The Mermaid Frolics (1977)

Run Time - 55 min.  |  
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The Mermaid Frolics (1977) was the second in a series of performances intended to benefit Amnesty International. Featuring Julie Covington, the Bowles Brothers, Peter Cook, John Cleese, Connie Booth, Peter Ustinov, Terry Jones, and performed at the Mermaid Theatre in London, it was essentially the film of a stage production called An Evening Without Sir Bernard Miles (Bernard Miles being the longtime resident star and director at the Mermaid). Clocking in at 55 minutes, it was directed by Roger Graef, who had previously shot Pleasure at Her Majesty's (1976), the film of the prior year's Amnesty International benefit. Unlike that event, which was documented in black-and-white and involved some extensive behind-the-scenes material and very clever editing of its multi-layered narrative, this film was shot in color and on a rather lower budget, as a straight account of the performances without any background material. The entertainment here also mixes in more music, which was the direction in which future benefits, such as The Secret Policeman's Other Ball, would go. Here, we get Covington, then a top media star coming off of Rock Follies, performing "Making Love Under the Apple Tree," an early-60s rock & roll standard, in addition to "The Original, Original Honky-Tonk Night Train," "After You've Gone," and "At the Hop," with Peter Atkin and the Bowles Brothers providing accompaniment. The comedy varies: John Cleese and Jonathan Miller dealing with "Words...and things...." as a pair of pretentious intellectuals trying to one-up each other, and Peter Cook as the psychic E.L Wisty (from Beyond the Veil) are all very funny in their dry, English way; Peter Ustinov, doing monologues about Queen Mary or a customs officer or an impression of Sir John Gielgud being interviewed on a local St. Louis, MO, television channel by a pretentious intellectual or as a Dutch professor combating a language barrier is a show unto himself, complete with cast. One totally unexpected bit that is truly inspired is Desmond Jones reading Hamlet's soliloquy as he mimes a man preparing and sampling a meal, his mouth gradually filling with non-existent food (one can barely make out "the undiscovered country"). In addition, the Australian-born classical guitarist John Williams -- who was maintaining his rock credentials in those years, as well -- performs an instrumental, "Sevilla." For Fawlty Towers fans, John Cleese and Connie Booth -- the latter sporting her actual American accent -- do the "Bookshop" sketch ("David Coperfield with one P"), which left this ex-bookstore employee rolling on the floor with laughter. As with many live shows of the period that involve sketch comedy, the recording quality leaves something to be desired. The miking of Cleese and Booth's sketch and Ustinov's first bit is a little off and each requires extra effort to pick up all of the words, though the effort is worth it.