Here’s another intriguing British film courtesy of Talking Pictures TV that has had relatively little written about it despite its lead role for a young Dirk Bogarde. Perhaps it is the title that suggests Dirk might be shearing sheep in Australia? In fact, the central focus of the narrative is Bogarde’s character Bill Fox as an aspiring speedway rider in the London of the late 1930s. That’s nearly as unlikely as seeing him as a sheep shearer. I didn’t know that speedway was an Australian sport originally and in the film, ‘Waltzing Matilda’ is played over the tannoy, presumably in support of the ‘Cobras’ leading rider, ‘Lag’ Gibbon (Bill Owen) who is the team’s Australian import. The tannoy also offers ‘On Ilkley Moor Baht’at’ to which the crowd responds with their own version. Community singing like this was, I think, common at major sporting events well into the 1950s.
The film was directed by the documentarist Jack Lee who had studied photography before joining the GPO Film Unit in 1938. H. E. Fowle had previously worked with him on camera for his documentaries so the overall representation of working-class South London is impressive in visual terms. The speedway was the working stadium at New Cross Gate, close to the old Millwall FC football ground The Den and street scenes were shot in various parts of South London. The film was produced by Ian Dalrymple and his Wessex Films unit. Dalrymple was an industry veteran starting as an editor and rising to become a producer at the Crown Film Unit during the war when he first worked with Lee. After the war he produced Lee’s first fiction feature, The Woman in the Hall (1947). Wessex was one of the various units working under the Rank umbrella at Pinewood and Dalrymple also gave a first role to Dirk Bogarde in the second Wessex film, Esther Waters in 1948. The Rank connection may explain the familiar presence of Bonar Colleano and Sid James as Bogarde’s ‘team leader’ and manager at the track respectively alongside various other familiar faces including Thora Hird and James Hayter as Bogarde’s parents.
For me, what’s most interesting about the film, apart from the unusual speedway setting, is the script and how the narrative structure is handled by Lee and the team. The source material was a novel by Montagu Slater published in 1944. Slater was a major literary figure, a working-class boy who had made it to Oxford and who joined the Communist Party in 1927. Jack Lee worked on the adaptation himself alongside the American writer William Rose who would later become famous for his work with Alexander Mackendrick. I do wonder if the inclusion of a brother for Bill in the Fox family came from Lee or from Slater. This brother, Dick, played by Patrick Doonan is shown at the beginning of the film signing up for the International Brigade in 1937 to fight in the Spanish Civil War. The brothers are very different and I assumed that Dick was the elder since Bill seems more like a disaffected adolescent, interested only in his motorbike. In fact Doonan was five years younger than Bogarde. Jack Lee was the elder brother of Laurie Lee, the celebrated poet and author who did indeed go to Spain to fight for the Republic in 1937. Slater, too, would have been pre-disposed to support the International Brigade. What is the function of this character in the film? Dick re-appears in December 1938 and criticises the now successful Bill for his extravagant life-style and lack of concern for his fellow riders.
Dick’s return marks a moment of disruption for Bill – and for us as the audience. Up to this point Bill’s career has followed a familiar pattern of the young sporting hero becoming the centre of attention and spending his rapidly growing income on flash clothes and a car (much like a modern footballer). Amazingly he has also been successful in courting Lag’s sister Pat (Renée Asherson), a rather unlikely romantic partner (she doesn’t like speedway and prefers a quiet life). They marry, but Dick’s words prompt Bill to make a graceless speech at the wedding which embarrasses everyone concerned. He manages to turn Dick’s political analysis into his own egotistical crusade to create a new union for the riders. This doesn’t go well but then the war intervenes. This must have caused a problem for Lee and Rose. Slater’s novel was written during the war, but ending the narrative during wartime probably wouldn’t have worked in the film. Even so the last third of the film is problematic, especially the final sequence. What was originally a sport narrative becomes a kind of family saga. I did find some of the later scenes very interesting. Lee’s documentary experience offers us a good view of a ‘prefab’ – the housing solution which solved some immediate problems in bombed out London. The returning soldiers and the post-war world are depicted in ways familiar from other late 1940s films such as The Weaker Sex (UK 1948) and I was also reminded of Nevil Shute’s novels, in particular The Chequer Board (1947). Coincidentally, Jack Lee would have his biggest success with his adaptation of Shute’s A Town Like Alice in 1956.
Once a Jolly Swagman has been seen mainly of interest to speedway fans and the presentation of the sport and in particular the races seems to have gone down well. The film was released in the US with the equally problematic title of Maniacs on Wheels. Otherwise, attention has come from the still large numbers of Dirk Bogarde fans. I admired Bogarde’s later work in cinema and his books reveal a fine writer. His own history during his wartime RAF service in India and after the war in Indonesia reveal that in 1949 he had a real hinterland, but as he himself said, he had no idea how to act in his early films (Ian Dalrymple had seen him in one play before signing him up for Rank). For two or three years, Bogarde played young hoodlums. Pinewood chief Earl St. John said he was “too thin” and his head was “too small”. In some shots in Once a Jolly Swagman that does seem to be the case. Not until he played ‘the weedy killer’ in The Blue Lamp for Basil Dearden, “the first director to teach me anything” according to Bogarde, did he really get recognised. But despite this and the strangely handled narrative, Once a Jolly Swagman is worth watching.
The Blue Lamp is one of the best-known Ealing films, but it’s also an unusual film in some ways. It begins as an early example of what would become a familiar British film genre, the ‘social problem film’ and it is directed by Basil Dearden who would specialise in such films over the next dozen years (Michael Relph, the co-producer would become Dearden’s partner on social problem pictures). The writers include T. E. B. ‘Tibby’ Clarke, an ex-policeman, and Ted Willis who would later become one of the most significant names associated with the genre. But Willis and the film’s lead players, Jack Warner, Jimmy Hanley and Dirk Bogarde (all three contracted to Rank) were not generally associated with leading roles at Ealing. Jack Warner did appear in several Ealing films but his stardom at the time was mainly because of the success of the ‘Huggett family’ franchise. The social problem, spelt out in a voiceover at the beginning of the film, is the growing problem of young criminals who are ‘clever enough to plan criminal acts, but lack the adherence to the code of behaviour adopted by older criminals’. Because of this the young thugs are more reckless and liable to be shunned by established criminals. (I note that some commentators date the beginnings of the social problem film as much earlier during the war, but I think that the core films, in which there is some form of public service authority figure investigating and attempting to solve the problem, start around the end of the 1940s).
In its second section the film becomes more of a ‘social-realist’ police procedural with Hanley’s ‘Andy Mitchell’, a younger policeman, being taken in by PC George Dixon (Warner) and his wife (Gladys Henson). A line of dialogue suggests that George and Em’s son was killed in the war and would have been Andy’s age by now. Andy represents the sensible younger man (‘up from Kent’) who can be contrasted with the ‘tearaways’. Jimmy Hanley had been playing this type of younger man for some time – he was actually in his early thirties. During this part of the narrative, the police team at Paddington Green begin to investigate a robbery at a jeweller’s. The crime is committed by Tom Riley, the Bogarde character, and also involves his male partner ‘Spud’ and Tom’s girlfriend, 17 year-old Diana (Peggy Evans). Inevitably the first crime leads to a second and in the process PC Dixon is shot. This pushes the narrative into a new form in which Ealing Studio’s well-known use of realist location shooting is used to create a very exciting car chase around the Paddington-North Kensington area and ending with the murder suspect running into White City Stadium during a greyhound racing meeting. Although similar scenes had already been seen in earlier Ealing pictures (e.g. It Always Rains on Sunday, 1947), the intensity of the police chase with radio cars seems to be much greater on this occasion. Many commentators, especially in the US, relate the final chase sequence to the Hollywood ‘semi-documentary’ of the late 1940s, picking out Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948). I think there is something in this, although Fritz Lang’s M and other earlier British crime films are also an influence. The other oft-quoted reference is to film noir and there are certainly several noirish scenes in the film. On the other hand, many Ealing dramas of the period use familiar noir lighting and camerawork for a range of narratives in this period, most of which are not films noirs as such but rather crime melodramas or straight dramas.
The Blue Lamp proved to be very popular with audiences when it opened in 1950 and in 1955 the BBC famously resurrected George Dixon and made him the avuncular older copper at a local London police station in Dixon of Dock Green. This TV series lasted for an astonishing 21 years (by which time Jack Warner was 80 years old) and became something of a laughing-stock alongside contemporary police dramas like Z-Cars and Softly, Softly. The sense of the TV series as ‘cosy’ has, I think, coloured views about The Blue Lamp. The earlier film offers a quite detailed view of the London streets around Paddington, the Edgware Road and the Regent’s Canal and it’s interesting to consider it alongside It Always Rains on Sunday and Pool of London (1951) (DoP Gordon Dines worked on this film as well as The Blue Lamp)as well as the more sensational crime melodramas associated with Gainsborough and other studios. I think that the commentators who pick out the ‘community’ ethos of Ealing as a key factor are on the right lines. Community in this case means the police in the local station, the criminal community of established small-time crooks and the disputatious but still genuine community relations between the ‘bobbies on the beat’ and the people they meet on the street. It is these three working together who nail Tom Riley as an anti-social figure (and an unusual Ealing character). This can be seen as a cosy and perhaps naïve view of community, even in the 1950s, but the scenes of police on a night ‘beat’ certainly resonate with older viewers. Once the police got into patrol cars, the world and the images of the crime film changed. I’ve seen comments that critique the film by pouring scorn on the police officers’ choir rehearsals and darts matches. I think these were genuine activities that happened in most local ‘nicks’ in 1950. Those police choirs that performed at football matches at half-time in the 1960s had to rehearse at some point. I have no doubt that there were occasional bent coppers and pockets of corruption in 1950 just as later, but the bonding of men (female police officers were kept separate then) over sports and recreation was important in the way that police work was conducted. We might argue that contemporary police procedurals push too far in the other direction in order to be ‘exciting’.
But it is also true that The Blue Lamp was sanctioned by the Metropolitan Police and the organisation is thanked in the credits. The film also got past the BBFC and was certified ‘A’ (suitable for adults) with no cuts required. This suggests that the film’s representation of the police didn’t in any way contravene social norms in 1950 – something which by the 1970s was certainly questionable in terms of the police canteen culture in the Met and the various attempts to clean out corruption. At that point it did indeed come over as rosy nostalgia. Today it is very rare to meet a police officer on the street and the common perception of the police is governed by quite different forms of TV crime fiction. As for Ealing, the appearance of Dirk Bogarde is unusual and his performance really singles him out as playing the bad boy. I think he is actually more disturbing when he is cleaned up and wearing what appears to be a ‘spiv’ tie. Tom Riley is a young punk, but Bogarde, who had begun in the theatre was 28 when he made the film. His image was changed again a few years later when he became Rank’s ‘matinee idol’ in the successful ‘Doctor’ film comedies.
The Blue Lamp is well worth watching on Talking Pictures TV and if you want a more informed viewing experience, there is a Blu-ray available with several extras including comments by Charles Barr, one of the leading Ealing scholars.