‘Private’s Progress’ (1956) is an interesting film in that it seems to have had a big influence over two other films from the late 1950s. Produced by the Boulting Brothers, they must have enjoyed making the film and its success. Much of the cast reappeared in their more famous ‘I’m Alright Jack’ three years later, cast in similar roles. Also, there are heavy reminders of 1958’s ‘Carry on Sergeant’, with the presence of William Hartnell playing pretty much the same character in both films.
|Who's the Sergeant by @aitchteee|
Ian Carmichael plays the useless Private Windrush, whose disastrous progress we follow throughout the film. Being a posh boy he should of course have been an officer, but his total ineptitude in everything he tries leads to him being shoved in with the masses. The film is set around 1943-ish – over halfway through the war. Being a Boulting production there is a heavy element of satire in the story, the target of which is criminal activity. If we take on board what the film suggests, we can only conclude that wartime crime was rife – that almost everybody was dabbling in something. Of course we are all aware of the archetypal spiv, but the idea of so many taking part doesn’t sit easily with the idea of noble Britain fighting the good fight as if it were a game of cricket. As ever, I turned to my wartime bible for answers – that is Juliet Gardiner’s book ‘Wartime Britain 1939 – 1945’. There are unarguable statistics which back up ‘Private’s Progress’’ insinuation that crime was indeed rife. By 1945, crime was up 57% on the 1939 statistics. To some extent this was because there were more crimes to commit under wartime legislation. Circumstances also provided a lot of new opportunities – for example the blackout leading to an increase in theft, and bombing leading to a shameful explosion of looting.
Richard Attenborough’s character, Cox, has all the scams and delightfully shares them with anyone who’ll listen. We particularly learn how to get away with making a railway journey without paying for a ticket. It does seem to be the case that the railways did suffer greatly from the crimewave – and not just in terms of non fare paying passengers. According to a book published by the LMS in 1946, detailing its role in World War Two, theft from the company ranged from a huge amount of petty pilfering to organised raids on warehouses. Some gangs took full advantage of the confusion and panic caused by air raids to loot railway property while bombs fell around them. So, railways were a good choice to focus on and allowed the film to avoid getting too heavy. Not all petty crime was amusing, as many of Gardiner’s looting accounts attest.
‘Private’s Progress’ also points out that this increase in crime or opportunism wasn’t just taking place among the lower classes. And it suggests that the higher you stood in society, the bigger and better the opportunity. There is, however, not as much solid information to be had on crime among the elite. Not surprising – the rich were always more likely to get away with their misdemeanours. The class system is shown up as the biggest accomplice that there ever was.