Ask a Policeman (1939)
I was raised on old black and white films as a child. My parents age and personal tastes meant that I had exposure to a lot of material that people today may be oblivious to. This was especially true with regard to pre-war UK comic luminaries such as Arthur Askey, Old Mother Riley and Will Hay. I am very grateful in a way, as it has afforded me the opportunity to broaden my cinematic horizons and cultural references. Comedy is also an interesting social barometer of the times and can be quite a useful tool for historians. Its curious how something change there are certain comic tropes that are timeless. Often these are fundamental aspects of the human character but not necessarily the best ones.
As a result of my youth, I am a consummate Will Hay fan. I find the seedy, incompetent characters that he created to be timeless. There often a lot of substance to his various incarnations, along with cynicism and moral ambiguity. Unlike US comedies of the time, there is also a conspicuous lack of sentiment. The humour is often linguistic, self-deprecating and sarcastic rather than physical and is more sedately paced, compared to the hard-hitting style of today. Although many consider Hay's finest work to be Oh, Mr. Porter! or My Learned Friend, I have a soft spot for the formulaic but enjoyable Ask A Policeman from 1939. It’s a very accessible example of Hay's work and exhibits many of the traits I have listed.
The first half of Ask A Policeman is vintage Hay, which concentrates on the superbly scripted verbal sparring between himself and his usual associates Graham Marriott and Moore Moffatt. The banter is very well observed, and its dry quality still makes it easily accessible. Take for example the following scene where Dudfoot and his two constables have made an arrest.
Sergeant Samuel Dudfoot: Did you search him?
Constable Albert Brown: One pocket book, one watch, one pen-knife and no money.
Sergeant Samuel Dudfoot: One pen-knife and no what?
Constable Albert Brown: No money.
Sergeant Samuel Dudfoot: Come on, turn out your pockets.
Constable Albert Brown: Oh, alright. One pen-knife and fifteen bob.
Sergeant Samuel Dudfoot: Blimey! Will you never learn to be honest? He's as much our prisoner as he is yours... Here you are, five bob each.
The story then broadens to encompass smugglers, headless horsemen, and a poorly conceived bus chase, which unfortunately bears to many similarities with Oh, Mr. Porter! However, these changes in pace and direction do not spoil the film overall and it still remains engaging during it's relatively short eighty-minute running time. I would recommend Ask A Policeman to those who have an interest in classic British comedy and vintage acts that have their roots in music hall and variety.
Oddly enough, the film was remade in 1982 by British comic duo, Canon and Ball, under the title The Boys in Blue. Unfortunately, it was rather poorly implemented and lacked the subtly of the original, mainly due to the stars somewhat limited comic abilities. Some folk have tenuously tried to link Edgar Wright's 2007 movie Hot Fuzz to the Hay original, but I believe that is stretching a point.