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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Pat Porteous VC (Part 3)

The cliffs at Vasterival loomed over them and the Phare d’Ailly lighthouse winked rhythmically out over the calm waters. As the lighthouse beam brushed over, someone on the cliffs must have spotted them, as a series of white star shells burst overhead and turned the brightness up from dawn to daylight. Shortly afterwards three RAF fighter bombers streaked overhead and headed inland along the line of the River Saâne, drawing enemy fire away from the commando convoy on its final approach into Orange 2. A volley of flak and the dashed line of tracer bullets punctuated the sky.

Pat sprang out of the landing craft and scrambled up the steep, pebbled beach until he reached a barrier of barbed wire just above the high tide mark. The commandos had come prepared for this. They began to make bridges of chicken wire to clamber across but the enemy opened up with mortar fire and wiped out eight members of B Troop with their first shell. Fortunately, the Germans then decided to increase their mortar range and began to focus their attention on the retreating craft but without scoring any further hits.

Once across the wire, Pat joined the remainder of B Troop, Force HQ and F Troop in running towards the east bank of the River Saâne, their attention momentarily diverted by a nightdress-clad old lady who had emerged from one of the nearby cottages to yell, “VIVE LES ANGLAIS!” and proffer swigs from the bottle of wine she was clutching.

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The Dieppe shoreline viewed from a landing craft as it approached; fires are burning in the background as a result of naval and aerial bombardment © IWM (H 22612)

The grass alongside the swollen, overflowing river was long and made the going difficult but they were encouraged by the crump of mortar bombs and crack of small arms fire indicating things were progressing well over at Orange 1. After they had waded as fast as they could for about half a mile they came to a bend in the river which was their pointer to turn east across open ground until they reached a small wood at Blanc-Mesnil. An almighty boom and a wall of flame visible above the trees swelled their confidence that the Orange 1 party were achieving what they had set out to do. From the wood, B and F Troops split up and headed in different directions towards their forming up points.

Pat accompanied F Troop as they made their way through the woods until they reached the rear of the battery compound which was surrounded by an embankment and topped with barbed wire. They found an area of the perimeter fence that had been trampled down by German soldiers sneaking back late from leave and so were able to get over fairly easily. Once inside the complex, they came upon a group of enemy soldiers in a farm courtyard, preparing a counter-attack against the Orange 1 group. The startled Germans were cornered and cut down in a barrage of Tommy gun fire.

A Douglas Boston Mark III of No. 88 Squadron RAF, flying from Ford, Sussex, heads inland over France after bombing the German gun batteries defending Dieppe (seen at upper left). © IWM (CH 6541)

Pat and F Troop continued to move forward through a patchwork of cottages and hedges all the while coming under heavy fire. As they were moving along a lane towards the battery, a German materialised in front of Pat and threw a stick grenade at him; Pat instantly retaliated by hurling a grenade back. Both men flung themselves to the ground until they heard the double thunderclap of the explosions and then, while the dust was still flying, they leapt back up to resume battle. The German was up a fraction quicker and fired a shot that passed through Pat’s left palm and lodged in his wrist. The enemy soldier then swung his aim towards one of F Troop’s Sergeants so Pat grappled the weapon from the German’s hands and killed him with his own bayonet. It was only then that Pat became aware of the pain in his hand so he stuck a field dressing on it, gritted his teeth and carried on.

Elsewhere in F troop other personal battles were raging; a sniper had killed the troop commander Captain Roger Pettiward as he led the charge. His subaltern, Lieutenant John Macdonald was mortally wounded by a stick grenade. Troop Sergeant Major Stockdale had his foot blown off but continued to fire and pick off the enemy from a sitting position. Sergeant Horne took over command but then he was also killed. F Troop was now without officers, warrant officers or NCOs so ignoring the machine gunfire that was peppering the area, Pat dashed out into the open and joined F Troop to assume command.

Pat Porteous VC

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