Matter of WHO, A (1961)

UK / 90 minutes / bw / Foray, MGM, Herts–Lion Dir: Don Chaffey Pr: Walter Shenson, Milton Holmes Scr: Milton Holmes, Patricia Lee Story: Patricia Lee, Paul Dickson Cine: Erwin Hillier Cast: Terry-Thomas, Sonja Ziemann, Alex Nicol, Richard Briers, Honor Blackman, Carol White, Guy Deghy, Clive Morton, Martin Benson, Geoffrey Keen, The John Barry Seven, Eduard Linkers, Vincent Ball, Michael Ripper, Cyril Wheeler, Andrew Faulds, George Cormack, Bruce Beeby, Julie Alexander, Barbara Hicks.

Matter of WHO - 0 opener

Aboard a passenger flight from Nice to London, oil prospector Steve Cooper (Wheeler) falls ill. The cabin staff assume his near-comatic state has been brought on by boozing; tending him, his recently wed French wife Michele (Ziemann)—a seeming femme fatale for whom the word “’ot” could have been invented—disagrees.

Matter of WHO - 3 On the plane, Michele tends husband Steve

Aboard the plane, Michele (Sonja Ziemann) tends husband Steve (Cyril Wheeler).

The plane’s met in London by medical staff including Dr. Blake (Ball), Sister Sheila Bryan (Blackman) and Archibald Bannister (Terry-Thomas), a civil servant from the Department of Health, International Control Division, who works in conjunction with the World Health Organization (WHO). He describes himself as a “detective of sorts, a germ detective” and explains that

“Germs are much smarter than people. They never bother with passports or borders. They know it’s one world even if we don’t.”

Matter of WHO - 2 At London Airport, Archie & Shiela greet Kennedy

Archie (Terry-Thomas) and Shiela (Honor Blackman) greet Kennedy (Alex Nicol) at London Airport.

Also meeting the plane is Cooper’s business partner, Edward Kennedy (Nicol). In between wooing and winning Michele in Nice, Cooper was flying backward and forward from the Arab state of Wahbar, where he was supervising some apparently unsuccessful test drilling. Michele makes it plain to Edward that she doesn’t feel especially inhibited by her marital state and that nor is she much concerned about her husband’s illness. He follows her to a party being thrown by tycoon Nick Ivanovitch (Deghy), where he meets Ivanovitch’s current girlfriend Beryl (White), discovers evidence that Michele was an earlier paramour of the businessman, and tries to persuade Ivanovitch to invest in the Wahbar venture now that the project’s major backers, British Independent Oil Ltd—fronted by Basil Foster (Keen, always a welcome addition to a movie but here in a very small part)—have withdrawn. Ivanovitch isn’t interested, even though “My tankers carry 20% of the world’s supply.”

Matter of WHO - 1 'White for cholera, red for smallpox, black for plague

White for cholera, red for smallpox, black for plague, Bannister explains, which has less impact than it should bearing in kind the movie’s in bw.

The party’s broken up by Bannister and his assistant Jimmy Jamieson (Briers). Bannister has now learned from Dr. Blake that Cooper is suffering from smallpox. “I gather that some of you are aware that smallpox is the most contagious of all diseases,” he tells the assembled gathering—quite falsely, in fact, because smallpox is far less infectious/contagious than measles, mumps, whooping cough, malaria, rotavirus, hepatitis A . . . to name just a few. He then proceeds to have everyone vaccinated, which seems a tad late.

Matter of WHO - 4 Ivanovitch and his latest abused girlfriend Beryl

Ivanovitch (Guy Deghy) and his latest abused girlfriend Beryl (Carol White).

All of this elaborate setup for the story occurs within the A Matter of WHO’s first few minutes—a feat that’s all the more startling in that initially the movie seems positively sluggish, perhaps in part because of the dreadful title song, crooned by Roy Castle. The remainder of the plot involves Bannister and Edward traipsing around London and eventually the Alps—with the aid of a German WHO doctor called Linkers (Linkers)—as they endeavor to trace the route of contagion of what threatens to become a major smallpox outbreak. In the process they unravel a conspiracy involving Cooper, Ivanovitch and the government of Wahbar—and, ambiguously, Michele—to swindle Edward.

A Matter of WHO is often billed as a comedy, but in fact it stands as a fairly rare example of humor, sometimes quite madcap, mixing successfully with really rather somber themes. A major reason for this successful blending of the two seemingly quite disparate elements is the performance of Terry-Thomas: he’s usually a comic actor I’d go out of my way to avoid, but he’s absolutely splendid here, projecting some of his familiar persona but reining in its excesses. Even though his character is depicted as full of eccentricities—Bannister often affects a Sherlockian deerstalker, he carries a weighted umbrella, he drives like a maniac in his little vintage sportscar, etc.—Terry-Thomas is able to make us take the “germ detective” quite seriously when it’s important we should do so.

But we shouldn’t overlook that humor. The entertaining encounter between Bannister and the Wahbar Embassy’s pet chimp Pete is the most obvious example, but for me there’s more fun to be had in some of the dialogue. My favorite line comes when Michele witnesses a particularly dire piece of driving by Bannister. As he skids and fishtails to the shrieking of brakes, she says: “I’ve ’eard about London drivers.”

Matter of WHO - 5 Nicol as Kennedy makes a pretty limp hero

Alex Nicol alas makes a pretty limp hero.

In the opening credits we read that this movie is “introducing Richard Briers”; in fact, Briers had had a couple of movie roles before and done a fair amount of TV work. He was, incidentally, a second cousin to Terry-Thomas.

Matter of WHO - 6 Rihard Briers as Jimmy WAS THIS HIS FIRST MOVIE

Richard Briers as Bannister’s sidekick Jimmy.

Matter of WHO - 7 closer The obvious meeting place for spies

The obvious meeting place for spies!

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7 thoughts on “Matter of WHO, A (1961)

  1. Well, we do know well of the direction Honor Blackman followed in a few more years! And yes Terry Thomas is a treasure of sorts. Haven’t seen this film but was fascinated hut this superlative review. Sounds like this one is worth a look-see!

    • Many thanks for dropping by, and for the kind words!

      Well, we do know well of the direction Honor Blackman followed in a few more years!
      Carol White likewise. What’s surprising is that Sonja Ziemann just sort of vanished. She has quite a screen presence.

      Terry-Thomas is a treasure of sorts
      As I say, I normally dislike his work, but he’s good here — gets it just right.

    • Yes — it’s interesting to see Briers looking middle-aged even when he was young! You get the impression that his idea of a hot night’s entertainment was sitting in front of the Home Service with his pipe and slippers and cocoa.

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