Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly

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Having shot everything from 1960’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning to David Lynch’s A Straight Story, it’s no surprise that Freddie Francis is best known as a cinematographer, one of the greats. But he also has more than 30 director credits to his name. Much of it was gun for hire work but in 1970, after eight years of doing others’ directorial bidding, he was finally given his head.

Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly (aka Girly) is his picture, done his way, co-conceived with writer Brian Comport, and shot at Oakley Court, a location he’d worked at many times on various Hammer horror productions when it was mostly used for its imposing exterior. Francis wanted to use all of it – the outside, the inside and the grounds. That “Shot entirely on location at…” credit is noticeably loud and proud.

The story goes that, casting about for a story that would use Oakley Court to the full, Francis and Comport went to see a play in London. They didn’t like Maisie Mosco’s The Happy Family very much, but they did like its basic idea – a dysfunctional family run by a domineering and insane “Mumsy”, who forces her children and maid to indulge her mania for game-playing.

That all survives intact in Comport and Francis’s re-imagining, which opens with cut-glass Mumsy (Ursula Howells) and aggressively deferential Nanny (Pat Heywood) conversing in nursery language (“choccie biccies”) in the big gothic house. Meanwhile, out in the big wide world, at the zoo, their two charges, Girly (Vanessa Howard) and Sonny (Howard Trevor), are larking about in a vaguely sexualised way en route to picking up a wino, who they entice back to the house with the promise of booze.

There, “Soldier” (Robert Swann) is treated to high tea with Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly. And after jelly, blancmange and cake, plus lashings of tea, he is introduced to this family’s idea of game-playing (Rule 1: Play the Game), before winding up locked in a room while the family decides how best to kill him.

Basic template established, later the family bag another victim, swinging, libidinous New Friend (Michael Bryant) who they pick up along with his scarcely dressed girlfriend, called Girlfriend (and played by Imogen Hassall, not for nothing known as the Countess of Cleavage). Except New Friend is smarter than Soldier, and he isn’t hooked on booze. Once he has his bearings in the big house and has gained the family’s confidence, he sets about playing the family’s dysfunctional dynamic for all it is worth.

Sonny with his bow and arrow
Sonny has a bow and arrow

The result is a film that’s probably best described as a fine example of the British Gothic Comedy Grotesque, sitting alongside the likes of Entertaining Mr Sloane (which came out the same year) and The Abominable Dr Phibes (the year after). Dysfunctional families in overstuffed Victorian dwellings, where bottles of poison are marked “Poison” and a wackadoodle sense of conspiracy and paranoia fight it out for barked laughs.

The film died at the British box office, where it ran into one of the British media’s periodic confected moral panics. In Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly it was incest that got the op-ed writers scribbling and the majors harrumphing as they buttered their toast, though Girly in her school uniform sucking on Sonny’s finger while rolling her eyes ecstatically is hardly PornHub.

It might well have died anyway. It’s interesting, atmospheric and lovely to look at – Francis and his DP David Muir squeeze almost Technicolor hues out of the Eastmancolor stock – but there is a perilous lack of pace once the smart and swift setup is out of the way, and the film kind of hangs about until the smart and swift dénouement starts to come over the horizon.

Michael Bryant seems a touch middle-aged, at 42, to be playing the groovy scenester he’s meant to be, but is otherwise fine as the agent of the Permissive Society setting cats among pigeons by selective deployment of his libido. The cast are all good in fact, but Vanessa Howard stands out as Girly, a jailbait-in-school-uniform role that she plays to the hilt, to the extent that Francis starts to tilt the film in her direction, leaving the other characters, Sonny in particular, slightly high and dry.

All in all, it’s a grotesque parody of the well-brought-up nice English family, which, if you’re desperate for a “depth” critique, might be trying to say something about families that lack a patriarchal figurehead. Or not.

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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