No, says Richard Lutz, not the lost Kenneth More movie based on the JM Barrie classic about class warfare. But a firm salute to Ealing director Charles Crichton.
About a quarter of a century ago, comedian John Cleese helped put together the laughfest A Fish Called Wanda. People were known to break their collarbones falling out of their multiplex seats because it was so funny. It marked the return of Ealing maestro Charles Crichton.
Cleese, to his credit from the tip of his Python to the toe of his Basil Fawlty, said the movie had to be directed by this British veteran.
Crichton was 79 when he was plucked from obscurity. It was his last film. His most successful, showing all of us the illusory qualities of success and fame. One day you’re on top of the tree. The next you have rotten fruit bombarding your drooping head.
Thirty-odd years before Wanda, he slapped out two Ealing beauties. One was the great Lavender Hiil Mob in 1951. The other was The Titfield Thunderbolt(Tues, 22.00, BBC4).
Now, I know that 10pm is rather late for a school night or a midweek evening when all you are thinking about is the dreary monotony of a job. But, hey, that’s what hard drives and zappers and iplayers and other doodads are for.
This 1953 movie is an elegy to all that is batty, daft, loveable and whimsical about British life and humour. Or should I say, before I get clubbed with a claymore by my Scottie relatives, English life and humour. The plot is as innocent as a kiss in the schoolyard – an indescribably, impossibly cute Somerset village is threatened with the closure of its indescribably , impossibly cute rail line. They take on the challenge to keep it open and fight off ‘the baddies’ from an evil bus company that want the line to shut so they can make more bucks.
The plucky villagers (NB: all villagers were plucky in 1953) keep the wonderfully names Titfield Thunderbolt running, dare I say, through thick and thick.
Stanley Holloway plays the village magnate who backs the rail scheme with the promise there will be a bar on the train in the AM so he can get sozzled as a pickle in a distillery before work. Sid James, the King of dirty laughter, is a dab hand at a steamroller which tries to derail the said Thunderbolt and Hugh Griffiths is the irascible bumpkin who actually knows how to fire up a loco and gets the old thing running.
The Admirable Crichton plays it low and soft. Even the baddies are kind of cute and cuddly. With an eye for the quiet beauty of the Somerset countryside, the train seems to roll on forever through dale, vale, combe or whatever else Somerset can throw at you for evanescent tranquillity. The script is sheer British whimsy; light, never raucous and the whole picture is one of innocent pleasure that marked Ealing comedies as the height of light-hearted fare.
Also, there is The Thunderbolt itself. It was 114 years old when it was used for the film and still ran even though it was built in 1838. It was even older than Crichton himself when he eventually directed A Fish Called Wanda 56 years later. No wonder he loved the film and the loco. He understood posterity.