Director: Kevin Billington
By Roderick Heath
One morning, at the London building that houses the clapped-out market research firm Fairburn Polls, a tall, attractive, preternaturally poised young man appears clutching a clipboard. He introduces himself to the manager, Mr. Ferret (Arthur Lowe), as Michael Rimmer (Peter Cook), from “coordination”. He moves about the building and discovers employees watching football, practising ballroom-dancing moves, perving on secretaries, and doing just about everything except their jobs. A client of the firm walks in and punches Ferret in the face. When Rimmer asks Ferret if he’s received the results of a poll on a brand of boot polish, Ferret replies that he hasn’t, but he does have the findings of a survey for a new breakfast treat: they have found that 90 percent of Britons don’t like eating boot polish for breakfast.
Rimmer reports to the company’s owner, a fly-fishing plutocrat, Fairburn (Dennis Price), who doesn’t remember hiring Rimmer, that his organisation is a shambles and is losing £75,000 a year. “There’s a phrase coming to me,” Fairburn rants: “Fire Ferret!” Rimmer is soon installed as the head of the firm, and he transforms the building overnight into a slick ultramodern concern, whilst Ferret is reduced to working as a menial in the building, pretending to his wife that he’s still the boss whilst hocking all their furniture. Rimmer’s business approach soon reveals itself: when a pair of reps from a company that makes humbugs approaches him, he tells them that his surveys have found that customers simply don’t like their product’s taste. But not to worry. Rimmer makes a racy ad for it that shows a pining blonde in bed finding satisfaction with her humbug.
Rimmer’s “sex sells” approach is gold, and he soon achieves national fame by conducting a Kinsey-esque survey, defending his lewd discoveries on the TV show of Steven Hench (Harold Pinter) by presenting himself as a messiah of a new age of genuine, personal satisfaction. He destroys a rival polling organisation by poaching their best man, Peter Niss (Denholm Elliot), and sabotaging their research by arranging for their sample takers to come up with figures that show a majority of residents in one town are practising Buddhists. Soon, Rimmer is everywhere, from advising the Bishop of Cowley (Graham Crowden) that because 70 percent of British people have serious difficulties believing in God, the Church should try selling agnosticism, to aiding the Tories’ stuffed-shirt leader Tom Hutchinson (Ronald Fraser) in trying to build himself a public image that isn’t of a vapid, vain, humourless dimwit.
Rimmer himself is aiming to join a future Conservative government. The treacly incumbent Labour Prime Minister (George A. Cooper) thinks he’s media-savvy, and proposes that the coming election is not about economics or anything like that, but about morality. “I’ve never seen anyone dig their own grave before,” Rimmer chuckles. Rimmer stage-manages a protestor’s invasion of a Conservative Party conference where Fraser puts down the hippie rabble (hired for the occasion) and manages, despite going on with his prepared script after being asked an entirely different question, to present himself as an emotional, responsible man—dare one say it?—a compassionate Conservative. Rimmer then contrives to let a rabid racist in the party off the leash so that Fraser can both condemn him while also confirming the Tories as generally tougher on immigration. He also arranges for an antiracist MP to be mugged by a black man, to break his veneer of tolerance, but without success.
Rimmer’s a film I had heard about for so long—from a glowing review by sci-fi critic David Wingrove through to inspiring the name of Chris Barry’s archetypal priss in the TV series Red Dwarf—it had come to seem a cultural unicorn: legendary, impressive, and impossible to find. The film begins uneasily with a sequence scored with groovy music in which Lowe’s Ferret ogles the backside of his mini-skirted secretary. For a horrible moment, I thought the film would prove one of those try-hard sexy comedies that British cinema churned out with increasing desperation in the ’70s (many of which starred Cook and/or his ex-partner Dudley Moore). But Rimmer soon finds its gear and moves ahead, like the title character, with smooth, sharklike relentlessness of purpose. Cook and his costars John Cleese, Graham Chapman, and director Billington, were the quartet who provided the script, tossing off incisive ideas and gags that other satirical films would drag out and hammer home (see: the works of Paddy Chayefsky or Wag the Dog, 1998), and the result is a near-perfect example of what those comics could do at the height of their gifts.
The credits confirm an interesting melding of the two disparate, influential comedy forces to emerge at the time: Private Eye/Beyond the Fringe mastermind Cook, and Monty Python members Cleese and Chapman, with a terrific battery of actors backing them up. Particularly notable is Pinter’s saturnine Hench; if Pinter had ever wanted to be a talk-show host, he’d have done it in style. Rimmer, as a character, was rumoured to have begun as a barbed portrait of David Frost, Cook’s former alumnus in the That Was the Week That Was TV show who, amusingly enough, executive produced this film. Cook, however, presents in Rimmer an übermensch with a devilish airiness, an expansion of his interest in the Mephistophelian figure as explored in his and Moore’s earlier hit Bedazzled (1967). Rimmer’s identity is unclear: where he comes from isn’t established, and even he doesn’t know who he is, claiming to have been found “in the bulrushes.” That said, Cook conceives in Rimmer a very real creature whose time had not yet come—a Yuppie. Smooth, slick, utterly involved in personal success, he defines and appeals to the self-centred bastard in everyone else.
Rimmer sets about slashing away the remnants of messy, eccentric, classical Britannic spirit embodied in the Dickensian eccentricities seen in the Fairburn building, and replaces it with shiny, technocratic, streamlined exploitation. He manipulates the foolish, stuffy, country-gentleman affectations of the old-school Tories to make room for himself, the perfect prototype for a Neo-Conservative, installing himself as a Chancellor of the Exchequer. Then, in the guise of saving his nation, he goes to war, not in the Falklands or Iraq, but in Switzerland, where he has a detachment of soldiers led by Col. Moffat (Julian Glover) rip off gold reserves and passing it off as terrorist action.
Rimmer has a prescient focus that observes the undercurrents of the era,and predicts where they would resolve with unique clarity. So many of Rimmer’s stunts are now de rigueur, and not merely in suggestions of oral sex used to spice up a candy ad—advertising has long since equalled and surpassed such excesses—but in political culture. From “mission accomplished” to the rhetoric of compassionate conservatism, the naked greed-is-good public philosophy of the 1980s, and reactionary vote courting that pretends to condemn and exploits at the same time, we live in Rimmer’s world. The ’60s were, in addition to many other things, a golden age of satiric comedy that went hand in hand with the creative fecundity of the era. To survive beyond its moment of creation, satire needs other substantial qualities going for it, including a prescient edge. Dr. Strangelove (1964) lives long past the end of the Cold War because of its razor-sharp filmmaking, characterisation, and open embrace of the apocalyptic thinking that still defines the modern age.
British cinema in particular served up some beautiful examples: 1959’s I’m All Right Jack, a tart reflection on postwar labour relations, was the trumpet blast for an era in which satire was the ennobled comedy form (how things change!), and writers like David Sherwin and Terry Southern had cultural clout. Peter Watkins’ Privilege (1967) made notes on the potential interrelationship between poses of rebellion in pop stars, commercialism, and political manipulation, whose accuracy, like Rimmer’s, wouldn’t be entirely revealed until the 2000s. Rimmer also anticipates Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! in seeing the countercultural wave as on the wane; both films are angry, Voltairian epics reflecting both the cultural energy of their country coupled to an ironic reflection of the nation’s irreversible decline in world affairs (they share cast members Lowe and Crowden). Rimmer’s vision of the British place in world affairs depicts the Prime Minister sitting alongside other world leaders, advancing couch by couch up a hallway in the White House like customers in a deli.
Rimmer’s only concession to standard dramatic conflict comes when Rimmer, to boost his profile and popularity, marries Olympic equestrian Patricia Cartwright (Vanessa Howard)—their honeymoon takes them to a photo opportunity in Budleigh Moor (pun intended), the seat he hopes to win in the election—and then neglects her once the job is done. Niss falls for Patricia, but she, although disappointed with Michael, maintains her loyalty. In the end, after toying with the idea of bringing him down, Niss and Patricia give in to Rimmer’s promises of power. The film’s most far-out, and yet devastating, segment is the final one, in which Rimmer introduces an experiment in direct democracy: involving the population in voting on all matters of policy. Everyday people analyse policy documents and are alerted by flashing alarms on their television sets to take part in emergency plebiscites on matters like regional development and water purification. The populace becomes so exhausted and outraged that they gladly vote for Rimmer to become president and dictator—exactly what he wanted, of course—to put an end to it. Perhaps because of its firmly British focus, its lack of soap-opera dramatics and speechy outrage (such as those that spice up the far-better-known, but bloated and soapy Network, 1976), or just its no-name director, Rimmer never received an American theatrical release and is largely neglected. But it’s a funny, incisive, relevant film.