Ealing comedy

Back on Track: The Titfield Thunderbolt

Stanley Holloway in The Titfield Thunderbolt

Prime Minister Harold Macmillan may have been thinking about The Titfield Thunderbolt when he made his often misquoted “never had it so good” speech in 1957. Released four years earlier, Ealing’s first colour film is an unabashed celebration of post-war optimism, community spirit, the glories of rural England, and the romance of the railways.

It’s the spring of 1952, and a notice goes up at Titfield station announcing that in a few weeks’ time British Rail will be closing the picturesque branch line to Mallingford Junction. This galvanises railway enthusiasts like the Reverend Sam Weech (George Relph) and squire Gordon Chesterford (John Gregson) into action. They apply to the Ministry of Transport to take over the running of the service, with funding from the bibulous Mr Valentine (Stanley Holloway), who’s seduced by the idea of a mobile bar. Lurking in the background are scaremongering hauliers Pearce and Crump, who plan to convert the village to the joys of bus travel – by fair means or foul.

The Titfield Thunderbolt was directed by Charles Crichton and written by T.E.B. Clarke, who’d made The Lavender Hill Mob two years earlier. This 60th anniversary DVD release was the first time I’d watched the film, and I can confirm that Douglas Slocombe’s digitally restored cinematography looks lovely. Regular visitors to Bath will particularly enjoy watching the countryside of North East Somerset speed past, with starring roles for Monkton Combe station (standing in for Titfield) and the village of Freshfield.

It’s fun watching these light railway novices trying to outwit the scheming Crump (Jack MacGowran) and Pearce (Ewan Roberts), who’ll stop at nothing to derail the service. But the beginning of The Titfield Thunderbolt hints at what could have been an even better film, with a more satirical edge. Take the early scene in the pub, in which the amiable Weech almost comes to blows with railway veteran Dan Taylor (Hugh Griffith) over which man has the superior knowledge. “One doesn’t need a knowledge of working slang to operate a locomotive!” retorts Weech, in a sharply scripted demonstration of book knowledge versus hands-on experience.

Godfrey Tearle, George Relph in The Titfield Thunderbolt

Another key sequence sees the luxuriantly mustachioed man from the Ministry granting the villagers a one-month trial period to run the train. Trade unionist Coggett (Reginald Beckwith) launches a futile protest about the use of unpaid labour on the line, in tones reminiscent of Peter Sellers’s Fred Kite in I’m All Right Jack (1959). This proves to be story less concerned with politics than preserving the status quo in the decade before the first Beeching Report sounded the death knell for many railway lines. So it’s left to Jimmy Stewart look-alike John Gregson to give a barnstorming speech about how the end of the train service would condemn the village to death: “Our houses will have numbers instead of names!”

With no Alec Guinness in the cast, this Ealing comedy is very much an ensemble effort. George Relph probably has the most substantial role as the vicar-turned-driver, who switches between singing hymns and behaving like an excited kid let loose on a giant Hornby train set. A deadpan Hugh Griffith lets his pipe do the talking in their combative and eventful working relationship. Stanley Holloway always seems to get the last word as the permanently sozzled Valentine, and there’s strong support from Naunton Wayne and a pre-Carry On Sid James.

Fittingly, though, the real star of this film is The Titfield Thunderbolt herself (in real life the famous Lion locomotive), brought out of storage to save the day for the embattled train crew. Repainted for the film, Lion’s long career dates back to 1838 and lasted until the 1920s. These days Lion is a museum piece – on display at the Museum of Liverpool – and the same might be said about this colourful romp, championing the plucky volunteer spirit at the heart of the English countryside. Trainspotters will be in their element; fans of Ealing’s darker and more subversive films may be less enchanted.

The Titfield Thunderbolt (StudioCanal)


The Man in the White Suit

Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, The Man in the White Suit

“Why can’t you scientists leave things alone?” Cinema in the 1950s often focused on the dangers caused by experiments that went horribly wrong. But Ealing’s The Man in the White Suit isn’t a sci-fi movie about marauding giant ants, or a cautionary tale about the nuclear arms race. This is a bleak but brilliant satire about industrial unrest, class conflict and shattered dreams in the British textile industry.

Sidney Stratton (played by Alec Guinness) is an ambitious young chemist, who’s determined to perfect his formula for an indestructible new cloth. He inveigles his way into an unpaid position at the factory owned by Birnley (Cecil Parker). The bean-counters there wouldn’t know an electron microscope from a hole in the ground, but they do spot a few anomalies in the accounts. Luckily, Birnley’s daughter Daphne (Joan Greenwood) takes a shine to Sid, so he’s given the time and money to pursue his dream. But there’s a big snag: winning the “endless losing battle against shabbiness and dirt” might be great news for consumers, but it would also deal a death-blow to the industry.

If you know Ealing mainly for lighter films like The Titfield Thunderbolt and Passport to Pimlico, this is a far more cynical portrait of postwar Britain from director Alexander Mackendrick. He’d already made Whisky Galore! (1949) for Ealing and would later direct the wickedly black comedy The Ladykillers in 1955. But The Man in the White Suit, which was co-written by Mackendrick with John Dighton and Roger MacDougall, isn’t remotely cosy, heartwarming or “Home Counties”. It’s set in an archetypal North of England town, dominated by narrow terraced streets, sooty factory chimneys and an overriding sense of “where there’s muck there’s brass”.

There are also elements of film noir about the look and content of this film that wouldn’t be out of place in 1940s Hollywood. Guinness’s Sidney is constantly embattled, held captive or in flight from his enemies on both sides of the class divide. When he’s not fleeing in his luminous white suit, Sidney hides around corners at the factory, or lurks in the shadows at Mrs Watson’s boarding house. Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe uses atmospheric shots of the banister rails at the Birnley mansion to emphasise that there’s no escape for Sidney.

Joan Greenwood’s husky-voiced Daphne isn’t a femme fatale here, but her pursuit of the single-minded Sidney is driven less by romantic yearnings than by a desire to escape the overbearing men in her life. Sidney, who dazzles Daphne with his discourse on “long-chain molecules”, doesn’t even notice that he has another ardent admirer in down-to-earth factory worker Bertha (Vida Hope). This is a film in which the hero’s eyes light up not at the sight of female beauty, but the vision of a lab full of gleaming test tubes.

Guinness was undoubtedly Ealing’s greatest star, but even his skill can’t make Sidney into a figure you really care about. He evolves from a bumbling boffin in a tin hat and cricket sweater who keeps blowing up his lab, to a thoroughly divisive figure who threatens an industry’s survival. But there’s never a sense that he’s gained any perspective or grasped that his invention could have serious consequences – for rich and poor. The Man in the White Suit is a film I admire for its pacy direction, smart script and superb performances, but I don’t relish it in the same way as Kind Hearts and Coronets.

A restored print of The Man in the White Suit is being re-released in UK cinemas this month to commemorate the 100th anniversary of director Alexander Mackendrick’s birth. The new DVD/Blu-ray release is a bit of a disappointment though. There’s a brief featurette “Revisiting the Man in the White Suit”, with contributions from Stephen Frears and Ian Christie, but no audio commentary or detailed look at Mackendrick’s career.

The Man in the White Suit (StudioCanal DVD & Blu-ray)

Sun Screen: My Favourite Summer Movies

Sunflower (Pic HendrixXx)

Another washout British summer is well under way, bringing with it the familiar procession of rained-off sporting events, damp barbecues and hand-wringing editorials. Yes, the only thing that sets my teeth on edge more than our bloody awful weather is reading the nonsensical ramblings of smug Guardian journalists, telling us how much we really love the rain.

Well perhaps Stuart Jeffries is just pretending to hate the incessant downpour, as he prepares to don his Vilebrequins for a long vacation at his Tuscan villa. But some of us just feel crushed as yet another summer fails to live up to our expectations of a three-month-long excursion into unalloyed hedonism. That’s why it’s good to escape into the world of the silver screen.

I’m not talking about the superhero fantasy action adventures that are now a staple of the summer blockbuster season. The Amazing Super-Man might be a Marvellous prospect to you, but I’m not that bothered about seeing Marc Webb’s reboot of the Spidey franchise or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, both of which will crash-land here next month. I prefer the kind of cinematic fantasy that delves into the seemingly never-ending pleasure cruise that was the 60s, or takes place in a post-school, post-exam world of cheap beer and carefree adolescence.

For that vicarious summer experience you could just go straight to the Elvis Presley boxed set, mix yourself a pitcher of Blue Hawaiis and imbibe cinematic gems like Clambake and Girl Happy. But my favourite summer movies are not vacuous, franchise-led cinematic detritus, littering the beach with their wooden dialogue, pedestrian direction and phoned-in performances. Some of my choices don’t even have happy endings, because as we all know, pleasure sometimes comes at a high price.

Breaking Away (1979)

A paean to the joys of cycling, Peter Yates’s freewheeling comedy drama also reminds us of the importance of being yourself. They may not have beaches in Bloomington, Indiana, but there’s always the quarry . . .

The Go-Between (1971)

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Well not that differently — it rains all over the opening credits of Joseph Losey’s masterful adaptation of LP Hartley’s novel. In the rising heat of a late Victorian summer, naive schoolboy Leo (Dominic Guard) holidays in Norfolk and falls under the spell of the sexually liberated Marian (Julie Christie).

Passport to Pimlico (1949)

This is how Austerity Britain looked when it was sun-baked, energised by a post-war community spirit and wrapped up in the cosy familiarity of a classic Ealing comedy. Forget about hosepipe bans: this is a world in which the gin flows freely and you can always tap into a nearby fire hydrant.

The Greengage Summer (1961)

Teenager Joss Grey (Susannah York) finds that a summer in rural France in charge of her siblings is a heady mixture of gorgeous countryside, glorious freedom and rude awakenings.

The Graduate (1967)

Even an advertising genius like Don Draper would struggle to come up with a more perfect encapsulation of post-graduation “chillaxing” than this montage of a newly liberated Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman).

Dazed and Confused (1993)

The perfect end-of-term kegger in mid-70s Texas would always have Foghat on the soundtrack, Richard Linklater in the director’s chair and a spirit of good-natured anarchy in the air. Summer has just begun.