The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953, Dir Charles Crichton)
When the branch line between Titfield and Mallingford is scheduled for closure; Gordon Chesterford (John Gregson), the local squire whose father built the line, and local vicar and railway enthusiast Sam Weech (George Relph) are determined to keep the line going privately. They convince the wealthy Walter Valentine (Stanley Holloway) to back the venture, explaining that the railway laws will enable him to start drinking at 9 o’clock in the morning. However, they face concerns from the Ministry Of Transport and some of the village that they can manage to run the line properly and a local bus company, who want to take over the route from the railway, do their best to sabotage their efforts.
Regular readers of this blog will know that for the last couple of years, I’ve done a special post to mark what would have been my late father’s birthday. This year he would have been 80 and so, to mark that, I’ve chosen what was one of his favorite films and a movie that I’ve come to appreciate more and more in later years.
Released towards the end of Ealing Studios’ Golden period and 3 years before the studio was eventually sold, Titfield Thunderbolt remains a slightly underrated Ealing classic; often forgotten about amongst such gems as Kind Hearts And Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob or the Studio’s last great masterpiece: The Ladykillers. This maybe due to it’s lack of the darker, satirical edge that those trio of films or others from the studio, such as The Man In The White Suit have. In tone, it’s closer to that of Passport To Pimlico – hardly surprising given that both it and Titfield Thunderbolt were also written by T.E.B Clarke, (whose former job as a policeman had inspired another famous Ealing film: The Blue Lamp – which introduced the character of ‘Dixon of Dock Green’). Yet, this has none of Pimlico’s timely poignancy; instead we enter a very romantic version of English country life that is probably as far from reality as that of The Railway Children, Enid Blyton or Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. This is both the film’s greatest strength and it’s greatest weakness. To audiences these days it’s a lovely cinematic fantasy of what England wished it was really like back in the early 1950s, with beautiful villages and cheery secular vicars. At the time of its release however, the film, whilst favorably received, was cited as a clear case of Ealing’s „English and proud“ ethos giving way to rose-tinted daydreams.
Clarke had also written (and won an Oscar for) The Lavender Hill Mob, whose director, Charles Crichton, and one of its stars, Stanley Holloway, return for this film. Holloway’s role, despite being billed near the top of the cast is little more than a glorified cameo, which allows him to play the role to the hilt. The heart of the film really belongs to the wonderful George Relph as the kindly, train obsessed Reverend. Ultimately, though, it’s an ensemble piece with wonderful performances throughout, including several other familiar faces from Ealing’s repertory company of actors including Naughton Wayne, as the town clerk and the wonderful Edie Martin (who always reminds me of my grandma and whose line of „Stop that William, we’re the staff!“, as her husband cheers the train leaving; never fails to make me smile). It’s even got Sid James in a small but important role, in the days before he became a household name through the Carry On films.
Perhaps because it lacked the obviously funny set pieces and fabulous dialogue of say, Kind Hearts and Coronets, I found it a rather dull film as a child and struggled to see why my father loved it so much. He loved trains and always wished that I would share his enthusiasm for them. He also loved characters such as the one Stanley Holloway plays here: Amusing drunks. As a man who liked a drink himself, it’s easy to understand why he was drawn to these characters, even if they are far more enjoyable on screen than their real-life counterparts.
As a student in Liverpool, I discovered they were doing a special showing of it at the Philharmonic Hall one year, around the time of my Dad’s birthday, and I got tickets for us to go and see it, which pleased him no end. However, it wasn’t until I had children of my own, who were at an age when they enjoyed things such as Thomas The Tank Engine, that I rediscovered the film and was finally seduced by its charms. My dad was ecstatic to hear that his grandchildren also loved the film and I remember him sitting down to watch it with them, one afternoon when he visited. It also marked the beginning of my children’s continuing love of period English books and films that has continued through the Carry On’s to Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Enid Blyton and beyond. And rightly so. For me the film evokes that same feeling that I get from reading Famous Five books or PG Wodehouse: a sweet nostalgia for a world that no longer exists and probably never did. Like all sweet things, it becomes sickly in large doses; but taken in proportion, provides a nice remedy to the bitter medicine of the world today.