+++ Bill Darling is hall porter at an old-fashioned London luxury hotel. While he answers to the manager (Mr Hatchard), Bill is in charge of the day-to-day running of the hotel as far as the frontline services are concerned. He is the one trying to accommodate the wishes of the guests, from ordering theatre tickets to fielding telephone calls.
Bill loves his job, but it is very exhausting nonetheless. And when a long-time guest of the hotel leaves him a tiny fortune in her will, he quits his job and fufils a life-long dream of his: a stay at the French Riviera.
Alas, the stay at the Riviera does not bring Bill any real enjoyment and he really misses his job. But when he returns to London, he finds that his old hotel has been closed down and is looking for a new investor. So he buys the hotel, which requires every penny he owns; in order to get the hotel up and running and to have sufficient liquidity run the whole operation, he needs additional investors. And that is where things get really complicated… +++
A Touch of the Sun was produced by Raymond Stross (Raystro Films), written by Alfred Shaughnessy (best known for his work on Upstairs, Downstairs), and directed by Gordon Parry.
The film serves as a vehicle for legendary British comic Frankie Howerd in the lead role as Bill Darling. It is a charming film that has its moments, but despite its short running time of 78 minutes, the story feels aimless. This is the very opposite of a tight script. All Shaughnessy apparently wanted was to get Bill into the position where he runs things at his old hotel. But it takes him 47 minutes to finally get to that point. And by that time, the film has already lost all of its steam through endless, pointless, and oddly arranged scenes at the Riviera. Howerd is brilliant at the very start of the film when Bill is working liking a maniac. But during the unnecessarily long Riviera-passages, when Bill does not really know what to do with himself, Shaughnessy does not really know what to do with Howerd and his talents.
The film starts to pick up steam again when Bill tries to reopen the hotel, especially since it involves a lot of subterfuge and chaos. But once the scheme which Bill has been cooking up to convince the investors is in full swing, this passage – again – goes on for far too long. Even the film’s finale goes on for too long and its concept runs out of power long before the finishing line.
In the film’s early scenes, Bill tries to be everything to everyone, because he feels that this will make guests more comfortable and is there fore part of his job. So, for each guest, Bill changes his posture, his language, his accent, etc. This was done, of course, in order to showcase Howerd’s talents. Related to Bill’s “professional performance” is the film’s rather inspired opening shot, which is made to look and sound like Bill is an important actor preparing for a grand role on a theatrical stage.
Unfortunately, this “professional performance” in the first few minutes of the film makes Bill look as either insincere, or like he is mocking the guests, or worse: that he is acting like a sycophant. Still, this isn’t a big problem for the story, as the audience can easily understand that this is a routine for them more than for the guests.
After Howerd is wasted in the middle passages, he is again in full swing after Bill buys the hotel. Through a series of costume changes (including cross-dressing) Bill is now playing multiple roles at once. This always seems to be a very popular idea in comedy, but was perhaps especially so at the time (1957’s The Naked Truth, for example). And within this story, it is a nice crescendo, as it takes Bill’s “professional performance” from the beginning of the film to a new level, as he is now actually performing, and instead of displaying different types of personality, he is now playing different persons.
Howerd is very good at what he does; but, as is often the case with films like that, you don’t really know if what the screenplay is having him do is particularly realistic or convincing in those circumstances. The wish to showcase Howerd’s talents seems to override the question if Bill’s behaviour or actions are appropriate for the situation.
Now, I said that this film is a vehicle for Howerd, but in a smaller, secondary way it is also a vehicle for famous Irish singer Ruby Murray. She plays a tiny role in the film, but has a few of song numbers, especially in the finale. And in spite of her limited screen-time and the insignificance of her character, Murray received second billing just behind Howerd. Her songs are charming, but they are of the typical, insignificant 1950’s variety. And Murray’s acting, which is thankfully limited to some very minor scenes, is “uneven”.
The actual leading lady in the film, however, is Dorothy Bromiley, who plays Bill’s partner-in-crime Rose Blake. She gives a very good performance within the limits the screenplay set for her. And she looks the part. In this film, she embodies the quintessential 1950s working girl; and in this role reminds me a lot of a young Conny Froboess.
Another cornerstone of the film is stalwart British actor Dennis Price, who lends a lot of gravitas to the role of Mr Hatchard, the hotel manager. Despite a limited screen-time, his character’s demeanour and earnestness serves as an important foil for Howerd’s Darling. It is for this reason, and for sheer seniority, that Price receives a third-place billing just above Bromiley.
Less prominent supporting roles are filled by Colin Gordon, who plays an egocentric photographer, and Richard Wattis (Carry On Spying), who plays the rather gray solicitor handling the sale of the hotel. It is this character who introduces Bill to a group of potential investors, “northern” businessmen (played by Reginald Beckwith, Willoughby Goddard, and Alfie Bass) who are portrayed as dim, unsophisticated, and uncultured “self-made” men. The subplot surrounding these characters comes inclusive of very unsubtle jokes about sexual harassment in the workplace.
Most other characters are situated within the micro-cosmos of the hotel as either staff (including stage actor Gordon Harker) or guests in what are either minor or very minor roles. A number of unique actors are brought in to portray the eccentric guests in brief performances that are great but often uncredited. They are all people like Esma Cannon and Lucy Griffiths who possess the ability to become memorable with only one or two lines.
Other strengths of this film include the looks and the music. Eric Spear’s theme tune and musical score might be somewhat conventional, but they are very good and they fit the film nicely. The looks are brought about by an awful lot of effort in the props and wardrobe departments, but also by Arthur Grant’s cinematography.
Because it has many nice moments, but also considerable weaknesses, I am not sure how to rate A Touch of the Sun. It is not a film that you will regret watching, but it is also not a film that you will want to ever visit again. I’d put it somewhere in the 5.5-to-6.5 range, I guess. Which fits, because I suspect some people will experience it as a “good” film when watching it, while other people might find it mediocre.