Title: The Maggie
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Major Players: Paul Douglas, Alex Mackenzie
Out Of Five: Four
Sometimes you know when you’re on familiar territory. With The Maggie, released on DVD this week, it’s apparent within 30 seconds, because this is the forerunner and something of an inspiration for an 80s favourite.
Bill Forsyth set his Local Hero, made some 30 years later, on much the same territory and explored a similar idea. It’s the West Coast of Scotland, with city types and a wealthy American trying to get their way but being out-manoeuvred left, right and centre by the canny locals. In Local Hero it was an idyllic coastal village in danger, in The Maggie it’s a decrepit old puffer boat.
The captain of the vessel, Mactaggart (Alex Mackenzie), needs £300 to renew the license. A chance meeting at the shipping office leads to the boat being chartered to take some cargo up the coast on behalf of a wealthy American businessman, Marshall (Paul Douglas). Not that he knows the truth about the boat he’s hired – and, when he does, his efforts to unload the cargo become more and more complicated. And unsuccessful.
The parallels aren’t just confined to the setting and storyline. There’s the satire as well, both of them poking wicked fun at the big city types completely out of their depth in the countryside. In The Maggie, they’re exemplified by the plummy voiced, bowler-hatted Pewsey (Hubert Gregg), who look down on the locals. Unsophisticated they may seem, but they’re sharp as tacks and know their stomping ground like the backs of their hands. More than that, they understand and love it – and will go to any lengths to protect it.
The Maggie has an added dimension. Made at a time when World War II was still fresh in the memory, it satirises the culture clash between the Brits and the Americans. One that the film’s director would have known all too well. American-born Scot Alexander Mackendrick had already made Whisky Galore! in a similar vein, although he’s probably best known for the blackest of black Ealing comedies, The Ladykillers, released the following year.
And there’s a similarity with another hit, this time thoroughly English, comedy released the year before. Genevieve traced the mishaps of two couples taking part in the London to Brighton vintage car rally and had a musical motif played on a harmonica. It ran right through the film like letters in a stick of rock. The Maggie uses its theme tune in much the same way, only this time it’s played on a concertina and we see somebody playing it, usually on the boat itself. And the tune sounds vaguely familiar as well.
The film is joyously funny throughout and the humour takes no end of shapes and forms. The quietly dry Scottish humour and Mactaggart’s attempts to justify all of his actions are pure delight, but there’s an equal amount of the physical variety, be it Marshall losing his temper in frustration or the remains of a crumbling pier falling to pieces because of the way The Maggie has been docked.
And there’s a certain amount of nostalgic pleasure to be had from spotting familiar faces from British film and TV, such as Roddy McMillan as a cab driver with a tendency to over-charge, Dorothy Alison (The Nun’s Story, Reach For The Sky) and Geoffrey Keen (The Third Man and hit TV series The Troubleshooters).
In fact, it’s unashamed nostalgia all the way of the beautifully made, affectionate and comic variety. If you’ve never seen it before, then now’s your chance. And if you have, then treat yourself. Watch it again.
The Maggie is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on Monday, 24 August as part of the BFI’s Britain On Film project. 1,000s of titles have been digitised and made available on line as well as on DVD and Blu-Ray. The film is also reviewed on Talking Pictures.