Monday, 17 December 2012

Time Gentlemen, Please!

'Time Gentlemen, Please!' is a fairly gentle social comedy from 1951. Presumably aiming for the some of the same audience as the highly successful Ealing films it lacks the wit and sophistication of those classics but does poke fun at hypocrisy and inequality and is slyly subversive, championing rule by the common people and the rights of the individual.

Little Laycock is a small village in Essex (actually Thaxted), a picturesque, sleepy place ruled by a manipulative and self-serving Town Council who have been in power for over twenty years. The recent addition of a large factory has led to further prosperity and an employment rate of 99.99%, which has attracted the attention of The Ministry Of Industrial Co-Ordination, who have decided that the Prime Minister should visit the village to congratulate them on their contribution to the economy.

The only diptera in the unguent is the 00.01% unemployed of the village, an idle, scruffy, crafty, hairy Irishman (is there any other type?) called Dan Dance.

Dan has lived, or rather mooched, in the area for years, never working, relying on others generosity and the odd scam to get by, an indulged member of the community, a beloved black sheep. He sleeps under the stars and is probably the happiest man in the village. But he is not productive, so, in order to get him out of the way for the state visit, the town council first imprison him and then, realising they can’t hold him for long enough, confine him to the long-disused alms house where his freedom is curtailed by a series of stringent laws that have been on the books since the Middle Ages.   

When the new Vicar takes umbrage at Dan’s ritual humiliation by the powers that be (forced to wear an archaic uniform; given a bath every night by Thora Hird; having to be in every night by 9pm), he does his own digging into the rules and regulations and finds that local rents for common land should be used for the upkeep of the alms houses and any remainder divided amongst the inmates. As Dan is the only inhabitant, and as the rents include that of the factory, Dan is suddenly very flush indeed - £20 a day rich in an era when the average wage was about seven quid a week. Local Landlord and chiselling Council member Sidney Balmoral James is mortified.

This sudden reallocation of wealth (the rents had previously been used to do up historical buildings, i.e. the homes and businesses of council members) and the subsequent shift in power leads to a little revolution in Little Laycock. The popular Dan and some like-minded individuals (including the aged postmistress, a raving Communist who is expecting ‘rivers of blood’ very soon) stand for election as The Peoples Own Independent Party (the postmistresses suggestion of ‘The Avengers Of The People’ was deemed too inflammatory) and sweep the board. The people celebrate with an impromptu outbreak of folk dancing, rather like at 'Chigley' when the biscuit factory whistle blows at six o'clock. Dan announces that the alms houses will be converted to child care facilities.

The new regime now have to deal with the 00.01% unemployment rate themselves, and they neatly solve the issue by giving Dan a job in the factory testing mattresses, the lovable, lazy swine.

Never quite as funny as it might be, ‘Time Gentlemen, Please’ is nevertheless an amusing hour and a quarter that evokes a time when a homeless, jobless man was seen as a character, a non-comformist, an individualist going against the flow, not just some sinister scumbag. It also raises some interesting parallels with ‘social cleansing’ stories from not so long ago, including the allegation that Newham Council were kindly offering their poorest residents an opportunity to move to Stoke, or that Fulham and Broadway Council could potentially house the homeless a little ‘outside’ of the Fulham and Broadway area, i.e. Nottingham.

Incidentally, 'Time Gentlemen, Please!' was a Group 3 production, a state backed studio headed up my documentary genius John Grierson. It's remit was to provide low budget b-pictures as a training ground for new British film talent. Sadly, the studio failed to do very much at all for British film apart from giving Joan Collins her first role, a wonderful thing, I'm sure you'll agree.

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