The 13th Earl of Gurney (Harry Andrews) dies after a spot of auto-erotic asphyxiation-gone wrong).
The reading of the will is attended by his motley family; Sir Charles (William Mervyn), the Earl’s brother, his wife Lady Claire (Coral Browne) and their son Dinsdale (James Villiers) along with Bishop Lampton (Alastair Sim), appalled at the suggestion of an improper death.
Sir Charles is eager to enjoy the fruits of the family estate but there’s a problem in the form of the Earl’s son, Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney (Peter O’Toole), the rightful heir to the title.
The problem is that Jack, now the 14th Earl of Gurney, believes he is Jesus Christ and can save the world with his love.
Uncle Charles quickly devises a plan to marry him off to his mistress Grace (Carolyn Seymour), produce a male heir and then have Jack declared incapable.
But Jack is not without allies and his Aunt wants him well for his own sake and also to frustrate her faithless husband’s ambitions. She encourages Jack’s psychiatrist, Dr Herder (Michael Bryant) and the two begin an affair of their own.
Jack is convinced that he once married The Lady of the Camellias and, via calculating planning, Grace arrives as the Lady herself singing an aria from the opera. Jack is captivated but Grace also begins to develop genuine feelings for him.
Meanwhile, the faithful servant Tucker (Arthur Lowe) is revealed as a revolutionary cell, dedicated to overthrowing the establishment and seizing control of the means of production (after he’s finished the next bottle).
Grace becomes pregnant and it becomes imperative to straighten Jack out before Charles can realise his plan to have him sectioned. Dr Herder tries ever more extreme methods before bringing in a more violently insane man, McKyle (Nigel Green), who also believes himself to be the son of God – The Electric Messiah.
Grace gives birth to a son and Charles calls in an old favour from Truscott, the Master of Lunacy (Graham Crowden) who will surely find any lingering slivers of psychosis.
But Jack is on the road to recovery and – remembering that the psychiatrist had been a sporting hero at their old school Eton – delivers a rousing chorus of the Eton Boating Song ensuring the men bond and Jack is declared sane.
Jack is eventually “cured” of the notion that he is Jesus – but now revels in his new alternative identity – Jack the Ripper.
Absurdity ensues in the closing stages as Jack fits a little too much into his new personality and is later applauded by his colleagues ecstatically in the House of Lords, unsuspecting of his actions and fate, deeper into that night. As his hard line is greeted with rapture he has a vision of the chamber filled with decaying corpses still dressed in ermine and furs, held together by centuries of cobwebs.
Jack’s mental state is often shown on screen as powerful visual fantasy, often via musical numbers a la Dennis Potter. Insanity, sadistic sarcasm, and black comedy are all featured in this beloved cult classic directed by Peter Medak.
Jack, 14th Earl of Gurney
13th Earl of Gurney