Boulting Brothers’ films always have something to say about contemporary society. The trick for us now, over half a century later, is to work out what it is they are saying to their intended audience. I have often sat and wondered exactly where their political allegiances lay, if indeed they had any. Sometimes they appear to be mocking socialism and the Labour movement. But then something happens to make you think that they are simply despairing at the way the ideology is being implemented, and that people are just not taking into account basic human nature. Take, for example, ‘I’m Alright, Jack’, where they take a shot at trade unions. Are they against trade unionism as a concept, or just exasperated at the people running them? No doubt many people will have a point of view about this and either side could form a convincing argument.
‘Heavens Above’ (1963) presents a further thought provocation. Taking the film at face value, it is an often hilarious showcase for some of Britain’s finest comic actors. Peter Sellers heads the cast as a prison chaplain, who is accidentally given the parish of Orbiston Parva. This is a fantastic piece of acting from Sellers, who plays the vicar as a gentle Brummie, willing to think the best of everyone. He takes in the dodgy Smith family, who are in the process of being evicted from a patch of waste ground which has been earmarked for an extension of the local factory. The Smiths are delightfully played by Eric Sykes, Irene Handl, Miriam Karlin, Roy Kinnear and assorted children, each one bringing their own little highlight to the film. I must also put a little word in for Joan Hickson in her role as “Housewife” – a series of three or four little vignettes which never failed to elicit a laugh out loud moment for me.
At the beginning of the film, I sensed that there was going to be an attack on the Americanisation of Britain. An American voice-over takes us on a tour of Orbiston Parva, showing us a town that has eschewed godliness for Westerns on the telly and Charlton Heston at the cinema. An old building advertises that it is to be demolished in favour of a shiny new Woolworths store. But this turned out to be something of a red herring. Instead of being criticised for embracing the material pleasures in life, local residents are shown as just following human instinct – which is essentially selfish. It is the men of God who come in for the criticism. They are out of touch, they cause nothing but confusion and they fail to grasp basic human instinct from the lofty heights of their moral high ground. The vicar’s idea of redistribution of wealth causes at first delight, then total collapse of the local society. His socialist attitude to his work is a disaster. What is not so clear is whether this is a round condemnation of the church as a bunch of soppy incompetent lefties, or just a call for fresh, modern thinking. I would personally go for the latter option, given that after state intervention, the vicar is made Bishop of Outer Space. I think it is a call for the church to look at where modern Britain seemed to be heading at that time and to use imagination to take on the new challenges it would bring. Its survival depended on it.
The film was made in 1963. This was an important year for societal change – if you take notice of Philip Larkin and his poem “Annus Mirabilis”. If this poem is a true document of that year, this is when the balance finally tipped. No longer was church-led tradition the lifestyle choice for the majority – it was time for godless self-fulfilment to be the goal and the pursuit of pleasure to hold sway. ‘Heavens Above’ supports this point. It comes out in support of a future where people are allowed to follow and not suppress their instincts. It shows us as we are now, just in our infancy.
The Kind Hearted Man Killer by Sarah Miller Walters is available as an Amazon Kindle download for 77p. For a taster visit: