This is Sean Foley’s version of a beloved movie that depicted a stagnant Britain in which capital and labour unite to thwart innovation. What was once a deliciously subversive Ealing comedy has, however, now become a riotously busy squealing farce. It’s enjoyable on its own terms and boasts a fine performance from Stephen Mangan but it lacks the Ealing touch.
Even though the action has been updated from 1951 to 1956, the premise remains the same: a lone scientist, Sidney Stratton, invents a synthetic material that never wears out. Briefly acclaimed, it’s a discovery that has to be suppressed because it would disrupt the market and destroy jobs. But while the story follows the Alexander Mackendrick movie, itself based on a stage play by Roger MacDougall, the tone could hardly be more different. Within the first few minutes, we have exploding apparatus, fart jokes and a skiffle number written by Charlie Fink in which Sidney stands on a table and sings: “I’m going to make the world a better place.” Subtlety is clearly not the name of the game. Even the show’s topical gags, including one about circumventing the law for the good of the country, are remorselessly underlined.
The basic style is one of breezy populism perfectly well executed. Mangan’s Sidney is totally unlike the saintly innocent portrayed by Alec Guinness but he is toothily engaging, tirelessly energetic and has a coyly seductive dance with Kara Tointon, who invests an industrialist’s daughter with an independent spirit. There is decent support from Richard Cordery as her bellicose dad, Richard Durden as a decrepit tycoon and Sue Johnston as a good-hearted landlady.
Foley’s production and Michael Taylor’s design also brim with invention: a car suddenly materialises like an unfolding bed, the boss’s baronial mansion is filled with sword fights, miniaturised figures engage in a chase across a Lowryesque landscape. It is all hectically and boisterously theatrical but what I missed was the movie’s quietly satirical portrait of a sclerotic society in which it appeared nothing would ever change.