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Ericson: It’s the war, the whole bloody war. We’ve just got to do these things and say our prayers at the end.
Notes

  1. Aldgate and Richards argue the key change occurs after 1950, when there is a shift from Ealing films showing ‘the people as hero’ to those portraying officers and gentlemen as heroes (Aldgate, 2002: 136).

  2. Member of the British Board of Film Censors at the time, John Trevelyan, suggested it was the public that did not want to know too much of the reality (Trevelyan, 1973: 156). The most popular film of 1953 was Rank’s pageantry-filled coverage of the Coronation, A Queen Is Crowned.

  3. According to some The Cruel Sea is the closest war films from the 1950s came to making an anti-war statement (Medhurst 1984: 36).

  4. It is true that the cinematography below decks does give a sense of the claustrophobia of these spaces and their potential for entrapment, something which culminates in Compass Rose entombing many of these seamen at the bottom of the Atlantic.

Further Reading

Anthony Aldgate and Jeffrey Richards, Best of British: Cinema and Society from 1930 to the Present, London, I.B. Tauris, 2002.

Charles Barr, Ealing Studios, Moffat, Cameron and Hollis, 1998.

Marcia Landy, British Genres: Cinema and Society, 1930-1960, Princeton N.J., Princeton University, 1991.

Andy Medhurst, ‘1950s War Films’ in Geoff Hurd (ed) National Fictions: World War Two in British Films and Television, London, BFI, 1984.

Robert Murphy, British Cinema and the Second World War, London, Continuum, 2000.

John Trevelyan, What the Censor Saw, London, Michael Joseph, 1973.

John White The Ladykillers (1955) [Production Company: Ealing Studios. Director: Alexander Mackendrick. Screenwriter: William Rose. Cinematographer: Otto Heller. Music: Tristram Cary. Editor: Jack Harris. Cast: Katie Johnson (Mrs Wilberforce), Alec Guinness (Professor Marcus), Cecil Parker (Major Courtney), Herbert Lom (Louis), Peter Sellers (Harry), Danny Green (One-Round).]
The Ladykillers is widely recognised as the last of the major Ealing comedies and thereby acts as coda for this sequence of films. Hue and Cry (1947) is usually taken as the starting point and the other substantial landmarks include Passport to Pimlico (1949), Whiskey Galore (1949), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Man in the White Suit (1951). Along with several minor films, they form a body of work which has retained its popular appeal and become synonymous with a particular vein in British film comedy. In The Encyclopedia of British Film, Charles Barr describes them as ‘gentle, cosy, whimsical’. (McFarlane 2003: 193) They typically celebrate the British love of eccentricity and side with the uncommon individual against larger corporate or state institutions. In doing so, there is often a fascination with the minutiae of British life, from schoolboy comics to those endless cups of tea. Individuals or whole communities frequently find themselves having to rebel or even turn to crime to protect themselves against bureaucracy or big business. Despite the potential seriousness of this as a topic, the handling is consistently light and warmly sympathetic.
Much of the responsibility for the company’s ethos can be attributed to its head of production, Michael Balcon. Although Balcon often takes the producer credit on Ealing’s films (including The Ladykillers), the job of producing individual films was usually in the hands of an associate producer (in this case, Seth Holt). Nonetheless, Balcon’s influence was writ large throughout the company. Ealing adopted the slogan ‘The Studio with the Team Spirit’ and its symbol ‘became the Round Table at which, every week, producers, writers and directors consulted freely together’. (Barr 1977: 6) Balcon seems to have viewed the studio as a family unit, with himself cast in the role of the firm, but kindly father. (Balcon 1969: 138) A communal spirit was both part of the company’s production ethic and also reflected in the films they made. By the late 1940s Ealing had established a reputation for both populist comedies (with a strong appeal to working class audiences) and for documentary-realism (as seen in the propagandist films they produced during World War Two). Elements of both approaches are apparent in the Ealing comedies. Realism is evident in the use of location shooting, the strong sense of place and the focus on ordinary citizens, although this realism is often overlaid by fantasy and visual stylisation, as is the case with The Ladykillers.
Balcon was also concerned that Ealing’s films should reflect the intrinsic nature of Britain and then project this image out to a wider world. When the studio was sold in 1955 he provided the wording for a commemorative plaque: ‘Here during a quarter of a century were made many films projecting Britain and the British character.’ As a result, Ealing’s films often reflect in a direct way on the contemporary condition of Britain. The political landscape of the immediate post-war period was radically shaped by the election of Clement Atlee’s Labour government in 1945. Atlee’s administration set about realising the socialist dream of a welfare state which would offer its citizens care and opportunity ‘from the cradle to the grave’, whatever their individual social background. (1) This was a social experiment which Balcon broadly supported, although not without a sense of ambivalence:
Though we were radical in our points of view, we did not want to tear down institutions … We were people of the immediate post-war generation and we voted Labour for the first time after the war: this was our mild revolution.

(Ellis 1975: 119)


However, by 1951 the Conservatives were back in office, where they were to remain for the next thirteen years. The forces of reaction had seemingly prevailed over Labour’s short-lived ‘mild revolution.’ It is against this context that The Ladykillers needs to be read.
Another factor in assessing the film is the position within Ealing of its director and its writer, Alexander Mackendrick and William Rose. Rose was an American, whilst Mackendrick was born in Boston and brought up in Scotland. Although it’s easy to over-interpret the importance of their backgrounds, at Ealing, the most English of studios, they seem to have shared a sense of distance from the prevailing ethos which Balcon fostered. Roy Armes suggests that Mackendrick’s work ‘transcends the self-imposed limitations of the Ealing style’. (Armes 1978: 190) Similarly, in his study of Mackendrick, Philip Kemp suggests that ‘by disdaining the bland, conciliatory endings that Ealing favoured, he constantly questions the studio’s assumptions even while ostensibly operating within them’. (Kemp 1991: 135) Mackendrick was frequently at odds with Balcon and The Ladykillers has the air of a final declaration of intent before his departure for America.
At first sight, the film has many characteristics which position it firmly within the canon of Ealing comedies. It sympathetically portrays a criminal gang and its action is rooted in a strong sense of place, with the central robbery taking place at Kings Cross Station and several sequences shot in nearby streets. The minutiae of English life are recreated with Ealing’s typical attention to mundane detail, from the rank of shops near Mrs Wilberforce’s home to the cluttered interior of her house. The love of eccentricity is embodied in the all the characterisations and encapsulated by the attitude of the local police superintendent (Jack Warner) towards Mrs Wilberforce; we are first introduced to her when she makes one of her regular visits to the police station to explain that her friend Amelia’s sighting of a spaceship was actually just a dream. The police treat her with characteristic kindness and indulgence. The film even offers a little gentle knockabout humour in the sequence following the robbery when Mrs Wilberforce manages to inadvertently cause a street brawl between a barrow boy and a cab driver, played by the two popular comics Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Connor.
However, the film is more remarkable for the ways in which it deviates from the Ealing norm. From its opening, when the sinister, grotesque Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness) arrives to rent the spare room in Mrs Wilberforce’s house, the film abandons Ealing’s usual reliance on surface realism and adopts a stylisation which borders on the Gothic. This stylisation is apparent in the depiction of the interior of Mrs Wilberforce’s house, with its mountains of bric-a-brac, caged birds and heavy drapery. The house itself is ‘lopsided’ from subsidence caused by wartime bombing and the plumbing can only be persuaded to work if the pipes are pounded with a wooden mallet. The cramped interior creates a feeling of claustrophobia, rather than the cosy comfort one might expect in an Ealing comedy, and Otto Heller’s colour cinematography, with its palette of garish greens and yellows, gives the film an ambience of decay. The underlying menace comes to the surface in the second half of the film as the humour gradually drains out of Rose’s script and we are faced with a modern morality play, as the criminal gang destroy themselves, leaving the scene scattered with bodies in the manner of a Jacobean revenge tragedy.
At the core of the film’s approach is the ambiguous presentation of Mrs Wilberforce herself. In more conventional Ealing fare she would simply be a loveable old lady, but she proves to be rather more formidable and destructive than might be expected. After all, she sees off a hardened gang of train robbers and ends up with the loot herself. At the film’s conclusion, the increasingly deranged Professor Marcus is forced to conclude that she is too strong for them; even with a hundred men they wouldn’t have been able to beat her. Her chosen weapons are the endless cups of tea with which she attacks the gang, but they prove more potent than Louis’s (Herbert Lom) gun. For Philip Kemp, Mrs Wilberforce is a representation of traditional England: ‘what she patently symbolises, besides innocence, is the past in which England is mired’. (Kemp 1991: 120) The film presents Mrs Wilberforce, and her house, as a metaphor for post-war Britain, a place crippled by inertia, clinging to the past and blindly ignoring the fact that the whole construction is falling to bits. Mrs Wilberforce, and all her friends, dress in Edwardian clothes and have names like Constance and Lettice; they seem to have been preserved from an era before World War One. This world certainly has its appeal; it is genteel, polite and ordered, but it also doesn’t work properly (the plumbing) and has no room at all for the modern. Mrs Wilberforce’s victory over the gang is a clear indication of the real power of ‘old England’ to maintain the status quo.
Aldgate and Richards suggest that the film provides an oblique commentary on the nature of 1950s Britain, or ‘cul-de-sac England’ as their essay is called. They interpret the gang as representatives of the social forces (youth, the working class, intellectuals) which would soon come to the fore and radically alter British society during the 1960s. Their defeat by the forces of repression and reaction (Mrs Wilberforce) encapsulates a key historical moment, as ‘1955 is almost the last year in which these dissident elements can be contained, for they are about to burst forth in all directions’. (Aldgate and Richards 1999: 163) This is most perfectly captured in the scene when the gang are forced to join the tea party which Mrs Wilberforce throws for her friends. Charles Barr, slightly playfully, pushes this reading even further by suggesting that the gang actually represent Atlee’s post-war Labour government. (Barr 1977: 171-2) They take over ‘the house’ (parliament), with plans to redistribute wealth (the robbery), but find themselves unable to surmount the forces of conservatism which eventually defeat them (the Tories election victory of 1951). Barr offers this reading in a tongue-in-cheek manner, but nonetheless argues that the film illustrates ‘the absorption of the dynamic by the static, of change by tradition, of the new by the old, which is the essential pattern of post-war British history’. (Barr 1977: 172)
A further fascinating level of metaphor, which is picked up by Aldgate and Richards, is that the film’s allegory is a critique of both post-war Britain and Ealing itself. (Aldgate and Richards 1999: 159) Mrs Wilberforce stands for Balcon, the eternal nanny, benevolently overseeing her slightly wayward young men and trying to keep them on the right path. It’s hardly surprising that Mackendrick left for America after making the film. The remarkable achievement of The Ladykillers lies in its ability to move beyond the familiar comforts provided by the secure world of the Ealing comedy and provide instead a mischievous portrait of a country caught on the brink of change. With a foot in both camps, it offers us a picture of traditional English values in the form of Mrs Wilberforce, a figure as likely to induce alarm as affection.
Notes

1. See ‘That Topic All-Absorbing: Class’ and ‘The Welfare State’ in Arthur Marwick, British Society Since 1945, London, Penguin, 1986.


Further Reading

Anthony Aldgate and Jeffrey Richards Best of British: Cinema and Society from 1930 to the Present, London, I.B. Tauris, 1999.

Roy Armes, A Critical History of British Cinema, London, Secker and Warburg, 1978.

Michael Balcon, A Lifetime of Films, London, Hutchinson, 1969.

Charles Barr, Ealing Studios, New York, The Overlook Press, 1977.

John Ellis, ‘Made in Ealing’ in Screen, 16, Spring 1975.

Philip Kemp, Lethal Innocence: The Cinema of Alexander Mackendrick, London, Methuen, 1991.

Brian McFarlane, The Encyclopedia of British Film, London, Methuen, 2003.

Robert Murphy, Realism and Tinsel: Cinema and Society in Britain, 1939-1949, London, Routledge, 1989.

Tim Pulleine, ‘A Song and Dance at the Local: Thoughts on Ealing’ in Robert Murphy (ed) The British Cinema Book, London, BFI, 2001.

Robert Shail Sapphire (1959) [Production Company: Artna Films. Director: Basil Dearden. Screenwriter: Janet Green (additional dialogue: Lukas Heller). Cinematographer: Harry Waxman. Music: Philip Green. Editor: John Guthridge. Cast: Nigel Patrick (Superintendent Bob Hazzard), Michael Craig (Inspector Phil Learoyd), Earl Cameron (Dr Robbins), Yvonne Mitchell (Mildred), Paul Massie (David Harris), Bernard Miles (Ted Harris), Olga Lindo (Mrs Harris), Gordon Heath (Paul Slade), Harry Baird (Johnnie Fiddle), Robert Adams (Horace ‘Big Cigar’).]
In Sapphire (Dearden, 1959) African-Caribbean faces fill the screen in scene after scene; and for mainstream cinema audiences of the time, used only to the essentially voiceless presence of black natives as the threatening hordes of Empire in their films, this would have made Sapphire challenging viewing. The central characters are two white police officers but the enigma at the heart of the film is a murdered black woman, a ‘lilywhite’ who has attempted to pass as white. In plot terms the police officers are investigating the death of this woman, Sapphire, but thematically their journey represents an effort to come to terms with the presence of a growing black community within traditionally white British society. Superintendent Bob Hazzard and Inspector Phil Learoyd are effectively investigating the collective psychological make-up of British society in relation to this black presence.
Apart from Earl Cameron as Dr Robbins, the brother of the murdered Sapphire, none of the black characters has a leading role but their multifaceted presence as an ethnic community is emphasised; and this is in a film that was made and released immediately after the Notting Hill riots of 1958 when gangs of young whites had taken to the streets ‘nigger hunting’ during the late August Bank Holiday and into early September.
The audience is placed in the position of watching one black character, Johnny Fiddler, being chased by a white gang. After several groups have refused to offer him shelter, including (interestingly) a black couple who don’t want to get involved and whites in a pub who call him ‘nigger’ and ‘dirty black’, a white woman persuades her husband to let Johnny into their shop to save him from the mob. A similar incident actually happened to one Seymour Manning from Derby who arrived in Notting Hill during the Bank Holiday to visit relatives. He was saved by white woman who let him into her greengrocer’s shop. The aftermath was covered by Pathe News and released as a newsreel that the same audiences who watched Sapphire might well have seen.

The attacks and riots in Notting Hill (which were preceded by similar events in Nottingham) were covered extensively in the newspapers, but this open violence was only the most visible expression of deep-seated prejudice amongst sections of the British public. In Sapphire the officers investigating Sapphire’s murder go to the International Club where they see a black pianist, and this results in direct social comment from Hazzard, who concludes, ‘He’s lucky, he’ll be accepted for what he is: a good pianist’.


Sporadic violence continued in the Notting Hill area after the main riots and culminated in the death of Kelso Cochrane in May 1959, the year of Sapphire’s release. In the film, Hazzard refers directly to the idea of riots against minority groups: ‘Given the right atmosphere you can organise riots against anyone: Jews, Catholics, Negroes, Irishmen’. In the context of the war, which had ended just 14 years before, the mention of ‘Jews’ is especially powerful (a similar comparison is made in a BBC TV play from 1956, A Man From the Sun); and the use of ‘Catholics’ and ‘Irishmen’ highlights the situation for the other main group facing discrimination in Britain in the late 50s. (1)
During this period Britain continued to maintain a false impression of itself as an imperial power. In 1951 the Festival of Britain celebrated British achievements, in 1952 Churchill revealed Britain now had the atomic bomb, and in 1953 the coronation of Elizabeth II took place amid incredible pageantry with the Queen then setting out on a six-month tour of the Commonwealth. Victory in the war, and the nostalgic and heroic representation of this success through the media, especially film, helped shape the outlook of ordinary Britons. Britain may no longer have enjoyed a monopoly of world trade and the Empire may have been disintegrating through a series of, often bloody, struggles for independence, but the attitude of Britons of all classes towards the former colonies remained one of racial superiority.

When migrants from the West Indies began to arrive in Tilbury in 1948 they found plenty of work - their labour was useful to the economy, but were confronted by open discrimination. Immigrants were ghettoised into areas of poor housing (as seen in Sapphire) and the resulting communities naturally attracted new arrivals. Organisations like London Transport and several regional hospital boards (see the black nurse in Sapphire, Miss Dawson) went to the West Indies on recruitment drives. By late 1958 London Transport employed almost 4,000 black workers, with about a quarter recruited directly from the Caribbean. In the ten years from 1951 to 1961



  • the estimated number of West Africans in Britain rose from 6,000 to 20,000,

  • the number of Pakistanis from 5,000 to 25,000,

  • the number of immigrants from the Far East from 12,000 to 30,000,

  • the number of Indians from 30,000 to 80,000

  • and the number of West Indians from 15,000 to 170,000.

What would have been called in 1961 the ‘coloured’ population was therefore four times what it was ten years earlier, and within this the West Indian population had increased tenfold. Even so, West Indians still represented only just over a quarter of one per cent of the country’s population.
Commonwealth citizens were absent from most post-war British films. Occasionally they were a token presence as in A Matter of Life and Death (Powell and Pressbuger, 1947) where there is some recognition that more then 2.5 million Indians, for example, had been in the armed forces during the war with 36,000 killed in action; often they were a source of jokes as in the ‘Doctor in the House’ film series; and only rarely were they seen within a serious dramatic context as in Simba (1955) dealing with Mau Mau attacks in Kenya in which Cameron played the humanitarian, Dr Karanja. Social problem films were a feature of the 1950s, but Sapphire (voted Best British Film for 1959 by the British Film Academy) is rare in dealing with the race issue in such a direct fashion. Pool of London (with Cameron controversially shown in a relationship with a white girl) had been made in 1950 and Flame in the Streets (with the same star attempting to overcome discrimination) was to be made two years later in 1961.
Pool of London, directed by Dearden, tells the story of Johnnie, a Jamaican merchant seaman who through his friendship with a white sailor becomes implicated in a diamond theft. As with Sapphire it displays open prejudice (with the central black character again being called ‘dirty’, for instance) but also has a clear social message:
Johnnie: You wonder why one man is born white and another black. Pat: It doesn’t matter. Johnnie: It does you know: one day maybe it won’t.
It does not contain the sheer number of black characters and racism is not as central to the narrative as in Sapphire, but this film could be considered the more effective anti-racist text: Cameron’s character has a more central role, is the embodiment of honesty, integrity and gentleness, and is loved for these human qualities by two further key characters (both white, one male and one female). Which is not to say there are not stereotypical representations within this film (as there are within Sapphire): see Cameron in several scenes for instance as the simple, happy, black ‘servant’.
The way West Indians are represented in these texts and the relationship of these representations to socio-historical context is certainly questionable in some respects. Sapphire, the character, is an absence from the film that bears her name: we, like the detectives, have to construct her from snippets of information gleaned from a series of sources each with their own perspective on the issue. It seems she has found she can pass for being white and as a result has left her black friendship groups and passed over into the white world. It could be suggested this is her ultimate crime: she has attempted to transcend the boundaries of race. Threateningly for racists she is not only the alien ‘other’ but also the ‘other’ that cannot be recognised as such. Whilst purporting to deal with a social issue in an enlightened liberal way, this film could be seen as an expression of white fear of the black ‘other’ that could soon through the ‘horror’ of miscegenation become the unrecognisable presence within our midst (or even within each of us individually).
When two (or more) ethnic communities come into contact there are three generalised possible outcomes:

  • separatism - the two communities continue to exist each as it were in a vacuum;

  • integration - the two communities mix or intermingle (rather than clash) on the basis of equality and mutual respect for each other’s culture;

  • assimilation - one ethnic group is prepared to renounce its cultural identity in order to achieve membership status within the other community.

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