable Georgina Hale as Newman's friend Joyce. And the film features support from Carry On faces Jacki Piper, Madeline Smith and a blink and you'll miss her Marianne Stone.


My problem with the film is that's it's very formulaic, despite its challenging subject matter and it really just doesn't hang together particularly well, even though it features a host of good actors. It is also fairly sexist in its portrayal of women with Newman and Hale suffering through a running gag about women drivers who keep crashing into each other and various men up to no good. And as Mick, Bennett has regular fantasy moments featuring scantily clad (and even full frontal nude) young ladies. In contrast, Newman's fantasies are all about her husband and are much more innocent. 

To me this film sums up the struggle the British film industry was facing at the time. While Britain was becoming a great deal more liberal, the old establishment was still pretty much in charge, and the film industry was no different. Betty Box and Ralph Thomas had been making films since the early 1950s but seemed all at sea with this new, more open generation. It just doesn't sit right with their earlier body of work and it's no surprise that they would soon call it a day. Just as Peter and Gerald would soon be battling against the Confessions films in much choppier waters, Betty and Ralph were being forced to push boundaries there should probably have left to others. 

If you get a chance, do check out this curious little film. It's not earth shattering by any means and does provide a glimpse into suburban 1970s life but it may not be one you want to add to your permanent collection of classics.

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