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"Find out why they do what they do and stop them doing it."
on 4 May 2012
"Most o' my boys just want company... a bit o' cheerin' up. I'm like a mother to 'em! Only they can't sleep with their mothers so they come 'ere."
The Missionary originally began life as a projected spinoff of Michael Palin and Terry Jones' rather spiffing TV series Ripping Yarns, though by the time it got made Jones was out of the picture and the spirit of Ealing comedy had taken over. While at heart it's a sex comedy, it's also unfailing rather sweet and open-hearted, like its main character, and where the inspiration for the missionary of the title, the infamously defrocked missionary Harold Davidson, ended up being mauled to death after an ill-advised career-change to lion taming, here Palin gives everyone a happy ending of sorts. Even at 85 minutes there's not much plot, with most of the first two-thirds very amusing setup as Palin's missionary is summoned back from Africa to start a mission for fallen women in the East End of London and, in the words of Denholm Elliott's sports-mad Bishop of London, "Find out why they do what they do and stop them doing it." Naturally, it's he who is converted by the girls and led into temptation by a very attractive Maggie Smith's wealthy patron...
Unfortunately the film more or less fizzles out as it struggles a little too hard to come up with an ending, in the process missing some of the more obvious comic opportunities the premise presents. Yet throughout it manages to maintain a good-natured likeability, not least due to a particularly fine supporting cast - Michael Hordern's vaguely confused butler who doesn't know his way around the rambling country house, Trevor Howard's upper crust bigot writing angry letters to The Times, Phoebe Nicholls as the fiancé who thinks fallen women are lady tramps who have hurt their knees, Graham Crowden as the prospective father-in-law, David Suchet as an amorous Scottish gamekeeper and Timothy Spall as one of the servants. It's also strikingly beautifully designed as well, though this doesn't always come across as well on the small screen.
Sadly the UK DVD's cropping from the original 2.35:1 widescreen ratio to 1.85:1 (something that also happened to Richard Loncraine's Richard III in the UK) does hurt parts of the picture, such as the sequence where Palin is too caught up in his sales pitch to notice his intended benefactor has died. It's even more ironic considering it was one of the few British pictures to shoot in Scope in that period