The Navy Lark (1959)

+++ Stationed on the small, fictional Channel Island of Boonsey, the crew of the minesweeping vessel HMS Compton lead a quiet and leisurely existence. There are, in fact, really no mines in these waters which they would have to deal with, yet they are reporting the detection and destruction of many mines to the Admiralty, so as not to endanger their cushiony jobs. But a naval bureaucrat from Portsmouth is on an efficiency crusade and threatens to make their lives rather difficult. Thankfully, quick-footed thinking is somewhat of a speciality of the ship’s Chief Petty Officer. +++

The Navy Lark must be one of the longest-running sitcoms in the history of British radio. It was first aired on March 29th 1959, and for whatever reason someone immediately decided to give it the silver screen treatment that very same year, with the film premiering in the UK on December 27th.

After a lot of struggles and conflict, the film that hit cinemas on that day actually featured only one major cast member from the radio show: Leslie Phillips (Carry On Teacher). Yet, while a number of details about the ship and crew were changed, including many (but not all) of the character names, this film is unmistakably a carbon copy of the young radio show. The characters, even though their names might have been changed, share all the traits of the original characters to a T: and the writers (Sid Collins (Carry On Spying) working with the show’s creator, Laurie Wyman) even reused some lines of Wyman’s dialogue from season 1.

The plot has a slightly episodic structure, as it features several occasions in which the crew has to take evasive manoeuvres to outsmart their Portsmouth superior. At least one of these sequences, covering roughly the first 22 minutes of this 78-minute film, is based more or less directly on an episode of the radio show.

The Navy Lark does not appear too different from similar naval/military comedies of the time, but some of its elements are possibly above-average: the dialogue and humour (while by no means outstanding) are in some places rather nice. And they are helped by a sure-handed delivery of cast-members like Cecil Parker (The Admirable Crichton), Ronald Shiner, and of course Leslie Phillips.
Other notable cast-members include Nicholas Phipps, Elvi Hale, Cardew Robinson, Gordon Jackson, as well as Benedict Cumberbatch’s mother, Wanda Ventham. There is also a very brief appearance by Hattie Jacques in a role that would barely count as an “extra”.

Like probably all other naval films, The Navy Lark uses a nautical tune as the basis of its theme tune: “What Shall we do with a Drunken Sailor”. The song is mixed with a jaunty tune that is somewhat reminiscent of the theme tune of the originally radio show. Tommy Reilly and James Moody created the film’s music, and while there is some information out there that Reilly also played the tunes on the radio show, I could find no such information on Moody (even though they frequently collaborated, so it seems likely).

Fans of the radio show seem to dislike the fact that these are not the original characters, and not the original cast members. But to say that the film does the show no justice overlooks the fact that we are at such an early point in time. It is the autumn of 1959, and the first season had only just been broadcast. This, to me, seems to be the biggest problem. If this film had been made in ’62 or ’63, there would have been better-established characters and a broader, more established universe to work with. But in 1959, the writers and producers probably did not feel very bound by a show that had only just sprung into existence.

For that reason I am more than willing to judge the film on its own merits; and while it is nothing special I found it perfectly entertaining and am willing to rate it at 6 out of 10.

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