If ever there was a film where the style of the written dialogue informed the narrative as much as the way in which the performers and directors interpreted it, this film is Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (1970).
The sociopathic ‘family’ of four in the title – each name describing that person’s role within the clan – speak with highly mannered, oh-so-awfully British-accented passive-aggression. It is the way a parent might speak to a child but more likely the parody of a parent speaking to a child. To colour their dialogue even further, they refer to themselves in the third person, regularly speak in rhymes and euphemisms, and repeat certain words and phrases over and over again, as if rote learnt.
On paper, it looks like this…
Nanny: What a lovely morning it is.
Mumsy: Why haven’t you brought the dear children to give me my morning kiss?
Nanny: Master Sonny and Miss Girly were up early this morning, Mumsy. They’re off playing. They do love their games so.
Mumsy: Found some new friends, most likely.
Mumsy: Did Miss Girly brush her hair this morning?
Nanny: Of course she did, Mumsy. One hundred strokes for Nanny.
Mumsy: She does have such beautiful hair.
Nanny: Of course, Mumsy. Nanny sees to that.
Mumsy: You’re really too good for them, Nanny.
Mumsy: And Master Sonny’s toenails, did you cut them?
Nanny: Of course, Mumsy. But he did struggle.
Mumsy: That’s because the little chap is growing up.
Nanny: Mind you, Mumsy, for a little chap, he does get on his high horse sometimes.
Mumsy: Ah, he’s like his sister, the little love.
Nanny: The dear, little love.
Mumsy: Did you give them a nice breakfast, Nanny?
In lesser writing hands, this style could have created an incredibly annoying viewing experience – not so in Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly. Such a pointed approach to the dialogue gives depth to both the narrative and characters. It is one aspect of the genius that makes this film such a masterstroke of macabre. Mixed with the physicality of the performances, it also elevates the horror through satire. For instance, watching the adult children Sonny and Girly’s fisticuffs go beyond sibling wrestling to something far more violent is very amusing indeed.
Mumsy (Ursula Howells) is the matriarch-cum-dominatrix who rules the roost, Sonny (Howard Trevor) and Girly (Vanessa Howard) are a bee’s dick shy of adulthood but play the role of precocious children who sleep in cots, gad about in school uniform and chant nursery rhymes (not to forget, luring ‘new friends’ to the family home). Nanny (Pat Heywood) takes care of everyone, which includes sleeping at the foot of Mumsy’s double bed, knitting alongside her and dutifully agreeing with her every word. However, Nanny’s ambitions to topple Mumsy are hinted through tendency to correct Mumsy’s language – Mumsy says ‘the little love’, Nanny says ‘the dear little love’. They live according to strict rules, and the whole thing runs like clockwork until Girly dares to break those rules.
At no point in the film are we given clues as to how this motley crew have come together. They live in a Victorian mansion filled with antiques and fineries. An atrium/conservatory hints at their moral decay in its rack and ruin. They present as a family – one dominated by a woman, and a financially independent one that – but it appears this family has been cobbled together through necessity rather than bloodline to sustain their own psychosexual fantasies. Take, as an example, Girly’s impromptu killing of Sonny (one that she choreographs to the name ‘Tony Chestnut’ bashing him in the ‘toe’, ‘knee’, ‘chest’ and ‘nut’), and how Mumsy reacts to the death of her ‘son’ at the hands of her ‘daughter’, her docile expression hardly cracking with one morsel of shock or remorse.
Tapping into a horror tradition of nursery rhymes, composer Bernard Ebbinghouse (Prudence and the Pill) weaves familiar tunes sung by the characters from the screenplay into the incidental music. Deviations on Ring Around the Rosy, Oranges and Lemons and Humpty Dumpty inch their way into the musical score in different disguises helping to subliminally accentuate the playtime aspect of the film. While common childhood rhymes create an uncomfortable familiarity with the antics in Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly – and, indeed, remind us how sinister the songs and tales from our childhood can be – the most chilling are the ones that come directly from the minds and mouths of the characters, such as this one from Girly when dismembering Nanny:
Nasty Nanny is no good
Chop her up for firewood
When she’s dead, boil her head
Make it into gingerbread
Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly is a trapped man film in that the ‘new friends’ Sonny and Girly bring back to the home are all men who are then forced to stay as guests in the different rooms of their rambling mansion. It’s the bed & breakfast where you never return home. These new friends – whether by choice or accident – often play along with the obvious charade of their hosts, donning school attire too and allowing fairytales to be read to them. They also take on names in accordance with their role and in which room they reside – Friend in 2, Friend in 5 and so forth. However, where this play-acting is serious business for the demented family of four, their guests can only play along for so long before they make a run for it. Once this inevitably happens, the family employ their own sense of justice in the form of a ‘trial’, which we never see and which invariable leads to the accused ‘being sent to the angels’. It’s not hard to guess what that euphemism really means.
There is an argument to be put forward that Sonny is also a trapped man – trapped in a child-like paralysis but also trapped by the dominating women that surround him. While he appears complicit in his actions, he has little agency in the family dynamic and is easily disposed of, without anyone seeming to give a rat’s arse. In their endeavours to lure new friends, it is not really Sonny who entices them; it is Girly who plays temptress, roping these men in with her playfulness and naughty schoolgirl ways, not to forget her long, blonde locks and shorty school dress.
The character of Girly is the magnet of this film, performed so perfectly by Vanessa Howard who, sadly, pursued only a short career before marrying the Oscar-winning Rocky producer, Robert Chartoff, and retiring from the biz. The American release of the film justly acknowledges her superiority in the cast by truncating the title to simply Girly but, in terms of the entire narrative, such a focus on Girly misses the point (this article has persisted in using the original mental tongue-twister title Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly for this reason). Where the film is most profound is in its group rapport and the bizarre bonds that unite them, as opposed to the singling out of any central character or monster.
Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly was originally a two-act stage play, Happy Family, by Maisie Mosco before its screen adaptation. A friend who recognised the subject matter as a good fit for the film’s eventual director, Freddie Francis, brought the play to his attention. Francis had already made a name for himself in horror, most recognisably through his projects for Hammer Studios (Paranoiac, Nightmare, Dracula Has Risen from The Grave). As both a director and cinematographer – an exclusive group of just a few – it would be unfair to pigeonhole his prodigious cinematic output over such a long career into just one genre (for instance, he shot John Huston’s Moby Dick, David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, Edward Zwick’s Glory and Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear).
Calling Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly “a personal film”*, Francis used his own money to finance the writing of a screenplay. He chose Brian Comport as the screenwriter (who would then go on to another stunning writing turn with 1972’s The Asphyx). Comport’s interpretation of Mosco’s play had many deviations from its stage version but, without reading Mosco’s script firsthand, it is impossible to say how much of the ingenuity of the dialogue came from Comport and Francis or its original source. Regardless, Mosco’s title of Happy Family is one that resonates in Comport’s interpretation and, as an alternate title to the film, is far more fitting than Girly. Central is the notion of this unfamily-like clan literally playing Happy Family or whatever they interpret that game to be – and it is definitely a game for them, one they must live out on a 24-hour-basis and one that comes with a number of rules that the players must obey. As Mumsy emphasises, “You must have rules. A happy family needs rules.”
There is nothing supernatural about Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly but it would go a long way in explaining our characters if they were aliens from another planet who have been transported to Earth to study its occupants. To fit into their new world, they imitate the behaviours, language and customs of its inhabitants – what they believe to be a happy English family – and, in doing so, create an unusual artifice that betrays their ‘alienness’ through their lack of humanity. In many ways, no matter how outlandish, this explanation of Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly is the one that fits most comfortably, and the one this author is tempted to hold onto.
* Freddie Francis: The Straight Story from Moby Dick to Glory, a memoir