Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The 1958 Richard Attenborough film "The Man Upstairs" is one of the many minor gems to be found on Talking Pictures TV

I've fallen into the habit of recording obscure old black and white films shown on the Talking Pictures TV channel on Sky, and checking them out in the hour or so before bed. I have to watch them when I'm on my own, so I can whizz through the boring bits, or, if they're dreadful (which they often are), delete them after a few minutes and move on to the next one. Now and them, though, I'll discover a film so good I have to watch every minute of it from start to finish (thus further deranging my current day-for-night sleep patterns). It happened to me last night with The Man Upstairs, a rather earnest 1958 British melodrama in which a troubled man who occupies a room in a shabby but respectable London boarding house inadvertently assaults one of the other boarders, and then tussles with a policeman (who falls down the stairs and has to be rushed to hospital), and then locks himself in his room with only a gun and his angst for company.

Here's a five-minute excerpt:

"Oh, please let me shoot him, guv!"
The tenor of the film is distinctly left-wing. The unsympathetic uniformed detective inspector (Bernard Lee) is an unbending right-winger obsessed with "thugs" getting away with assaults on his men; Lee's superintendent boss is a more emollient, far better-educated policeman who no doubt votes Liberal and who keeps rejecting his subordinate's hot-headed, gung-ho plans to subdue the miscreant; the landlady is a hard-drinking, heartless ratbag (Tory, obviously); the man who initially called the police after being assaulted is an insignificant, weaselly jobsworth who nobody likes, played by Kenneth Griffith (who excelled at playing creeps) - probably a Tory; the social worker, played by big Welsh boyo Donald Houston in a duffel-coat, look you, oozes compassion (Labour - and he probably loves Trad Jazz); the mum whose son Attenborough has been helping with his homework (and who is married to decent union man, Alfred Burke) is convinced her tooled-up nutter neighbour just needs sympathy and understanding (The Men refuse to listen to her - typical!) - both no doubt vote Labour; there's a sarcastic, selfish young artist, who caused it all by refusing to lend Attenborough money for the gas meter (he probably doesn't vote, and needs his political consciousness heightened); Richard Attenborough isn't a violent thug at all, of course, but a scientist who, despite being officially exonerated, believes his carelessness was responsible for a work accident in which he was injured and a colleague was killed.

In the end, the residents, who the police have herded into Sympathetic Mum's surprisingly spacious
"No, you can't have a bloody shilling for the meter."
room, are talked round by her into making one last attempt to get Richard Attenborough to give himself up peacefully before Bernard Lee goes medieval on his (short) arse. The Educated Police Superintendent agrees, over Inspector Bernard Lee's objections, and, at the very last moment, Demented Dickie unlocks the door to his room, emerges, and is led away by the minions of the post-war therapeutic state to be moddled, coddled and probably chemically coshed back to sanity by teams of "experts".

"No, I don't want to play  Kris Sodding Kringle!"
I loved it! It provided a reminder of just how great an actor Richard Attenborough could be when he wasn't asked to do nice or twinkly: whenever he's on screen, the energy levels rise by about 50% - he is rivetting. Of course, if weaseliness was Kenneth Griffith's forte, suffering unbearable emotional pressure was Attenborough's, whether playing In Which We Serve's cowardly young Stoker, or the working-class boy having to adjust to life in a posh boarding school after being awarded a scholarship in The Guinea Pig, or  the factory worker in The Angry Silence ostracised for refusing to join a strike, or the serial killer John Christie in 10 Rillington Place. Strange that a man who was noted for his calmness when directing vast epics should excel at portraying hysteria as an actor.

The Man Upstairs isn't a masterpiece - but I'd rather have watched it than 99% of the contemporary films offered on Sky Movies, because it's better-scripted than they are, the acting is infinitely superior, the direction is more adroit and less self-indulgent, and it's actually about something.

Look, I know you're busy, but if you happen to enjoy obscure old films, here are some of those available on Talking Pictures TV over the next few days (you can find the schedule here):

Night of the Big Heat (1967) -  "Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing & Patrick Allen. A heatwave forces the atmosphere to boiling point. It falls to Godfrey Hanson to discover the reason" - silly, but I enjoyed it.

Thunder in the City (1937) - "Comedy. Stars Edward G. Robinson, Nigel Bruce, Constance Collier & Ralph Richardson. A visiting American engages in a bold business promotion, the likes of which the British have never seen." Edward G. Robinson at war with Ralph Richardson - who could resist?

Ghost Camera (1933) - "Crime drama with Henry Kendall, Ida Lupino (her first full feature) and one of John Mills’ early films. A lost camera contains a photo of a murder." Worth it just to see Ida Lupino before she reinvented herself as an American actress and director.

The Sound Barrier (1952) - "Directed by David Lean. Stars Ralph Richardson, Nigel Patrick. An aircraft manufacturer whose passion for making the ultimate supersonic jet, suffers great personal tragedy in his quest." Not at all obscure - a genuine classic.

The Stars Look Down (1939) - "Directed by Carol Reed. Starring Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood. Davey Fenwick leaves his mining village on a university scholarship intent on returning to better support the miners." Another classic.

The Limping Man (1953)  - "Frank (Lloyd Bridges), an American, returns to England to see his war-time sweetheart (Moira Lister) but witnesses a shooting whilst leaving the plane." Worth watching, and the London exteriors are a delight.

Three Cases of Murder (1955) - "Three stories of murder and the supernatural. Starring Orson Welles, John Gregson & Elizabeth Sellars. Introduced by Eamonn Andrews. Directed by David Eady & George More O’Ferrall." No, honestly - Eamonn Andrews and Orson Welles in the same film! Despite that, not al all bad.

Mind you, I'd probably give Can You Keep It Up for a Week?, The Tommy Steele Story and Cuckoo Patrol (starring Freddie Garrity of Freddie & the Dreamers) a miss.


  1. Mind you, London Live is giving Talking Pictures a run for its money. This afternoon those not interested in the cricket could have enjoyed Fun at St Fanny's starring Fred Emney and Cardew Robinson.

    1. Damn - and I didn't record it! And the cricket was pretty dull, what with the West Indies winning with a whole two balls to go.

      Oddly, I can't remember ever celebrating the Feast of St Fanny at our local church.