Just over 50 years ago, the famous film ‘I’m all right, Jack’ was released. The film opened in London in late August 1959 and was a huge success – in 17 weeks more than two million people flocked to see it in British cinemas. Apparently, when Harold Macmillan went to Balmoral in early September to ask the Queen for a dissolution of Parliament and a general election, the Queen arranged a special projection of the film for them to watch in the evening – I find this a fascinating nugget of information.
The title of the film encapsulated its content – the phrase ‘I’m all right , Jack’ had its origins in the banter of soldiers during the Second World War and had entered common parlance by the late ’50s. The film was essentially a comedy about the state of industrial relations, taking swipes at militant union leaders, lazy and selfish workers and duplicitous and corrupt management. It had a terrific cast: superb English character actors including Ian Carmichael, Terry Thomas, Irene Handl, Margaret Rutherford and John Le Mesurier – but the greatest impact of all was made by Peter Sellers as shop steward Fred Kite, in a brilliant performance – more on that later.
The film seemed to strike a chord with its audience – there were long queues to see it at the cinemas across the country. The film has been repeated many times on television since 1959 and has carved out a special place in the national consciousness. It has come to be seen by several commentators and historians as highly socially significant – to borrow a phrase from Historian Peter Stead, a film which provided ‘clues to an era’. In this talk I intend to explore the nature of these ‘clues’. I’ll be taking you through the plot of ‘I’m all right, Jack’, before moving on to look at the state of industrial relations in 1959. Then we’ll focus on some examples of documents from 1959-60 which throw new light on this subject. I’ll then move on to look at some other targets satirised in the film, including advertising and television, and what the public records reveal about those aspects. Does the film deserve the special status it has acquired – does it hold up a mirror to the late ’50s in some ways? These are the questions I will be exploring.
As mentioned, Peter Sellers performance as Fred Kite was central to the film’s success. In January 1959 Sellers had signed a deal (for five films) with the brothers John and Roy Boulting – who were, incidentally, identical twins. Their films they had directed included Brighton Rock and Carlton-Browne of the F.O. In his excellent book White Heat, Dominic Sandbrook comments: ‘as committed supporters of the Liberal Party, they represented a particular kind of disaffected, high-minded middle-class politics, antagonistic towards Conservative materialism but suspicious of socialism and the trade unions’. Their production company, British Lion, was keen to build on the success of their 1956 film Private’s Progress, which had satirised the army, and they managed to reunite virtually the same cast for ‘I’m all right Jack’.
The film opens with a short sequence set in a Gentleman’s club on VE Day. We see old Sir John, played by Sellers, slumbering in a chair. A servant comes over to wake him up, to tell him that the war is over. A narrator addresses us, as Sir John makes his doddery way out of the room: ‘Look hard, for this is the last we shall see of Sir John…a solid block in the edifice of what seemed to be an ordered and stable society. There goes Sir John – on his way out’. The film cuts to images of Churchill giving his famous V for Victory sign cheering crowds as the narrator continues ‘Victory will bring a new age, and with that new age a new spirit ‘ – but with these stirring words we see a soldier, played by Victor Maddern, celebrating on top of a lamppost, turning round his V-for victory sign into a rude gesture. The film launches into its rock and roll theme tune, sung by Al Saxon. Dominic Sandbrook draws attention to the lyrics, and he’s right to do so – as he points out , they sum up the message of the new order.
After leaving the army and university, the polite, well-meaning and seemingly upper-class Stanley Windrush, (played by Ian Carmichael) is determined to find a job in industry. He sets out full of confidence – ‘of course I shall be an executive’ he tells his father. Unfortunately his reconnaissance missions and interviews at various companies are disastrous, as evidenced by the scene in the ‘Num Yum’ cake factory.
But then Stanley’s Uncle Bertram Tracepurcel (played by Dennis Price) and his friend from army days Sidney De Vere Cox (played by Richard Attenborough) persuade Stanley to take an unskilled job at his uncle’s engineering firm, Missiles – a firm which is about to sign a large arms contract with an Arab government. ‘Will I be able to work my way up?’ asks Stanley – ‘of course, in time’ they tell him – but he is not to reveal his family connections to his fellow workers. Stanley accepts the job offer, despite strongly expressed misgivings from his Aunt Dolly (Margaret Rutherford).
And so Stanley starts work at Missiles, and is put to work straight away on the trucks moving crates. His enthusiasm causes consternation among his fellow workers, who are convinced that he is a time and motion observer, planted by the management, who is trying to pass himself off as one of the workers. A delegation alerts Fred Kite, Shop Steward, telling him of their suspicions.
Fred Kite (brilliantly played by Peter Sellers) confronts Stanley and finds out that he is not a union member. Kite calls for a stoppage of the truck drivers and leads a delegation of the Works Committee to see Major Hitchcock, the Personnel Officer (the wonderful Terry Thomas). They protest that Stanley is not a genuine worker and is incompetent. Hitchcock is mightily relieved that the workers have not spotted the real time and motion observer, called Waters (played by John Le Mesurier), who is about to start his work. Hitchcock declares that Stanley must be sacked immediately. After conferring, Fred Kite states ‘We cannot and do not accept the principle that incompetence justifies dismissal. That is victimisation’. Major Hitchcock happily agrees to let Stanley stay on.
Fred Kite talks with Stanley and finds himself warming to him, telling him ‘its heartening having you intellectuals coming into the working class movement’. He offers Stanley lodgings with the Kite family. Initially, Stanley is not keen on this proposal, but he soon changes his mind when he encounters Fred’s daughter Cynthia (Liz Fraser), who also works at the Factory.
So he takes up Fred’s offer and moves into the Kite Household. Romance with Cynthia soon blossoms.
You may recall that I mentioned earlier that Missiles was about to sign a large arms contract with an Arab government. This deal is duly done, but Uncle Bertie and his old friend de Vere Cox meet with the Arab government agent, Mr Mohammed. Tracepurcel tells him that Missiles will not be able to fulfil the contract, due to the industrial trouble that Stanley is causing. Cox remarks that his engineering firm can then step in – but it will cost Mohammed’s government a substantial extra sum of money – which can be split between the three of them. The ulterior motives of Tracepurcel and Cox in the placing of Stanley at Missiles, and the orchestration of trouble there, become very clear.
Back to Missiles, where Waters, the clandestine time and motion man, poses as a new worker and times the unsuspecting and ever-enthusiastic Windrush moving crates with a fork-lift truck. Stanley’s work rate is way above the accepted factory rate. Waters reports back to Tracepurcel, who orders the new timings to be implemented immediately. An angry Fred Kite calls a meeting of the workers and it emerges that Stanley is the cause of the re-timings. Kite calls a strike and Stanley is subjected to ‘dis-association’ , or in other words, ‘sent to Coventry’ by the Branch Committee. To keep the strike going, Cox secretly calls in the media , who turn up at Kite’s house. Fred Kite expects to give a statement, but its Stanley Windrush, who is still lodging there, that the press want to interview, and they make him into a national hero of the front pages.
Stanley’s Aunt Dolly arrives at the Kite household in her chauffeur driven car, and tells Stanley that he must go back to work. Her view is that ‘its unthinkable that a gentleman should go on strike’. Stanley then turns up at the factory gates in his bubble car, determined to cross the picket line. In a confrontation with Kite, he reveals that he is Tracepurcel’s nephew. Kite is absolutely furious. Stanley manages to enter the factory, but when he returns to his lodgings, Kite throws him out. When Kite’s daughter Cynthia finds out she is very upset and Mrs Kite announces ‘the strike’s spread – to this house!’. She and Cynthia leave to go to Aunt Edie’s.
The arms contract is reallocated to Cox’s form, Union Jack Foundries Ltd, but the workers there go on strike in sympathy with Missiles, and the strike escalates into a nationwide scale – the country grinds to a halt. Tracepurcel’s plan has gone awry. He now needs the strike settled, and so sends Major Hitchcock to see Kite and to work on a solution to get rid of Stanley. They decide that the best way forward would be to persuade Windrush to resign on grounds of ill-health, brought on by overwork.
A live television programme, Argument, is set up to debate the strike. Stanley, Tracepurcel Kite and Mohammed are all invited to sit on the panel. Before the show, in the dressing room, Cox reveals the financial scam to Stanley, and offers him a bag full of money (which he has casually left on a table) if he will resign and keep quiet. During the broadcast, when Stanley gets his chance to speak, he announces ‘I’ve swallowed everything!’ . He clashes with Kite, then angrily turns on Uncle Bertie, telling him ‘you cheated everyone!’ ‘Wherever you look’, Stanley exclaims, ‘it’s a case of ‘ Blow you, Jack, I’m all right’.
He produces the bag, reaches into it, and holds up a handful of pound notes, passionately declaring: ‘Here are the facts! Hundreds of them! This is what they all want -something for nothing!’ He throws the banknotes up into the air, and the studio audience get out of their seats to grab as much money as possible. A riot ensues, and the Argument tv show is brought to a disastrous close. The unseemly behaviour serves to reinforce Stanley’s message – but Stanley is charged with causing the disorder, and finds himself in front of a Judge. The conspirators are exonerated and Stanley is bound over to keep the peace for a year. Stanley retires to the sanctuary of a nudist camp where his father resides, which is the final scene of the film.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, it’s the high quality of the acting from the terrific cast which shines through the film, and the most memorable character is Peter Sellers’ creation Fred Kite. Peter Stead comments on the elements that Sellers brought together to create the character: ‘Apparently the character was initially sketched out by the Boultings, and they never doubted that Sellers was the man for the part. Sellers himself has explained how all the bits and pieces came together: the haircut, the suit, the Hitler moustache, the accent and the deliberate impersonation of a union official at the studio as well as one or two union chiefs from the television news’. Kite is vain and self-important; but Sellers also cleverly invests his character with a certain poignancy, and there’s a real sense of pathos about him when Mrs Kite and Cynthia desert him and he’s left forlornly trying to darn his socks.
How was the film seen at the time by critics? Many newspaper reviewers, including The Times and The Express liked the film, though it received a cool reception from some critics. William Whitebait in the New Statesman wrote about ‘mechanical laughs’ and a ‘lack of spontaneous wit’ – I would beg to differ, but there we are. Socialist publications such as the Tribune and Daily Worker were cross about the film – they saw it as an attack on the labour movement. Peter Stead draws attention to the comments of the commentator Anthony Carthew in the Daily Herald who argued that the film was ‘not an attack on trade unions but rather on their abuse’ as well as on the generally false values that have sustained the fifties’. Its certainly the case that badly led union workers and corrupt management were not the only targets in the sights of the Boulting Brothers – the film expressed doubts about a number of aspects of modern life, as it was lived in the late fifties, and that’s a point I will return to.
One could be tempted to speculate that the film played a part in the Conservatives election victory of 8th October ’59, in stirring up anti-union feeling, but although the film opened in London some seven weeks before the general election, it did not go on general release until the week after the general election. The release of the film was timely, as the national press and television news had been preoccupied with reporting strikes in this period. Peter Stead argues: ‘It would be going too far to suggest that anti-unionism was a major factor in Harold Macmillan’s election success, but no doubt many suburban voters had been irritated by wild-cat strikes and the regular appearance on the television news bulletins of one or two uncompromising union leaders such as Frank Cousins and Sid Greene’. Frank Cousins was General Secretary of the Transport & General Workers’ Union, who led a London bus strike in 1958 which Macmillan’s Government faced down, and Sid Greene was General Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen who was actually a level-headed moderate.
The success of the film did chime in with a wider national debate about trade unionism in Britain. But was fair comment to describe Britain as ‘strike bound’ ? When observers put British strike activity in an international context, and analysed the figures for days lost annually to strikes, Britain’s figures were low compared with other countries. And yet there was a growing chorus of criticism of trade unions in the public forum. Why was this? Dominic Sandbrook offers one reason – he states that the British trade union movement ‘had become a convenient scapegoat for middle-class resentment’. Society was in the process of change – white collar and service sector jobs, which were not so heavily unionised, were expanding – blue collar manufacturing employment had already peaked in 1955 and was beginning to decline. Trade Union leaders said they represented the workers – so, for some, it was an easy conclusion for some to make that unions were responsible for Britain’s poor economic performance. A lot of the criticism was focused on the kind of strikes that were increasing in the late fifties – particularly of a wild cat or unofficial nature, called by Shop Stewards. A gap had opened up between well-off union leaders and their members, and the unpaid shop stewards filled that gap. The industrial disputes of the late fifties were often unofficial, local, and it was often the Shop Stewards who organised them rather than the union bosses. However, there were some new union leaders who also took a militant approach. The conservative press attacked the shop stewards in particular – a Times editorial of 4th November ’59 stated that union leaders had demonstrated ‘complacency and weakness’ in dealing with the ‘little bullies and petty Napoleons’ on the shop floor.
On 5th November 1959, Sir John Laing, the Construction Industry entrepreneur, who took a benevolent approach to staffing matters at his company, wrote to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and made a suggestion. I’ll read this extract from his letter, which is the subject of a Prime Minister’s Office file at The National Archives:
‘If the two main political parties would agree, for the good of the nation, to ban strikes it would be a tremendous advantage nationally; and all matters which could not be amicably settled by a meeting of employers and Trades Union Leaders, could be referred to a permanent body consisting of a small number of representative industrialists and an equal number representing the Trade Unions, with an independent Chairman mutually chosen, possibly a judge.
To make this effective, it would be necessary to deal with the Shop Steward question, letting the Shop Stewards confine their duties altogether to the general welfare of the workmen and to the increasing of productivity, from which workers and country alike would benefit.’
He goes on to suggest that Shop stewards should be chosen by the Trade Union and the employer, in order to ensure co-operation. He understands that this is how things operate in Switzerland. So, to encapsulate things, the climate is this – the letter is sent in the aftermath of a great conservative victory at a general election, the film ‘I’m all right Jack’ has made a big impact (however its interpreted), and press and television are increasingly concerned with wildcat strikes organised by bolshie Shop Stewards. How will a Conservative Prime Minister react to this proposal – presumably with massive sympathy and also passion about the ‘Shop Steward question’, whatever the practical difficulties with the proposal?
Not quite. Macmillan is naturally courteous, and to some extent welcomes the suggestion as ‘food for thought’ but its clear from his reply, drafted for him by Edward Heath, the newly appointed Minister of Labour and National Service, that he does not agree with the proposal, nor, does he appear to have any passionate views about the state of industrial relations:
‘You refer to the activities of Shop Stewards. Some of these are certainly open to question, but I find a common view is that their influence is at least as likely to be on the side of moderation as otherwise, and that many shop stewards ward off disputes which consequently never appear in the newspapers. In any case, I would regards the range of responsibility of shop stewards as a subject for industry itself to deal with and not one susceptible to legislation.’
That phrase, ‘not susceptible to legislation’, is highly significant. This document dates from an era when the state rarely got involved in workplace disputes between employers and unions. Let’s look at the wider historical picture.
Strikes were illegal in Britain during the Second World War, but they still occurred, though it proved impossible to prosecute strikers en masse. But generally speaking, the period 1945 to the late ’50s was a period of consensus when industrial relations were relatively peaceful. In his book ‘Trade Unions and the State’, Chris Howell emphasises the ‘laissez faire’ approach by government to industrial relations which held true for much of the 20th Century, until changes emerged by the ’70s followed by major reform after 1979. In the 1940s , ’50s and beyond, there was a light legislative framework for industrial relations – the system was shaped by voluntary agreements between unions and employers. A lot of bargaining occurred between trade unions and employer associations. Conditions of full employment meant that unions were in a strong position, and Government ministers were keen to foster good relations.
This is the period of political consensus which became known as ‘Butskellism’, with a large measure of agreement between the two main political parties on the broad elements of Keynesian economics, a mixed economy and the welfare state. ‘Butskellism’ was inspired by a fictional character called Mr Butskell, created by Norman Macrae of the Economist, who conflated the surnames of Rab Butler of the Conservative Party, and Hugh Gaitskell of the Labour Party, both of whom had been Chancellor of the Exchequer. The 1940s and 50s have been called a period of ‘industrial Butskellism’.
Just look at the tone of these sentences, from a memo entitled ‘Notes on Some Industrial Relations Questions’ dating from 1960 and apparently written by Edward Heath as Minister of Labour (the authorship is not entirely clear in the file): ‘the personal contacts of Ministry officials with the TUC and trade union officials are a most valuable way of getting in a little sound advice. Trades unionists for many years have regarded the Ministry as “their” Ministry par excellence’. From a post-Thatcher government perspective, this really is a different world that we’re looking at. This is from 1960 – but the rest of the passage, which I’ll read you next – makes it clear things were changing in this cosy state of affairs.
Indeed, from the mid-1950s, changes in the British economy brought new pressures to bear on industrial relations. In the ’50s and ’60s, the economy underwent restructuring at a gathering pace. The emphasis moved away from the old staples such as textiles. The new growth industries included vehicle assembly, food processing, pharmaceuticals, and other chemical industries. Productivity expanded, fuelled by technological change. This impacted on work, and instances of industrial conflict in the workplace rose. Chris Howell gives the example that, in the automobile industry the number of strikes increased sixfold between 1950 and 1964. Again, ‘I’m all right Jack’ is relevant on this point – as shown by the consternation of the workers in the film when Stanley unwittingly declares that one of the fork-lift trucks can do the work of ten men. Industrial firms became larger, and industries became more concentrated. As mentioned previously, the service sector also saw rapid expansion, in business and financial services, technical and professional employment. The trouble was that by 1959 the economy was in danger of overheating.
Derek Heathcoat Amory’s budget of April ’59 was very generous, with considerable tax cuts. It was boom time. Britain’s imports soared, but our exports did not keep up with the increase in imports, so the trade gap widened. Nethertheless, industrial production rose by 10 per cent between October 1958 and October 1959, and unemployment fell, and at the same time the unions became more and more confident in demanding higher and higher wage rises. Inflationary pressures were building.
Here’s another telling extract from the same Ministry of Labour file that I quoted from earlier, this time from a memoranda dated 1960 which is entitled ‘Likely developments in the industrial relations field in the next twelve months or so’:
‘It is probable that the ordinary working man agrees that he has ” never had it so good” (borrowing Macmillan’s famous phrase from 1957) and he sees no reason, with banner headlines before him forecasting more prosperity, why he should not have it still better – and the quicker the better. Instinctively he may feel that he has reached his present personal state of prosperity in spite of inflation (perhaps because of it) and that had he, and his union, heeded the prophecies of disaster, with which successive governments had threatened him if he insisted on wage increases, he would not be now so satisfactorily placed. However cogent the arguments now may be for wage restraint he is hardly likely to recognise them as being different from any produced in the past.’
It would, therefore, be wise to assume that there will be plenty of support from members for an aggressive union policy in regard to wages as well as to reduced hours and increased holidays’. So, trouble is brewing.
Looking at the wider historical picture, Britain post-1945 was highly vulnerable to currency crises. To quote Chris Howell: ‘British Governments, both Labour and Conservative, chose to respond to this vulnerability with bouts of deflation and incomes policies that sought wage restraint’. The increasing emphasis by governments, from the early 60s onwards, on ‘modernisation’ and ‘planning’ was incompatible with the ‘laissez faire’ approach that had been taken to industrial relations for much of the 20th century thus far.
The cosy consensus was under strain, strikes were increasing, tensions were building, and inevitably, Governments started to look at labour law, such as Barbara Castle’s attempt at Industrial relations reform in 1969, the ill-fated ‘In Place of Strife’ White Paper. The really significant changes occurred from 1982 onwards when Norman Tebbit, as Employment Secretary introduced legislation addressing the closed shop issue and later on the Thatcher Government made secret ballots for strike action compulsory. In fact the idea of enforcing the need for a secret ballot before strike action had been kicked around for a long time. In one of our Ministry of Labour files there is a memo produced by the Conservative Research Department back in 1957 discussing the proposal, but there is no enthusiasm for it. It was felt that it would have little effect in reducing the incidence of strikes, and actually might cause more.
[Quoted text] ‘There is a real danger that stringent rules about the calling of strikes would not stop the strikes but divert unrest into unofficial means of expression and to that extent might in fact, offer more scope to irresponsible agitators’. The memo also states that ‘any legislation to make strikes illegal, except under stated conditions (and they are writing this in the context of the secret ballots proposal ) would be practically impossible to enforce’. So again we see that a lot of changes occur from this period of consensus in the ’50s – when the cracks are already starting to show – to the union reforms of the 1980s.
Back to the memo which I have attributed to Edward Heath dating from 1960 (‘Notes on Some Industrial Relations Questions’). He is referring to a national printing strike which occurred from June to August 1959.
The key phrase here is ‘fatherly advice’ – to us it seems so quaint and paternal, the idea of the Minister of Labour giving ‘fatherly advice’ to the trade unions. But that’s the state of affairs that Edward Heath is so keen to return to in 1960. It’s a long way from here to his famous question: ‘Who governs Britain – the unions or the government?’ during the General Election of February 1974.
Of course, ‘I’m all right Jack’ throws punches at management, too, who, through their outlandish and shady arms deal, are shown to be duplicitous and corrupt. A Times reviewer thought that the film’s barbs were ‘fairly divided between Capital and Labour’. Dominic Sandbrook makes a good point about this: ‘There was certainly some truth in the charge that the unions came out of I’m all right Jack rather worse than the employers, but this is almost entirely down to the performance of Peter Sellers, who ensured that the scenes of dishonest union officials and indolent workers lingered longer in the mind than those of the bosses’ corruption’.
As I mentioned earlier, badly led union workers and corrupt management were not the only targets in the sights of the Boulting Brothers – the film expressed doubts about a number of aspects of modern life, as it was lived in the late fifties. One of those targets was consumerism.
On 22 September 1955, to quote Peter Hennessy, ‘a new force burst into British life which, bit-by-bit, night-by-night, began to change it forever’. The first ever British television advert was shown when Associated Rediffusion began transmitting to the London area. Again, quoting Peter Hennessy: ‘Viewers saw a block of ice standing in a stream with a tube of toothpaste at its base. ‘Its tingling fresh. Its fresh as ice. It’s Gibbs SR toothpaste’, declared the cultured voice of Alex Mackintosh (ironically, a BBC presenter)’. This ad, and others that followed it, had a huge impact on the British public and their patterns of consumption – it heralded a new age of consumerism.
By 1959, this ‘brave new world of consumerism’ (to borrow a phrase from Dominic Sandbrook), is going at full tilt. When Stanley Windrush embarks on his appointments in the Industrial world, at the start of the film, as we see scenes of factories belching out huge quantities of smoke and pollution, the narrator declares: ‘Industry, spurred by the march of science in all directions, was working at high pressure to supply those vital needs for which the people had hungered for so long’. We see Stanley making his way into the Detto Washing Powder factory, accompanied by an inane advertising jingle, celebrating the joys of ‘Detto’, which ‘ halves the trouble and doubles the bubble’ – ‘doubles the bubble’ in more ways than one, when we learn of the greedy manufacturer’s tricks with the inflated size of the box it is presented in.
After Windrush is told that he is ‘not the detergent type’, the scene at the ‘Num Yum’ chocolate bar factory follows, again with a perfect parody of a advertising jingle, which is so absurd and ridiculous its brilliant. Sandbrook states that the Boulting Brothers are ‘making a serious point about the degeneracy of post-war society’. But its also very funny. I believe that this film marks the start of a particular type of satire in Britain directed at the claims of advertisers. I think it may well have influenced the comedian Benny Hill, who did some clever parodies of tv adverts in his show from the early 60s or earlier. It’s a tradition that was later carried on by The Goodies, in their 70s tv show. None the less, the public records show that television adverts in the late 1950s were not devoid of regulation by any means.
Here we have a booklet entitled ‘Principles for Television Advertising’, published by the Independent Television Authority in May 1958. The rules contained in this booklet are based in the recommendations of the Advertising Advisory Committee appointed by the ITA under the Television Act of 1954. They were drawn up in consultation with the Postmaster-General. The preamble begins: ‘the general principle which will govern all television advertising is that it should be legal, clean, honest and truthful’. It goes on to state that this principle should apply to all types of advertising but television requires special attention ‘because of its greater intimacy within the home’. It then goes on to lay down a number of rules.
Here we see a list of ‘unacceptable Products or services’, for which advertisements should not be accepted. They include:
Money-lenders, matrimonial agencies and correspondence clubs, fortune tellers and the like, undertakers or others associated with death or burial, betting advertisements, contraceptives, Its an interesting selection of products and services. Some of the bans are still in place – but in some cases you find it hard to see what the big objection was, e,g. contact or corneal lenses. But it does serve to show that television advertising was not unrestrained.
So, returning to my narrative, advertising and consumerism were aspects of British life that were among the targets of the Boulting Brothers. What else did they satirise?
Another target was television, specifically television’s presentation of current affairs, as in the depiction of the tv show ‘Argument’. The show is a bit like a prototype for Question Time, with a panel of guests, all given a chance to give their views, and hosted by Malcolm Muggeridge, playing himself. This sort of approach was just being experimented with around this time – during the 1959 General election campaign the BBC showed a new programme, ‘Hustings’ where three politicians nominated by the parties were asked questions by an audience nominated by the parties, before a neutral chairman. These programmes were often ill-tempered and had the effect of putting the political parties off studio confrontations with their opponents and the voters for a long time. Certainly ‘Argument’ becomes very ill-tempered in the film, as things degenerate into a riot – the display board which proudly proclaims ‘Argument – the programme that puts you in the picture’ – is broken in two during the fighting and money-grabbing.
I think that, while the Boulting Brothers are satirising a current affairs programme, when it comes to the scene where Stanley throws up the bank notes in the air and the studio audience make a stampede for it, at the back of their minds the directors are also alluding to popular ITV programmes at the time such as ‘Double your money’ hosted by Hughie Green, with its £1,000 Treasure Trail. Commercial television programmes such as these were incredibly popular, but some people were very sniffy about them.
The Pilkington Committee was established in 1960 under the Chairmanship of British Industrialist Sir Harry Pilkington to consider the future of broadcasting. One e of the bodies that submitted evidence to it was the Viewers and Listeners Association, a predecessor of Mary Whitehouses’s National Viewers and Listeners Association which was formed later. Here we see an brief extract from a memorandum that the Association submitted to the Pilkington Committee dated November 1960 – this section is headed ‘What the public wants’. It is very revealing about the attitudes of some people to popular television (read extract)
There’s more than a hint of snobbery here, I think. There seems to be no tolerance of undemanding and frivolous televisual fare, or any acceptance that “low-brow” programmes could happily sit next to “high brow” programmes. Indeed, when the Pilkington Committee reported in June 1962, apart from recommending that British television’s third tv channel be awarded to the BBC (which became BBC 2), it criticised the populism of ITV and its imports from the U.S. such as Westerns and Crime series. But, I digress. Back to ‘I’m all right Jack’. There are some other elements in the film that reflect British life in the mid-50s – I’m just going to run quickly through these.
The Boulting brothers also take a satirical look at the press – in the way that the press hone in on the ‘warm human story’ of Stanley’s relationship with Cynthia when Cox calls in the newspapers, and in the way that the press jump on the bandwagon, with photographs of the couple and headlines such as ‘Salute Stanley Windrush!’. Its not quite the era of chequebook journalism, but it will soon be on its way.
Another interesting aspect of the film is the fact that some of the bosses refer to their experience as Officers during the Second World War – Uncle Bertie and Cox were war time comrades, and its revealed that Stanley, during his stint in the army, served under Major Hitchcock (the personnel Officer played by Terry-Thomas). So army life, and the hierarchy of this, spills over into civilian life. But the film also emphasises how the old order is changing, and this is reflected in the rock and roll theme tune. When we see Cynthia jiving to this, listening to her dansette record player in her bedroom, this symbolises the new freedom of youth and pop culture which is on the march. And I mustn’t leave out Stanley’s wonderful bubble car, another symbol of the ‘brave new world of consumerism’, with its connotations of the space age as viewed in the late ’50s.
Had the film been made a year later Stanley would probably have been driving a mini – the first model of this very successful car rolled off the production line on 26th August 1959.
Moving to a final evaluation, there are some less attractive aspects to the film. There are resentful references to black immigrants taking jobs (though you can take the view that the film reflects its time, warts and all): the Arab character, Mr Mohammed, is stereotypical; and some of the scenes depicting the workers as lazy and selfish are uncomfortable to watch at times because the Boulting brothers seem to be taking a rather patronising view of their attitudes en masse. There is something in the criticism of some reviewers about the cold air of detachment of the directors, taking swipes at all sides in a cynical manner.
However, the brilliant actors invest their characters with humanity, including Sellers as Kite, and I think that the film deserves its special place as one of Britain’s most treasured films. It has a very sharp script and some scenes are very funny. Who could forget the scene where Stanley’s upper-class Aunt Dolly (played by Margaret Rutherford) visits the Kite Household, and we see her disdainful reaction to a book on the shelves emblazoned with the title ‘The Guilty Rich’!
Further to the entertainment value, the film does provide many clues to the era of the late ’50s, reflecting the increasing strains in industrial relations, the ‘brave new world of consumerism’ and rampant advertising, confrontational current affairs programmes on television, a press who are eager to jump on the next bandwagon, the old order on their way out, and the new march of youth culture to a different beat. It certainly gives us a lot to think about. I hope my talk has also shown the revealing nature of the public records we hold, and how they enrich our understanding of what was going on at the time, taking it to a deep level. It is always fascinating to find material which has the capacity to surprise us from today’s perspective, such as the memo which stated that trades unionists viewed the Ministry of Labour as their ministry par excellence, and the Minister’s preferred approach of giving ‘fatherly advice’ to Trade Unions – 1959 was only 50 years ago, but it was a different world.