When it’s on: Saturday, 10 January (8.45 am)
They don’t celebrate it in such a way anymore, but the BBC has served up a season of Ealing comedies in recent weeks, giving us a cross-section of the old studio’s work, and what a delight it’s been. On these pages, we’ve had the chance to celebrate the dark satire of Kind Hearts and Coronets, along with something a bit more whimsical in The Titfield Thunderbolt. The latter represents the proto-Ealing premise of determined ‘smallfolk’ sticking it to the ruthless sweep of progress, the sort of heartfelt tale that found resonance in postwar Britain and charmed viewers. The Maggie tells a very similar story in many ways, only with subtle differences, and the title I noted down most frequently whilst watching it was Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero.
The eponymous Maggie is an ancient puffer boat, the sort of ‘little vessel that could’ that used to buzz around the docks of the Clyde. A dying breed, the Maggie should have been scrapped years ago, but its captain, Peter MacTaggart (Alex Mackenzie) refuses to let go, despite the work the ship clearly needs and the fading paintwork on the cabin. With his crew of three – the laddish Mate (James Copeland), the ever argumentative Engineer (Abe Barker) and the ship’s boy, the ‘wee boy’ (Tommy Kearins) – MacTaggart ambles into a Glasgow bank to beg for funds in order to keep the Maggie going, only to come across an opportunity. The peevish bank manager, Mr Pusey (Hubert Gregg) is attempting to arrange a consignment of goods to be shipped to a Scottish island and the wily Captain leaps at the chance to take it. By a combination of coincidence and misdirection, MacTaggart lands the job and duly sails off with the cargo, despite the Maggie being incapable of handling the load. A voyage of disaster ensues, beginning with the Maggie running aground in the harbour as it attempts to leave during low tide.
What MacTaggart doesn’t bank on is an equally irascible opponent in the cargo’s owner. Meet wealthy American businessman, Calvin B Marshall (Paul Douglas), who is building a home for his wife and himself on the island and is used to getting his own way. Once he learns what has happened, he pursues the Maggie and attempts to get his goods transported onto a more suitable boat, becoming steadily more involved in the adventures of the puffer until he more or less becomes one of the crew. Part of the plot is a game of cat and mouse between Marshall and MacTaggart, the latter trying to bluster his heavyweight way towards getting satisfaction whilst the crafty Skipper does all he can to keep the job until he makes it to the island and can claim his commission.
What makes the film really interesting, however, is the way in which it subverts the perceptions of the viewer. Naturally, you’re led to cheer for the ‘little man’, only MacTaggart is no low-rent hero. He’s a drunk, frequently as much to blame for the Maggie’s mishaps as any Act of God or failings of the boat. An early scene sees him being thrown out of a pub and making the wee boy come up with the cash for his drinks. It’s clear also that he has seriously under-invested in the upkeep of the Maggie, which leads to difficulties later in the story.
As for Marshall, for all his swagger he’s obviously a decent guy, willing to work with MacTaggart when it becomes clear that’s the only opportunity he has of getting his cargo home. In one of the film’s best moments, he’s invited to join in with a party that MacTaggart is naturally attending and dances with a young girl, the sheer joy of living etched on his face. Later, in conversation with her, she teaches him a valuable life lesson about the importance of being with someone who wants to spend time with you. Marshall, who has spent his years building a business empire, gains a cutting insight into where he’s gone wrong, the conversations with Mrs Marshall on the telephone when he could have been with her. It’s a lovely emotive scene, made all the better because of Douglas, a generously proportioned, big open faced man who can’t hide his emotions behind a mask of business inscrutability. There are also some great bits between him and the wee boy, who is willing to do anything to save MacTaggart, even if the Captain doesn’t always deserve his unswerving loyalty. Kearins, playing the lad, turns in a fine performance, crammed with pathos, and it was a pity to find this was his only screen credit.
The parallels with Local Hero should be easy enough to identify, though the contrasts with The Titfield Thunderbolt are similarly there. That most whimsical of Ealing comedies took place in an English rural idyll, whereas The Maggie is set in Scotland. True, you get the lonely beauty of the place, especially when the boat sails out of Glasgow, but also its sense of hardship. The people are warm and welcoming, yet stricken with poverty and opportunistic. In short, The Maggie is placed squarely in the real world. It was directed by Alexander ‘Sandy’ Mackendrick, the American born Scottish film maker who scored Ealing an early hit with Whisky Galore!, which was set in the Outer Hebrides and featured similar wily Scots. For the same studio he’d go on to direct The Man in the White Suit and, perhaps most famously, The Ladykillers, making The Maggie something of a footnote, certainly in the lesser known of Ealing’s canon. It deserves a lot better.
The Maggie: ****