by Allan Fish
(UK 1937 84m) DVD2
Next train’s gone!
p Edward Black d Marcel Varnel w Marriott Edgar, Val Guest, J.O.C.Orton story Frank Launder ph Arthur Crabtree ed R.E.Dearing, Alfred Roome md Louis Levy art Alex Vetchinsky
Will Hay (William Porter), Graham Moffatt (Albert), Moore Marriott (Jeremiah Harbottle), Dave O’Toole (Postman), Dennis Wyndham, Frederick Piper, Sebastian Smith, Agnes Laughlan, Percy Walsh,
There never was another like Stockton’s favourite son, Will Hay. Anyone who isn’t British who may be reading this may think “Will Hay, wasn’t he that killjoy who took the sex out of the movies in the thirties.” He’s barely mentioned in US film guides, his films only available there through special order through internet sites like Movies Unlimited. Yet to the British film-viewing masses he’s part of the furniture, a comic genius in the pantheon, as essential and as relevant to his nation in as Jacques Tati in France. Like Tati’s Monsieur Hulot, Hay is a bumbler, an incompetent, but with a tendency towards the dishonest, who is put into places of responsibility, abuses that responsibility, but somehow comes up smelling of roses. In an age when so many think British comedy began with Monty Python, it’s nice to be able to remind certain folks that that’s only a later flowering of the tree. The earliest saw many other comic highpoints, from the anarchy of the Crazy Gang to the less cinematic style of Sid Field. Yet it’s Hay who worked best on film and who produced a string of minor British comedy classics, from which great things can be found in nearly all of them. Many will cite his later The Ghost of St Michael’s and My Learned Friend, the latter of which is great in itself, but somehow Hay without his original cohorts, Graham Moffatt and Moore Marriott, is like the Carry Ons without Kenneth Williams and Sid James. Though the wonderful Ask a Policeman, Convict 99 and Where’s That Fire? are all memorable, Oh Mr Porter! is his and the team’s masterpiece.
The story is strictly from formula and borrows heavily to the point of grand larceny from The Ghost Train, but who cares? Hay was born for this movie. We follow our inept eponymous stationmaster from his arrival at the wonderfully named Buggleskelly, somewhere in Northern Ireland (“got your clock?” Marriott asks him when he arrives) to his encounters with a rustic local postman (“you’re WASTING your time”) to his attempted capture of the smugglers at the windmill to the final bow of the hat to the recently deceased steam engine, Gladstone, who looks old enough to have sired Stevenson’s Rocket (and Marriott old enough to have been there). The idea of it being set in the rural Irish countryside may have been a touch close to political incorrectness at the time, and certainly some of the locals are about as Irish as Max Boyce but it works for all that. And whereas some of Hay’s earlier films relied on his fine tuned sketch routines of the incompetent schoolmaster with trademark piece-nez and mortarboard, his Porter is no less funny or pathetic. He is made to order for ridicule. He stops express trains that never stop simply as a matter of pride, generally tries to lay down his authority and falls flatter on his back every time. Moffatt and Marriott meanwhile have been there, seen it, done it, bought the T-shirt (or maybe, the toga, Moffatt’s so big and Marriott’s so old). They just get on with their own little lives and don’t let the unimportant fact of who happens to be the poor unfortunate sod currently consigned to the graveyard post of their stationmaster interfere with that. They know there will be a new one along next week. Indeed, that all time great impossibility that is Marriott’s cry of “next train’s gone!” can be seen to be actually reasonably accurate. There is no next train, no last train, no train full stop. Period. They just look after the place and stop a small gust of breeze from blowing it over. But if we wonder why we like Hay it’s because we are just like him, flying in the face of reality simply for form. We get kicked down, but we get up and try again. He’s resilient and the British people love resilient losers. They’re part of our national heritage. Like the next train, Hay is, alas, gone, but never forgotten.
How Oh Mr. Porter! made the Top 100:
Bill Riley No. 9
Bobby Jopsson No. 16
Frank Gallo No. 27
Allan Fish No. 28
Sam Juliano No. 29