The partnership of Ealing Studios and Alec Guinness is enough to make any vintage film fan come over all unnecessary. Top of the tree has to be ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’, closely followed by ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ – both deserving of that overused tag “classic”. In third place is the rather less well known ‘The Man in the White Suit’ (1951). But it is no less a film, despite being in the shadow of the other two. The casting, led by Guinness and Joan Greenwood, is sublime and the storyline is, as always with Ealing, slightly subversive. That’s what I like about these films, underneath the gentle fun a certain something ripples along. You can ignore it if you wish and take the film at face value and not have your enjoyment in any way diminished. Or you can pick up on it and spend a pleasurable half hour trying to fathom out what it is telling us about post-war
The thing that I find fascinating about ‘The Man in the White Suit’ is that it was released in 1951. This is the same year that that now almost mythical event, the Festival of Britain, took place. I must confess to getting myself a bit caught up in the romance that was and has been spun about this event. From this distance it all looks marvellous – futuristic (even now), colourful, positive in outlook. The antithesis of us today in our retro doom and gloom mood. I love the designs associated with the Festival, from the famous Skylon to the official angular logo. I’m not alone in viewing it all with a huge feeling of fondness either. More than sixty years on it remains in our collective consciousness. Which must mean that at the time, the Festival was big news. Events were scheduled around the country to celebrate and transport was laid on to the South Bank site. Think of the hype that surrounded the 2012 Olympics. It must have been like that, with mentions, discussions and advertisements in every available media. Look on eBay and you will find a collector’s paradise of stamps, postcards and commemorative coins which were produced at the time.
This is why I think that, despite there being no actual mention of it, the Festival influenced the story behind ‘The Man in the White Suit.’ It’s too much of a coincidence that this film examines scientific discovery, while just a bit further down the Thames people were being invited to explore the “discovery dome.” And so, I spent that pleasant half hour fathoming out that the storyline plays Devil’s Advocate.
The Festival was a Government initiative, planned with the hope of giving the post war recovery and the country as a whole a boost up. It aimed to celebrate all that was good about Britain – its natural resources, illustrious history and the achievements of its people. This included scientific achievement, the programme guide noting that “…we have done much to found and develop the sciences of chemistry and physics…the basis for most, if not all of the great material achievements of the modern world.” It would appear that
was a place where scientists were understood, encouraged and
appreciated, but ‘The Man in the White Suit’ tells a different story. One of a chemist and his thwarted ambitions. Guinness’ character, Sidney, is anything but
understood, encouraged or appreciated.
He has to beg, steal and borrow to do his experiments, and when he
finally discovers a formula for a cloth which repels dirt and will last
forever, he is hounded around the streets of Lancashire. There are two groups of people doing this
chasing – the textile mill owners who wish to suppress the discovery in order
to preserve their profits, and the trade unionist workers, who want to protect
their jobs. At one poignant moment, his
old landlady pulls him up. She is a
slight, kindly little old woman (played by Edie Martin) and she makes a
heartfelt plea: “What about my bit of washing?”
She fears a future where she will have no means of supplementing her
meagre income. This endless chase
demonstrates how they have all gone into a blind panic. Take a step back and you realise that this
fabric is not as threatening as they all seem to think. Britain
|Guinness by Howard Taylor @aitchteee|
Firstly, the no need to wash is quite ridiculous, even if the fabric does repel dirt. Would you wear clothes that had never been washed? I wouldn’t, especially undergarments! This goes completely against human nature. Secondly, the trade unionists’ assumption that only one batch would ever be needed is also very blinkered. The population grows continually. People grow- even adults with that middle-age spread that we’re all prone to. And then there is fashion, and our desire for a change of wardrobe now and again. Who on earth would wear the same set of clothes their entire life? Perhaps there would be some drop in demand. This is what worries the mill owners who are trying to buy Sidney off. But to succeed in business you need to go with the tide and not swim against it. Ideally, they should be thinking about how to use the situation as a springboard to diversification.
By portraying this relationship between science and the employers and workforce, I think that ‘The Man in the White Suit’ is telling us that we should take the Festival hype with a pinch of salt. That it’s all very well celebrating science when our business leaders and workforce refuse to move forward with it. Science also needs imagination, and in many quarters this was lacking. History confirms that the Ealing subversives were not just weaving fiction. Talk of a “brain drain” appears soon after the end of the war. A document found online (UK Data Archive Study Number 6099) discusses a “Brain Drain Debate in the UK c.1950 – 1970”. It tells us:
“Civil servants and scientific advisers within Whitehall had been aware of scientific migration as a potential problem since at least the early 1950s.”
The term “brain drain” was not adopted until the 1960s, at a time when
“…individual scientists invoked the brain drain in their campaigns for better conditions in the UK…”
This little exploration has confirmed what I always knew – that Ealing Studios are one of the best resources going for gauging post-war attitudes in Britain. They should bring them back to tell 21st Century Britain where it’s going wrong!