By Paul Fairclough
It’s time to splash down in the shallow sea of films that planted a Union Jack on the moon and Plucky Little England at the heart of the space race. Come with us as we take one small step for a gentleman, one giant leap for gentlemankind…
In the days of back-room boffins like Frank Whittle, the pencil-moustachioed inventor of the jet engine, the idea that the Russians – or, God forbid, the ruddy Americans – might become dominant powers in space exploration was but a distant spectre. So what if the Yanks and Ivan had bagged all the top Nazi eggheads while Blighty tried to teach the Germans cricket? Britain could surely conquer the outer reaches of space with no more than vim, vigour and good humour – or, failing that, there were the countless subjugated peoples of the Empire whose vast oil and mineral wealth could be ransacked at the drop of a pith helmet. Briefly, even the British film industry had faith in a sceptred isle among the stars, where mind-mangling terror and awed wonder in the face of the infinite universe would be no reason to forget your Ps & Qs.
Luckily, maintaining decency in the face of Zero-G indignity came naturally to the Victorian lunar ramblers of 1964’s The First Men In The Moon. Adapted from HG Wells by British SF kingpin Nigel Kneale, the movie relays the adventures of Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries), the bonkers tool-shed genius behind, ahem, “anti-gravity paint”. The science here is left mercifully unexplored in favour of endless shots of Cavor going zoinky-haired in amazement as he thrusts free of the tyrannical claw of Earth’s gravity in a ship shielded from the rigours of spaceflight by a fine walnut veneer.
Cocooned within this snug riposte to America’s show-offy silver darts, Cavor and his partner Bedford (Edward Judd) float free among Gladstone bags, shooting sticks and fruit cake. They’re accompanied by Bedford’s fiancée, Kate (Martha Hyer), a character not in the book but inserted here to allay studio misgivings that a men-only moon jaunt might seem a bit minty. It was a point not lost on NASA, who in early Gemini missions insisted on a dozen Miami Beach hookers in every payload, lest an outbreak of stellar homosexualism take hold of their star-spangled rocket-jockeys. The most endearing image from First Men, however, is the discovery by US astronauts of a tiny Union Jack hanging limply on the lunar surface, announcing that Britain had been first. To domestic audiences in 1964 it must have provided a moment of pathos; a totem of their vanishing Empire coming up sharp against the brash New World Order.
There are no such qualms about ghastly foreigners in Gerry Anderson’s pre-Space 1999 mindf*** Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun (aka Doppelganger), just so long as it’s made abundantly clear that Englishmen are in charge. In Anderson’s future, counter-espionage still rests entirely on the phrases “’Fraid I simply couldn’t say, old chum” and “Who’s for a spot of lunch?” but the Brits here are not merely a bunch of fusty tweedscratchers. This is the future made flesh on a swinging slice of 1969 Pinewood backlot, where mission control is run by kinky-booted dolly birds and all furniture must be round, plastic and – if at all possible – orange. The hip ascent of post-Profumo Britain is the launching pad for ticking off the Yanks (double-dealing wise-asses) and the French (officious bureaucrats) in a bizarre anti-reality where global space agency EuroSec is run entirely by the British officer class to whom NASA and “the Russians” must humble themselves for a piece of the action.
The fantastical pretensions of both films are thrown into unforgiving relief by the most realistic take of all on what might have been if Britain had pursued its rocket dreams. The sequel to 1959’s The Mouse That Roared, Mouse On The Moon missed Peter Sellers but had enough roguish eloquence to convincingly portray its homegrown space programme as the fortuitous offspring of corruption, self-interest and conniving ingenuity. Director Richard Lester re-imagines plucky Britain as the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, a (mostly) honest beacon of resourcefulness in a world buffeted by the flatulence of Cold War superpowers.
In an effort to screw cash out of both the Soviets and the Americans, the Duchy convinces the world it has a smart new, very bankable space programme and that a little investment from interested nations might bring the tiny state onside in the Great Game. In fact the loot is intended to shore up the leaky plumbing and loose slates of Duchess Margaret Rutherford’s crumbling family pile. It’s a fine long con that only goes awry when bureaucratic ineptitude ensures that every penny of international aid is spluffed on an enormous and magnificently pointless moon rocket.
As a satire on Britain’s much-reduced status on the global stage, Mouse On The Moon is close to perfect. Moreover, just as with the creaking fascist state of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, it taps the true spirit of British endeavour, where American can-do dynamism and micro-planned Soviet techno-rigour are pitted against little Albion’s own endlessly malleable engine of progress: the clerical error.