Saturday, February 12, 2011

Barnacle Bill: A late Ealing comedy

Charles Barr, in his great book on Ealing Studios, pulls no punches:
Barnacle Bill marks an unmistakable end of the line for Ealing Comedy. Made when the company had already left the physical environment of Ealing Studios, it is like watching the last twitching of the nervous system after death.
And in his memoirs This is Where I Came In, the Ealing screenwriter T.E.B. Clarke does not remember it happily:
the film was not a success. We should doubtless have reflected that running a pier is not an activity that many people wish to enjoy vicariously.
Barnacle Bill tells the story of a retired naval officer, played by Alec Guinness, who buys a run down seaside pier. Thwarted in his attempts to revive it by the town's authorities, he registers it as a ship and offers stationary cruises. When his enemies attempt to demolish the pier, he inadvertently sails the remaining fragment across the Channel and becomes a national hero.

Barr writes:
the central image of this community of innocents and eccentrics sustaining a life which is doubly unreal: first it's all holiday (recalling the unreality of Titfield as a working community), and, second, it pretends to move while remaining stationary.
There couldn't be a better image for the static and unrealistic nature of the Clarke/Ealing community. It's as if the tide of inevitable change  - made the more inevitable by the soft, innocent philosophy of those resisting change - surrounded Pimlico, which had decided change wouldn't happen, and floated off into the sea.
All this is true - you have to be familiar with the other Ealing comedies Passport to Pimlico and The Titfield Thunderbolt to understand Barr's arguments fully, but then I assume all my regular readers will be - yet I rather enjoyed Barnacle Bill when I saw it again on DVD the other day and I can offer the following points in its defence.

The first is Alec Guinness. His genius as an actor means that you believe from his first appearance that he has been a naval officer. Or perhaps it is something about that generation of British actors. One reason for the success of The League of Gentlemen is that it is so easy to believe that Jack Hawkins has commanded men in battle.

Then there are the purely nostalgic reasons. Barnacle Bill was filmed on Hunstanton pier, which was already in decline and, after fire and storm, was finally demolished in 1978. A report in the Lynn News suggests its history is not so far from the controversial one depicted in the film. Those interested in North Norfolk in that era should watch the John Betjeman film I posted a few weeks ago.

And do not forget the pleasure to be found from the sheer quality of the cast in this era. In Barnacle Bill you will find Maurice Denham. Lionel Jefferies, Richard Wattis, Alan  Cuthbertson, William Mervyn, Donald Pleasance, Joan Hickson and Warren Mitchell in minor roles.

But most important is the possibility of a more radical reading of the film. The authorities in Sandcastle-on-Sea, the town where the pier is located, is depicted as both corrupt and pleasure hating. Guinness is a more modern figure. He sets free the fist in the pier's dismal aquarium, so that he can put a bar in its place, and dismisses the awful variety artists from the end-of-pier show, humiliating the escapologist by tying him up with insoluble Naval knots.

The young people may be shown as calling everyone "Daddio", but Guinness is on their side. When they start tearing out the seats of the old theatre, he joins in, much to their bafflement, because he realises that a dance hall is the way forward and will be profitable.

Guinness is ultimately defeated in Sandcastle-on-Sea, but the film suggests that had he found himself in Titfield he would, at the very least, have been running the youth club. (Rather like another former naval officer, Paddy Ashdown, come to think of it.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Alec Guinness actually was an officer in the wartime Royal Navy.