Simon Simon is a British short film from 1970. This 30-minute short came about through the desire of comedy actor Graham Stark to write and direct his own project, and the desire of Peter Shillingford and his commercials production team to dip their toe into the deep end and prove that they are able to produce longer projects. Some years ago, the film was released on a Region 2 DVD, which contains a commentary track by producer Peter Shillingford. That commentary is not exactly riveting, but very informative.
Graham Stark not only wrote and directed Simon Simon, he also starred in the leading role. His wife, actress Audrey Nicholson also has a part in the film. Stark, who died in 2013, was a close friend and collaborator of Peter Sellers and can, for example, be seen in many of the Pink Panther films in a variety of roles. Because of his long acting career, Stark was able to secure the collaboration of good actors for this short film – and also brief cameos by stars like Peter Sellers, David Hemmings, Eric Morecambe, Ernie Wise, and Bob Monkhouse. There is a even a blink-and-you-miss-it Michael Caine cameo.
(Through his Hemdale Productions, David Hemmings was also involved as a financier and co-producer.)
Simon Simon begins with demonstrating the various problems and dangers in the working life of two blue-collar city employees, but then morphs into a story of workplace romance and romantic rivalry, while finishing with a crime story and a long car chase sequence. In morphing through various plots, Simon Simon emulates the silent comedy shorts of the 1920s and ‘30s after which it models itself. Simon Simon is a “sound effect film”, a technique that was en vogue in the 1960s as a relatively cheap means to put creative ideas on screen. A “sound effect film” has no dialogue, so acting-wise is basically a silent film, but it has sound effects and music, for example, and in the case of Simon Simon there is also one poignant scream.
The consistent background music is an interesting example of early electronic music, but due to a lack of variation the music can become annoying and old at times.
The actors take on this silent-acting challenge in different ways, all of them successful, but I feel that special mention should go to Norman Rossington and Paul Whitsun-Jones.
But successful silent-acting is not just about body language, but also about choreography, and Graham Stark and his collaborators are very good at getting the details of a scene into place and catching everything perfectly on camera.
This project had some money behind it, but is still in essence a low-budget production. Apart from calling in favours from friends and colleagues, Graham Stark also used a very creative way of doing the opening credits – a way that is both interesting and (as producer Peter Shillingford says) much cheaper than conventional animated credits at the time: the film simply opens on Stark’s character gluing small posters over larger advertising posters, changing them in a way that they provide information about cast and crew, while also being mildly amusing in effect. The only downside to this method is that this sequence takes rather long and so gets a bit boring long before it does finally come to an end.
The three musicians that can be seen in the short’s finale had been spontaneously conscripted from the local Salvation Army and brought their own instruments and tunes. And the name Simon Simon is also a product of the combination of creativity and small budget: Simon was the name of a Northampton engineering company from which the filmmakers borrowed the two special-purpose trucks that feature heavily in the film. Since that name appears on the trucks it made sense to address that fact in some way. So the two vehicles with the name “Simon” on them turned into the name of the film: Simon Simon. And in return for the borrowed vehicles, the Simon company – in lieu of money – got the right to use the film for promotional purposes.
Stark’s creativity and meticulous planning, combined with the efforts of the team and professionalism of the actors, also meant that comparatively little film was wasted. According to Shillingford, the ratio of material shot to material used was 10:1, getting closer to 5:1 by the end of the shooting.
Of course, shoestring productions also have their downsides: producer Peter Shillingford operated the fog-machine used in one scene, even though he had no idea how to do this, and as a result he not only drowned parts of the scene in much more smoke than intended, but also submerged the entire neighbourhood in fog.
I’d rate this short film at about 7 out of 10. Simon Simon is definitely worth a look for anyone interested in film-making or in silent-film acting. But with its 30-minute running-time this is not a DVD anyone should invest too much money in.