How to be Eccentric: The Essential Richard Massingham

So who is Richard Massingham, and why is the BFI declaring his work “essential”? Viewers of some of the BFI’s earlier collections of public information and documentary films will be familiar with a few of the films collected here – 30 Miles An Hour appears on the road safety collection Stop! Look! Listen!, and What a Life! is on the invaluable British Documentary Movement boxed set Land of Promise. Many of these shorts, though, will have been unseen since their original releases, and so How To Be Eccentric provides a window into a career that couldn’t really have happened in any other country than Britain, at any other time than the 1940s.

Massingham was a doctor who made films in his spare time, usually on a medical theme. How To Be Eccentric contains two of those amateur films, 1950’s The Cure and 1934’s Tell Me If It Hurts. The former is of particular note. A film of incredibly inventive and professional mise-en-scene which ends with a Len Lye-ish stretch of abstract animation, Tell Me If It Hurts sees Massingham shooting out of car windows and setting scenes in friends’ and family members’ houses at a time when most British films were confined to clearly theatrical sets. Even though none of his films are what we would now recognise as documentaries – even 1945’s pub travelogue Down at the Local generally seems staged – they do offer a very clear window into Britain before, during and after World War II.

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Films like Tell Me If It Hurts placed Massingham on the government’s radar, and before long he was recruited to the Ministry of Information. The bulk of the material on How To Be Eccentric dates from the 1940s, and shows Massingham advising his audience on matters ranging from how much money to take away on holiday to how much water to bathe in. These films were necessitated by the rationing that British citizens had to abide by during World War II and afterwards, of course, and despite the wit and paciness of the shorts they do paint 1940s Britain as a challenging place to live. No wonder that, when Massingham was asked to make a short to keep the nation’s spirits up in the aftermath of war, he turned in What a Life!, a remarkable expressionist evocation of chronic depression whose redemptive ending feels desperate and unconvincing.

Like a lot of great clowns, Massingham had a melancholy edge. Some of the darker jokes in these films – a cat’s tail being tied in a knot in Post Early For Christmas, Massingham nearly drinking bleach in Jet-Propelled Germs – would surely cause unease in a general audience today. Oddly – or perhaps not – for a doctor, he was also a terrible hypochondriac, a fear which runs underneath the incredibly funny Coughs and Sneezes, and is played straight in Another Case of Poisoning. One of Massingham’s longer films at nearly 20 minutes, Poisoning sees George Formby regular Gus McNaughton play a doctor whose efforts to get to the bottom of a patient’s sickness reveals a stomach-turning array of health hazards in every corner of society.

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But what lasts is the humour. Massingham and his small team of regular collaborators realised that a lot of the assignments they were given were patronising, and rather than talk down to the audience Massingham decided to talk down to himself. He created a delightfully stupid comic persona, who over the course of the films is grabbed by offscreen hands, run over, hit over the head with a mallet and doused with water. By the time of 1949’s Warning for Travellers, the Massingham character has become such a moron that the film’s soundtrack includes a huge cheer when he finally, finally gets the message. Implicitly, the audience is being asked to cheer along with it, and the look of dopey delight on Massingham’s face defuses any excess mean-spiritedness.

So why re-examine the career of this odd, marginal figure now? Well, for one thing, the films mostly still stand up. A few of the early ones have questionably synced sound – understandable, considering how young that technology is – but for the most part Massingham’s budgetary and timing constraints forced him to get really inventive with lighting and camera angles. He could do spectacle, too – Post Early for Christmas and Watch Your Meters include imagery as surreal as anything you’ll see in a Czech New Wave film.

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Massingham was a modest man who made modest films, but the personal quality of his work was immense. Over the course of the films in this set we see him as an actor, a writer, a director and a producer. You can find other film-makers around at the same time who wore as many hats, of course – but they would be the likes of Orson Welles and Maya Deren. Massingham managed to achieve this creative autonomy while practicing a kind of cinema which many wouldn’t class as high art. (Many would, of course, and the booklet to this set includes some gushing praise for Massingham from the legendary Cinématheque Francaise director Henri Langlois.)

Richard Massingham distinguished himself in a lot of fields of filmmaking, and some of the shorts he doesn’t personally appear in – particularly the whimsical, oddly moving In Which We Live, narrated by a man’s suit – are excellent. But his genius was in marrying his stylish, confident film-making to his presence as a physical comedian. His face was a remarkable instrument – sullen and jowly in rest, but capable of remarkable feats of furious gurning. It will, I suspect, gain him a whole new generation of fans today. Simply put, every one of these films demands to be made into gifs.


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Contents

Dr Massingham says… Tell Me If It Hurts (1934) | Coughs and Sneezes (1945) | Jet-propelled Germs (1948) | Handkerchief Drill (1949) | Another Case of Poisoning (1949) | The Cure (1950) | Surviving the War: The Five Inch Bather (1942) | Post Early for Christmas (1943) | In Which We Live: Being the Life Story of a Suit Told by Itself (1943) | Elopement in France (1944) | An Englishman’s home… Down at the Local (1945) | An Englishman’s Home……….. (1946) | Moving House (1950) | Post-war Blues: What a Life!: What a Life (1948) | Watch Your Meters (1947) | Warning to Travellers (1949) | Help Yourself (1950) | Post-war Blues: The Daily Grind: Pool of Contentment (1946) | Pedal Cyclists (1947) | Pedestrian Crossing (1948) | 30 Miles an Hour (1949) | Introducing the New Worker (1951)

How to be Eccentric: The Essential Richard Massingham is available on BFI DVD from 24th August

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