The brother in law played something of a blinder with the DVD of “One of our Dinosaurs is Missing” for the Dr’s recent anniversary. Cor, it’s a corker. And, of course, an essential bit of reading for anyone interested in the history of museum acquisitions and their interpretation.
Sometime soon after the First World War, Derek Nimmo’s dandy secret agent escapes China with the top secret “Lotus X”. With Chinese hoodlums (led by Peter Ustinov) hot on his trail, he hides the secret in the skeleton of a dinosaur in the Natural History Museum, but then has a nasty fall.
Lucky for him, he bumps into his old nanny just before he passes out, and she’s able to take on the case. While Nimmo languishes in a cell perishing all thought of his being a spy, the hoodlums and the nannies both plot to recover the Lotus X whatever way they can – even if it means scousing the dinosaur.
It took the wife a bit by surprise to find that this was a Disney film, especially considering the cast – which includes Joan Sims, Bernard Bresslaw, Jon Pertwee and Roy Kinnear, and suggests a sexless Carry On or, even an Ealing comedy.
It was the last film of director Robert Stevenson, who’d been responsible for Mary Poppins, Old Yeller (a favourite of my mum’s), The Absent-Minded Professor, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
(He also directed Darby O’Gill and the Little People, with its lurid Technicolor Oirland, complete with shamrocks and leprechauns. It features an all-smiling, all-singing Sean Connery three years before he became James Bond. Yes, it’s why Ian Fleming responded, “What? Him?!?”)
Dinosaurs is a very low-budget runaround in comparison to all that – a clue to that being the absence of American stars other than Helen Hayes. The cast are quite amazing, the leads ably supported by some fantastic cameos. And the whole thing is a set-up for two brilliant set pieces: the chase through fog-enshrouded London with the stolen dinosaur, and the final fisticuffs between hoodlums and nannies.
It does feel like something from another age, with Caucasian actors made up (in some cases almost not at all) to play the lead Chinese. The Dr and Nimbos both felt sure it hailed from the late 60s, though it’s from 1975 (so post, not pre, Pertwee’s commitments to the universe as Dr Who).
It is very funny, but in an especially mild-mannered way. The villains are all good eggs really, if only you take a moment to chat to them. Like Talons (made two years later), what racial jokes there are more readily mock English pretensions than bully the Oriental.
I couldn’t understand why Clive Revill, as Ustinov’s ambitious number two, seemed so familiar – and his make-up only made him more so. And then I remembered that he used to be the Emperor before Fidgeting George cut his bits out. Do put those scissors down, dear, or you'll end up the subject of a rhyme in Struwwelpeter.
What I especially like is the way Dinosaurs constantly undercuts the gritty tension of the thriller. So it sets itself up as something like Fu Manchu, but we discover along the way that the Chinese super-villain had a nanny, too, and that anyway Nimmo doesn’t work for M but for a supermarket.
Nimbos, always eager to spoil the fun, points out that the dinosaur prop looks like a skeleton, not a fossil. But he was impressed enough with the set to not always be sure what had been filmed on location.