Mr. Topaze (1961), directed by and starring Peter Sellers, has been chosen by the British public to be digitised following an online vote earlier this year. Described by Sellers’ biographer, Roger Lewis, as a “lost classic”, Mr Topaze marked the actor’s official directorial debut, and teams him with his Ladykillers and Pink Panther series co-star Herbert Lom in a cast that also features Billie Whitelaw, Leo McKern, John le Mesurier and Joan Sims. It’s a witty comedy about a provincial French schoolteacher turned rapacious businessman.
Using the only known surviving prints, held in its own collections, the BFI National Archive has produced a painstakingly cleaned-up digital version so that the film can be made accessible to the public via its VOD platform, BFI Player. The film is the highlight of an intriguing new collection entitled Forgotten Features, which presents a fascinating selection of British films that have undeservedly disappeared from public view. The collection is released online from Thursday 28 April 2016.
Mr. Topaze is free to view Saturday 30 April – Monday 2 May (pay per view after that date).
Director Peter Sellers, UK 1961, 97min
Already a huge comedy star at home but not yet the international movie star he would become, Peter Sellers made his debut as a feature director with this deliciously dark comedy, from a play by Marcel Pagnol. Sellers also masterfully plays Topaze, a mild-mannered school teacher who metamorphoses into a chillingly cutthroat businessman. Dubbed at the time “an enchanting comedy” with a “witty script, crazy characters and fantastic story”, the film was more recently acclaimed by Sellers’ biographer Roger Lewis as a “lost classic”.
The BFI National Archive preserves what may be the only surviving 35mm materials for this essential but long unseen entry in Sellers’ comedy canon, and after extensive remastering it can now be seen again on The Goons and films such as The Ladykillers (1955), I’m All Right Jack (1959) and The Mouse That Roared (1959). When he went to Hollywood he continued to star in major films such as Lolita (1962); The Pink Panther (1963) and four Inspector Clouseau sequels; Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb; What’s New Pussycat (1965); and The Party (1968). He was nominated for an Oscar and won many other awards for his portrayal of Chance the gardener in Being There (1979).
Forgotten Features is a rich collection of 50 British films which have unfairly fallen off the cultural radar. Hand-picked from the vaults by expert curators from the BFI National Archive and Regional and National Archives, the films range from the 1920s to the 90s and include rarities unseen by even the most ardent film fan.
Here are five to try in our new BFI Player collection Forgotten Features.
Bless ‘Em All (1948)
Director Robert Jordan Hill
Director José R. Larraz
This atmospheric horror thriller was Britain’s entry to Cannes in 1974, but only a few home-taped VHS copies were known to survive. Symptoms was one of the BFI’s top ten ‘Most Wanted’ films, until the negative was tracked down by curators. Now, after a painstaking digital clean-up, its reputation as a lost genre classic is confirmed.
They Came to a City (1944)
Director Basil Dearden
Utopian vision or ‘socialist propaganda’? This one-of-a-kind wartime fantasy, written by JB Priestley, follows nine characters arriving at a mysterious city and responding with delight or horror to what they find there. Long hard to see but recently remastered by the BFI, it’s one of the strangest films from the glory years of Ealing Studios.
The Silent Playground (1963)
Director Stanley Goulder
In this unusual and affecting drama set around South London, a learning disabled man unwittingly poisons children with prescription drugs he thinks are sweets. A fascinating, sometimes progressive period piece, The Silent Playground revealingly reflects 1960s attitudes to both learning disability and mental illness. Desmond Llewellyn — best known as Bond boffin Q — appears as a noble doctor.
Wild West (1992)
Director David Attwood
The first Asian-British honky-tonk comedy! Zaf (Naveen Andrews) defies his conservative Pakistani family to become Southall’s first Country & Western star. This amiable, energetic comedy arrived a little too far ahead of the late-90s Asian boom (led by Bend it Like Beckham and East is East) to find its audience, and well deserves a second chance.
BFI Player is the BFI’s VOD platform which includes over 3,000 titles, most of which are available free to view.
The public vote took place during February and March 2016 via the BFI’s website. The three films under consideration were: The Assam Garden (1986) starring Deborah Kerr, Bedelia (1946) starring Margaret Lockwood, and Mr. Topaze (1961). More than 2,000 votes were cast with Mr. Topaze emerging as the winner.