It doesn't surprise me that so few people seem to know The Best House in London; you either haven't seen this near forgotten swinging 60s film, or you have and YOU have forgotten, or you have and you'd rather not admit to it!
The film comes perhaps a little too late on the heels of the decade's fascination with Victoriana, and a little too early on for the corny sexploitation films the following decade would see the British film industry sink to.
Joanna Pettet (famous for that other spectacular, famous faces filled tongue in cheek comedy of the 60s, Casino Royale) stars as the militant leader of the League of Social Purity, Josephine Pacefoot, a woman who devotes her time to saving fallen women and wishes to get the capital's prostitution trade outlawed. The government however (represented by satirical favourite John Bird) is reluctant to oblige, believing that prostitution benefits society and that the girls provide a service without which a gentleman would have to trouble his wife for. "There'd be rape on the streets!" Bird protests at one point. His plan therefore is to follow 'the French system'; a state sponsored bordello which would get whoring off the streets and into the plush Libertine Club in London's Belgravia. Disguised as a convent school (of course) the brothel, populated by such familiar dollybirds as Margaret Nolan, Hammer's Veronica Carlson and Penny Spencer, offers something for every discerning gentleman including mud wrestling, orgies, whippings, lewd games of chess, costume roleplay and young virgins.
But there quickly appears to be a snag; there aren't enough young ladies of ill repute to go round. Cue David Hemmings in one of two roles he is given here (God knows why!) who takes to infiltrating Pettet's League of Social Purity for new blood. Cue one particularly unrepentant storyline which sees a fifteen year old girl called Flora (Carol Friday) who, having been kidded into joining the League by thinking it is a brothel, get to fulfill her lifelong ambition and voracious sexual appetite as a genuine prostitute at last. It's the kind of addition that perhaps explains why this film isn't a regular in the TV schedules today.
As I said, this is just one role for David Hemmings. The actor had been catapulted to fame with Blow-Up in 1966 and, by the time The Best House In London was made just three years later, Hemmings had racked up a further 7 film roles. There's no real reason to give Hemmings two characters to play here (the roguish, moustache twirling toff infiltrator and the kindly, whiny hero and supporter of the League) other than to increase his already prolific output! Much as I like Hemmings, this duality does not in any way shape or form display his virtuosity and he's far from a Sellers like chameleon. The only difference he brings to each role is a dark wig and moustache for the blackguard, and a blonde wig and clean shaven for the innocent hero - and both are played relatively poorly. I read once that Hemmings, cheekily, asked for two salaries during this film. I think he barely deserved the one!
It's in no way a good film but it holds some curiosity and appeal for any fan of 60s made bawdy bonanzas. The script by future It'll Be Alright On The Night host Dennis Norden packs just as many sniggering double entendres as any Carry On instalment and, in littering the story with cameos from real and fictional Victorian figures such as Dickens and Wilde, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Jekyll, clearly influenced graphic novelist Alan Moore for his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series. Director Philip Saville (who would go on to direct many great Play For Today's and single drama for the BBC) wisely fills the screen with a host of familiar faces including Warren Mitchell, George Sanders, Willie Rushton, John Cleese, Queenie Watts and even Tessie O'Shea, who all jostle about amid the colourful and somewhat lavish, larger than life depiction of Victorian London, complete with a multi-coloured psychedelic looking airship!