Roy Boulting (director)
98 min (length)
20 July 2020 (released)
15 July 2020
It is a rather hard to believe in this day and age that THE GUINEA PIG caused a bit of a sensation upon its initial theatrical release… for the simple reason that the shocking word 'Arse' was used! My my, how some things have changed - but if this Richard Attenborough-led vehicle from 1948 is anything to go by then one thing hasn’t changed much at all is the English Public School system…
This drama-comedy concerns Jack, a fourteen-year old working class boy (played by 25-year old Dickie Attenborough) and son of Walthamstow tobacco shop owner Mr. Read (Bernard Miles). Following the so-called Fleming Report, young Read is offered a scholarship to Saintbury, an exclusive public school (think Eton or Harrow), thus turning him into the ‘guinea pig’ of the film’s title. The Fleming Report, ah yes: After their war efforts it would appear that the British working class may have felt they deserved just a little bit more as they were (and still are) mainly nothing more than underpaid and poorly educated slaves to the ruling classes (the only way the status quo can be maintained). Perhaps some upper class foundations felt 'the workers' should be given some sort of a chance... and if we are to believe this film (originally a play by Sherborne-educated Warren Chetham-Strode) then Jack Read, lucky little fellow, is given such a chance by being picked to be taken out of his rank working class environment and transported to a world utterly alien to him.
Will Jack with his 'bad' accent and his uncouth manners be able to fit in with a load of posh fellows from privileged backgrounds? After being seen off at the railway station by his humble and hard-working parents - sporting his splendid new school uniform - it becomes pretty obvious in the packed railway carriage that young Jack Read has a lot to learn for none of the other boys have even heard of ‘Walfamstow’ (as most working class locals would mispronounce it).
On his first day, Jack is befriended in the local village by the sympathetic and progressive Junior Master Mr. Nigel Lorraine (Robert Flemyng). Unfortunately the Senior Master, Mr. Lloyd Hartley (Cecil Trouncer), a rigid 'old school' snob, takes an instant dislike to Jack. Really, if this kind of thing is encouraged people might start getting above themselves - a chap should know his place in the world or anarchy may ensue. As expected, young Jack has a pretty tough time during the first term, leading to a number of (unintentional?) laughs. The 'arse' kicking incident is part of a new boy’s initiation ceremony: they are supposed to bow down before the statue of the school's benefactor - no less a personage than one of Britain's most odious monarch's, Henry ‘the wife killer’ - VIII. The senior school prats then kick the newcomers up the arse – sorry, posterior. Fortunately little Jack is put into the care of an older boy called Fitch (John Forrest, who just a few years later landed the part of the ultimate school bully Harry Flashman). Fitch is a decent fellow who does what he can to lend a helping hand. Though of course Jack has also an enemy in David Tracey (Oscar Quitak) who, just like Mr. Hartley, resents him for being a ‘working class oaf’. At good old Lorraine's suggestion the chaps fight it out in the boxing ring and become pals. At the end of the first term Jack wants to chuck it all in as he feels he simply doesn’t belong to this world but Mr. Lorraine has a word and the young fella agrees to persevere.
The second term (and the film’s second half) is less amusing and entertaining: already Jack is speaking with an improved accent and wants to become a School Master. This means Cambridge and a lot of money unless he is clever enough to win another scholarship and well, the Senior Master has no fondness for him. However that awfully nice Mr. Lorraine – romantically involved with Mr. Hartley’s daughter Lynne (Sheila Sim – Attenborough’s real life wife) can pull a few strings….
This was Attenborough’s second film for the Boulting Brothers (he played psychotic gangster Pinkie Brown in BRIGHTON ROCK the year before) and he makes for a creditable schoolboy despite his age. It is all rather pat and probably well meaning and it would be nice to see a latter day variation. Bernard Miles, who plays Jack’s father Mr. Read, co-wrote the screenplay with Warren Chetham-Strode. Curiously Jack's ordeal at the fictitious Public School 'Saintbury' (in reality Sherborne where the writer Chetham-Strode was actually educated) pails into utter insignificance in comparison to young Tom Brown's at Rugby (in ‘Tom Brown’s School Days) over a hundred years before. Is this an institution that should continue? Does it spell progress and social enlightenment? Will it persevere? Of course it will. One only needs to look at the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and his ilk.
Newly restored and available in Dual Format Edition, the Bonus Features include the incredibly twee 71 minute ling docu ‘Old School’ about the British education system from the Edwardian era to the 1980s, the assorted archive docu ‘The Make-Do-And-Menders (1941-1945, 24min) and illustrated booklet (first pressing only).