Friday, 12 September 2014

A celebration of the conservative classic "I'm Alright Jack" from the latest issue of The Salisbury Review

"The Salisbury Review is f... f... f... frightfully good"
The latest issue of The Salisbury Review will be soon be dropping onto subscribers' letter-boxes with a satisfying thud. If you pay by direct debit, four quarterly issues will cost you a mere £23, while an annual subscription to the online edition costs a mere £10! To take advantage of this ridiculously generous offer, just visit the magazine's webiste, here, and check out the contents of the latest issue (by clicking "Content") and then subscribe (by clicking "Subscribe"). In passing, you can admire the new design, courtesy of a younger, more talented member of the Grønmark family. My own humble contribution to the new edition is a much-expanded version of a piece from this blog celebrating that wonderful film, I'm Alright Jack, which I reproduce here by kind permission of the magazine:

I’m All Right Jack gives the lie to two myths about post-War British satire: that it started in the early 1960s when a variety of Oxbridge tyros gave us Private Eye, Beyond the Fringe and That Was the Week That Was, and that its anti-establishment bias was largely left-wing. For a start, I’m All Right Jack, undoubtedly a satire, was released in August 1959, a year before Beyond the Fringe was first staged at the Edinburgh Festival. Neither of the Boulting Brothers, who directed, produced and were involved in writing the film’s screenplay, attended university, let alone Oxford or Cambridge. And while it’s claimed that the brothers started as socialists, the film’s outlook is decidedly conservative.

Our current liberal arts establishment is forever banging on about the need to support “edgy”, “dangerous”, ”subversive” work – but would require smelling salts if presented with anything as subversive as an updated version of I’m All Right Jack. Its attack on corrupt, fat-cat businessmen (manufacturing weapons of death, no less) would be applauded – especially as one of the businessmen is distinctly upper class. Its disdain for incompetent management, “You’ve never had it so good” consumerism, and waffling politicians (“As Minister of Labour you can be sure that I shall act. You can also be sure that I shall not interfere…”) would tick the requisite boxes. But the depiction of British workers as bone-idle time-wasters, of trade union officials as stupid, inarticulate, communist bullies, and its amused attitude towards the class system would all now be considered distinctly “unhelpful”.

In the unlikely event that you’ve never seen the film, the plot is as follows: having served in the army and graduated from university, and having failed to find a management job, Stanley Windrush (Ian Carmichael) is persuaded by his uncle, Bertram Tracepurcel (Dennis Price in bounder mode) to take a shop-floor job in the latter’s missile factory. Unbeknown to Stanley, his role is to foment a strike. Uncle Bertie has landed a contract to supply missiles to a Middle East government. Once production has been halted by industrial action, the contract will be transferred to another company, run by an other-ranks Army comrade of Bertie’s, bumptious, pinstriped Sidney DeVere Cox (Richard Attenborough), who will bump up the price and share the proceeds with his old chum.

Of the film’s myriad targets, the assault on trade unions is the most surprising, especially now when there seems to be an unwritten rule that all fictional depictions of union officials must paint them as heroic battlers for justice against sinister businessmen, corrupt police officers or vicious right-wing politicians. In I’m All Right Jack, they’re simply greedy, lazy and stupid. (The hatchet-job is so effective, it’s hard to believe that it took another 25 years for these puffed-up thugs to be called to account – with the overwhelming approval of the electorate – by Mrs. Thatcher.)

The Works Committee
The pomposity, self-importance and intransigence of the trade unions are captured in one glorious extended sequence when the Works Committee demand that Bertie Woosterish new-boy Stanley produces his union card. When he admits he can’t – “It's not compulsory, is it?” - he is told “No, it's not compulsory. Only you've got to join, see?” Bristling with indignation, head of the Works Committee Fred Kite (Peter Sellers) and his shop steward colleagues march into the office of personnel manager, Major Hitchcock (Terry-Thomas), to demand Stanley’s dismissal. When Hitchcock immediately agrees to defenestrate the young man on the grounds of incompetence, the Works Committee perform an instant volte-face and threaten to strike: “We do not and cannot accept the principle that incompetence justifies dismissal. That is victimisation.”

Later, when Stanley asks why the missile factory workers are represented by two unions, his colleagues are astonished by his naivety: “Blimey. When was you born? How would we go on for wage claims? The Amalgamated gets a rise, so the General puts in for one. If the General gets it, then the Amalgamated starts all over again. So it goes on, you see - like leapfrog. Otherwise we wouldn't none of us get a rise, would we?”

The general view of unionised labour at the time is summed up by Major Hitchcock in his comment, “We've got chaps here who could break out in a muck sweat merely by standing still,” and by his dismissal of the Works Committee as “a shower – an absolute shower.”

During a live television panel discussion hosted by Malcolm Muggeridge (playing himself), Fred Kite, ludicrously, refuses to admit his political allegiances by falling back on the stock response, ”My politics is a matter between my conscience and the ballot box.” Stanley, who has had enough of the hypocrisy of both management and workers, explodes: “Your politics - to each according to his needs, from each as little as he can get away with. And no overtime except on Sundays, at double the rate. That's a damn fine way to build a new Jerusalem.” I was too young to see I’m All Right Jack when it was first released, but I can imagine the audience – many of whom would have belonged to a trade union – laughing heartily at finally hearing the truth being told.

One of the other truthful aspects of the film that would no doubt have delighted the audience in 1959 was its sly references to bad language. The film’s title is a play on a popular war-time phrase containing the “f” word. Although the depiction of shop-floor life is naturally bereft of any effing and blinding, obscenity bubbles just beneath the surface, thanks to one of the shop stewards, played by Sam Kydd, whose stammer is particularly noticeable on words beginning with “f” or “c”. At one point, Kydd’s character calls Stanley a “silly c…c…c…clot”. Fred Kite’s horrified expression as he waits for his colleague to utter the “c” word is priceless. When Kydd learns that Stanley isn’t a union member, he demands: “Then what’s he doing on a  f…f…f…fork-lift truck?”

Although the film was granted a U-certificate – meaning that children could see it
unaccompanied – sexual innuendo abounds. This invariably involves Fred Kite’s curvaceous daughter Cynthia (Liz Fraser). Before he falls out with the union, Stanley is offered the chance to lodge with the Kites. He is initially reluctant, but when Fred tells him that Cynthia is his daughter and that she works in the factory “spindle polishing”, Stanley immediately changes his mind: “Oh, really? That room you were talking about just now. Perhaps I could pop round and have a look at it.” When Tracepurcel gives a deliberately provocative “motivational” talk to his workforce, a bored Cynthia asks Stanley what he’s on about. “Commercial intercourse with foreigners,” he replies. Her eyes light up and she’s suddenly all ears. (It may just be my over-active imagination, but there even seems to be something suggestive in Cynthia’s question: “Is them yer own teeth, Stanley?”)

What saves the film from the off-putting sourness of much left-wing satire is the affection we feel towards the main characters (with the notable exception of Dennis Price’s truly loathsome Uncle Bertie). In particular, Peter Sellers, in possibly his most accomplished screen performance, allows us to feel affection for Fred Kite, with his odd, robotic walk, his mangling of the language (e.g. “jeropardise”) and his toe-curling attempts at an Alf Ramsey-style “refined” accent. There is something distinctly poignant about Kite’s delusional view of life in Soviet Russia – “All them wheat fields and ballet in the evening”, and it’s impossible not to feel sympathetic when he is reduced to fending for himself after his redoubtable wife (the wonderful Irene Handl) walks out on him because he has thrown Stanley out of the house for being a scab.

I suspect the Boultings’ basic affection for the British and their institutions – as well as their commercial success - has prevented their lionisation by left-liberal critics. Their satire simply isn’t sufficiently savage or revolutionary enough to earn them brownie points. Their first social satire, The Guinea Pig (1947), in which Richard Attenborough plays a working-class boy sent to a traditional public school on a scholarship, hinted at things to come. Despite being the first British film to feature the word “arse” and a V-sign (both provided by Attenborough), it ends up as a eulogy to private education. The Boultings went on to satirise many other British institutions, including the Military (Privates’ Progress), The Law (Brothers in Law), Academia (Lucky Jim), the Foreign Office (Carlton-Browne of the FO), and the Church (Heaven's Above!). The Boultings give no indication that they wished to destroy or replace any of these institutions – their satire was accurate, but their mockery was gentle – and nobody would have left the cinema any more determined to man the barricades than when they went in. The prevalent themes of the generally amiable comedies they produced between 1956 and 1963 are ones that any small ”c” conservative would welcome – the English are a funny old lot, “get rich quick” greed is corrosive, and it would be a good thing if our major institutions were less morally shoddy – but one gets no sense that the Boultings had any enthusiasm for forging a “new Jerusalem”.

I’m All Right Jack was the most commercially successful British film of 1959. It was based on Private Life, a novel by Alan Hackney, and was a sequel to Private’s Progress, which Hackney also wrote. The screenplay was co-written by Hackney, Frank Harvey and John Boulting. Peter Sellers won a richly deserved BAFTA Best Actor Award for his portrayal of Fred Kite.

1 comment:

  1. Motivated by your review, I decided to find out more about Hackney. His Guardian obit (the Guardian, no less!) reveals that he won a (shared) BAFTA for the screenplay and goes on to reveal that he was a supporter of Margaret Thatcher. Two encouraging facts (I dislike the Cinema's grubby habit of mangling authors' work - and support for Mrs Thatcher needs no comment),

    Another of Hackney's filmed stories, Two Way Stretch, I recall going to see - I must have been about 10. As The Guardian puts it, rather meekly, it was a 'forerunner' to Porridge.

    Our current caste of 'comedy' writers could learn a lot from studying Hackney and the Boultings. I think the last British TV comedy I enjoyed was Spaced - just about everything else has been unwatchable leftie tripe.