|Very Important Person|
|Directed by||Ken Annakin|
|Produced by||Leslie Parkyn|
|Written by||Jack Davies|
|Starring||James Robertson Justice|
|Music by||Reg Owen|
|Edited by||Ralph Sheldon|
|Distributed by||Rank Organisation (UK)|
Union Film Distributors (US)
Very Important Person (retitled A Coming Out Party in the United States) is a 1961 British comedy film directed by Ken Annakin and written by Jack Davies and Henry Blyth. The cast includes several well-known British comedy and character actors, including James Robertson Justice, Stanley Baxter in a dual role as a dour Scottish prisoner and a German prisoner-of-war camp officer, Eric Sykes, John Le Mesurier, Leslie Phillips and Richard Wattis.
The film had its world premiere on 20 April 1961 at the Leicester Square Theatre in London's West End and went on general release in late May on Rank's second string National circuit.
Sir Ernest Pease (James Robertson Justice), a brilliant but acerbic scientist, is the subject of a television programme based on This Is Your Life during which he is re-united with past acquaintances. He does not remember the senior British Army officer at all! A flashback ensues.
In 1942, Pease is in charge of very important aircraft research during the Second World War. He needs to take a trip on a bomber to gain first-hand knowledge of the environment under which his special equipment is to be used. However, no one must know who he is. He goes as Lieutenant Farrow, a Royal Navy public relations officer. The bomber is hit over Germany and, ignoring a crewman's warning, Pease is sucked out through a hole in the side of the aeroplane, but parachutes safely to the ground.
He is captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp mostly occupied by Royal Air Force officers. His excellent command of German causes him to be suspected of being a spy, but when his real identity becomes known to Group Captain Travers (Norman Bird), the senior British officer, he informs the men in his hut of his importance and that his escape is a top priority. Among Pease's roommates are Jimmy Cooper (Leslie Phillips), "Jock" Everett (Stanley Baxter), and "Bonzo" Baines (Jeremy Lloyd).
Pease is offered an opportunity to escape through a tunnel with two other men. However, he expects the pair to be easily recaptured (which does in fact occur). He instead plans to go into hiding after a fake escape attempt. He presumes the Germans will search for him for two weeks then presume he has got away, at which point they will step down the search and he can more safely escape.
When the Germans eventually assume he has succeeded in getting away and lose interest, he will walk out of the camp, disguised as one of three visiting Swiss Red Cross observers, along with Cooper and Baines (which has echoes of a real Second World War escape from Spangenberg by RAF officers Dominic Bruce, the "Medium Sized Man" of Colditz fame; Pete Tunstall; and "Useless" Eustace Newborn, who escaped dressed as Swiss Red Cross doctors). Crucial to the plan is that Everett looks like the camp Lager (compound) officer, Major Stampfel (also played by Baxter, even though he describes him as "hideously ugly"). He must impersonate Stampfel, as he will be escorting the delegation. The escape committee, headed by Wing Commander Piggott (John Le Mesurier), are very dissatisfied with Pease's plan, but Pease is determined to see it through. The plan nearly comes unstuck at the last moment, when another prisoner, "Grassy" Green (John Forrest), is revealed as an astute undercover Luftwaffe intelligence officer. He takes them at gunpoint, but mistakes Everett for Stampfel and is "dealt with". Pease, Cooper and Baines walk out of the camp and eventually make their way back home.
Returning to the television programme, Pease is reunited with Baines, now a leading designer of ladies' foundation garments; Cooper, a missionary in India; Everett, a West London undertaker; and Stampfel, who has become a popular entertainment manager at a British holiday camp.
- James Robertson Justice – Sir Ernest Pease, aka Lt. Farrow RN
- Leslie Phillips – Jimmy Cooper
- Stanley Baxter – "Jock" Everett / Major Stampfel
- Eric Sykes – Willoughby, Sports Officer
- Richard Wattis – Woodcock, Entertainments Officer
- Godfrey Winn – Himself
- Colin Gordon – Briggs
- John Le Mesurier – Piggott, head of the escape committee
- Norman Bird – Travers
- Jeremy Lloyd – "Bonzo" Baines
- John Forrest – "Grassy" Green
- Jean Cadell – Lady telling story on the TV show in the opening scene
- Peter Myers – Shaw
- Ronnie Stevens – Hankley
- Ronald Leigh-Hunt – Clynes
- Steve Plytas – Luftwaffe officer
- John Ringham – Plum Pouding
- Joseph Furst – Luftwaffe interrogator
- Norman Shelley – Fred Whittaker
- Brian Oulton – 1st scientist in corridor
- Frederick Piper – 2nd scientist in corridor
- Joan Haythorne – Miss Rogers, Pease's secretary
The escape plan, to walk out of the camp dressed as Red Cross observers, was used in real life. It was briefly mentioned in Paul Brickhill's book The Great Escape.
There were in fact two such 'Swiss Commission' escapes from German POW camps holding RAF prisoners – Oflag IXA/H, Spangenberg, in 1941, and Oflag VIB, Warburg, in 1942. The escape in Very Important Person is based on the latter, which was an Army–RAF joint effort, and not the one mentioned by Paul Brickhill. Both escapes are described by Charles Rollings in his books Wire and Walls and Wire and Worse.
The film's screenplay was later made into a novelisation with the same title by John Foley, which has erroneously caused John Foley to sometimes be credited as author of the novel upon which the film is based. However, it was the other way around: his novel is based on the film.
The Windmill Theatre mentioned at the end of the film was a famous variety and revue theatre which featured tableaux vivants similar to the Folies Bergère and Moulin Rouge in Paris. It continued to operated throughout WWII despite blackouts and the Blitz on London, and boasted "We Never Closed."