Director Richard Lester first worked with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan on three ITV television series, The Idiot Weekly Price 2d, A Show Called Fred and Son of Fred (all 1956), each of them an early attempt to transfer the surreal humour of radio’s The Goon Show to a visual medium.
Although these series were largely live and studio-bound, both A Show Called Fred and its successor included a number of filmed inserts, predominantly shot in a field.
The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film, itself entirely shot in a field, can be viewed as an extension of these inserts. Lester later acknowledged that even some of the sketches were variations on those filmed for the television series.
Following some earlier shooting by Sellers and Milligan, the majority of the film was shot over one or two Sundays (accounts vary) using Sellers’ own 16mm camera and edited by Lester and Sellers in the latter’s bedroom.
The sound effects and music score were added by Lester shortly afterwards.
While the style of comedy may be very much of its time, the film’s employment of visual humour clearly owes a significant debt to silent cinema, with the sepia tint serving to reinforce the sense of homage (although sepia is a property of early photography, not cinema).
This deliberate archaism is underpinned by the preponderance of late-Victorian/Edwardian clothing and props: top hats, plus fours, deerstalkers, a gramophone and a plate camera.
The film was not originally intended as a commercial proposition, but following screenings in 1959 at film festivals in San Francisco (where it won the award for best fiction short) and Edinburgh, it was picked up for distribution by British Lion in 1960.
It was even nominated for an Academy Award as best short live action film – quite an achievement for a film shot on an amateur basis on such a quick schedule.
The film’s lasting legacy, however, was its influence (as part of Milligan’s overall body of work) on British comedy in general, and on Monty Python’s Flying Circus in particular.
This is evident not only in its surreal humour but in the way that elements of one routine are threaded through subsequent scenes, transcending the stand-alone sketch form – a tactic subsequently favoured by the Python team.