The Ladykillers, coming to this cinema SOON. COMING to this cinema soon. Coming to THIS cinema soon. Coming TO…

Peter Sellers’ big break came in 1955, when he was cast to appear alongside Alec Guinness in an Ealing Studios film called The Ladykillers. The film’s Director, Alexander Mackendrick, and Associate Producer, Seth Holt, were both avid fans of BBC Radio’s Goon Show, in which Sellers had been starring since 1951, and this is how he came to be given the role of Harry Robinson, a thuggish Teddy Boy. Sellers was also the voice of various parrots that appear in the film while animal impersonator, Percy Edwards, was paid £25 for providing the additional parrot noises!

The story for The Ladykillers had apparently come to William Rose in a dream and Mackendrick happened to hear him describing it in the pub one evening. Although Rose had vowed never to have any further dealings with Mackendrick after they had worked together on The Maggie, the Director eventually managed to persuade Rose to write the script.

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The plot concerns a gang of criminals who rent rooms in the house of a sweet little old lady called Mrs Wilberforce. They tell her that they are an amateur string quartet and need somewhere to meet and practise but in reality, they are plotting to rob a security van at King’s Cross Station. When “Mrs W” discovers what they have really been up to, she tells the gang she is going to report them to the police and so they decide they are going to have to kill her. In the process of crossing and double-crossing each other, all the criminals wind up dead and Mrs W ends up with the proceeds of the heist.

Before the first draft of the script had been completed, Rose and Holt had an argument which led to Rose storming off the picture and swearing never to return. Mackendrick and Holt managed to complete the script using Rose’s notes but they wanted a few funny one-liners to include throughout the film and so they brought in Sellers’ friend and Goon Show scriptwriter, Larry Stephens, to write some. Although Stephens wasn’t named in the credits, Mackendrick told Philip Kemp all about his contribution when Kemp interviewed him for his book, ‘Lethal Innocence – The Cinema of Alexander Mackendrick‘.

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This wasn’t Larry Stephens’ only Ladykillers contribution though. At the wrap party, Sellers handed out very special gifts to members of the cast and crew. Based on a script Stephens had written for him, Sellers had made recordings of his own version of the film trailer and had voiced all the different characters himself. This recording still survives:

Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens
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A Commando Christmas

In December 1944, 3 Commando Brigade was based in Teknaf and everyone’s thoughts had begun to focus on a long-awaited Christmas. 300 ducks had been delivered to the Brigade at the end of November and they were being nurtured and fattened in a wire-fenced enclosure, upon which hung a sign reading, “No sniping: this is your Christmas dinner!” There was an anxious moment two weeks before Christmas when Air Dispatchers in Dakota aircraft, which dropped the South East Asia Command (SEAC) newspapers into the camp, tried to ‘bomb’ the ducks but thankfully, they missed!

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Photograph courtesy of Stephen Donnison

Christmas dinner was greatly anticipated as the commandos’ everyday meals weren’t so much a cordon bleu as a déjà vu style of cuisine: soya link sausages and ‘train smash’ (tinned tomatoes) for breakfast and dehydrated potato and bully beef for dinner. They were so bored with their repetitive diet that one member of the Brigade felt compelled to compose a poem on the subject:

…And as for the food,
I could be really rude
And mention that bloke ‘Soya Link’.
Sometimes it’s in batter
But it really don’t matter
It’s subject to no camouflage.
It’s really disgusting –
My ‘tum’s’ nearly busting
Through eating the old bread and marg!
(Farewell, Soya Link’ by R.F. Russell)

The Brigade played host to several VIPs during December: Major General Robert Laycock, the Chief of Combined Operations, spent a couple of days with them and by the middle of the month, whispers that Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten would be visiting them had begun to circulate. The rumours were true and Lord Louis swept into camp for an overnight stay on the 19th of December, surrounded by a scramble of reporters, photographers and film crews.

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Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten (centre) leaving his plane accompanied by Vice Admiral C. Moody (left) and Captain L. A. Cubitt (A), RN ©IWM (A 27274)

Christmas Day finally arrived and when the dinner gong – fashioned from a shell casing – was struck, the officers entered their Mess to find it had been decorated with strips of coloured fabric and cotton wool snowflakes. After a tomato soup starter, the plump ducks were served up with sausages; roast potatoes; stuffing; green peas; Brussels sprouts; bread sauce; and jelly. After that there was Christmas pudding soaked in brandy containing three sixpences, followed by fresh fruit; nuts; raisins; and crystallised fruits. Beer ran like water.

They paused in the middle of their meal to listen to the King’s eight-minute speech on the wireless which he addressed to the millions, “scattered far and near across the world.” He said that his proud and grateful thoughts were with the nation’s fighting men and asked that, “God bless and protect them and bring them victory.” He stressed that the defeat of Germany and Japan was only the first half of their task and the second was to create a world of free men, untouched by tyranny.

After dinner the officers toasted their loved ones and raised a glass to their wives, sweethearts, parents and siblings. They continued raising glasses until the early hours, resulting in half an inch of gin on the floor of the Officers’ Mess the following morning!

Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens
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Photograph courtesy of Stephen Donnison

Journey to Castle Commando, 1943

The train chugged and chuffed its way northwards and the view from the window morphed gently from the smoke-scarred red brick of Birmingham into craggy, granite hills, criss-crossed with tumbling, spilling streams. Sheep and deer, startled by the train, scrambled over the rocks with a look of panic on their faces. The skeletons of isolated, roofless, grey-stone cottages gazed back blankly through their empty windows.

Eventually the train halted at Spean Bridge and the station became a mass of khaki as soldiers burst out of almost every carriage of the train. Kit bags were loaded onto a waiting lorry but anyone who expected to jump on after them was going to be disappointed. They were ordered to form up in threes as they would be speed-marching the rest of the way – seven miles.

Led by a kilted pipe-band for the first part of the march, the tramp, tramp of boots left Spean Bridge station towards ‘Castle Commando’. The ‘tramp, tramp’ would often be more of a ‘splash, splash’ as if it wasn’t already raining, it soon would be; it always seemed to be raining. They crossed Thomas Telford’s bridge spanning the River Spean and then began the march up the steep hill leading away from the village, past battalions of pine trees standing to attention. Once over the Caledonian Canal at Gairlochy, they followed a narrow road which meandered around the bottom edges of Loch Lochy until the sight of an imposing granite structure in the distance began to wink at them through gaps in the trees.
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The Commando training base was located in the house and grounds of the 24th chief of Clan Cameron, Donald Cameron of Lochiel. Achnacarry House had been built in 1802 in the Scottish Baronial style on the site of a ruined 17th century castle. The view of the turreted grey building with its lancet windows and vast entranceway topped with the red and gold coat of arms was somewhat spoiled by the addition of a Nissen hut on either side of the door but at least this was in keeping with the symmetry of the house. The tree-lined River Arkaig curled around the back of the house and the surrounding landscape rose to a series of contrasting peaks: barren mountains and gentler forested slopes which were daubed with mustard yellows, terracottas and greens which changed from pastel shades to almost black as the cloud shadows brushed over them.

One of the first things the men saw, as they followed the pipers who had rejoined them for the final procession through the gates and into the grounds, was a row of mocked-up graves: each earthy mound was encircled by white stones and had a wooden cross planted at one end. Every cross bore an epitaph which detailed various dangerous actions:
“This man fired a 2-inch mortar under a tree.”
“This man failed to splay the pin of his grenade.”
“This man advanced over the top of cover.”
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Any hopes the officers may have had of special treatment were quickly dispelled when they learned that not only would they undergo exactly the same training as their men but they may well have to endure additional instruction in the evening. If they were lucky they would share a room in the Castle with other officers but if there were large numbers to be accommodated, junior officers may well have ended up sleeping in a Nissen hut or under canvas. They would be washing in cold water and wouldn’t be enjoying the services of a batman. The only concession was that they wouldn’t have to dress for dinner in the Officers’ Mess during their time at Achnacarry, unless the Commandant, Lieutenant Colonel Charles E Vaughan, specifically requested it of course.

Achnacarry’s Mess with its leather armchairs and high ceilings embellished with elaborate cornices had received a recent makeover. A talented artist, Lance Corporal Brian Mullen of 4 Commando, had sketched commando soldiers onto the walls to look as though they were scaling the window frames and parachuting from the ceiling and above the bar at one end of the room, he had painted a large Combined Operations Command emblem flanked by ships and tanks and a formation of planes flying overhead.

Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens
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