When it’s on: Tuesday, 29 May (4.45 pm)
This Happy Breed was the second collaboration between Noel Coward and David Lean. Their first, In Which we Serve, featured Coward as very much the senior partner, co-directing with Lean, the latter taking on the more technical side of the job and the editing process. Two years down the line and Lean was fully in control, adapting Coward’s play with the latter even being gazumphed in the role of Frank Gibbons, the lead part he’d taken on the stage, by Robert Newton.
In many ways, This Happy Breed doesn’t square well with our perceptions of the patrician Coward. Yet the flamboyant wit came from lowly roots, brought up in Teddington, and his play is a kind of paean to the indomitable spirit of the working classes. This is channelled in the film, Lean’s first in colour. It’s about the Gibbons, a family settling into their new Clapham home in 1919, through to their departure in 1939. The head is Frank, returning from World War I to settle back into a normal working life. He likes a tipple, especially with his neighbour and war comrade, Bob Mitchell (Stanley Holloway), but he also has a nice line in earthy wisdom, for instance when dismissing his son’s leaning towards Socialism as a symptom of attempts to seek a better world that will always be undermined by basic human nature. John Mills takes a supporting role as Bob’s son, in love with Frank’s daughter, Queenie (Kay Walsh), and forging a career with the Royal Navy.
Frank’s wife, Ethel, is played by Celia Johnson. A renowned stage actress who was soon to produce her star-making turn in Brief Encounter, Johnson is fantastic as the living personification of the Keep Calm and Carry On ethos. Not exactly a beauty and made up to look appropriately haggard as the lived-in mum of This Happy Breed, Johnson’s performance is just note-perfect. The understated pain she portrayed in Brief Encounter is just as evident here, her saucer-like eyes conveying all the grief and challenge faced by a working class matriarch who’s helpless in the face of her family’s movements.
As Britain recovers slowly from the Great War and slides towards its sequel, the Gibbons keep calm and carry on. They survive the death of one family member, the elopement of a daughter, the tensions inherent in a group of people shoehorned into a house with little diversion but each other’s company. The period detail is wonderful, from the tea service to the new wireless that takes pride of place on the mantelpiece.
There’s an impression of Lean that because he often enough got to work with the best of cast and crew, great films were made almost in spite of him, as if all he had to do was point the camera in the right direction and the various talents around him filled in the great art. The stage origins of the material are clear enough in the way most of This Happy Breed takes place in the Gibbons’ home, but there’s plenty of time for nice little directorial touches that prove Lean’s abilities. A parade of battalions returning from World War I is a collage of different coloured uniforms and triumphal marching music, only for the camera to distance itself from the images and sounds, focusing instead on a cenotaph. Later, the conveying to the Gibbons of their son’s death happens off screen, the camera remaining discretely in the living room and instead picking up the incongruous sounds of the big band music on the radio and kids playing outside, as though it would be unconscionable to intrude on their grief.
It’s a lovely film, worth sticking with through a slow start as the narrative steadily immerses us in the main characters. This Happy Breed also lives on in the theatres, as a run in 2011 starring Dean Lennox Kelly demonstrates. Both the play and film offer us glimpses into a British society that barely exists any longer, such is the effect of two world wars, political shifts and the passing of time.
This Happy Breed: ****