Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Happy Burns Night!

"Titfield.  One can't open the newspaper these days without reading about Titfield."

With these exasperated words the Minister of Transport in Ealing Studios' "The Titfield Thunderbolt" wearily resigns himself to the fact that Something Must Be Done.  It isn't just going to go away.  At the moment, the same can be said about Scotland - and the fact that it's everywhere in the papers at the moment as one side seeks to cut loose, whilst the other searches for elusive positive arguments for why we'd be better off sticking together....

So anyway, given that it's Burns Night, its time to sit down and consider the story of the struggle between a cheery streetwise ginger Scotsman, and his ancestrally Scottish putative overlord up from London with the English accent - yes, Ronald Neame's film of James Kennaway's "Tunes of Glory."

TOG fits perfectly in with the first rule of British cinema - that if it's set in Scotland and was made before about 1965 it's going to be good (the exception, naturally, being Jack Hawkins and David Niven in "Bonnie Prince Charlie").  It tells a complex story of power and identity, that is fairly ambivalent in its presentation of the two protagonists Jock Sinclair (Alec Guinness) and Basil Barrow (John Mills).  Indeed, by the end it's difficult to know who you're supposed to be rooting for.

The plot is straightforward enough: Jock, an officer commissioned from the ranks after Alamein, is acting colonel of his highland battalion, garrisoned in a peacetime barracks similar to Stirling Castle.  Basil is the 5th generation regimental officer sent up from instructing at Sandhurst to take command over Jock's head.

The antagonism between the two characters provides a window on the eternal questions of Scottish identity, and what is proper behaviour.  Jock has his officers dancing reels with gay abandon, hollering and raising their hands above their heads; Basil is convinced that his officers should be dancing "correctly," and orders them to attend remedial dancing classes at dawn with the pipe major.  As an aside, as someone who has been given some very stern looks at the Northern Meeting I can confirm these attitudes persist on the 21st century Scottish dancefloor.

Some of it is more subtle - can Basil really be considered Scottish with his English accent, even though he is undoubtedly from north of the border and from an old Scots family?  Are the attitudes of his officers to him mirrored in the scorn of the pipe major for the clearly English Regimental Sergeant Major, Riddick? And can any self respecting Scotsman take seriously as his commanding officer a man who will turn down whisky in favour of lemonade?

The officers are an odd bunch.  Gordon Jackson is ever-reliable as the adjutant, but then there are characters like Alec Rattray, clearly a bruiser after Jock's heart, and a marvellously malevolent turn from Dennis Price as Major Scott - a man who manages to alienate everyone around him by the end of the film, stealing Jock's lover  and completely undermining Basil whilst giving every outward impression of being on his side.

Shot in technicolor, the film is these days a distinctly period piece, but it has some marvellous scenes - particularly of the reeling - and Guinness was never better than in this film: indeed, he saw it as the performance he was most proud of in his career.

Ultimately, it's a study of leadership, and the shifting currents of loyalty within a tightly sealed world.  It gets under the skin of the immediate postwar army in a way that perhaps only George Macdonald Fraser's McAuslan stories (interestingly also dealing with a Highland battalion) have matched.  It deserves a new audience.

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