Cult Caravan: The Plank (1967)
When Eric Sykes peacefully passed away recently, the world became a slightly darker place.
Smarter people with a larger reservoir of appropriate words would be able to describe the work of Eric Sykes to you in a way that he deserves so let’s just say that if you are unfamiliar with Sykes, a contemporary of the comedy generation that gave us Spike Milligan, Tommy Cooper, Morecambe & Wise and Peter Sellers, you should introduce yourself. He was a true comedy legend who, despite being almost completely deaf and blind, worked as much as he could in his later years because of his insatiable need to make people laugh. His death made for devastatingly sad news.
My first introduction to Eric Sykes was through an odd little film my Dad insisted I watch, shown on the BBC on a rainy Boxing Day in the early ’90′s. An eyebrow was raised when he told me the premise. In truth, if anyone had told you that a short(ish) film about a plank of wood was one of the best British comedies ever made, you would wonder if they had recently suffered a head injury.
Reluctantly agreeing to watch, it was instantly clear, The Plank (1967) was truly a little piece of cinematic gold. It was to be the film that solidified my love of British comedy.
Based on Sykes’ own 1964 routine from an episode of Sykes and A… called ‘Sykes and A Plank’ and taking inspiration from the classic ‘man with a plank’ slapstick routine, popularised in vaudeville theatre and black and white silent films, The Plank is an incredibly charming little comedy.
Directed, written and starring Eric Sykes accompanied by the ever-missed, Tommy Cooper; it’s the story of two builders who need a floorboard.
Admittedly this may not sound like the most interesting premise – sitting to watch concrete exist sounds more exciting – but The Plank is roughly 51 minutes of pure chaos, cleverly constructed like a live action cartoon. It also boasts some of the most inventive opening credits in film.
The film has next to no dialogue (like The Artist!), sound is rationed (like The Artist!) and only punctuates each scene when absolutely necessary for affect (like The Artist!) which makes it ‘not quite a’ silent film. Like The Artist. Unlike The Artist (2011), the film is made up of small mini-sketches ranging from windows-with-no-glass gags to jokes about the complexities of transporting said plank on top of their Morris Eight car. A high-brow artsy comedy this is not.
It’s clear from the film, relishing in the joy of absurdity and slapstick, how both Sykes and Cooper inspired future generation’s style, most notably the Monty Python team. This may be simple comedy but it’s still sharp and smart and despite repeat views over the years, you still get the impression the sketches could go anywhere.
In any other hands a series of ‘man with a plank’ jokes would grow tiresome but Sykes was a master of comedy and Tommy Cooper a master of timing. Every single unintelligible mumble, glance, head scratch and sigh is deliberate and well-considered. The builders, whilst seemingly incompetent, are extremely likeable and the eponymous plank seems to be the only character who knows what he’s doing. It’s probably fair to suggest that had there been any other performers cast in the film, it would not have worked to the same successful degree.
This is a very silly, often surreal, slapstick short but what else would have been expected from the man who wrote and directed a film where the only word ever uttered throughout was ‘rhubarb’.
The Plank was remade for TV in 1979 but sadly, as this was after the tragically premature death of Tommy Cooper, it pales in comparison to the silly brilliance of the original.
The Plank is available on DVD, iTunes, YouTube and … wait … what’s this? The entire film is below?
Good God. Why you don’t even have to open a new window! We spoil you, Reader.