When it’s on: Saturday, 12 August (6.05 am)
If there’s anything more perfect for a work-free, lazy Saturday morning than some light, classic fare from Ealing Studios, then I don’t know what is. Today, BBC2 presents Hue and Cry in its early slot. Credited as the first of the imperial phase Ealing comedies, it’s a rather lovely and whimsical hour and eighteen minutes of your time, deftly put together by a team of people that had already found its feet – producer Michael Balcon, writer T.E.B. ‘Tibby’ Clarke and Charles Crichton on directorial duties, and sporting a cast that mixed youthful unknowns with sure hands like Alastair Sim and Jack Warner. Nothing could go wrong with this lot, and nothing did, as the cast and crew put together a winning slice of entertainment that was thoroughly British in its execution. The glory days of Whisky Galore! and Passport to Pimlico were still a couple of years away, but Hue and Cry had already set the template for what was to follow.
The film follows Joe Kirby (Harry Fowler), a senior member of the ‘Blood and Thunder Boys’ of kids that wander freely through the bombed out streets of post-war London. Too old for school and the dubious attractions of the church choir, Joe nevertheless remains a regular fixture amongst the urchins, as addicted as they are to the pulp crime stories exhibited in weekly comic, The Trump. Harbouring pretensions to join the police or to get involved in some sort of life fighting crime, the imaginative Joe thinks he’s leapt on an opportunity when the stories he reads about appear to be re-enacted by a real-life criminal outfit, but his claims are dismissed by the police and he’s soon set to involve himself in the world of work, as assistant to grocer, Nightingale (Warner). He refuses to let go of his suspicions, however, drawing both the gang and the stories’ writer, Felix Wilkinson (Sim), in uncovering the correlation between the comic’s tales and petty robberies taking place in the area. Soon enough, Joe finds out that not only is his hunch correct but that the adult world is one of corruption and complacency, grown-ups like his parents refusing to get involved whilst other alleged pillars of the community are mired in the crimes he is attempting to foil. Wilkinson turns out to be little more than a coward, happy enough to take the shilling for his work whilst wanting nothing to do with the actions his stories are inspiring.
It’s pure boys’ own stuff, the action culminating in kids from across London being encouraged to converge on the the criminal activities and put a stop to them. But there’s also a well worked, darker side to Hue and Cry, the figures of authority becoming villains, the sexy blonde (Valerie White) who’s involved, the tense fight for his life that Joe becomes involved in at the film’s close. It isn’t afraid to hint at real danger when those moments are required, the sense that whilst it’s unlikely the film’s young heroes will come to any real harm they are all the same entering situations of genuine peril. There are laughs too. The cool blonde treats the kids with disdain, refusing while captured to divulge the criminals’ activities, before she’s brought low when a boy’s pet mouse clambers onto her leg. One chase scene culminates in the heroes escaping into the sewers and, surrounded by scum, thinking nothing of piling through the oily water to reach safety.
What really makes it work is the setting. Hue and Cry takes place in a city that’s witness to real poverty. The Blood and Thunder Boys hang out in buildings that have been reduced to rubble strewn shells, and nothing is made of the fact. That’s home. Former people’s houses have become their playground, their dens. Any sense of community spirit comes from the children. Joe takes a lead role, but there’s the Scottish kid (Douglas Barr), the barely tolerated girl member, played by Joan Dowling, and the lad who never speaks but instead emits a string of noises (bomber planes, bird sounds) in order to make his presence felt. Whilst there’s an element of the film’s plot keeping real world troubles at bay, these are often hinted at, as shown in the scene between Joe and his parents, who give the impression of being long-suffering listeners to his daydream-fuelled stories.
Hue and Cry retains an adorable quality, irrepressible children defeating jaded adults through the use of their wits and sheer weight of numbers. It’s nicely photographed too, recent restored versions of the film cleaning up previous editions that had been horribly damaged and showing off all those stark London locations to fine effect. I’m also a big fan of the score by Georges Auric, which adds atmosphere and a sense of mystery to the unfolding yarn. Auric had just completed La Belle et la Bete when he took this job on, and would go on to provide memorable and equally mood-driven music for The Wages of Fear and The Innocents. As for the cast, whilst the adult performers claimed the headline roles theirs were in truth subservient parts to those of the children (Sim really has little more than a cameo appearance, albeit one that’s a great showcase for his deliberate and enunciated delivery). Fowler went on to have a long career in film and television before his death, aged 85, in 2012. The same could not be said for Dowling. Both were in fact young adults when they appeared together in Hue and Cry and they wound up becoming a couple. Fowler turned to philandering and Dowling to a suicide attempt in order to frighten him into stopping. Tragically the attempt was successful, the actor’s blossoming career ending at the too-young age of 26.
Hue and Cry: ***