Carlton-Browne of the F.O.
Carlton-Browne of the FO – 1959 | 88mins | Comedy | B&W
Carlton-Browne of the F.O. represents an important development in the Boulting Brothers output, mapping the ineptitude’s of the Foreign Office, a key government agency, onto realpolitik of imperialist anxiety and decline.
In one of their characteristic opening titles which relate the following story, the viewer discovers that Britain only gained the colony because a British vessel with a cargo of oranges accidentally crashed into the island of Gaillardia, and, consequently, the “inhabitants lived on marmalade for months”. This compression of comic English traits – ineptitude coupled with an eccentric, yet strangely logical outcome – is reinforced by the revelation of bureaucratic inefficiency. Davidson (Miles Malleson), the British representative on the island, remains in his post some 40 years after the island was granted independence, simply because no one has informed him. Carlton-Browne (Terry-Thomas), upon hearing this, can only comment, “That’s frightfully slack”, the first in a number of understatements that constitute a greater concentration on language as the facilitator of satiric humour. When valuable mineral deposits are found on the island, and insurrection between the constantly feuding north/south factions intent on ruling Gaillardia is imminent, Carlton-Browne is sent to secure relations, and maintain the British position in the light of Russian Cold War strategy of securing both the minerals and political power.
The heir to the Gaillardian throne, “Jones” (Ian Bannen), has ironically been educated in England, and invites suspicion in British government circles when he is discovered to have been a member of the Labour Party, Despite his own ignorance of Gaillardia, however, when first meeting Carlton-Browne, having both recently arrived on the island, he resists engaging in political rhetoric, citing the poverty he has perceived, and challenges the British to state their position. Furthermore, the Gaillardian Prime Minister, the aptly named Amphibulos (Peter Sellers), sees an opportunity to exploit the situation, suggesting a self-serving diplomacy in which “all our cards are under the table”. Faced with both directness and duplicity, Carlton-Browne has no answers and perceives only threat, and is further drawn into what Amphibulos describes as a negotiation process which is “very discreet, very dignified”.
While the British are drawn into this situation, the Grand Duke Alexis (John Le Mesurier), long-time advocate to the throne, is negotiating with the Russians and, furthermore, advising “Jones” that he should abdicate as his daughter Ilyena (Luciana Paoluzzi) is actually the rightful heir. The state of affairs descends further into farce when firstly, the stage collapses at a supposedly prestige parade of Gaillardia’s armed forces which includes bikes and First World War aircraft with no engines. Secondly, the British, Americans and Russians narrowly avoid confronting each other during a covert exercise, involving all sides seeking to find mineral deposits in the same area. With “all the major powers now digging”, Carlton-Browne accidentally blows up the British camp, and, with anxiety growing concerning the half of the country in which the deposits will be found, Amphibulos suggests “partition” as a solution to ownership. This implements the formal intervention of the United Nations in decreeing partition along the 33rd parallel, played out by literally painting a line across the land; in true Keatonesque style, painters are even chased out of a rail tunnel by an oncoming train.
The dual realisation that the British may control the wrong half of the country, and have inadvertently empowered the Russians by giving them the capability to make atomic bombs from the mineral deposits, inspires frenzied negotiation. Chastised for creating “three security slip-ups, all our negotiations wrecked, and a revolution”, Carlton-Browne can only reply, “How extraordinary”. Crucial to the full over determination of the satire however, is that Carlton-Browne never actually learns any lessons, and, of course, perpetuates these circumstances. The Russians resist the attempt to reverse the decision on partition advanced by the British Foreign Secretary (Raymond Huntley) in a volley of clichés at the UN Council. As the danger of armed conflict escalates, the British are naive in approach, and ultimately are exposed as foolhardy in strategy when it is discovered that they have surrounded their own headquarters.
The Gaillardian problem is ultimately resolved, however, when “Jones” marries Princess Ilyena and the country is reunited, with the Grand Duke and Amphibulos rewarded with a “hotel in Portugal”. A goodwill football match between the Americans and the Russians is organised, however each is wearing the uniform of a different code of football, thus reinforcing enduring “difference” in nation and ideology. During the ceremonial kick-off, the football explodes when Carlton-Browne kicks it, ironically, Carlton-Browne receives a knighthood for “services in the cause of world peace”, and is celebrated for; “a triumph of British diplomacy”, while the dusty lines of partition are swept away on an island which remains as it ever was.
Terry-Thomas: Cadogan deVere Carlton-Browne
Peter Sellers: Prime Minister Amphibulos
Thorley Walters: Colonel Bellingham
Raymond Huntley: Tufton-Slade
Miles Malleson: Resident Advisor Davidson
John Le Mesurier: Grand Duke Alexis
Marie Lohr: Lady Carlton-Browne
Kynaston Reeves: Sir Arthur Carlton-Browne
John Van: Eyssen Hewitt
Nicholas Parsons: Rodgers
Luciana Paluzzi: Princess Ilyena
Ian Bannen: Young King Loris
Irene Handl: Mrs Carter
Harry Locke: Commentator
Marianne Stone: Woman In Cinema
Ronald Adam: Sir John Farthing