That Ealing moment: The Blue Lamp

Curator Dylan Cave puzzles over a cosy police drama with one of the most shocking moments in British cinema.

Dylan Cave
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Credit: STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd

Spoiler warning: This blog gives away some of the film’s plot.

One of the pleasures in contributing to the BFI’s Ealing: Light and Dark season has been discussing with colleagues about exactly how to categorise certain Ealing titles that fall outside of easy ‘Light’ or ‘Dark’ classification.

Scott of the Antarctic, Ealing’s vibrant 1948 celebration of what was ultimately a doomed expedition, is one example. Another is 1953’s The Cruel Sea, which pays fine tribute to the British Navy during WWII, yet reveals the war to have shattered the lives of its officers.

But perhaps the most difficult film to position has been The Blue Lamp, a police film based around the daily life of Paddington Green station. A hugely popular crime drama (it was the most successful film of 1950 in the UK), it tells the story of a new officer, Andy Mitchell (Jimmy Hanley), who is taken under the wing of veteran PC George Dixon (Jack Warner).

Credit: STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd

The Blue Lamp’s credentials to play as part of our ‘Dark’ strand are strong, particularly since it contains one of British cinema’s most shocking screen moments, which still surprises first-time viewers: approximately halfway into the film, Dixon is confronted with hooligan gunman Tom Riley (Dirk Bogarde in a breakthrough role). Caught robbing a cinema, Riley warns Dixon to get out of his way, but the steadfast policeman doesn’t budge. Dixon is shot at close range and falls to the ground, and in that moment it feels like the entire cosy world he represents – community, family, the fabric of society – collapses with him.

When discussing The Blue Lamp, it is usually this scene that is invoked. Its cinematic renown is really only shared with a slightly later scene in the film, in which Dixon’s wife (Gladys Henson) learns that her husband has died. And here, too, the mood is sombre, the dignity of Henson’s performance barely concealing her character’s sadness.

Credit: STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd

So why is the film showing in our ‘Ealing Light’ strand? Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, this ‘dark’ moment is an extreme. Dixon’s shooting is so shocking because it is unexpected. The Blue Lamp has a classical narrative shape that disrupts the order presented at the start of the film and reinstates it by the end.

Even during the bleak middle section, The Blue Lamp cuts away briefly to a bickering couple. Their petty row may throw into relief the gravity of the crime against Dixon, but it also serves to entertain. And outside of the frenzied moment of the shooting, the film is concerned with creating, exhibiting or reinforcing the ideals that Dixon has come to represent.

This manifests throughout the film in the way the police are depicted as friendly, the heart of community and, in a moral sense, society. This comes to a head at the end of the film when the wider criminal fraternity unites to help the police track down the errant Riley. It presents robust community, a coherent singular articulation of national values.

Credit: STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd

Of course this view of Great Britain is, to borrow academic Charles Barr’s phrase, a ‘daydream’. The idea of the criminal world coming together to rid their profession of its own ‘rotten apple’ is illusory – if Riley was really seen as a threat he would more likely be integrated and controlled or dispatched entirely – but it is comforting.

In fact, the softening of reality that dominates the film, the portrayal of a dreamlike community, invites a charge of unrealistic conservatism, a charge rightly levelled at the long-running series – Dixon of Dock Green (1955-76) – that resurrected George Dixon for BBC television.

But The Blue Lamp stops short of being completely reactionary, thanks to director Basil Dearden’s injection of realism throughout the movie, but especially in a small montage that follows Dixon’s shooting. Immediately after the emergency services have been alerted to Dixon’s shooting, the film takes us out of the fictional world of Ealing actors, dramas and scripts and gives us three successive shots of police non-actors responding to the crisis, reacting swiftly and with purpose as is their public duty. A few seconds later a similar documentary-like shot shows us the professional NHS surgery where Dixon is operated on.

Credit: STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd

This recourse to the real world is, for me, the main reason why we can justify the film’s place in the ‘Ealing Light’ strand. Perhaps sensing the cinematic hysteria of his film’s slaying of Dixon, its moral heart, Dearden gives the real public services their due. Dixon’s fall is so traumatic it calls on the forces of the real world to deal with it. If the final moments of the film restore our imaginary sense of community, it is these brief documentary moments that give the audience its reassurance of the real heart of community endeavour.

Am I reading too much into a 30-second, non-fiction montage? Probably, but it’s clear that The Blue Lamp is a film setting out to pay homage to police service (writer T.E.B. ‘Tibby’ Clarke had himself served in the force during the war). In those few seconds of dry police procedural work, Dearden offers a progressive snapshot of that service in action.

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