Photo by Picture Post
Artillery Row

Modern-day Ealing comedy

A quintessentially English spirit of wry rebellion lives on in two new films

Recently, visitors to cinemas who do not wish to have their minds and moral senses alike bombarded by the empty sound and vision of superhero movies, have been given a couple of welcome distractions. The first was The Duke, the final feature film from the cinema and television director Roger Michell, which revolved around the theft of Goya’s painting of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in 1961. The other, The Phantom of the Open, concerns the travails of Maurice Flitcroft, the so-called “world’s worst golfer”, who entered the 1976 Open Championship and scored 121, before embarking on further shenanigans, much to the horror of golf’s thoroughly bunkered custodians.

Helen Mirren does a credible impersonation of a disappointed haddock

Of the two films, The Duke is most likely to be remembered for years to come, and not merely because it’s Michell’s swansong. It boasts a superb central performance by Jim Broadbent as the eccentric autodidact Kempton Bunton, who attempted to keep the Goya portrait hidden in his humble terraced home in Newcastle with a view to using it as collateral in his attempts to persuade the government to give pensioners free television licences. Its witty script by Richard Bean (the playwright responsible for One Man, Two Guvnors) and Clive Coleman is generously full of one-liners. It features a top-class supporting cast, featuring everyone from Matthew Goode (as Kempton’s suave barrister Jeremy Hutchinson) and Charles Edwards (as Met commissioner Joe Simpson) to Helen Mirren, stripped of her usual glamour and doing a credible impersonation of a disappointed haddock as Kempton’s perpetually irritated but loyal wife Dorothy.

The film elegantly combines broad humour, subtle wit (Richard McCabe’s oleaginous Rab Butler hisses, when receiving an anonymous letter from Bunton with rhyming aspects, “The man’s a bloody poet! Perhaps we can lock up WH Auden at last!”) and affecting poignancy. In its portrayal of its protagonist as an ornery, irritatingly opinionated but thoroughly decent sort (a subplot concerns his losing his job at a bakery for standing up against the racial discrimination of a Pakistani colleague), it taps into a vein of anti-establishment feeling that finds its truest expression in its near-unbelievable resolution. Bunton handed in the painting and was dutifully locked up and put on trial, but thanks to Hutchinson’s masterful exploitation of a legal loophole, was only convicted for the theft of the portrait’s frame, rather than the picture itself, which the barrister convinced the jury had been merely “borrowed” rather than stolen.

Its ending might be pitched somewhere between bittersweet and feel-good, but as I left the cinema, I tried to remember what Broadbent’s performance, and Michell’s film, had reminded me of. In its emphasis on the little man standing up against the system, often in an eccentric way, aided and abetted by a colourful cast of supporting characters, it was nothing less than a present-day Ealing comedy. Just as Phantom of the Open, too, celebrates the indomitable spirit of the undaunted amateur when confronted by the monolithic establishment, it was a rare pleasure to be able to see films that have so elegantly recaptured what I feared was a lost genre.

Ealing Studios mixed gently pointed social commentary with hilariously bizarre comedy

For the uninitiated: Ealing Studios, based in West London, were the home to many British films produced between the 1930s and 1950s; the brand has been revived subsequently, but without the same success. Many classic pictures were made there during the period, including the horror film Dead of Night, the “what if Germany won WWII” picture Went The Day Well and (perhaps surprisingly) the epic adventure Scott of the Antarctic, but the films that were synonymous with the studio’s name were a series of comedies made between 1949 and 1956. These pictures, which were mainly directed by the American expatriate Alexander MacKendrick and the Ealing veteran Charles Crichton, included The Lavender Hill Mob, Passport to Pimlico, The Man in the White Suit, Whisky Galore! and The Titfield Thunderbolt, as well as the darker Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers, both of which revolve around a series of farcical deaths.

The central tenet of the traditional, non-murderous Ealing comedy involved some quirk of chance that meant that, for instance, a boatload of whisky might wash up on a remote Scottish island, or that the inhabitants of Pimlico were able to declare themselves part of Burgundy, and therefore no longer subject to British tax. There was often some ingenious spot of illegality involved — such as a gold bullion heist in which the gold is smuggled in souvenir Eiffel Towers — and the films invariably took the side of the little man, or woman, against the box-ticking forces of the state. With top-drawer actors including Alec Guinness (who appeared in virtually all the major Ealing comedies), Stanley Holloway and Joan Greenwood, they mixed gently pointed social commentary with hilariously bizarre comedy, and stand up wonderfully still.

Unsurprisingly, given how specific they are to their milieu, attempts to remake them have generally been disastrous; one thinks dolefully of the Coen Brothers’ 2004 travesty of The Ladykillers, arguably their weakest film. But the Ealing spirit has sporadically been revived in British comic cinema since the 50s, finding perhaps its most notable (and lucrative) expression in Charles Crichton’s final film, A Fish Called Wanda, which skilfully blended the criminal jiggery-pokery of the earlier comedies with a more contemporary sensibility.

It is joyfully present in The Full Monty, bleakly so in Chris Morris’s Four Lions and can even be discerned in the Paddington pictures, although it is largely absent from Richard Curtis’s films; they are far too metropolitan and knowing and monied in their setting and characters to be a true continuation of the Ealing spirit. The Hugh Grant character in Four Weddings and a Funeral is more likely to be a hapless facilitator of The Man’s actions rather than a plucky eccentric standing up for what he believes to be right.

Two swallows do not a summer make, and I am unsure that The Duke and The Phantom of the Open — both of which have been mildly successful at the box office, but hardly the financial behemoths that films about imaginary men in silly costumes are — will see a true renaissance in this field of comedy. But I live in hope, like their protagonists. It is a relief to see that a quintessentially English spirit of wry rebellion is alive, and that good films are still being made about it. Long may this snook-cooking continue.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover