By Sam Inglis [email protected] 24fps.org.uk
I never met my great grandfather, he died some years before I was born, but watching I’m Alright Jack I wished I could have seen it or at least discussed it with him, because I’m sure it would have struck a chord with him. In some ways it did with me, but in other ways it has definitely become dated over the 56 years since its release.
Set in the early 50’s, before Britain had entirely emerged from the hardship caused by the war years (rationing only ended in 1953), I’m Alright Jack is a political comedy of manners, set largely during a strike at defence firm Missiles Inc. Ian Carmichael plays Stanley Windrush, an upper class nice but dim type who can’t get an executive job in industry and is instead offered a chance to start at the bottom by by his uncle (Dennis Price). Unwittingly, Stanley becomes a pawn in a plan by his uncle and a rival arms manufacturer (Richard Attenborough, marvellously bastardly) to provoke a strike. At the same time he joins the union run by Mr Kite (Peter Sellers) and falls for Kite’s daughter (Liz Fraser).
I saw I’m Alright Jack almost as two films playing in tandem; one a comedy, the other a political commentary. The comedy has dated quite badly. The pace is, at times, so gentle that the gags, instead of hitting, seem to brush lightly past us. I found myself recognising a joke more often than I found myself laughing at one. At other times though the film seems to strain for laughs, particularly with Terry Thomas’ grating performance as Missiles’ head of personnel, who is often exasperated with Stanley’s dimwittedness.
This isn’t to say that I’m Alright Jack isn’t funny. Ian Carmichael is saddled, for much of the film, with a one joke character, but he manages to make it a pretty amusing joke much of the time. He plays Stanley’s naïve approach and general eagerness to please well, without making him a total cartoon character. Peter Sellers is even better and, predictably, steals the film as the committed union leader Mr Kite. There’s a nice running joke about the fact that while he’s a leader at work he’s not really in charge at home, and Sellers uses this and other moments to silently suggest that Mr Kite may not be quite as sure of himself and his positions as he outwardly seems.
The pace of comedy picks up rather abruptly in the film’s penultimate sequence, which draws all sides of the strike together for a Question Time style programme that soon descends into farce. It’s very funny, but a little at odds with the rest of the film.
While the film’s sympathies, at least by the end, seem to lie broadly with the workers, I’m Alright Jack is at times scathing about all sides of politics. It paints the directors of Missiles and their rivals as scheming and out to exploit both workers and the people who have contracted their work. It also, however, shows the union workers as shiftless and wanting to use strike action to get the most pay for the least work. At least until the end of the film both sides of the dispute are, to some degree, as bad as each other.
There is still contemporary relevance in the politics, and it was this that made me think of my Great Grandfather, who was a communist and a union leader at this time. I wondered what he’d make of ‘his’ depiction (as Mr Kite), how much progress he’d think we’d made, and whether he’d consider this same satire relevant to, say, the tube strikes of today.
I’m Alright Jack isn’t a comedy classic for me. It’s still got some laughs, and Sellers remains one of the great character actors, but overall I just didn’t find myself laughing that much. On the other hand, it’s still an interesting film that has something to say about how people live and the relationship between employer and employee, and it does so in an amusing, if not uproarious, way.
The restored picture is impressive. The black and white is crisp and there are no apparent flaws in the print or DNR issues. It’s not a film to use to show off your HD setup, but it’s a step up from DVD.
Extras comprise a 10 minute interview with Liz Fraser, an 11 minute slapstick short with Sellers and Spike Milligan, directed by Richard Lester called The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film (a painting by numbers gag is especially inspired) and a 13 minute retrospective on Sellers performance in I’m Alright Jack, with comments from Roy Boulting, Spike Miligan, Ian Carmichael and more. It’s a small package, but there’s little overlap and all the extras are worth a look.
The Bluray is out on Monday 19th January