The Great British Pop Film: Three Hats for Lisa

November 8, 2019

In the lost world when ownership of a “video recorder” was a status symbol, children on half term/summer holiday/faked illness quickly realised that ITV’s daytime television was often an excuse for schedulers to air a cinematic gem. After a stimulating edition of Granada’s Crown Court (which always seemed to feature Richard Wilson as a QC) or ATV’s The Cedar Tree, they might be confronted by a 1950s British B-film or a jolly comedy featuring Leslie Phillips. On one particularly notable occasion, there was even The Hill – uncut and uncensored.

And there might also be a British pop film of a bygone age, which is how I discovered Three Hats for Lisa. This was no black and white second feature shot in two weeks and starring ex-skiffle musicians stood awkwardly on their chalk marks, but a genuine musical, directed by Sidney Hayers and with songs by Leslie Bricusse. The plot had overtones of Roman Holiday, as Joe Brown, Una Stubbs, and Dave Nelson hire Sidney James’s taxi to convey Sophie Hardy’s visiting film star Lisa Milan around the capital. Her mission was clear; to acquire a bearskin, a police helmet, and a bowler as souvenirs.

To say that I was mesmerised would be an understatement, from the cinematography to the fact that the “Italian” heroine spoke all of her lines in a French accent. The elaborate choreography was certainly a world removed from the likes of the 1958 Terry Dene vehicle The Golden Disc, in which the extras danced with the verve of Troy Tempest. London seemed almost unrecognisable, with the as yet unopened Post Office Tower and traffic lights mounted on striped poles.

The film’s supporting cast included an almost unrecognisably fresh-faced Peter Bowles, the indispensable Eric Barker, and a cameo from Jeremy Lloyd. Joe Brown was a charming screen presence, while Una Stubbs was, and is, one of the true greats of British entertainment. Why she is not “Dame Una” remains a mystery. Best of all, there is a solo number from Sidney as his cabbie Sid Marks croons a pean to his East End childhood in that unmistakable Johannesburg-Cockney lilt.

That James was one of British cinema and television’s greatest character actors barely needs mentioning; to watch him in The Small Back Room, The Lavender Hill Mob, or The Reunion Party is to witness a master of his craft. But Three Hats reflected the time when the actor commanded an entertainment unit in the South African Army; one of his dancers was a teenaged “Larry Skikne”, many years before Room at the Top.  

The Guardian praised the film’s assurance and lightness of touch, while the Monthly Film Bulletin highlighted its sense of fun, and, of course, the performance of Mr. James, which sparkled ‘with the sort of wit and vigour that would steal any scene’. To my young mind, Three Hats for Lisa was infinitely superior to Southern Television’s Houseparty – take it away Sid!

Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA

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