Peter Sellers (director)
BFI Flipside (studio)
15 April 2019 (released)
The BFI-Flipside label offers the little-known Peter Sellers comedy-drama MR TOPAZE (1961) in dual format, which also marks directorial debut of the popular comedian.
This charming, if somewhat old-fashioned story, has its firm focus on the dedicated and idealistic Auguste Topaze, an underpaid teacher working in a French provincial nest. He does his very best to prepare his flock for the future, placing particular emphasis on the attributes of diligence, honesty and modesty. In addition, the far too honest man is in love with his colleague Ernestine (Billie Whitelaw) - the daughter of the school principal Muche (Leo McKern). Just as the romance appears to blossom further, an influential and wealthy Baroness (Martita Hunt) complains to Muche that thanks to Monsieur Topaze’s bad grades bestowed upon her treasured grandson, the boy is in danger of having to repeat the school year. Muche tries to persuade the uncompromising teacher to turn a blind eye on things, seeing how the Baroness brings necessary finances the impoverished school needs so much. But Topaze can’t be bribed and insists that the Baroness’ grandson deserves his bad grades due to his laziness and general lack of attention during class. Outraged, the Baroness takes the pupil from the school and Muche fires Topaze on the spot... thus bringing his romantic relationship with Ernestine to an abrupt end!
Meanwhile, in the same part of the country but in a totally different world altogether, filthy rich government official Castel Benac (Herbert Lom) schemes his next plans do further his wealth… perhaps it should be pointed out that Benac runs a deeply shady financial ‘business’ on the side but could do with un unsuspecting frontman to detract from Benac’s crooked schemes. Enter singer/actress Suzy (Nadia Gray), who knows Topaze through his former employ at the school, and is fully aware of the impeccable and stainless character qualities Topaze possesses. Having Benac led in on her plan, Suzy (who is Benac’s mistress) and Benac invite the naive Topaze to their luxurious pad in the countryside. Benac, satisfied that Topaze is a ‘naïve idiot’ and thus perfectly suited as a frontman, offers the unemployed teacher a prestigious "manager" position as the new front man for his business in the city. That way, Topaze earns (unknowingly) additional money for Benac, without the government nor the tax authorities having as much as a clue. However, an unexpected visit by a certain Mr. Roger (John Neville) functions as a sort of wake-up call… and when Topaze finally realizes what's really going on he threatens to report Benac to the authorities. Only Suzy's persuasions (plus her growing admiration for Topaze's honesty) stop him from doing so.
But instead of quitting the job, Topaze has a vicious plan that will eventually turn him into an equally corrupt individual and a rich one at that – with the added bonus of Suzy becoming his new love. After news of Topaze’s sudden wealth reach the ears of school master Muche and daughter Ernestine they make a surprise visit and Muche makes it clear that Topaze would be more then welcome as a future son-in-law. Fat chance! Bumping into his former colleague and friend Tamise (Michael Gough), Topaze proudly tells of his newfound status and private happiness to which Tamise cooly remarks that Topaze has now become everything he once fought against, and that corruption is in favour of honesty.
This bittersweet drama with moral overtones is well cast with Sellers in the title role and Lom as his ‘enemy in terms’. Of course, Lom had already worked alongside colleague Sellers in the Ealing comedy DIE LADYKILLERS and later would do so again in the PINK PANTHER films. Shame that film- and age actress Martita Hunt only appeared in one scene though her ‘outraged Baroness’ is a memorable performance!
Bonus material includes interviews, short films, a portrait of Sellers, a video essay and illustrated info booklet.