Saturday, 25 October 2008

Oh Mr Porter! (1937)

For some reason there's been a lot of stuff on the telly recently about railways and their history; timely enough therefore, that BBC Four should have been so providential to feature this old gem from the archives.

This is probably the best - certainly the best remembered - of all Will Hay's endearing British comedies where he played a slightly incompetent figure of mockable authority, especially those involving Moore Marriott (from The Crazy Gang) and Graham Moffatt - who played a cheeky schoolboy usually one step ahead of his master (Hay of course) in Good Morning Boys, and continued in that vein through this film and others.

These three (as directed by British comedy veteran Marcel Varnel - far right) were an incomparable trio - but there's much else to Oh Mr Porter! besides just them that make this such a classic. One factor not least, was the sleepy but highly nostalgic setting of an old railway station on the Irish border, a station so forgotten about that even the trains don't bother to stop there anymore!

"Buggleskelly" station was in fact Cliddesden, a delightfully out-of-the-way spot in a charming English village near Basingstoke. At the time of filming (in 1936) the line had closed and much of the track was already being torn up; in the meantime it was the perfect spot for the film makers to use as their out-of-the-way and forgotten fictitious station on the Irish border. Little remains of the station today, but the attractive trees that lined the platform still stand neatly in a row, as does the outline of the old Basingstoke to Alton route itself. With a bit of judicious dressing up by the Gainsborough Studios art department, adding a signal box and covering the corrugated iron roof of Cliddesden with wooden planks, shabby, crazy-house looking Buggleskelly station was born, to be immortalised in film comedy history.

Even shabbier looking than the station however, is old Harbottle (Marriott), the chief clerk and assistant porter, whose three word answer to any passenger's enquiry is "Next train's gone!" Together with the aforementioned Graham Moffatt as Albert the porter (with a small "p"), and the station's resident engine "Gladstone" (a refashioning of "Northiam" from the Rother Valley Railway in Kent), this motley assortment of a station staff might well be a credit to Network Rail today, but as far as the good people of the Northern Irish railway are concerned, it seems the perfect place for shabby-but-well-bred-and-impossible-to-know-what-to-know-what-to-do-with wheeltapper William Porter (Hay) to become station master - and with good reason: Buggleskelly is a cursed line.

This second spooky factor to its success owes a certain amount of debt (superficially) to Arnold Ridley's The Ghost Train - and it's appropriate perhaps, that there should be a distinct air of the later Dad's Army about the antics of Messrs. Hay, Marriott and Moffatt. Indeed, Will Porter could be considered the cinematic ancestor to Captain Mainwaring. As in the Ridley play, the legend of "One-Eyed Joe" the Phantom Miller is a pretence of some shadier dealings, and the film's generally light-hearted tone is offset nicely by a ghoulish and memorable cameo by Dennis Wyndham as the sinister "Joe", captain of the "Buggleskelly Wednesday".

Will's serendipitous meeting with the villain comes as a result of a brawl in the saloon - as always for any film set in Ireland seemingly - from which Albert and Harbottle are knocked out cold. Come the morning, with Porter's special excursion to Connemara (containing the Buggleskelly Wednesday) having mysteriously vanished, the boys naturally think the old man's off his head, like all the previous station masters before him. And worse is to come for Porter - the locals discover he's seen One-Eyed Joe!

Undaunted, the intrepid Will investigates, with the grudging help of his two cohorts.

At the film's heady climax, the three heroes are stuck on separate ends of the haunted windmill's sails (filmed at Terling in Essex), and following the staple rule of old comedy, there's a chase at the end, with Gladstone chuffing away for all her worth (through the Basingstoke rail sidings) with the dastardly crooks on board, trapped inside - in the days before auto-locking - by the resourceful Albert who sits atop the coach roof bashing any interlopers over the head with his shovel. Apparently that really was Graham Moffatt strapped to the top of a moving train.

Oh Mr Porter! in a way has set the image of the well-meaning but ultimately incompetent railway station master, and many other subsequent cliches. The title itself was derived from a popular song of the times, and subsequent railway stories have borrowed various elements from Marcel Varnel's film - such as the TV comedy series Oh Doctor Beeching! among others.

And if you think of the two unmistakable images of Will Hay, it will be either in the mortarboard and master's gown of Good Morning Boys, or as the inept station master of Buggleskelly.

"Oh Mister Porter, what a funny man you are!"

"Buggleskelly" station today

1 comment:

chris said...

Those beech trees are certainly doing well,and I don,t suppose you located the chocolate machine in the undergrowth and I suppose the next train had gone!

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films