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Heavens Above! (1963)

Courtesy of Canal+ Image UK Ltd

Main image of Heavens Above! (1963)
35mm, black and white, 118 mins
Directed byJohn & Roy Boulting
Production CompanyCharter Film Productions
Produced byJohn & Roy Boulting
ScreenplayFrank Harvey
 John Boulting
MusicRichard Rodney Bennett

Cast: Peter Sellers (The Reverend John Smallwood); Cecil Parker (Archdeacon Aspinall); Isabel Jeans (Lady Despard); Ian Carmichael (The Other Smallwood); Bernard Miles (Simpson); Brock Peters (Matthew)

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Due to an error, the wrong Reverend Smallwood is appointed to the parish of Orbiston Parva, where his Christian charity causes chaos.

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The last of the Boulting Brothers' 'social satires', Heavens Above! now seems a virtual encapsulation of their virtues and vices. Of the latter, the dialogue allotted to Brock Peters' West Indian dustman (the Boultings ran into some controversy for importing an American actor for this role) must have sounded patronising even in 1963, much of the subplot concerning Ian Carmichael is wholly dispensable and all too often the narrative indulges in mean spirited slapstick humour that would have been slightly out of place in a contemporary Carry On film.

But above all, Heaven's Above! gives full rein to the brothers' misanthropic distaste for the mob, one of the great folk devils of postwar British cinema. It is a theme that the brothers explored in such films as Seven Days To Noon (1950), High Treason (1951) and I'm All Right Jack (1959), but the sense of betrayed liberal values has never been so well-delineated as here. The impact of the riots in the penultimate reel derives a particular resonance from their unfolding against a background of the kind of genteel-seeming county town that was so often depicted as the bastion of stability in 1950s British films. The ending may be considered trite but in its way it is quite prescient; the quasi-Ealing small town is now under severe threat from the forces of crass commercialism and from the instincts of the inhabitants themselves.

Against this the film vastly benefits from Max Greene's subtly muted cinematography, Richard Rodney Bennett's score and, like most of the Boultings' postwar films, a vivid cast of character actors. Heaven's Above! boasts memorable performances from William Hartnell, Eric Barker, Kenneth Griffiths and Miriam Karlin, with such small telling scenes as Hartnell's retired Major discovering too late that "in business there are no gentlemen".

It is in such quietly devasting moments that the film is at its most effective, and Peter Sellers' lead performance perfectly captures this mood in what is probably one of his greatest, and most undervalued, performances. Eschewing all possibility of coarse caricature, Sellers brilliantly underplays the part of the sincere clergyman and manages to turn what could so easily have degenerated into farce into a genuine tragi-comedy. Other actors have won Academy Awards for far less accomplished performances and Heaven's Above! remains a corrective to Sellers' indulgent performances of later years. For this reason alone it is a film that deserves to be remembered.

Andrew Roberts

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Video Clips
1. Orbiston Parva (3:03)
2. The protests begin (3:47)
3. Smallwood's plea (3:15)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Boulting, John (1913-1985)
Boulting, Roy (1913-2001)
Carmichael, Ian (1920-2010)
Handl, Irene (1901-1987)
Hartnell, William (1908-1975)
Kinnear, Roy (1934-1988)
Malleson, Miles (1888-1969)
Miles, Bernard (1907-1991)
Nimmo, Derek (1930-1999)
Parker, Cecil (1897-1971)
Robinson, Cardew (1917-1992)
Sellers, Peter (1925-1980)