Saturday, February 26, 2011

“Percy”: not quite what you might have expected the world's first penis transplant comedy to be like


Percy (1971) makes for a strange and perpexing ninety minutes of entertainment.

In the first instance, it's habitually described as a British sex comedy, but it doesn't play that way at all, Robin Askwithy I mean. There are a few good laughs in the first half hour or so, but from then on it goes a bit Play For Today.
And it's no cheap Wardour Street exploitation item, either, but a major release bankrolled by EMI some time before the proper studios entered the sex comedy arena.

The central gimmick, from the novel by Raymond Hitchcock, is comic simplicity itself. Edwin Anthony (Hywel Bennett) is walking down the street holding a chandelier when a naked man falls on him from a tenth story window. While only Bennett survives the encounter, both men are castrated by the shards of broken chandelier. The penis of the dead man is transplanted, as Bennett's own is irreparably mangled as well as severed. From here on the laughs just keep coming.
The operation is successfully performed by pioneering transplant surgeon Dr Emmanuel Whitbread (Denholm Elliott) who just prior to Bennett's accident, is seen on tv explaining how keen he is to perform a penis transplant (but frustrated by the fact that the word 'penis' is bleeped every time he uses it. What do you expect me to call the fucking thing?" he asks. "Well, nanny always called it Percy," the interviewer replies.)
The rest of the film then articulates Anthony's two post-operative compulsions: to road-test the new addition, and to discover all he can about the man Percy once was, by introducing him to his conquests and associates.
In the course of his investigations he learns that Percy had been quite a ladies man, and ends up falling in love with his wife (that is, with the wife of the man from whom Percy came - please pay attention). At the same time he must dodge the advance of a tabloid press intent on discovering the identity of 'the transplant man'. (The Sun's headline is: WOW! THE SWINGINGEST TRANSPLANT EVER - BRITISH KNOW-HOW SHOWS THE WAY.)

Most of the jokes about whether it will stand up in the light of day and 'can I take it back and change it?' and suchlike are used up in the first scenes, along with all pretence of the film being any kind of farcical comedy.
As soon as he goes out to learn the truth about Percy the film turns wistful and even a little dull. Partly it's because Hywel Bennett is such a sulky chap always, so it's hard to work up any sympathy for him, and partly because the central idea is so grotesque. (When we see him putting Percy to the test with a nurse before he's even been discharged, can I really be the only male viewer compelled to cross his legs and plead for caution?)

As well as quite slow anyway, the film keeps stopping for Kinks songs. The main theme is a nice but irrelevant one called God's Children, and there's one called The Way Love Used to Be that's really rather lovely. But none are tailored to the film, and often in fact the film seems tailored to them, as when Bennett goes to the zoo seemingly for no reason other than to facilitate Animals in the Zoo.

Raymond Hitchcock's novel, which still turns up now and then amongst the Alistair Macleans at car boots, ends somewhat bleakly with Percy being rejected by his new body. The film has Bennet being tricked on to a This Is Your Life-style tv exposé from which he flees after starting a fight.

You might reasonably have expected Percy's Progress (1974), the sequel, to pick things up roughly from this point. Au contraire, as they say. Instead of a wistful lament by The Kinks we open with Tony Macauley bellowing God Knows I Love You. The central character - and this simply defies explanation - is now called not Edwin Anthony but Percy Edwin Anthony. (To make things even more curious, he was called James Anthony Hislop in Hitchcock's novel.) He is now played by Leigh Lawson. Oblique reference is made to his wife, but she has a different name to either of his wives in the first film. Adrienne Posta and Elke Sommer return from the first film, but as different characters. Denholm Elliot also returns as Dr Whitbread, but only briefly, and sporting a half grown beard that suggests a relatively last minute commitment to the project.

Most tellingly, the script has been entrusted to tv gagman Sid Colin, and the cast is studded with well-known faces from sitcom and light ent: Harry H. Corbett as the Prime Minister, Barry Humphries as both a rabbit-obsessed zoologist and, bizarrely, Dame Edna Everage (billed as 'Australian housewife' in the credits), and crumpet galore: Judy Geeson, Madeline Smith, Penny Irving, Carol Hawkins, Jenny Hanley and Julie Ege. (Ege is seen in an unrelated photograph below with one of her many conquests, the celebrated Lord Charles.)

Some real heavyweight thesps are also around, often as not squandered in undignified guest spots. Vincent Price, in a role he could only have accepted for the money, plays the world's richest man; Bernard Lee looks in long enough to deliver the line "Give me your camera or I'll puke all over your nice clean bar again."

To escape his troubles, Percy (as we must now so name him) has spent a year on a yacht drinking only champagne. During his exile, every man on the planet has been rendered impotent by a toxic substance leaked into the seas and rivers. As the only working male left, he is soon under orders to ensure the survival of the species by copulating with a representative of every culture and race.
The competition to find each representative is amusingly staged like an end of the pier beauty contest, with the contestants having to answer advanced questions on science and philosophy while parading around in swimsuits. As Miss Bristol City, Madeline Smith lists the laws of thermodynamics and then, when asked what she wants from life, replies "what I really want is a good fuck."

By now, a curious fact is probably beginning to dawn on you: the fact that Percy has a second-hand whanger is completely irrelevant to the plot. Nobody even stops to note the irony that the only working member on the planet is a transplanted one. The whole issue is simply forgotten.
At the end he dresses up as a woman and runs away, then the effect of the toxic substance wears off and everybody gets their erections back. Mysteriously, the main theme runs out half way through the end credits, which finish rolling to eerie silence.

I'll leave you with a picture that has nothing to do with with either film, but which popped up in a Google search for 'Percy 1971' and which is so charming I've decided to share it with you anyway.