In 1934, this must have been an ambitious prestige effort for the British film industry – with a host of stars, many from rival mediums like radio and music hall and at least one (Helen Chandler, Mina to Lugosi’s Dracula) imported from Hollywood. A thin plot is designed to give them all a chance to do their popular turns, and the finale pulls out all the stops (a couple of musical numbers in weird-looking colour) and edges the revue-like showbiz story into mild science fiction. A dotty inventor (Hugh E. Wright) who has been loitering around the art deco citadel of the imaginary National Broadcasting Group – supposedly on an equal footing with the BBC, who actually had a near-monopoly of the airwaves – reveals that his big idea is erecting huge screens in public places which can receive colour television signals (in the oddly similar flop Radioland Murders, an equivalent character turns out to be the culprit).
Will Hay is top-billed as NGB chief William Garland, but doesn’t play his usual idiot character – he’s a wise, if comical authority figure with wavy hair, who doesn’t carry many of the jokes and has as much in common with the Master of Metropolis or Lord Reith as Hay’s usual bumbling schoolmasters or minor officials. Jimmie Clare (the forgotten Clifford Mollison) is the smug lead, an ambitious if tactless juvenile from the overworked NBG complaints department who persuades Garland to make him director of the network to reverse a precipitous loss of audiences through droning, dull, worthy programming (a dig at Reith?) by staging a variety show. A running gag about rearranging files that spell out ‘COMPLAINTS’ to read ‘COMPLIMENTS’ sneaks in a subliminal crude gag as ‘OMPLIM’ is removed from ‘COMPLIMUNTS’ but we don’t quite see the word which emerges.
A few stars of the day (Ted Ray, Ronald Frankeau) do their acts – in Frankau’s case, a valuable record of his unique brand of patter song – but then the story kicks in as a scheming music hall magnate (Alfred Drayton) prevents his contracted attractions from working on the wireless, which makes Clare – assisted by Garland’s peppy daughter (Chandler) – recruit comics and musicians from the eccentric cleaning women, sound effects men and general layabouts who already work for the company. The climax, in which the music halls empty as people throng into public places to watch bigscreen colour TV for free is a remarkable prophecy of the set-up at many current concerts and sporting events, and Alberta Hunter’s song about people mistreating her because she’s black is remarkably liberal for the time (there’s also a nasty joke about Hitler made half a decade before it was fashionable). The songs are all forgettable, much of the comedy is agonising and there isn’t really a plot – but it’s a fascinating artifact of its period, with nice art deco sets, a stuffy British approximation of Busby Berkeley’s choreographic style and some brittle charm.