Wednesday, 27 July 2011
Ealing Studios and postwar British film...
Decades of rainy-Sunday screenings have blinded us to the true nature of postwar British cinema – freedom, naughtiness and a very black humour indeed
Thursday 21 July 2011
It begins with a parrot and a gaucho band. We're in South America – or a tiny patch of it, conjured some 60 years ago on a sound stage in London. The customers wear fur wraps and hair cream. The Atlantic stands, suspiciously immobile, beyond the window. And here is Alec Guinness, a British robber in rich retirement, sitting at a table, grinning a complacent grin and declaring his attachment to the Latin high life in that thin, high, gurgling voice. He is a prototypical Ronnie Biggs – and he's prepared to put his money where his mouth is.
When a conspicuously privileged middle-aged woman stops to talk, Guinness presses a roll of banknotes into her outstretched hands – a donation for the "victims of the revolution". A waiter receives a similarly thick wad of beneficence. Another gift is bestowed upon an almond-eyed beauty in long black gloves. Chiquita nuzzles her benefactor's neck, murmuring her gratitude into his ear. Guinness's face becomes a mask of bliss.
These are the opening moments of the Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob – restored and released into cinemas this week. It's a worthy exhibit A in any argument for the richness and vitality and sophistication of British film, but useful evidence, too, for those who argue that our native cinema is unambitiously parochial and too small to contain a talent of truly great magnitude. The reason? The film will not allow Guinness's thief to get away with it: though we won't realise it until the last reel, he is already handcuffed to the Scotland Yard officer charged to bring him back to Britain, rationing, and the fag end of the Attlee administration. And that woman pressing herself against Guinness, passing through the scene with a single line, is Audrey Hepburn – a future international superstar for whom British cinema failed to find a single interesting part.
When Ealing studios was sold in 1955 and its personnel absorbed in the great maw of the Rank Organisation, a memorial plaque was bolted to the wall. "Here during a quarter of a century were made many films projecting Britain and the British character." Perhaps this tablet now commemorates a time when there was more agreement on what those terms might mean. During the war years and their immediate aftermath, Ealing studios helped to clarify Britain's sense of itself – or, at least, its sense of what it hoped to be. We were the postmistresses and vicar's daughters of Went the Day Well?, who used guns and axes to pick off the Nazi infiltrators in their midst. We were the motley gang of Spanish civil war veterans and sour middle-aged clerks who settled their differences to face the inferno of The Bells Go Down. We were the boys of Hue and Cry, who cornered Jack Warner's gang of spivs and racketeers on that bombsite by the Thames.
For the persuasive clarity of these images, Ealing paid the price. When its pictures fell from fashion, they were dismissed as insular, inward-looking, cosy. This was, according to historian Anne Massey, "a vision of a little England [that] detracted from the realities of living in ugly, bombed-out cities". The critic Alexander Walker derided these films as "comfort food for middle England that sat well with the national stomach". It was a profound critical misjudgment – what's comforting about being murdered with an axe in a rural post office? – but it stuck.
Among its enemies and its friends, our native cinema has a reputation for decency and good manners. The awards bestowed on Shakespeare in Love and on The King's Speech are evidence for the American academy's enthusiasm for literate, middlebrow British movies full of nicely dressed Rada graduates. It feels as if this has always been the case – but I suspect the passion only began in earnest when Colin Welland waved his Chariots of Fire Oscar in the air and started bellowing: "The British are coming!"
Before America acquired its Pavlovian response to received pronunciation, British cinema signified something very different to audiences on the other side of the Atlantic. Permissiveness. Smut. License. Amorality. British cinema meant a couple of hours in the dark enjoying an agreeably un-American form of freedom – one that Hollywood was not always capable of supplying. Korda's The Private Life of Henry VIII reigned in New York because the film deconstructed the stuffy romance of the costume drama with faintly filthy humour.
Audiences loved the sadomasochistic sturm und drang of the Gainsborough melodramas, in which James Mason, Jean Kent, Phyllis Calvert and Patricia Roc mounted horses and slapped each other about. They thrilled to the Eastmancolor blood sports of the Hammer horror pictures. They were pleasantly gobsmacked by the transcendental naughtiness of the Carry On series, which loosed a species of gag that would have made Doris Day jump on a chair and scream. If American cinemagoers had not been so delighted by the moment in Carry On Nurse when Hattie Jacques discovers Wilfrid Hyde-White, prone on the hospital linen with a daffodil inserted into his anus, then the Carry Ons might not have made it to the Wilson years.
In the 1950s, Roger Manvell, the first head of the British Film Academy, moaned that British pictures were like "faded leaves painted in exquisite detail by a lady in Cornwall". At the same time, American audiences were turning to our cinema for its vigour, its extremity, its willingness to find black humour in crime, atrocity and moral transgression. It's very hard to imagine a Hollywood studio countenancing the scene in Kind Hearts and Coronets in which Dennis Price assassinates a ballooning old lady with a bow, an arrow and a deft little gag. "I shot an arrow in the air," he purrs. "She fell to earth in Berkeley Square." (The line is a parody of Longfellow, one of the most revered figures in the American literary canon.) Hard, too, to imagine a contemporaneous US horror flick concocting the moment in Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein when the film cuts from an image of the Creature slaying a housemaid to Peter Cushing asking Hazel Court to pass the marmalade. And Trainspotting and Shaun of the Dead prove that this is not a trick that was only possible to pull off half a century ago.
For many modern observers of the film business, globalisation has killed the idea of a national cinema – a form of film-making in which a picture can demonstrate its loyalty to a particular local cultural sensibility. There are, to my mind, two impressive counter-arguments to this idea: the emptiness of European films manufactured to please the American market, and the continued dominance of Hollywood, which has made American-ness one of the most attractive properties in the world. British film-makers have been negotiating Hollywood's power for nearly a century. There will always be Audrey Hepburns who escape their notice until they receive a coronation on the other side of the Atlantic – and there is scarcely much point in agonising over it.
In 1946, Michael Balcon, the head of Ealing studios, wrote an article in which he contended that the second world war had transformed the sensibility and the habits of the British people. "Films," he argued, "have come to mean in the lives of many communities what religion meant to such communities in other times." Ending the supply of indigenous pictures, he suggested, would be the cultural equivalent of cutting off the water supply. Balcon was the son of South African emigres; he was Jewish; he was a grammar school boy from Birmingham. Few were more qualified than him to anatomise the nature of the country in which he told his stories.
Nostalgia, overfamiliarity, decades of rainy-Sunday screenings: these have blinded us to the truthfulness of this vision. The Lavender Hill Mob is not a form of comfort food. Guinness and his gang are brought to justice, but that doesn't cancel out the giddy excitement of their spree. There is something raging inside the film's anti-hero, the lowly bank employee who makes it to the new world with a stash of bullion, and is then forced home again; something that spoke to an audience that had survived the traumas of the second world war, but knew that other, undeclared wars were already being fought. And if we could acknowledge this, and gaze into the troubled heart of Ealing, we might know ourselves better. Know Britain, and the British character.