Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Oh! Mr Portman

Any Powell & Pressburger fan will know the actor Eric Portman.  His most memorable roles are as the uptight magistrate Colpeper in 'A Canterbury Tale' and the zealous Nazi Hirth in 'The 49th Parallel'.  In the latter film he is superbly sinister, and having thoroughly enjoyed his masterly portrayal of evil I have looked out for other films featuring Portman.  I was therefore thrilled to find a dvd set of Ealing films at one of the Buxton Toy and Train Fairs.  Not only was a Portman film listed in the contents, but also another film called 'Train of Events' which I love and have not seen for years.  More on that film in a later blog.

But back to Portman. The film in the Ealing dvd set is called 'His Excellency'.  Not one that I have heard of before.  Having watched it I can understand why it's not considered a classic.  Released in 1952, it follows a former dockworker called George Harrison (Portman) who is sent to a British dependency as its new governor in order to sort out the native dockers.  The new governor is a bluff northerner and his appointment horrifies the local genteel ex-pats.  Cue some clumsy class stereotyping.  Portman's accent sounds unnatural (even though he was born and bred in Halifax) and grates somewhat.  Strangely, he sounds more authentic as a German to my untrained ears.  But, there is some period charm to be found in the film.  Mainly because it shows that once upon a time, you could tell politicians apart.  The governor is spoken of as one of the new breed that have taken power after the war - a trade union man with the accent, manners and dress sense to match his industrial past.  Meanwhile, the genteel conservatives all know the "right people" and speak the Queen's English.

Although laughable to us now, I think that there was some truth to be found in these 2-dimensional portrayals once.  On the whole, Labour politicians in that first post war government had previously held trade union office or had a proper job.  Conservatives had mostly been to public school and were part of an ancient establishment.   It must have been great to know what you were dealing with.  Because look at an MP now, listen to the voice and to what they are saying...and they could represent any of the three main parties.  You've no idea who's side they are supposed to be on and what their motives are.  It's all very boring compared to those heady post war politics these days!  I think I'd prefer an Eric in charge.

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