The Bargee (1964)

“Perhaps I’m not normal.”

The vintage British comedy, The Bargee has an unusual setting–the British canal system. Directed by Duncan Wood from a Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (Steptoe and Son) script, the film follows the exploits of a canal Casanova named Hemel Pike (Harry H. Corbett). Pike, who’s spent all his life on the barges, transports cargo up and down the canals along with his illiterate cousin, Ronnie (Ronnie Barker). While Ronnie takes the helm and does more than half of the work, Hemel romances various women along the way. He plots his journey with the intention of enjoying a reunion with a different woman every night. It really is a great life for Hemel. He loves the waterways, and with his schedule, he can arrange for clean laundry, fresh baked goods and a home cooked meal at each stop along the way. Meanwhile the women in his life think that they’re the one and only, and they all calculate ways in which they can persuade Hemel into a regular, domestic life on the land.

Harry H. Corbett is wonderful in the role of Hemel. He’s marvelously insincere, and plays the role of the consummate, footloose bachelor with aplomb. Comedian Eric Sykes plays the role of an upper-class twit who haunts the canals with his boat and all the paraphernalia. But even though he avoids the dangers of a river or the ocean, he’s so incompetent, he still manages to run foul of the canal system.

For canal enthusiasts, this film is a real treasure. The film’s emphasis is that the canals’ vibrant, close-knit community enjoys a way of life that’s doomed for destruction. Hemel’s fate is tied to the canals, and just as the barges are doomed to lose their commercial viability, Hemel is doomed to a life on the land. One of the film’s best scenes takes place between Hemel and a British Waterways inspector. The inspector simply can’t understand why Hemel doesn’t desire the same material things in life that “normal” people want. He can’t compute that living on a barge is Hemel’s choice. The film’s humour is gentle and low-key, and the plot is simple and uncomplicated. Since most of the film dwells on the canal system, it’s full of very scenic shots and some great pub locations. This is one for the nostalgia crowd or for the just plain curious.

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