Despite the best efforts of Brexit, class remains the most divisive aspect of British life. So, with an Old Etonian in Downing Street promising to heed the concerns of the Red Wall that helped him win the 2019 election, the timing of the new restoration of Roy Boulting’s public school saga, The Guinea Pig (1948), couldn’t be better.
Adapted from a West End play by Warren Chetham-Strode, the drama explores the recommendation made in the Fleming Report that 25% of public school places should go to state system students. Bickering about the funding of the scheme cost the proposal its place in R.A. Butler’s 1944 Education Act, which transformed secondary schooling in England and Wales. But the concept of equal opportunity remains potent and pertinent today, amid calls for the long overdue end of discrimination according to class, gender and race.
1. The canny Boulting message
Having attended the exclusive Reading School, identical twins John and Roy Boulting had benefited from a good education. Rather than advocating the abolition of public schools, therefore, they gave the fictional school of Saintbury a sense of history and significance by making evocative use of Chetham-Strode’s alma mater, Sherborne.
They also stressed the snobbery of the boys to highlight the contrasting backgrounds of tobacconist’s son Jack Read (Richard Attenborough) and his new classmates. However, by later having him echo the remark that the newcomers were “a slimy looking lot”, the Boultings were able to let the boy’s father, Mr Read, opine that social integration in schools would prove a leveller, as it had done in the Armed Forces during the war.
2. The thoughts of Red Bernard
The Boultings knew what they were doing in hiring Bernard Miles to play Mr Read and bring some vernacular authenticity to Chetham-Strode’s scenario. Having demanded postwar social reform in Roy Boulting’s 1941 short, The Dawn Guard, Miles had slipped a heroic Soviet sharpshooter into Tawny Pipit (1944), which he had co-written and directed. Indeed, his enthusiasm for Clement Attlee’s Labour agenda prompted him to advocate factory ownership by the workforce in Chance of a Lifetime (1950).
But what makes these socialist paeans so fascinating is that they were released at the very time that the House Un-American Activities Committee was imposing an anti-communist blacklist upon Hollywood.
3. Richard Attenborough’s twentysomething teenager
Richard Attenborough had spent the war playing outsiders, as in John Boulting’s Journey Together (1945). Aspiring pilot Jack Wilton and Pimlico oik Jack Read have much in common, although Read contrasted starkly with teenage gangster Pinkie Brown, whom Attenborough had played in the Boulting take on Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (1948).
Despite being 24, his baby face makes him a more persuasive schoolboy than Malcolm McDowell in If…. (1968) or Rupert Everett in Another Country (1984). Amusingly, as wideboy Sidney DeVere Cox, Attenborough would mix more comfortably with Dennis Price and Terry-Thomas’s establishment types in the Boulting duo of Private’s Progress (1956) and I’m All Right Jack (1959).
4. Three stage stalwarts in character
Jack Read doesn’t go from flicking Vs at Henry VIII to landing a Cambridge scholarship by himself. He’s helped and hindered by the masters and pupils of Cloisters, the Saintbury house presided over by Lloyd Hartley, an old boy whose faith in the system and the principles on which it’s founded only wavers on the eve of his retirement.
Baffled by the societal forces he considers an unwelcome intrusion, Cecil Trouncer excels in reprising his stage role alongside Edith Sharpe as his wife and Robert Flemyng as Nigel Lorraine, the RAF-wounded new broom who wants the money allocated to a war memorial to be given as bursaries to underprivileged boys.
5. The continuation of a grand tradition
Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857) casts a long shadow over the depiction of English public schools. While retaining its benevolent aura in their theme of ‘how to get on with the other fellow’, the Boultings opted against including a Flashman character, as Read was battling an institution and its ethos rather than an individual and his ego.
In this regard, the film recalls A Yank at Eton (1942), which, like the Oscar-winning Goodbye Mr Chips (1939), was produced by MGM. The latter’s impact on the Lorraine subplot seems evident, while his rivalry with Hartley invites comparison with the 1948 adaptation of Hugh Walpole’s novel Mr Perrin and Mr Traill.