During an interview in the 1970s, Peter Sellers was asked to recall his screen debut. His verdict – perhaps unsurprisingly for such a famously self-critical character - was pretty damning: Penny Points to Paradise, he said, was ‘a terrifyingly bad film’. Viewed at a distance of 58 years since its release, it’s hard to disagree too wildly with Sellers’s own opinion. As a very low-budget, very knockabout farce made in a hurry by a group of untested newcomers, at best it’s an uneven affair. Still, there’s more than enough rough vitality here to compensate for the film’s manifest shortcomings.
Marking the first cinema outing for three quarters of the team who would very shortly afterwards find fame as The Goons, Penny Points to Paradise follows gormless pools winner Harry Secombe and his friend Spike Milligan as they attempt to avoid gold-digging girls and thieving forgers on holiday in an extremely gloomy-looking post-war Brighton. Paying homage to silent comedies, Abbott and Costello and some ancient music hall humour (‘did you know that a man dies once every six months from flu?’ ‘how boring for him’), at best the film is enthusiastically played - Secombe’s lengthy mime of a surgeon performing a heart operation is particularly memorable - but its main point of interest lies in seeing the young Goons – Milligan was the oldest at 33 - finding their feet despite the very obviously cheap and rushed circumstances surrounding the picture’s creation.
Indeed, Penny Points to Paradise was made so quickly that Arthur Dent’s Adelphi Films encouraged the team to fill a spare week in Brighton improvising the skits that ended up as the 30-minute short Let’s Go Crazy. Also included on this DVD, Let’s Go Crazy sees Sellers take on six different parts (including a passable Groucho Marx impersonation) with evident relish in a manner that prefigures both the multiple roles of 1959’s The Mouse that Roared and, more famously, Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, for which he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor. Interspersed with some local Brighton end-of the-pier-type variety turns, the result is a vivid portrait of the era of British seaside entertainment also captured in Tony Hancock’s underrated The Punch and Judy Man.
Both films flopped when released, although in 1960 enterprising distributors in Australia attempted to cash in on Sellers’s new fame by cutting segments from Penny Points to Paradise and replacing them with scenes from Let’s Go Crazy to increase the comedian’s screen time. Painstaking work was necessary on the part of the BFI to restore both films to their original form - and while neither exactly qualifies as art, as an artefact documenting a period in British history this new DVD is of undeniable importance.
This release launches the BFI’s new strand The Adelphi Collection.