This cosy comedy from 1957 stars real-life couple Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers as a deeply in love but forever cash-strapped pair dreaming of holidaying in far away exotic places. Their dream is set to become reality when an unexpected inheritance promises plenty of money but the couple is soon in for a major disappointment…

Jean and Matt Spenser (Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers respectively) are a lovey-dovey couple who most certainly could do with more cash in order to fulfil their dreams of visiting exotic places and enjoy an improved lifestyle altogether. But things are set to become reality when Matt unexpectedly receives a letter informing him of an inheritance from a long forgotten great uncle… Initially the couple’s ecstatic joy is somewhat dimmed when solicitor Robin Carter (Leslie Phillips) informs them that the inheritance consists of a cinema in another town but hey, one can always make profit from a busy cinema and chuck in the odd holiday to wherever.
Sure enough, upon arrival in the (fictitious) town of Sloughborough in Workshire the first thing Jean and Matt notice is the smell of glue and the taxi driver informs them that Sloughborough is known for its manufacturing of glue. The taxi then passes the seemingly busy and impressive Grand Cinema, the only cinema in town according to the cabbie. Disillusionment on a grand scale soon sets in when Jean and Matt learn that the inherited cinema is in fact an old, out of business fleapit called the Bijou Kinema wedged between two railway bridges. It’s clear to see that the once grand interior (we’re talking Victorian-style splendour) is now a mere ramshackle shadow of its former glory though still holds three (equally decrepit) long-time employees: cashier and bookkeeper Mrs. Fazackalee (Margaret Rutherford), projectionist Mr. Percy Quill (Peter Sellers) who loves a drink or two… and finally Old Tom (Bernard Miles), the usher, doorkeeper and commissionaire…

Realising that the Bijou would need more than just a bit of a facelift, thus needing money which Jean and Matt don’t have, they are initially relieved to hear that back in the day, one Albert Hardcastle (Francis de Wolff), owner of the Grand Cinema, had offered his late uncle a whopping five thousand pounds in order to construct a car park near the Bijou – which the uncle refused. But that was then! Now Mr. Hardcastle offers Jean and Matt only a fraction of the previous offer – five hundred pounds to be precise – and although the couple are deeply disappointed they feel they have no other choice than to accept. Upon advice of solicitor Carter they have a change of heart and henceforth pretend to re-open the Bijou, if only to force Hardcastle to raise his miserly offer. Suffice to say that the ‘grand opening’ is plagued by hiccups, not to mention a lack of punters! It doesn’t help that during the screenings the old building shakes and trembles whenever a train rolls by, affecting the projector and resulting in a wonky projection. Soon the punters come in for a giggle and word spreads that going to see a movie at the Bijou is an experience like no other. Still, the profits leave much to be desired for and when Jean and Matt decide to visit the considerably more ‘modern’ Grand Cinema they see for themselves the technical disadvantages the Bijou confronts them with, never mind the lack of state-of-the art equipment. A desperate situation calls for desperate measures and our heroic couple plus their three staff members quickly need to come up with ideas to improve business… how about turning up the radiators so the sweating punters leap at the prospect of buying ice cream during the intermission? Thank goodness blond bombshell Marlene Hogg (June Cunningham) is at hand as the new ice cream seller!

Of course, greedy Mr. Hardcastle doesn’t give up on the idea of a car park and so he comes up with a devious plan of sabotage: he slips of bottle of whisky into the next shipment of film reels for the Bijou, knowing full well that projectionist Percy Quill cannot withstand temptation. The result is a disaster when a hopelessly drunken Percy is unfit to do his job and a panic-stricken Matt has to jump to the rescue. It goes without saying that things get even more pear-shaped as the well-meaning Matt has no idea how to operate the antiquated projectors and is forced to refund the disgruntled punters. It is the final straw but just as Jean and Matt are ready to accept Hardcastles’ lousy offer, Old Tom saves the day (and the Bijou Kinema) with an equally devious plan…

THE SMALLEST SHOW ON EARTH (screenplay by the then hugely successful US-screenwriter William Rose) is bursting with nostalgic charm and humour while its theme of ‘the small guys vs a big corporation’ is of course timeless. McKenna and Travers are convincing as love-struck couple Jean and Matt (helped by the fact that they were married in real-life) though Jean’s constant expressions of adoring affection become a trifle irritating after a while. Peter Sellers is hilarious as a projectionist forever trying to battle demon alcohol, while Bernard Miles is in equal form as bumbling doorkeeper/usher Old Tom. Shame that the fantastic Margaret Rutherford (best known from the 1960’s Miss Marple films) is sadly underused here.
Douglas Slocombe’s expert cinematography perfectly captures the old-time feel of this comedy, while the newly restored Blu-ray release, courtesy of Network On Air, offers a much sharper picture than anything ever shown in the Bijou Kinema…

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