Rockets Galore (UK 1958)

This sequel to Whisky Galore! (1949) comes after the demise of Ealing as a Rank-associated studio but it was adapted from a second Compton Mackenzie novel about the same community written in 1957. It was adapted by Monja Danischewsky who had been Associate Producer on the 1949 film and directed by Michael Relph who had previously also been an Ealing producer and on this shoot had swapped roles with his senior partner, one of Ealing’s most prolific directors, Basil Dearden. It was actually now a Rank production but still shot on location on Barra representing ‘Todday’. The big difference is that this is a colour film and seemingly in 1:1.66 widescreen. Unfortunately the Talking Pictures TV print was cropped and/or panned and scanned to produce an Academy ratio.

There doesn’t appear to be a DVD available except at ridiculously high prices on Amazon so this rare screening was certainly welcome. (In the US it was renamed ‘Mad Little Island’.) The film doesn’t seem to have had the same box office success as the first film and its critical reputation is nowhere near as high. However, I found it interesting in both the changes and the similarities to the first film.

The ‘rockets’ of the title are new secret RAF guided missiles called ThunderBuzzards designed by a German scientist Dr Hamburger. Actually they are Bloodhound missiles introduced by the RAF in 1958 (see them on YouTube). The Air Ministry has chosen Todday as a suitable site to establish a testing station and Squadron Leader Hugh Mander (Donald Sinden) is sent to the island (incognito) to check it out, especially as it is likely that some islanders will need to be re-housed on the mainland and the strength of local feeling will need to be tested. When he arrives on the boat it is with Janet, the local schoolteacher and daughter of the island’s post office/general store. This is was the first surprise for me since Janet is played by Jeannie Carson, a Yorkshire lass who in 1958 had her own US TV sitcom (playing a Scots young woman) which ran for 32 episodes and in 1958 she also appeared in a US TV film of Little Women playing Jo March. I seem to remember that the TV series was a favourite programme in our house so perhaps we went to see the film on release. Jeannie could certainly sing and the film includes a song in Gaelic she is teaching to the children.

Donald Sinden and Jeannie Carson embraced by Noel Purcell as Father James. Behind (from left) Duncan Macrae, Gordon Jackson and James Copeland

The plot of the film is entirely predictable. We know that the islanders will find a way to scupper the ministry’s plans and that it will involve many acts of collective mischief. Janet and Hugh will fall in love despite being on opposite sides and officialdom will retreat. One of the interesting changes from the first film is that this time the two ministers (Roman Catholic and Presbyterian) will act in unison to stop the base being built. Critics dismissed 1950s films like this as backward-looking and nostalgic. There is a link between the film and some of the Ealing comedies of the earlier 1950s like The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) which clearly was nostalgic. But the story of Rockets Galore does engage with the 1950s British attempt to maintain and develop an aerospace industry and generally ‘keep up’ with technological advances. The islanders’ resistance, though ‘conservative’ in economic terms, does actually look forward to contemporary concerns about environment and ecology. It’s also interesting that the film includes references to 1950s TV programmes when the islanders’ actions create a problem for the government of the day. We see a ‘Brains Trust’ type programme discussing the problem and various BBC announcers such as Richard Dimbleby giving due gravitas to the events on Todday. I recognised many of the other personalities but the names escape me apart from the politicians/columnists Michael Foot, Bob Boothby and the historian A. J. P. Taylor.

The two whisky-drinking reprobates on the island are played by Duncan Macrae (the great Scots actor also in the original film) and a young Ronnie Corbett. Macrae became a familiar figure in both films and TV in the 1950s. He was part of the group of actors and performers associated with The White Heather Club, the TV light entertainment programme that presented Scottish music and dancing. Macrae would recite poetry that as a child I thought was amusing. The show (which also appeared at Hogmanay) was criticised for promoting ‘tartanry’, the stereotypical image of Scottishness. But it did give access to a broad UK market for a range of Scots talent. Ronnie Corbett would go on to be very successful as a comedian on UK TV.

Rockets Galore does look forward as a ‘concept’ to both The Wicker Man (1973) with the closeness of the community and also to Local Hero (1983). It would be nice to think of a contemporary film project that could present a story about ousting Donald Trump from his golf course in Aberdeenshire but maybe that is too much of a fantasy. But do look up Rockets Galore when it appears again, Jeannie Carson and the children are well worth a visit.

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