Hue and Cry (1947)

When it’s on: Saturday, 12 August (6.05 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

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: ***

School for Scoundrels (1960)

When it’s on: Saturday, 28 February (6.15 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

In School for Scoundrels, Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael) regards himself as a failure. He’s overlooked for tennis matches at his club. The chief clerk at the office he manages patronises him; the staff treat him with total derision. Having run to catch up with the bus he’s missed, he accidentally barges into the lovely April Smith (Janette Scott) and asks her out for dinner, only to find his reservation at the posh restaurant has been overlooked. He goes to buy a car to impress April and winds up being sold an ancient banger by two sharks who see him coming from a mile away. Worst of all, he’s treated like a chump by rival Raymond Delauney (Terry Thomas), who charms April away from him and then thrashes him on the tennis court.

What else is a chap to do but enrol at the College of Lifemanship, an exclusive and expensive private school that promises to turn losers into winners, underdogs into top men, exhorting that if you’re not one up on the other fellow, then he’s one up on you. The college is run by Mr S Potter (Alastair Sim), who over the following weeks teaches young Palfrey how to turn any situation to his advantage, to become one up on other people. What follows is our hero going through the same situations as at the beginning of the film, only this time walking away smiling. Not only does he get the money back for his knackered car, he drives off in a racy number and ten guineas up. His rematch with Delauney on the court turns into an equally sound beating but with him on top, and of course he wins April back. But will he use the tricks he’s learned at the college to take advantage of the young lady, or be honest with her and hope she feels the same way about him?

Screened on BBC at an insanely early time, School for Scoundrels is the sort of pithy, amiable and very British comedy that simply isn’t made anymore, indeed it was rehashed in 2006, Americanised and starring Jon Heder and Billy Bob Thornton, and replaced the warm charm with dark humour and bad language. Nothing wrong with those things if applied to good comic effect, but there’s a crude and even cruel streak to the update that was less in evidence in the 1960 original. Thomas plays a cad and a bouncer, sure, but he’s all surface charm. When the empowered Palfrey starts to rattle him he loses his cool in short order, typified in the car horn that sounds like a wolf whistle until it’s applied more frequently and then it becomes as frantic as Delauney’s frazzled nerves.

Thomas is brilliantly cast, a bit of a national treasure of disreputable behaviour, gap tooted oily smarm present and correct. But even better is Sim as the elusive Mr Potter. The film is loosely based on the successful series of ‘Gamesmanship’ books by Stephen Potter, mocking the self-help titles of the era yet hardly an novel, so to add a string of narrative the screenplay created the character Mr Potter, who has turned to using his wiles gainfully in order to instruct others. Memorably eccentric and delivering every line in a mannered elucidation, Sim is perfect in the part and even gets to break the fourth wall in the film’s closing moments. Carmichael, in a rather typical role, is just fine and completely convincing as the nice guy who learns how not to finish last, though he remains essentially good. And then there’s Janette Scott, one of the lovelier British stars of the era, who has to do little but look and act pretty, and comes across as someone for whom it’s worth making the effort.

School for Scoundrels found a small role for Dennis Price as one of the grifter car salesmen, which ties in to the film’s original director, Robert Hamer (the pair worked together on the endlessly entertaining Kind Hearts and Coronets). Sadly for Hamer, he was suffering from alcoholism and, falling off the wagon during filming,  wound up getting sacked from the project, never to direct again. Three years later, he was dead from pneumonia, a sad and ignominious end to someone who got the opportunity to show major talent too little. Under pseudonyms, the smart script was by Peter Ustinov and Frank Tarloff, the latter a victim of Hollywood blacklisting.

The film might be a disappointment for those expecting ‘laugh out loud’ knockabout comedy. What it does have is effortless charm and a certain sweetness at its heart. From the moment Palfrey steps off the train to Yeovil and is made to follow signs featuring big fingers pointing the way, you know you’re in for a bit of a treat, and that word, I think, sums up School for Scoundrels as well as any.

School for Scoundrels: ****

Let It Go

A mazy and disjointed ramble through Christmas films…

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house not a creature was stirring, well apart from me as I still have some sort of bloody virus that’s stopping me from those little holiday luxuries like a good sleep. In fairness, being ill – not really ill, as in ‘sorry, I can’t make it in today’ proper sickness, more what we refer to as being ‘a bit under the weather’ – has driven this site’s churn of watching and writing about films. The Glenn Miller Story is currently cued up, ready to go, and, let’s be honest, there’s never a bad time to see it, is there?

A cursory glance through the schedules reveals to me that Frozen is Sky’s big Christmas Day premiere. It’s a sound choice, obvious even. Doing my present buying in recent weeks, I’ve been confronted with endless merchandise, image after image from the Disney flick that has bucked tradition by becoming increasingly popular long after its initial release, so that it’s now a juggernaut with faulty brakes, gaining a kind of snowball effect with viewers. Generally, I have little to say about it that disagrees with Badblokebob’s excellent review; like Bob I quite enjoyed Frozen, though I saw nothing that really made it stand out for me, and in true middle-aged man style my Dreyfus tic kicks in whenever I sense a song on the horizon. If I remember rightly, it isn’t even a Christmas film per se, in the same way Jingle Bells was never in fact written for Christmas, but it’s become part of the season thanks to its snowy subject matter and Disney’s canny alignment with all things Yule. Look, if you really want to know, I thought Maleficent was a far better picture.

As for genuine Christmas movies, Mrs Mike and I went to the delightful Picture House in Hebden Bridge yesterday afternoon to catch It’s a Wonderful Life. I know, I know, it’s an obvious choice, and somewhere down the line it became the archetypal film of the season. My father was a fan of classic cinema and sat me down before it back when I was a kid because ‘it’s good and you might learn something’, and I’m sure in those days it didn’t hold the special place in peoples’ hearts that it currently occupies. And it remains a disturbing watch, the grim tale of an essentially decent man driven towards such untold levels of despair that a guardian angel is sent to show him what his hometown and its citizens would be like if he had never been born. The film’s final few minutes are unashamedly sentimental, but that’s just a payoff for the main character’s nightmarish vision of coming across dear old friends and a wife with no idea who he is, their lives and outlooks hard and cynical because he was never there to provide the friendship and optimism we all need in order to carry on. At the heart is James Stewart’s George Bailey, a note-perfect performance from someone keen to subvert his wholesome image as a man who seems to visibly carry the worries of the world on his shoulders. The film is marketed as heartwarming, ‘the most loved Christmas film of all time’ goes the tagline, yet the image that stays with me is Bailey before he gets his vision, bags under his eyes, grey in his hair, all slumped posture, a picture of utter defeat. It might very well be wonderful, but it isn’t light viewing.

And yet it’s a million miles removed from most Christmas films, loaded with sentiment and a bit like being tied down while someone straddles you and pours syrup down your forced open mouth, sugarboarding if you like. Heck, there are entire Cable channels that show nothing but Christmas movies. Most of them I don’t like. Elf? Nope. The Santa Clause? No thank you. Those interminable Disney films where dogs are the heroes? Someone must like that sort of nonsense, but not for me. I will admit to a fondness for Robert Zemeckis’s animated take on A Christmas Carol from 2009, largely because no one can make a camera do those impossible swoops and dives through computer generated scenes quite like Zemeckis, but the source material has become so familiar and readapted that watching any version is like an easy wander down some local path that I’ve taken many times beforehand. The best, again handed down from my dad, is the 1951 vintage directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and starring Alastair Sim, though its by no means Sim’s finest performance (without thinking hard about it, I have nothing but love for his professional bounder in School for Scoundrels) and, perhaps because it’s the one that was circulated most frequently when I was young, the musical Scrooge from 1970 remains close to my heart.

Perhaps my favourite Scrooge film isn’t even an adaptation of A Christmas Carol at all, but is instead Hammer’s Cash on Demand, in which the old curmudgeon is reimagined as a stuffy bank manager, played by Peter Cushing. The story takes place on 23 December. Harry Fordyce runs his provincial branch on a short leash, setting impossible standards for the staff, especially Richard Vernon’s hangdog underling. The bank’s workers prepare for their Christmas party in the full and sure knowledge that Mr Fordyce will not wish to be involved. Into his world strides Colonel Gore-Hepburn (Andre Morell), a bogus investigator from ‘Head Office’ who turns out to be a bank robber with the perfect plan to empty the branch’s vaults and somehow co-opt Fordyce as his willing accomplice. It’s brilliant, tense viewing, running a breathless 80 minutes as, steadily, Fordyce’s stiff veneer is undermined until the desperate and emotional core is on full display. Cushing has been in many bigger films but he’s rarely been better, entirely convincing as his entire raison d’etre is stripped away. Morell is like all three Christmas ghosts rolled into one, an effortlessly charming criminal who is far more likeable and personable than the austere and remote Fordyce. It’s fortunate that Sony cleaned up and released the film on its Icons of Suspense boxset several years ago; previously, it was a forgotten footnote in the Hammer back catalogue, rarely screened and largely unavailable.

Otherwise, I submit for your approval Millions, the little Danny Boyle film from 2004 that I see as completely charming without resorting to cheap sentiment. Reviewed on these pages here, it was made for very little money and raked in enough to be considered a minor success, though its impact on the box office was minimal compared to the juggernauts of the time. That said, its release was an exercise in mishandling. It’s a Christmas film that came out in April, and its semi-regular appearances on network television have it bouncing around the calendar, as though no one knows quite what to make of it. The barebones plot is that of two young boys who come across a suitcase full of money, the classic MacGuffin plot device that served Boyle previously in Shallow Grave. Unlike that earlier film, in which the characters attempt to cheat and harm each other in an effort to gain all the cash, Millions’ kids are cute with their newfound wealth. The older one, Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), is savvy and uses it to gain status with his peers; his younger brother Damian (Alex Etel) wants to give it to the poor. Damian’s knowledge of and conversations with real-life saints is both a reflection of the wonder of children, whilst also serving as a reaction to the boys’ recent loss of their mother. Clearly affected, Damian’s mourning is shown in his inquiring of the saints whether they’ve come across Saint Maureen; as he explains, she’s new in Heaven.

Their dad is played by the ever-underrated James Nesbitt, obviously just about holding it together despite his grieving. There’s a rubbish nativity play, a series of televised adverts about Britain’s imminent conversion to the Euro that star Leslie Phillips, and the film’s villain, the ‘poor man’ played by Christopher Fulford whose search for the suitcase turns him into an understated yet deeply sinister character, like Death itself ever on the fringes of the action. Set in a modern and very real Widnes, it never pushes its morality too hard whilst charming the socks off its viewers with its really big heart. Damian is an adorable character without ever trying to be; he’s entirely relatable. Such a shame that Millions remains in semi-obscurity; take this as a plea from me to check it out.

So anyway, it’s (Glenn) Miller time, to be accompanied with coffee and York Fruits (the supermarkets had been cleared of Celebrations and Quality Street by the time we arrived, so some improvisation was required). Please enjoy your Christmas, whatever you choose to watch, though I heartily recommend The Lady Vanishes, and I’ll see you on the other side.