Director Basil Deardon
Starring Dirk Bogarde, Jack Warner, Jimmy Hanley, Robert Flemyng, Bernard Lee
Released 12th December 2016
“Excuse me, officer. Can you direct me to Paddington Station?” The opening and closing lines of Basil Reardon’s The Blue Lamp are identical and pronounced in a clipped, very English accent. They hark back to a bygone era as, indeed, does the film which is back on DVD as of Monday in a newly restored version, some 66 years since its first release.
To put it in context, World War II has ended just a few years ago, rationing is still on and there are huge derelict spaces strewn with bricks and debris between the buildings. The narration tells us that a new generation is on the rise, “delinquents”, young people who’ve taken up a life of crime but doing it their way, not sticking to the rules followed by more established crooks.
And that narration establishes the film’s documentary credentials. It’s also the first British police procedural: despite the lack of forensics and technology, that’s what it is. In the opening credits (it’s old enough to have all the credits at the start) it acknowledges the contribution of the Metropolitan Police the making of the film. It meant they could use the real life Paddington Green Station and New Scotland Yard as locations. The screenplay also came from former policeman T E B Clarke (he won an Oscar three years later for The Lavender Hill Mob), all of which contributes towards two of the film’s most distinctive features. Firstly, it feels like a piece of PR for the police force at the time, showing them in a consistently positive light, patrolling the streets to keep the public safe, helping old ladies cross the road and knowing their beat in minute detail. Secondly, combined with the almost total absence of music, it has the feeling of a documentary rather than a drama.
That’s not to say it’s not dramatic. After we’re introduced to the officers at Paddington Green Station, including PC George Dixon (Jack Warner) and newly-arrived PC Andy Mitchell (Jimmy Hanley), we then meet a couple of young crooks, Ted (Dirk Bogarde) and Spud (Patric Doonan) who have young runaway Diana (Peggy Evans) in tow. She helps them set up a robbery at the local cinema, but while it’s under way Dixon arrives on the scene and caught in the crossfire. His colleagues at the station find themselves relying on the community, including the criminal underworld, to help track down the culprit.
It’s no spoiler to say that Dixon is shot and eventually dies. The film’s been around long enough for us to know that, although the fact that he’s killed at the half way point would have caused raised eyebrows at the time. Jack Warner was a big name in British cinema, so to bump off somebody of his stature so early in the action would have been a shock. But it didn’t prevent the film from inspiring the long-running TV series, Dixon Of Dock Green, which starred Warner in the same role. It made its first appearance in 1955 and ran for 21 years. Even though he gets top billing, Dirk Bogarde had yet to become a favourite with British cinemagoers – the Doctor series didn’t arrive for another four years. His performance as the murderous tearaway is a cruder version of Richard Attenborough’s Pinky in Brighton Rock (1947), with large, staring, slightly mad eyes.
There’s also a number of familiar faces in bit parts who went on to become familiar on the big and small screen – Sam Kydd, Glyn Houston and Anthony Steel. Bernard Lee had already been Trevor Howard’s loyal sergeant in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) and went on to be M to Sean Connery’s 007 in the James Bond movies.
For its day, The Blue Lamp was strong stuff, with its depiction of urban crime and the use of the word “bastard” – not much to write home about now, but in those days considered a strong swear word. Today’s audience may find it tame and familiar – the police community, for instance, is a close knit community which comes together when one of their own is killed – but that’s only because it was the first in what is one of our most well-established genres. As the starting point for future films and TV series, as well as a mirror held up to the attitudes and conventions of post-war Britain, it’s a really interesting watch. And it’s certainly another world.
The Blue Lamp is released on DVD on Monday, 12 December and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 15 December.