In a plot inspired by 1963’s Great Train Robbery, after pulling off the world’s ‘smallest train robbery’, and with a story line which in its turn may have inspired Nuns on the Run and Sister Act, these East End villains flee London to lie low in a monastery on the remote island of St Pancras off the Cornish coast, to escape their nemesis from Scotland Yard, hot on their heels.
Gang boss Ronald Fraser (British film and TV veteran) decrees they will disguise themselves as monks, live the lifestyle and keep up the pretence round the clock to avoid suspicion among the locals. He, of course, appoints himself Father Superior and needless to say, his (unholy) order leads to some very unlikely looking brothers, particularly his curvaceous blonde-beehived girlfriend Brother Bikini (Barbara Windsor).
Swapping inner city life for monastic self-sufficiency, they have a lot to learn, but the simple rural routine of growing vegetables, feeding the pigs, milking the cows – and even cooking – comes as a revelation and eventually an unexpected game changer. But at the same time the gang still carry on their old trade of counterfeiting currency and refashioning stolen jewellery and fur coats, so it’s impossible to resist the temptation to describe this as ‘old habits die hard’.
Other familiar faces are Bernard Cribbins (numerous films and TV appearances, most recently in Doctor Who); Melvyn Hayes (It Ain’t Half Hot Mum) as the improbable love interest of a young Francesca Annis; Wilfred Brambell (Steptoe and Son) as her grandfather, the boatman who ferries them to and from the island and has to be let in on the secret; and even Arnold Ridley as a shopkeeper (Dad’s Army).
Against all expectations, the simple life grows on the crooks. After a year, when the boss judges it’s safe to return to their old haunts, they surprise themselves by realising they like it on the island and they don’t want to go back to ‘a life of dodgement’ – and that’s when complications finally set in.
Quaint and cosy, sexless, almost innudendo-free, Crooks in Cloisters seems like a freeze frame of a postwar society soon to disappear. It sits on a dividing line between old and new Britain. The year in which was filmed, 1963, was the year of which poet Philip Larkin famously said that sex was invented and everything changed:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Classic, oddity or an anachronism even in its own time? Nearly 50 years on, Crooks in Cloisters is dated but its vanished world of ‘decent’ villains is, in the end, endearing.
The remastered DVD is released 9 July. A special screening at the East End Film Festival (1-8 July) includes a 75th birthday tribute to Barbara Windsor, queen of the East End.