It is probably a little ironic that the end came to actress Honor Blackman at a time when the world suffered its prolonged hiccup of the Coronavirus. This is because her death happened around the time the World Health Organisation copped flak for its handling of the pandemic and she appeared in the movie A Matter of WHO (1961) – which is about the World Health Organisation and its handling of an outbreak of disease.
The film was made at a time when Blackman’s career was in a lull as she only has a small role as a nurse. But soon she would be catapulted back to fame with her role as Cathy Gale in The Avengers (1962-64) and her appearance as the Bond girl Pussy Galore in Goldfinger (1964).
Passing away at the ripe old age of 94, I have gathered a few of my favourite cult movies which this former starlet of the Rank Charm School of the 1940s appeared in over the years.
A Matter of Who isn’t necessarily one of them as it starts off with a man with symptoms of something leaving Nice airport. With Roy Castle (1932-94 lung cancer) singing a catchy theme tune, we are introduced to this John Chaffey (1917-90 heart attack) directed pic. Little do the people on the plane know that the guy on board hasn’t passed out because of alcohol but from some virus.
“Deadly little killers… would it surprise you to know if WHO were relaxed for even a month, we’d be ridden by plagues that would put the Middle Ages to shame… germs are much smarter than people, they never bother with passports or borders,” says one World Health Organisation official.
And it’s true, they’ve certainly handled the Ebola outbreaks that have happened up to now pretty well. So, it is more ironic since Donald Trump cut US funding to the organisation despite how vital it is – and during a pandemic! Bill Gates has forked out to cover half the costs.
Honor Blackman plays a nurse at the airport who checks on names and addresses for WHO. With comedian Terry-Thomas (1911-1990 Parkinson’s disease) starring in one of his few straight roles as a WHO official, at first, it’s hard to take him with a straight face.
The victim on the flight suffered from a headache to begin with… it’s suspected malaria.
The rest of the cast includes Sonja Ziemann (1926-2020), Alex Nicol (1916-2001) and introducing Richard Briers (1934-2013 emphysema) whose last film role was in a film which also featured Blackman – Cockneys vs Zombies (2012). Nicol, incidentally, starred in the cult items Red Ball Express (1952) and The Screaming Skull (1958) which he also directed.
There is also a bit of an oil swindle in the plot of A Matter of WHO… which includes false alarms along the way.
“Having promised them a plague in London, give it to them,” Terry-Thomas is told by his boss about a false alarm that makes the papers. As it turns out, the real plague is smallpox, that deadly disease which has now but all been wiped out. But you never know… And even if it was coronavirus, the race is on to track down any of the possibly infected, something which got out of the control of WHO in China for some reason.
“Our only safeguard against this plague is vaccination… not only primary contacts with the patient but contacts with contacts.”
The beauty with a disease like smallpox is that no matter how deadly and contagious it is, there is a vaccine. Ebola has no vaccine and thus is all the more important for WHO to conquer. The plane in the movie is sprayed…
“Fumigate these quarters next,” says a doctor at the airport. There are men there with gas masks and white bio-secure uniform suits.
We learn there are parts of Asia where the disease may originate and that mass vaccinations are happening in London… but the disease has not spread to Brussels or Zurich.
“I was foolishly optimistic this evening thinking that (this was) a simple isolated case that we’d neatly bottle up,” says the WHO official.
The fact that Terry-Thomas and Briers are playing it straight against a deadly story makes it all the more credible. There is an explanation of incubation and close contact being important in the spread of a disease like smallpox…
Terry-Thomas tries to track the original man who passed the infection… but is it, as in the case of COVID-19, all too late?
“While travelling around with a mild case he can give it to others in its most-deadliest form.”
The film is a lesson of WHO regulations being followed when it all comes down to carriers of the disease being contacted and isolated.
“Damn tricky,” says Terry-Thomas about the disease when it isn’t carried on a person but on an item. It’s all a part of the Coronavirus mess.
Climaxing on a Swiss mountaintop and then in a cable car, Terry-Thomas says: “You’re a carrier of corruption who may never be found” to the villain as virus and criminal plot in the movie combine. I will never look at the comedian in the same light again. He’s pretty good.
A Matter of WHO is far from a great movie and it may not even be a good movie – but, my God, it still remains a timely movie both back when it was made and in the present day.
Honor Blackman started acting in the movies in the 1940s as she was a product of Rank Studios but as their output slowed, she had to find other work in film in the 1950s. Another of my favourite movies with her in it is Breakaway (1956). It is the second of two films which features Tom Conway (1904-67 cirrhosis) as Tom ‘Duke’ Martin a detective who works in London. The first was entitled Barbados Quest (1955).
Breakaway is a later Conway movie where the effects of his alcoholism had destroyed a once popular career as The Falcon in the 1940s. It was also starting to affect the actor’s looks. It is one of the best of Conway’s 1950s British films, he made several, and it also stars Michael Balfour (1918-97) in a sympathetic role as Conway’s assistant Barney. Balfour was a passenger in the Jaguar driven by actor Bonar Colleano (1918-97) when it crashed killing the actor. It led Colleano’s wife Susan Shaw (1929-78 cirrhosis) into a life of alcoholism and an early death.
The interesting cast also features former World Light Heavyweight Freddie Mills (1919-65 gunshot to the head) who plays a barman. Mills died under mysterious circumstances when his body was found with a rifle beside it in his car. Rumours ranged from a suicide due to an indecency charge in a public toilet, to being knocked off by the Kray brothers. Other actors in the film include Dad’s Army’s Arthur Lowe (1915-82 stroke) and Battlestar Galactica’s John Colicos (1928-2000 heart attacks).
“How’s the fight game?,” asks Conway of Mills, who answers: “Getting along very nicely thank you without me.” Mills ran a nightclub in real life and liked the fast life.
Breakaway is a tight mystery despite the ageing frame of Conway charming the ladies as he did a decade earlier in the Falcon movies seeming a bit improbable.
Blackman plays a mysterious woman in furs and sparkly jewellery who gets involved with Conway’s ‘Duke’ Martin through a kidnap victim she knew. She’s smoking and drinking dry sherry in this movie… is she a good girl or a bad girl?
Blackman’s main claim to fame came around the time she was appearing in The Avengers and that was her role as Pussy Galore in the James Bond film Goldfinger. She remains the oldest Bond girl at 38 while her Bond Sean Connery (1930-) was 35 years old.
Let’s skip to her role in another favourite of mine which is The Last Grenade (1970). It stars Stanley Baker (1928-76 lung cancer) as a mercenary with tuberculosis and his adventures at odds with psychotic Alex Cord (1933-) who was a former comrade.
Blackman plays the wife of a general played by Richard Attenborough (1923-2014). It’s a better role than she got in A Matter of WHO but it still isn’t much of one in an era when middle-aged women weren’t prized for their acting ability. Still, she is slightly affecting as she has an affair with the ailing Baker, only to get killed by Cord through a car bomb, something which will lead to the ultimate showdown as Cord and Baker play cat and mouse.
I discovered The Last Grenade when slowly catching up with iconic Baker’s films and found this supposedly roughshod production which is full of explosions to be well made. The beginning of the film is reminiscent of The Wild Geese (1978).
Produced by Dimitri de Grunwald (1914-90) whose films made money due to international pre-sales, Blackman also appeared in his productions of Shalako (1968) with Sean Connery and The Virgin and the Gypsy (1970). Perhaps he was a fan of The Avengers and Cathy Gale’s kinky boots which she used liberally in that series.
Blackman married twice and adopted two children. After her second divorce, she said she preferred to be single. She declined a CBE or Order of the British Empire in 2002 as she thought it hypocritical as a Republican to accept. She also criticised Sean Connery for accepting a knighthood as he was a tax exile who didn’t live in Britain.
It’s great to see Blackman in her 80s in the horror comedy Cockneys vs Zombies toting a machine gun. As I mentioned, also in the film is Richard Briers who made his first appearance in A Matter of WHO. Star of the zombie film really is Guy Richie favourite Alan Ford (1938-) who plays a Cockney grandfather and nursing home resident to the hilt.
The film is very funny in spots as it melds an old folk’s home into the plot of a zombie apocalypse with a young cast as would be criminals. Add an old-style red London bus and it remains a zombie favourite.
Apart from her kicking arse in The Avengers, Blackman also played Hera in Jason and the Argonauts (1963), and had roles in the earlier Titanic movie A Night to Remember (1958) and the Room at the Top (1959) sequel Life at the Top (1965) with Laurence Harvey.
Blackman wasn’t a great actress but her Bond role is unforgettable if only for the name alone. Her physical prowess in The Avengers, which I don’t admit to seeing, brought female action heroes to the fore. She is incredibly British and at 94 had a good innings. Thank you for decorating some of the movies I admire.