“…a safety-valve for anti-social feelings.” To what extent would you accept Michael Balcon’s assessment of the role and importance of Ealing Comedy in the period from 1949-1955?
‘The Ladykillers’ – 1955, Ealing Studios, Colour, Directed by Alexander Mackendrick, Produced by Michael Balcon.
‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’ – 1953, Ealing Studios, Colour, Directed by Charles Crichton, Produced by Michael Balcon.
‘Whiskey Galore’ – 1949, Ealing studios, Colour, Directed by Alexander Mackendrick, Produced by Michael Balcon.
The Ealing comedies were perhaps some of the most memorable and best loved films to be produced in Britain in the post war era. This was perhaps partly explained by their universal appeal to contemporary society: in their fresh, original treatment of the comedy genre, and in their sympathetic portrayal of British society across the traditional class and moral spectrum.
The comedies owe most, perhaps, to their producer – Sir. Michael Balcon (1896-1977,) who, following his founding of the Gainsborough studios, and work at Gaumont Pictures, became the chief Producer at Ealing in 1937, establishing Ealing’s independence from the Arthur Rank empire in 1945. Balcon had already acquired a prestigious reputation in film production, seen in his successes at Gainsborough/ Gaumont in: ‘Woman to Woman’, ‘The 39 steps,’ and ‘A Yank at Oxford.’
Balcon quickly displayed his individuality and distinctive production style – subtly adapting his subject material: e.g.: Compton Mackenzie’s novel, ‘Whiskey Galore!’ to suit his own interests and particular emphasis.
In understanding Ealing films during the period 1949-1955, we must take account of the driving force in Sir. Balcon behind production at Ealing.
Furthermore, me must take into consideration the social, political and economic context of post-war Britain – a nation increasingly subject to internal social and cultural division and tension, and to the reduction of foreign influence and power, following the break up of the British Empire from 1947.
Following the war years, the more radical Labour Party had strengthened its appeal for the British electorate, promising the establishment of a free health service, and nationalization of the industries, the result was the first majority Labour parliament between 1945-51; the ordinary people of Britain seemed to have finally acquired a voice in the running of the country, and to have challenged the traditional ruling classes. A mood of emancipation and equality seemed to be sweeping across Britain and the world.
Opportunities for social advancement were now possible, following the provision of compulsory state secondary education in 1944. The economic prosperity of Britain after 1945, due largely to the survival of British industries during the war, contributed to a sense of affluence, and brought about the virtual embourgeoisement of the working classes.
General living conditions amongst the poor improved, with quality council-housing and a welfare system unprecedented in Western society.
The influence of America was also important at this time, like Britain, American society and industry had survived the wreckage of continental Europe, and as a growing superpower provided essential economic support for an otherwise bankrupt Britain. American media in the form of the Hollywood cinema had enormous appeal for the cinema-goers of Britain, mostly comprised of the younger element in society; American democracy, egalitarianism and liberality, as seen through film contributed to a sense of cultural and social freedom prevalent in Britain at this time.
Also apparent at this time, was a sense of national instability and insecurity regarding Britain’s status in the balance of world power. The rise of Communism and the ‘Cold War’ saw Britain at an ideological watershed. Opting for a moderate socialism, it had taken a centre ground between capitalism and communism. Whilst demanding social and economic reform, the people of Britain would still cling to traditional British values and institutions – as seen graphically in the hugely attended 1954 coronation of Elizabeth II , when tens of thousands of loyal subjects descended upon Westminster Abbey – as this illustrates, the people of Britain still felt patriotic about their Queen and country.
The Ealing Studios seemed to epitomize this sense of reform with moderation; the form of British culture and institutions was something sacred and beyond political ideology, its character and way of life should be preserved, despite the ground-breaking changes that were taking place in Britain:
“If you think about Ealing at those times, we were a bundle…(I’m not saying this in any critical sense), we were middle-class people brought up with middle-class backgrounds and rather conventional middle-class educations. Though we were radical in our points of view, we did not want to tear down institutions… We were people of the immediate post war generation, and we voted for labour for the first time after the war; this was our mild revolution. We had a great affection for British institutions: the comedies were done with affection…. …but not protests at anything more sinister than the regimentation of the times.”
In many respects, the Ealing comedies seem to focus on small communities that are a metaphor for British society generally: the islanders of Toddy, the people of Titfield, the citizens of Pimlico, and upon groups of companions or extended families – such as the criminals in ‘Two-Way Stretch,’ and the struggling cinema troupe in ‘The Smallest Show On Earth.’ Sometimes this metaphor is extended beyond one particular social or class group, and incorporates specimens form representing almost every quarter of society, particularly seen in ‘The Ladykillers.’ These social groups are almost always faced with some kind of adversity, that can be overcome only through mutual co-operation and personal stoicism. The exact form of these qualities vary between films, but can be grouped into two main varieties: firstly, the kind of film celebrating traditional British culture within the revolutionary spirit of post war Britain, and secondly, that which explores social rebellion in a more critical context, stressing the need for at least some maintenance of order over the anarchy that can result from rebellion.
Of the former type, Whiskey Galore and ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt,’ are good examples, although each has an individual emphasis, and must be studied separately. In these films, we see a small community flouting conventional authority for the benefit of all – in ‘Titfield,’ this is the preservation of an old branch-line following Thomas Beeching’s scraping of the private branch-railway lines. The authorities in this film are depicted lacking respect and affection for the provincial branch-lines – they are the custodians of power in Labour-run Britain, and it is due to their standardization and modernity that the line is to be closed. Sacred traditions such as the local branch line mean little to them. In fact, it is against the faceless standardization and modernization of everyday life that the Titfield people protest. Perhaps this is indicative of the concerns of the British people, following the beginnings of urban expansion and perceived loss of community spirit in the post war period.
At the inquiry into the local’s request to run the line, Gordon attacks bus and car transport, it is interesting that the tone of the outburst is one generally attacking the changing face of village life:
‘Don’t you realize, you’re ordering our village to death? What’s it going to be like in five years time? …traffic lights, concrete roads, houses with numbers instead of names.’
In ‘Whiskey Galore,’ the Hebridian islanders of Toddy must contend with the hardship of minimal whiskey supplies during war. The ‘SS Cabinet Minister’ containing 50,000 cases of whiskey is wrecked off Toddy, so, racing time and the English Home Guard officer in charge of law and order, the whisky-starved islanders single-mindedly scheme to salvage what they can from the wreck. Their particular rebellion is of a community flouting the clinical legality of authority. This mild rebellion, is not so much one typified by the angry protest of a repressed people, but -like ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt,’ the mass expression of a community to take everyday life into their own hands, and to maintain sacred communal traditions – in the case of ‘Titfield,’ the maintenance of the branch line, and in ‘Whiskey Galore!,’ the domestic and cultural practice of whiskey drinking. Authority in ‘Whiskey Galore!’ is represented, not as the reformative, modernizing monster of ‘Titfield,’ but in a similar context as legality gone mad: Captain Waggert of the home guard assumes responsibility for the Whiskey, setting himself up as an obstacle to the normally permissive practice of illegal salvaging by the locals of wrecked ships. It is interesting that in the Ealing film, Waggart’s superior, a Scot, condemns the captain’s insistence of pursuing the matter as a breach of common sense:
‘Sometimes I really do wonder at the logic of the military mind.’
The practice of turning a blind eye is therefore commonplace by the authorities on Toddy, and is disturbed by this unsympathetic authoritarian outsider. like ‘Titfield’ this represents communities fighting to maintain their own status quo in the face of changing times, and the centralizing standardization of authority, Waggart is an archetype of centralized London beauracracy and upper class arrogance, whilst in Titfield, it is against standardization and nationalization that the people of Titfield fight.
In ‘The Ladykillers,’ we see a slightly different emphasis – where the practise of society rebelling against authority appears much more sinister and less commendable than in the other two films. The gang, comprising character types representative of almost every section in society seem to represent a microcosm of the British social world; the companions are together, not as a community or fellowship, but as individuals, whose each interest is for himself, tolerating his companions only because they are useful to him.
The world of ‘The Ladykillers’ is set against a background of dark industrial landscapes and busy urban living. This is a world transformed form the idyllic village existence of ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt,’ into one built upon the complexities and conflicts of an industrial age. This almost malignant sense of industrial development is reflected in the characters of the film; they, like their times, are the corrupted products of modernity: they share little mutual understanding of each other, and in social and moral terms, each seems utterly different from the next. Their lack of cohesion adds to their sense of disunity – unlike that seen in the previous films, such as ‘Whiskey Galore.’ The gang comprises elements from traditional class-types. Each demonstrates how society has changed, despite class boundaries. Professor Marcus is portrayed as a gentleman academic, who, like Major Cortney – portrayed as a former officer – is a supposed cornerstone of the establishment; the three heavies: Louis – a well-dressed, but calculatingly ruthless underworld type, Harry – a cockney teddy-boy type, and One-round – an underworld thug, all represent the proletariat in rebellion against their status and economic position in society. The gang may also represent society as a whole, ruthlessly carving fortunes out of the capitalist system of fifties Britain. They may represent the state of contemporary British society, widely perceived as becoming less community-orientated, and more individualistic and greedy. Their world owes nothing to tradition, or the past, as seen in One-Round’s consternation at Mrs. Wilberforce’s reference to ‘the old queen,’ and Harry’s insistence on the stupidity of their unsuspecting accomplice:
‘I just don’t think we can trust a screwy old dame like that, that’s all…’
The gang’s armed robbery of sixty thousand pounds seems almost out of place in an Ealing comedy, and perhaps reflects the kind of violent crime to have struck London in the post-war period. The gang members seem to represent the violent nature of society in a state of anarchy; surprisingly, it is not the law which opposes them, nor society in the form of an Establishment figure, such as Waggart from ‘Whiskey galore!,’ but a quintessential English spinster lady, whose moral reasoning we are forced to emphasize with, especially since our sympathy for the criminals fades following the disloyalty and outright treachery exhibited between them; despite their apparent determination and ability to use violence, the criminals are unwilling to murder Mrs. Wilberforce, indicating the sanctity of moral order – even for the criminals. Professor Marcus describes the impossibility of escaping Mrs. Wilberforce:
‘We’ll never be able to kill her, Louis, never, never, never…’
On one hand, ‘The Ladykillers,’ is a fantasy of society rising up against the establishment and the ideological social hierarchy still largely prevalent in British institutions, the gang offer universal appeal in their social diversity and character. They also embody the ideal, and exiting fantasy of becoming incredibly rich through some dramatic, yet caculatingly engineered heist. On the other hand, however, Ealing seems to advocate a moderate rebellion, rather than a dramatic, and perhaps violent one – it seems to question the motives and morality of a society interested only in social advancement and the acquisition of material wealth. In short, whereas Whiskey Galore and The Titfield Thunderbolt appeal to stem the clinical standardization and uniformity of village life by government, popularizing the resilience of British people to change, ‘The Ladykillers’ ask for society to critically examine itself.
In some respects, ‘The Ladykillers,’ is perhaps the best example of Ealing providing Balcon’s ‘safety valve’ for the mood of an uncertain and restless populus:
“I n the immediate post-war years, there was as yet no mood of cynicism; the bloodless revolution of 1945 had taken place, but I think our desire was to get rid of as many wartime restrictions as possible, and there was a mild anarchy in the air. In a sense our comedies were a reflection of this mood… a safety valve for our more anti-social impulses.”
The comedies do not, however, advocate revolution, or appeal for mass dissatisfaction with the status quo, rather, they play out the stresses of a newly regimented and more socially complex society; as Blacon pointed out, Ealing’s emphasis was not on inciting revolution, but setting ordinary people in a new context and light, not as character types, but as individuals:
‘Ealing’s comedy style was new in that it dealt with the utopian desires of the lower middle class rather than its resentments. … When it was played through, these consequences were the release of subterranean values. These values and their playing out in a specific area in a limited amount of time, constitute the ‘fantasy,’ the affectionate ‘
whimsicality’ often noted in the Ealing comedies.”
John Ellis, ‘Made in Ealing,’ from ‘Popular Fiction.’
On closer examination, it can indeed be seen that the Ealing comedies provided more an escapism than a revolutionary appeal, whilst embracing the spirit of reform within a sympathetic portrayal of traditional institutions and quintessential British character:
‘Of course we wanted to improve institutions… to look for a more just society in terms that we knew.’
In ‘The Titfield thunderbolt’, the setting is of an idyllic country village, inhabited by ordinary, hard-working people. The initial few scenes of Titfield display a quiet village existence, where the men-folk commute in the traditional manner, by train to work in Mallingford. There is a clear sense of social harmony in the town, everyone treats each other with respect, whilst respecting a definite social hierarchy, e.g: the train guards address Mr. Weech either as ‘sir’ or ‘padre,’ and train users are also addressed in most respectful terms. Titfield exists as a society in it’s own right, paying little heed to the affairs of the outside world – this is seen in Gordon’s statement that Titfield runs to Titfield time, not Greenwich:
‘My grandfather built this railway for Titfield, not Greenwich.’
A sense of tradition and cultural continuity is also seen in the film: Gordon’s great grandfather founded the railway, and both he and Weech are proud of the Titfield line and its history, the society of titfield is disrupted and its citizens dismayed at the news of the closure, the tradition of the line adds to the sense of modernity’s thoughtless destruction of traditional British culture. The Rev. Weech comments:
‘The oldest surviving branch line in the world.’
In the film, authority is seen encouraging the growth of a mercantile, and profit-related social ethic, we are shown Crump & Pearce’s bus racing with the train, as an indication of the conflict between the traditional way of life and the new. The bus owners are portrayed in particularly unsympathetic terms – they are greedy and wish to eliminate all competition by any means; at the hearing, we are shown contemporary social order attempting to suffocate the individuality and survival of local culture: the advocates of change are driven by self-interest, the inspector by regulations of heath, safety and efficiency; the union official represents the driving force of radical uniformity and standardization -he is a parody of reform gone mad.
Weech declares that the locals will run the railway without demand for monetary return, in response, the petty unionist resorts to single-minded ideological aggression against the capitalist system:
‘It doesn’t matter what you want, brother, it’s what the bosses want that we’re out to stop.’
The inquiry is like a trial, and the defendant is the traditional Titfield way of life; Gordon attacks the case for standardization with sentiment common amongst much of society at this time:
‘Do you realize you’re condemning our village to death? What’s it going to be like in five years time?’
The fantasy of the Titfield community to take on the establishment, and run the railway is echoed in Gordon and Weech’s conversation at the opening of the film:
‘I’ll drive the engine…’
‘And I’ll be the guard!’
The Titfield people all knuckle to, to run the railway, reflected in the support of every social class: the less than reputable poacher, Dan, and Weech argue over who will drive the train – in the end, they join forces – a typically democratic outcome for Ealing, indicative of the harmonious nature of community society, across class and occupational boundaries, the aristocratic Valentine declares:
‘I declare the contest a draw, they will both drive the engine.’
The huge, Bauhaus-like ministry buildings, built of glass and steel, epitomize the modernity of the new age – the minister arrives to work on a moped, again, an indicator of progress and the breaking down of traditions; the workers of titfield travel by train.
Similarly, the exact, clinical language of the ministers suggest an administration devoid of sentimentality for sacred British traditions and values – this is echoed later, in the unnecessary emergency stop on the inspection:
‘There might be a lot of opposition…
There is, you will ascertain if such opposition is justified.’
Prior to the inspection, the train and station is refurbished by the titfield people, their craftsmanship exudes traditional work-values that contrast with the uniformity and standardization of the trade union official:
Seth, the carpenter remarks to Weech:
‘When I do a job, sir, I like to do it proper.’
The Christian element – as in ‘Whiskey galore’ is also evident here, the Rev. Weech exudes a simple piety, and sense of spiritual affinity with his community and environment; he sings a creation hymn whilst passing through tranquil countryside and grazing lands, contrasting sharply with the money orientated world of the bus-profiteers:
‘All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small…’
The conflict between bribed Hawkin’s steam roller and the train is another dramatic metaphorical struggle between conventional society and traditional values. The triumph of the train in dislodging the roller indicates a moral victory for the Titfield people over modernity.
Similarly, the mass support of the people to retain their traditional way of life is illustrated in their dash to fill the train’s boiler with water , following sabotage of the reservoir by Pearce.
It is interesting how Balcon pokes fun at the bus-owners and Hawkins, when they scheme at the bar. Alongside their sleazy plot, we see a television showing a similar scheme by three cowboys to hijack a railway – the artificiality of the characters parallels the bus men’s appearance as mercenaries, out to plunder the village for self-gain. The pun is also a cultural stab at the influence of Hollywood popular culture and ethics on traditional British outlook.
The junking of the Titfield train indicates the brutality of an establishment and mercantile class, whose interests will be attained by unjust and destructive means if necessary. The subsequent acquisition of the ‘Titfield thunderbolt,’ is another example of the villagers’ overcoming impossible adversity.
It is ironic that the erstwhile sceptical Blakeworth ends up arrested trying to save the train, indicating through him that much of the establishment has sympathy for the titfield cause.
The day of the inspection sees another calamity – the breaking of a makeshift coupling on the Thunderbolt – again, the people of Titfield exert every ounce of energy to push the two sundered wagons together.
In a bizarre sub-plot, Dan and Valentine set off to Wilmingford, where they run a train though the streets until caught. This rebellion adds to the film’s sense of flouting law and authority through comedy.
The last scenes of the film shows the thunderbolt, a superb piece of nineteenth century craftsmanship, flying through the countryside, well on schedule, despite the adversities of the journey, the train seems to symbolize the fighting spirit of the Titfield community, and the vitality of a society which respects and nurtures its traditions, even in the face of legal and social change.
The film ends with a consensus of applause for Titfield – the trains of Wilmington salute the Thunderbolt with whistles. The oppression of regularity and uniformity has been challenged and overcome.
in ‘Whiskey Galore!.’ the cultural and domestic tradition of whiskey drinking is in jeopardy at the onset of war; with the wreck of the SS cabinet minister comes a utopian promise of whiskey in abundance: Whiskey Galore!, ( Galore is a contraction of Gu-Leor: Scots Gaelic for ‘in plenty.’)
The opening introduction to the film sets the context of Hebridean life, the simple existence of crofters and fishermen:
‘A simple people, with few and simple pleasures… A thousand miles from any cinema or music hall…’
To the islanders, whiskey is an indispensable factor in their lives, without it, the community suffers:
‘To any true Islander, life was not worth living.’
The people of Toddy appear slow and dull-witted, but here, Balcon’s portrayal of the Hebridean stereotype ends, and we discover soon after the wreck, the limits an otherwise servile community will tread in order to maintain the tradition and normality of community life. The wily Joseph has the crew of the wrecked ship taken to the mainland so that salvage can be begun.
In opposition to the islanders schemes is the pompous Captain Waggart, who repeatedly discusses the islanders in terms of foreigners subject to British rule – like an overseas colony:
‘We play the game for the sake of the game. I tried to introduce football amongst the children, and do you know what happened? One child kicked it into the sea.’
Like ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt,’ the town has its own advocates of independent culture, and persons of social standing to counter authoritarian outsiders, Doctor Mclaren criticizes Waggard’s road block, and describes the captain as ‘a pompous, stuffed up Sassenach…’
The villagers of Toddy live by traditional means, and culture – it is due to the Sabbath, the fourth commandment that they must return to their homes, rather than salvage the whiskey, Bilah comments:
‘It is the Sabbath, we cannot be breaking the Sabbath…’
Similarly, George’s mother will not let her on join Waggart’s guard on the day of rest:
‘He’s locked in his bedroom with some bread and cheese & he’ll not be let out till tomorrow morning…’
Mrs. Cambell seems to epitomize the kind of traditional religious oppression still found in some quarters of contemporary society, George’s rebellion against his mother to go to the salvage, and eventually marry Christina contributes to the film’s theme of liberation and fulfilling of communal desires in the face of authority, it also shows the conflict between past ethics and new.
The rebellion of the town to the injustice of Waggrt is a communal effort to achieve a common aim. Like ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt,’ there are scenes of mass support for the salvage operation, as if the whole community comes alive with a single collective consciousness. The night setting of the salvage adds to the feel of society expressing itself covertly, on the surface, normality is present between the villagers and Waggart, this is an unseen rebellion, conducted out of sight of authority, and therefore, importantly within the apparent confines of the law. Like the Titfield Thunderbolt, this is a social fantasy played out, under the cover of darkness – suggesting an almost surreal, dream-like context for the heist. This is similar to ‘The Ladykillers,’ where the gang only reveal their true character during the cover of darkness, a period of murder and internal conflict, when all sense of normality and appearance disappear; the social fantasy is present here, but the film takes a moral position, with the gang’s self-destruction – questioning the role of social rebellion, and asserting the importance of moral order.
Whiskey galore seems to condone the new modernization of society, the old crofter, ill in bed seems to symbolize the destruction of an ancient way of life on Toddy, he comments that his health is like his croft:
‘…disappearing like a fog, long out of the sea, making it nothing at all.’
Throughout the film, the islanders never overreach themselves: precautions are taken, and caution is observed to avoid Waggart’s justification. Joseph plays on the sergeant’s wish to marry Peggie, by coercing him into assisting in the cover up after the Customs inspectors arrive. Joseph declares there must be a ‘Raeschac,’ celebration for the marriage, and ‘without whiskey there can be no raeschac.’
Rebellion is also expressed in the assault on the sergeant at the beach, and in the blockade of the excise inspectors, one of the islanders exclaims:
‘Any man who stands between us and the whiskey is an enemy of ours.’
Scenes of conflict between the excise men and islanders add to the sense of rebellion of the islander’s part; the chase through the dunes particularly illustrates this, and brings to a head the conflict between community and central authority.
This rebellion is not motivated by self-gain, but, through the whiskey a desire to attain a nostalgic past lost to the islanders, the whiskey will be shared between all, even those who didn’t contribute to the salvage:
‘Let every man take what he needs…’
The film also has elements of Scottish patriotism in the face of English authority; Dr. Mclaren accuses Waggart of ‘playing laird,’ and it is ultimately waggart who is foiled, and ironically exiled from Toddy due to his accidental illegal export of whiskey. Also, Peggie asks the sergeant to ask him to marry her in Gaelic, another indicator of national resistance to social change on the island.
Ultimately, the film encapsulates Balcon’s ‘safety valve’ idea in it’s portrayal of the mild rebellion of a people far removed culturally and historically from central authority – and who provide an ideal contrast to the impersonal, uniformity of centralized social and moral order as seen in Waggart and his inspector accomplices.
lastly, ‘The Ladykillers’, is similar and yet radically different from the previous two films in its approach; here we see a diverse social group, outside the both social morality and the law. An immediate contrast is set between the gang and Mrs. Wilberforce, heightening the sense of opposites and moral polarizations in the film.
The viewer is forced to take a moral perspective in the film: Mrs. Wilberforce demands that the gang take back the money they have stolen:
‘No, even if they do make me sew mailbags, I must go to the police.’
Rebellion for the gang is symbolic of a social fantasy to perform the unaccepted, to become wildly rich, and to flaunt the establishment.
The morality of the gang is, however mixed: Louis is an underworld character, whose knife and cards symbolize the chaos and violence of his world, Lenny, on the other hand seems possessed of a moral conscience, he is unwilling to use Mrs. Wilberforce, or allow her to be harmed:
‘I don’t like it, it don’t seem right having a sweet little old lady like that on a stick-up job.’
The gang are in fact representative, not only of the changing face of Britain, or proletariat fantasy, but the anarchy of a society corrupted by reform. Beneath their outward appearance, each character harbours a treacherous self-interest that will eventually destroy them, seen mainly at the film’s end, where, unlike the communities of Toddy and Titfield, selfish greed is the overriding objective. What is conveyed, is a microcosm of society, playing out its tensions under the appearance of normality and gentility for Mrs. Wilberforce, Professor Marcus seems to encourage this insistence on appearing normal when viewing the money outside the police station:
‘I hope no-one is going to suggest that we steal it.’
The music played by Marcus suggests the appearance of normality in Mrs. wilberforce’s home, reflecting the apparent concordity in contemporary society, beneath which there lurks deception and inner tensions.
The gang cannot, however resort to killing Mrs. Wilberforce, and must return to convince her of their innocence, rather than make a getaway, or dispose of her – they are unable to fight moral order effectively:
‘I suppose you’re wondering about the money in Mr. Lawson’s chello case…’
The ridiculous stories of the men also add to the impression that they are like naughty children who have transgressed:
‘Each of us could tell a similar story….’
Central to the film is Mrs. Wilberforce, she represents moderation and moral restraint – seen in her pleas to return the money, and in her references to the last century and sea-captain husband:
‘Captain Wilberforce went down with his ship…’
The criminals are anarchic, the selfish greed of a capitalist system has warped their sense of morality, further stressed though the dreary industrial landscape of the town, and especially in the presence of the train and it’s haunting whistle – which accompanies the murdered villains as they murder each other, as a kind of metaphor for social change, movement and the juggernaught power of the establishment and its intolerance of transgression.
the train also represents human turbulence, and the condition of Britain, an industrial monster – threatening the kind of village idyllicism of ‘Whiskey galore’ and ‘The Titfield thunderbolt.’
Ultimately, my conclusion to the films, is that they do demonstrate a condoning of rebellion on the part of Ealing, but always in terms of the preservation of British social character and moral order. In the ‘Titfield Thunderbolt,’ this rebellion is one of the quintessential English village, threatened with development; the rebellion is seen in the spirit of an era of change and free expression, but ironically it is against the meddling reforms and cultural breakdown of this era that the film protests. The war-spirit of conservatism and stoic determination to preserve the independent character, values and rights of Britain are most evident. In whiskey Galore, the rebellion is similar, save that it is set in a very un-English environment, where Scottish, or Hebrides independence challenges authority in the form of the quintessential English officer-type, in both films, this rebellion is of a community struggling to survive intact in its cultural and domestic form through social change and centralized authority. In the Ladykillers, set following the first labour administration, this mood of rebellion is still present, but mixed with caution, as the quintessential English lady challenges a changing society and moral order.
So, finally, the films do express mild rebellion, as proletariat fantasies of the people flaunting their lot and the establishment, and as a society coming to terms with a rapidly changing moral and social structure.
But in addition to this, we are presented with visions of anarchy and social collapse, and the frightening aspects of an over-industrialized, over materialistic society, one bound to collapse without the preservation of at least some sense of tradition and national character.
This conclusion, of a balance, a mild reformative spirit is, I believe the moral and social position of the films, providing Blacon’s ‘safety-valve’ as a measure, or warning against the mistakes of the past, and potential ones for the future.