This 1952 comedy is a positive tour de force for its star Alec Guinness who certainly makes the most of his role as the ceaselessly scheming but immensely likeable Denry Machin, an overtly ambitious man from a poor working class background.

Here we have Guinness in his prime (although in truth far too old for the part) following from his prominent parts in Oliver Twist, Man in the White Suit and Kind Hearts and Coronets and it is a performance to relish. This is an adaptation of an Arnold Bennett novel adapted by another celebrated novelist, Eric Ambler. The action takes place in one of Bennett's beloved fictitious Northern five towns, in this case 'Bursley' which is in fact Burslem where Bennett spent a great deal of his youth.

Our hero, Edward Henry 'Denry' Machin, is an impoverished local lad who makes good. Well that is somewhat of an understatement, as you will see! At the beginning Denry is looking in a shop window in which notices of all sorts of vacancies, including job opportunities, are displayed. As it so happens, a rather stuffy solicitor by the name of Herbert Duncalf (Edward Chapman, before his Norman Wisdom days) walks by and accidentally drops a wallet full of money. Now Denry could have pocketed it - but always thinking ahead - he notices the owner’s business card inside the wallet and promptly walks down the road to the solicitor’s office in question. Without any formal references or application he manages to secure a job as a junior clerk (one of author Bennett's old jobs) on strength of having had the lost wallet including the solicitor’s business card on him. Soon though, Denry grows pretty bored with his job, who wouldn't be? One bright day one of the firm's most important clients pays a visit - no less a personage than The Countess of Chell herself (played by the rather distinguished Valerie Hobson, later to be married to John Profumo). The Countess wishes Duncalf to send out plenty of invites to the town's 'bigwigs' to attend her annual ball and thus has compiled a list. Here the quick witted Denry sees an immediate opportunity and simply puts his own name on one of the invitations. When the letter arrives at the humble abode he shares with his old mum (Veronica Turleigh). Being a backbone of working class society, she coldly informs her son that he'll need a dinner suit and dancing lessons. This of course will entail money he does not have.

No problem for our Denry: he'll simply put the local tailor and the dance instructress Ruth Earp (Glynis Johns) on the invitation list in exchange for much-needed financial credit. At the ball our Denry does a fine job of 'making his mark' when another guest bets him five pounds that he won’t dare ask the Countess to dance. However, the lady in question is much taken by Denry's charm and audacity… and even by his skill as a dancer. Unfortunately old grump-bag solicitor Duncalf is also at the ball (surely Denry would have known this) and he promptly gives Denry a week's notice thanks to his effrontery for having invited himself to the ball, not to mention a tailor and a dance instructor! Alas, where our hero is concerned providence always seems to appear no sooner than you could drop a hat. Taking a bunch of papers into the outer office he witnesses Duncalf informing one of his clients, Mrs. Codleyn (Joan Hickson, later TV's ‘Miss Marple’), that they no longer wish to collect her rents on her behalf. Denry rushes into the street. and tells her he is setting up a company to collect rents and he'll do it for her and charge her considerably less for his services. In no time at all Denry has acquired a pony and trap and is busy building up his client list (Bennett also collected rents at one time). Later he is also given a client list by Herbert Calvert (George Devine) who is much impressed by Denry. Sad to say one of his biggest debtors is Miss Earp.... A little romance ensues but nothing too serious and paves the way for a number of amusing frolics. Miss Earp does however have a charming companion named Nellie Cotterill (a young Petula Clark). Well Denry is now well on the ladder to success and with an attitude like his how can he not get to the top?

Ronald Neame does a very thorough job here and gets the best from a formidable cast. The ever-versatile Alec Guinness is on sparkling form in a part that could have been written for him. Glynis Johns turns in a bravura performance as the wily and manipulative Miss Earp, providing a formidable foil for Denry while Valerie Hobson is allowed to share some slapstick moments with Guinness when a carriage ends up running over some fruit and vegetables stalls during a parade which causes the horse to bolt and run amok. Composer William Allwyn supplies an optimistic and catchy riff that denotes Denry's personality rather well. Perhaps it is time for a re-appraisal of Bennett's work or will he be left in the 1930's college curriculum?

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