Shortly before his death, Frankie Howerd said he had no regrets - "except doing The Cool Mikado." Now DVD collectors can find out for themselves exactly what he meant. This hep version of Gilbert and Sullivan updated to modern-day Tokyo (a few tatty sound stages with the odd bit of travelogue unconvincingly edited around them) was originally the brainchild of Harold Baim, a producer of short films, but was soon hijacked by a young British wunderkind by the name of Michael Winner, who revelled in the chance to prove himself every bit as inept with a musical as with every other form of cinematic endeavour. Film historians will be pleased to note that even at this early stage, the trademark visual lethargy and complete misunderstanding of the basic techniques of film editing that have become his auteurist trademark and seen him through an only accidentally broken chain of mediocrity are very much in evidence.
Stubby Kaye, as a Groucho-like Judge Mikado, has both energy and the enviable (in this cast) ability to remember his lines, while second-billed Tommy Cooper manages to stumble through his 5-minute cameo with reputation intact, but then amateurishness was always the cornerstone of his act. The rest of the cast are not so lucky. Howerd's asides as Ko Ko seem borne of real desperation and defeat, Bernie Winters seems to be cast for his astonishing similarity to the young Michael Winner (who has a Hitchcockian cameo in the opening scene), a seriously under-rehearsed Dennis Price ("Are you attached to the foreign office?" "No, but it's a living.") shows many of the symptoms of shell-shock and John Barry keeps a low profile, as befits the arranger of The Mikado Twist. Whereas the rest of the John Barry Seven get close-ups, he manages to edge himself out of frame or keep his back to the camera while Lionel Blair's Nanki-Poo struts his funky stuff in a demonstration of the kind of choreography that made Summertime Special the life-enhancing experience it was.
The rest of the musical numbers are equally astonishing - cf the American soldiers rendition of We Are Gentlemen of Japan in front of a tacky backdrop of a cardboard cut-out volcano (look out for the one in the front row who gets his steps the wrong way round!) or the truly breath-taking Three Little Maids From School. The transfer retains the shoddy print quality of the original, which is perfectly in keeping with the general air of disaster. After seeing the finished film, producer Baim had a heart attack and returned to short films such as the immortal Telly Savalas Looks at Portsmouth and Pete Murray Takes You to Coventry for the sake of his health. I can't promise the same will happen to you, but it's quite definitely an experience.
The DVD also includes two of Winner's early short films, Girls Girls Girls! and It's Magic, which give an early glimpse of his perfunctory style without having the kind ofsurrealism that makes The Cool Mikado car crash viewing.