Peter Sellers in the innocent days before Hollywood got hold of him. 'Two Way Stretch' is a bright and breezy British comedy typical of the period.
He plays 'Dodger Lane', a Cockney crook imprisoned at H.M.P. Huntleigh, along with safe cracker 'Jelly' Knight ( David Lodge ) and pickpocket 'Lennie The Dip' Price ( Bernard Cribbins ). To say they are having a cushy time would be an understatement. A milkman delivers Gold Top each morning, along with food and newspapers, and their cell is, according to C.P.O. Jenkins ( George Woodbridge ) 'the best place in the nick to get a cup of tea'. They even have a cat, appropriately named 'Strangeways'. As the film opens, Dodger is recovering from a surfeit of sherry trifle.
The lads are due for release in a few days' time. Then fellow crook Soapy Stevens ( Wilfrid Hyde-White ) turns up, posing as a vicar. He escaped imprisonment after their last job because he was the only one with a water-tight alibi. Stevens has learnt that a Sultan's diamonds to be conveyed through the area under army escort. Stevens wants Dodger and the lads to steal the consignment. Knowing that this time, they are the ones with the perfect alibi, they readily agree. There are just two minor problems - firstly, they need to break out of the nick, and secondly, Jenkins' replacement is none other than C.P.O. Sidney Crout ( Lionel Jeffries ), a hard-faced warder who regards all convicts as scum...
John Warren ( who wrote a lot of Dick Emery's shows ) and Len Heath's script is full of wonderful comic ideas and lines, and directed with a sure touch by Robert Day. One has to wonder whether or not the B.B.C. sitcom 'Porridge' derived any inspiration from this, so closely does the latter resemble the former ( curiously, 1965's 'Rotten To The Core' starring Anton Rodgers also features crooks named 'Jelly' Knight and 'Lennie The Dip', though played by Kenneth Griffith and Dudley Sutton. Coincidence? Or was 'Core' originally planned as a sequel to 'Stretch?' ).
Alongside the main cast are old favourites Liz Fraser, Irene Handl ( delightful as Lenny's toothless mum ), Warren Mitchell, Thorley Walters ( as a dimwitted army officer ), Mario Fabrizi, Maurice Denham, Beryl Reid, and Arthur Mullard. The latter gets one of the best lines. Visited by his wife and her baby, he asks how old it is. "Eight months!" comes the reply. Arthur looks chuffed at first, and then baffled: "But I've been inside for two years!".
As was the case with most of the films he appeared in, Lionel Jeffries effortlessly steals the film. He is able to make you laugh by simply bellowing "On the double!" and that takes some doing.
My only complaint is that the film does not really ( pardon the pun ) stretch Sellers as an actor. He is good as the lovable 'Dodger', but the role could have been played by anybody. One wonders whether Sid James could have done just as good a job.
If 'Two Way Stretch' is not a part of your collection of classic British comedy films, you should put that right immediately.
Funniest moment? Its got to be the scene in the yard where Crout is trying to exercise the convicts by making them jump up and down on the spot. He does not know that beneath him is part of a tunnel dug by Lennie and Jelly. He soon finds out - by falling into it!
Happy New Year to you all, by the way.
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