Touch and Go is an Ealing film I knew nothing about before I watched it on Talking Pictures TV, though most of the cast and crew were familiar. When I looked the title up in Charles Barr’s Ealing Studios book I discovered that it is one of the prime exhibits in his condemnation of the ‘End’ of Ealing in the 1950s. It’s hard to argue against Barr’s analysis of what the film represents in terms of a studio that appeared to have lost its way and indeed its purpose by 1955-6. To emphasise his argument Barr contrasts the film with The Ladykillers, one of the few successful films from the same period. It’s a legitimate comparison in the sense that both films are shot in Technicolor and located in specific districts of London – and both were written by William Rose. But one has great vitality and a real cutting edge while the other is ‘suffocating’ and ‘stodgy’. My own preference is to try to find something of interest in everything I watch and Touch and Go reveals some aspects of British culture in the 1950s, even if the overall effect is indeed ‘deadening’.
The film’s plot is very simple. Jim Fletcher (Jack Hawkins) is a furniture designer who stomps off from his job because the firm’s head man (James Hayter) refuses to consider expanding production of Jim’s modernist furniture. This is a classic Ealing set-up of traditional v. modern written by Ealing stalwart Rose from an idea conceived by himself and his wife Tania. Jim decides that his family should emigrate to Australia – his wife Helen (Margaret Johnston) and 18 year-old daughter Peggy (June Thorburn) having little chance to object. The main section of the narrative then concerns the last few days before departure from Tilbury. The second ‘inciting incident’ is provoked by the family’s ageing black cat, a cunning brute named Heathcliff, who causes Peggy to meet a young engineering student Richard (John Fraser) and very quickly fall in love with time running out before ship sails. Will they actually get on board? Well, what do you think?
Technically, there is little wrong with a film shot by the great Douglas Slocombe and though it may have been Michael Truman’s first directorial credit he had been an editor on many of the Ealing classics of the late 1940s and a producer on similarly well-known films in the early 1950s. This film is edited by Peter Tanner, also a very experienced Ealing hand. The cast too are fine with Hawkins turning his contrasting avuncular charm and rages towards domestic struggles and occasional comic interludes with his neighbour, Reg (Roland Culver). The plotting includes some important details such as Jim’s recognition that Richard will be facing National Service, a concept most audiences under 70 will probably have forgotten about. Richard also wants to be an engineer and seems enthusiastic about something that was once a British strength. By contrast, the script does nothing with Jim’s designer skills, his role as a designer is a plot point and not much else. Heathcliff is actually the most interesting character.
The film’s setting is the Fletcher home in a Chelsea house with a basement kitchen. The house is part of a studio set with a pub handy across the road. It’s very quiet and Jim and Reg can stand in the middle of the road in the late evening, drunkenly talking and larking about. A few yards from the set is the ‘real’ London of the Albert Bridge and the Embankment – which is actually quite well-used as the setting for the romance. Barr’s comparison with The Ladykillers is valid, but the more revealing comparison is with John Ford’s Gideon’s Day (UK 1958). This odd excursion for Ford is a mix of police procedural and family melodrama, filmed in Technicolor with Hawkins as Inspector Gideon and also paterfamilias with a lively daughter played with pizzaz by Anna Massey, a music student who becomes involved with a bright young police constable. Ironically, Ford’s film was co-scripted by the Ealing writer ‘Tibby’ Clarke (writer of Passport to Pimlico and The Lavender Hill Mob). The script is full of comic moments amongst some rather grisly crime stories. My focus in the comparison with Touch and Go is the contrasting characterisation of the daughters. June Thorburn as Peggy is lovely and convincing in her role but she seems a young 18 (she was actually 24) and the script has her attending what appears to be a secretarial school for middle-class girls. The mothers in these films seem to be stay at home housewives even though their children are independent young women. Anna Massey’s music student has the banter of an arts student and the drive and the wit. Peggy looks beautiful on the dancefloor in her rather formal gown, even though the music is trad jazz with a trumpet solo played by Richard’s fellow student. Bill Rose’s script is so timid that the potential in the characters rarely develops into anything. Charles Barr makes the point that the Ealing films in his ‘End’ phase seem almost primed to become TV sitcoms, soaps and dramas. At the end of 1955 the Ealing Studios lot was actually sold to the BBC and, breaking with Rank, Ealing moved to the MGM British lot in Borehamwood in 1957. The Ealing site would now become the production centre for ‘cop shows’. Jack Hawkins made The Long Arm for Ealing in 1956, a ‘police procedural’ film in some ways looking forward to Z-Cars on TV. Pat Jackson’s Ealing film about nurses in training, The Feminine Touch (1956) could also be seen as the precursor for hospital soaps. Following ITV’s Emergency Ward 10 (1957-67), the BBC created Angels (1975-83) focusing on student nurses.
The potential of Touch and Go to tap into the migration narrative of the post-war period seems to have been deliberately ignored and this seems strange given Ealing’s ventures into Australian productions. Between 1945 and 1972, Australia funded an assisted passage scheme whereby migrants could travel to Australia from the UK for just £10. This was part of the ‘White Australia’ policy and was also linked to the movement of children in care, the focus of Jim Loach’s Oranges and Sunshine (UK-Aus 2010). Alongside these dubious policies, Australia also encouraged migration from Ireland and several other European countries. Michael Powell eventually made a film about an Italian migrant, They’re a Weird Mob (1962). I do wonder why Ealing chose to develop drama/action pictures in Australia rather than comedies, especially in 1955? The comedy Geordie (UK 1955) in which Bill Travers plays a Scottish highlander who competes in the Olympics at Melbourne in 1956 attempted to make use of the interest in the games. But perhaps by this stage, Ealing was unprepared to do anything too different? (Ironically Margaret Johnston was born in Australia – and June Thorburn in Karachi). Touch and Go is at best gentle comedy. I laughed out loud just the once.