Victorian England was a time of unparalleled bawdiness for the upper class and sexual serfdom for the lower classes. Noblemen married for procreation and patronised prostitutes for their pleasure. Young virgins of the lower class were bought and sold like produce.
This hardly sounds like material for a comedy, but The Best House in London – scripted by Dennis Norden – is just that. It concerns the attempt of the government of the day to solve the prostitution problem by establishing a fabulous brothel in high-class Belgravia.
It’s a pleasure dome with two dozen differently designed rooms – including the King Solomon Room (all virgins), the Bluebeard Room, the Wrestling Room, the Roman Baths Room, and the Jungle Room.
David Hemmings has a dual role. He is Walter Leybourne, the lecherous procurer for the house and Benjamin Oakes, an ultra-respectable idealistic publicist who crusades against the upper class’s sexual exploitation of the poor.
George Sanders costars as Walter’s titled father, Sir Francis Leybourne, a seeming pillar of virtue whose primary source of income is derived from the opium fields of India. Sir Francis keeps a beautiful French mistress, Babette (Dany Robin), who he unknowingly shares with his son.
His niece, Josephine Pacefoot (Joanna Pettet), meanwhile, leads a “purity league” and has founded a hostel for reformed prostitutes with the help of Benjamin Oakes.
Sir Francis is killed on his Indian opium plantation, and Benjamin is framed by Walter on a rape charge while Josephine is kidnapped by the fiendish Chinese. It’s complicated, but all resolved in a rollicking climax. Warren Mitchell has a superb cameo as Count Pandolfo, the mad inventor of a super-airship.
There are so many quick-fire jokes – visual and verbal – that many of them flop, especially the weak satirical references to important figures of the day (Charles Dickens, Messrs. Fortnum and Mason, Dr Livingstone at al).
Benjamin Oakes/Walter Leybourne
Sir Francis Leybourne
Editor of The Times
Chinese Trade Attache
Lord Alfred Douglas
Algernon Charles Swinburne
Miss Elizabeth Barrett