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When People say they don’t like Ealing movies, generally what they mean is – they don’t like The Titfield Thunderbolt

July 12, 2014


Let me be clear, I like The Titfield Thunderbolt. I always have. But I’m not always sure that I like that I like it. And I can respect why people might hate it. The Titfield Thunderbolt is a kind of atypical Ealing film that people think is typical. It reinforces certain values which are assumed to be Ealing Comedy values in defiance of the actual evidence of Ealing movies as a whole. It’s rather like Genevieve – also starring John Gregson, which is often assumed to be an Ealing movie when in fact it isn’t.

But whereas most Ealing movies are unEaling (as Ealingness is constructed), The Titfield Thunderbolt is reassuring. While Kind Hearts and Coronets and Ladykillers make fun of murder and Man in the White Suit explores the socio-economic limits placed on scientific advancement, The Titfield Thunderbolt is so safe and tame and conventional that it could have been made in the twenty first century. By Clint Eastwood.

This is a movie that teaches us that old things are better than new things. That amateurism is better than professionalism. That sudden improvisation is better than careful planning. That passion is better than specialist skill.

The old gang are all there – Stanley Holloway, John Gregson, the lesser known George Relph and even Sid James, in a strangely pivotal and redemptive role. Perhaps Britain’s long term industrial decline is down to movies like The Titfield Thunderbolt. Sentimental attachment to obsolete technology.

It occurs to me that this film, made not long after railway nationalisation, might have made people nostalgic for private rail companies.  Nowadays, people in Britain are used to being ripped off by amateurish private rail companies and are nostalgic for nationalisation.

Now I get pretty weepy myself at the spectacle of branch railway lines being shut down. I can excoriate Beeching with the best of them, and I think “Slow Train” was the most beautiful thing that Flanders and Swann” ever did. Yes – the tramlines (or trainlines) of my emotions are predictively manipulated by this tale of local eccentrics who club together to save their train. But the cozyness of the fable does not bring out the best of me. Nor is it the best of my home town either. Ealing.

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