The Magnet is an unusual film from Ealing Studios. I don’t remember coming across the film properly until I read that it used a great deal of location footage of Merseyside. Thanks to Talking Pictures TV, increasingly the TV channel of choice for the discerning audience in the UK since the lockdown began, I was able to watch it soon after having started a ‘Liverpool films‘ page on this blog. As it turns out, the film is partly set in New Brighton and Wallasey Village (?) but there are Liverpool sequences as well and the photography by Lionel Banes is a very good reason to watch the film.
In genre terms The Magnet is something of a hybrid. It is a story from a child’s perspective that is part adventure, part comedy and part a kind of moral tale. The original story was by one of the best-known Ealing writers, T.E.B. (Tibby) Clarke and it was directed by Charles Frend. The most obvious reference is to Hue and Cry (1947) written by Clarke about boys whose environment is the bombsites of Central London around St. Pauls and who become investigators of a crime because of their love for comic book adventures. In The Magnet the location has shifted to Merseyside and the focus is a single boy, although he does interact with others. As far as director Frend’s background was concerned he’d been responsible for A Run For Your Money in 1949, a comedy about two Welsh miners in London having misadventures. But Frend had earlier been responsible for The Lives of Joanna Godden (1947), a period drama, but one using location photography to capture the unique environment of Romney Marsh. Finally, we might link the film to the serious drama of the Ealing problem picture/family melodrama Mandy (1952) in which a young hearing-impaired girl and her mother respond to a specialist teacher with new ideas played by Jack Hawkins. It may seem likely that with these kinds of possible connections, The Magnet should turn out to be a confused mess. I can only say that I enjoyed the film and that some discerning audiences have also done so – though many of them might have been looking specifically for a ‘Merseyside story’. The scholarly chronicler of Ealing, Charles Barr in his Ealing Studios book dismisses the film in a paragraph and concludes: “The magnet is a toy at the centre of an elaborate whimsical plot which resists economical summary and does not merit a full one”. Not for the first time, I find myself disagreeing with Barr. The film has flaws certainly, but it is too interesting in what it is attempting to do to dismiss it in this way.
Johnny Brent (played by William Fox, later to become well-known as James Fox) is a 10 year-old schoolboy in a middle-class part of Wallasey on the Wirral. His father (Stephen Murray) is a psychiatrist with a practice in Liverpool and his mother (Kay Walsh) is what was then referred to as a ‘housewife’. Johnny’s (private boarding) school has had a scarlet fever scare and the boys are at home in quarantine before they go back to Kirkby for the last three weeks of term. Johnny is a bright and lively boy with a sense of mischief and has no doubt been frustrated by his quarantine experience. He acquires a large magnet by questionable means and though he enjoys using it, he feels guilty about how he got it. He starts seeing police officers everywhere. He ends up ‘donating’ the magnet to a man who is building a mock up of an iron lung for a campaign to raise money to buy such equipment for a local hospital. Harper, the campaigner, (Meredith Edwards) later decides to use the story of Johnny’s ‘donation’ as part of his public appeal, embellishing the story of the poor boy who gives up his magnet without leaving his name. His funding campaign goes very well and Johnny becomes an interesting mysterious figure for the local newspaper. While Johnny feels guilty about what he has done, he can’t tell his parents and becomes anxious about the mystery of his identity. He is further upset when he overhears something that might mean he has caused the death of another boy. His father the psychiatrist diagnoses a condition that is fanciful. His mother is much more sensible. When, by accident, Johnny is spotted by Harper, he runs away and a chase ensues taking Johnny to parts of Liverpool he doesn’t know and where he meets a gang of boys his own age. With this gang he will have a further series of adventures which will end with an act of bravery that will complete the circle and allow Johnny to be ‘redeemed’ in a generally happy ending.
This is Barr’s ‘whimsical plot’. What is interesting is not so much the mechanics of the plot, though it does allow the viewer to enjoy a many of the local sights. The beach, the pier, the amusement arcade and open air baths in New Brighton, the Mersey ferry, the Pierhead and the overhead railway, the docks and the Anglican cathedral are all in evidence (and many, especially in New Brighton, now no more). It’s not the plot but the way that Clarke’s script attempts to use the concerns of the period that I’m interested in. There are jokes about ration cards and the hospital is not yet part of the new NHS. Scarlet fever and polio were still dangerous diseases and there were outbreaks of both in the 1940s and up to the 1960s. Iron lungs were expensive (though cheaper designs appeared in the 1950s). The first ‘auction’ of the magnet for the campaign takes place at a bathing beauty contest, a particularly popular seaside event in the 1950s (see also The Entertainer in 1960). The narrative is from the child’s point of view and at times it made me think of various children’s films, including possibly those of the Children’s Film Foundation. It’s not that unusual for an imaginative boy to become anxious and to see police officers everywhere and think that they are looking for him (and there were many more ‘bobbies on the beat’ in 1950). On the other hand, some of the visual gags are feeble by modern standards and Stephen Murray seems miscast as Johnny’s father. The script presents him as pompous and generally attacks his ideas about psychiatry. The strongest part of the film is the last section when Johnny finds himself by the cathedral with a group of local lads. These are non-professionals and they have a sense of ‘authenticity’ about them. One has Chinese heritage (the cathedral isn’t too far away from Liverpool’s Chinatown). The boys also have familiar forms of Liverpudlian speech. But there is still a lingering sense of ‘Ealing on location’. Most of Ealing’s films seem to have a London base or they are set in part of the UK where there is a sense of the romantic/fantastical. The location work in The Magnet is as cleverly used as in Pool of London made around the London Docks at roughly the same time. I wonder what made them choose Merseyside for The Magnet? And was there any connection to the production of Waterfront which saw another Rank film, based at Pinewood, also shooting on location in Liverpool around the same time?
Lionel Banes is an Ealing cinematographer I hadn’t noticed before. He is credited as ‘FRPS’ rather than ‘BSC’ and I had to do some digging to find out more. The Magnet was actually his fourth Ealing picture as DoP and earlier he had shot Passport to Pimlico (1949). He had in fact been in the business for a long time by then, originally joining Gainsborough at Islington in 1930 as a ‘photographer’. He worked his way through the apprentice roles and became an expert in special photographic effects. He joined Ealing to work on Next of Kin (1942) and for several years worked as an operator, second unit cinematographer and model work specialist. The link above is to four oral history files about his career. My view is that Ealing employed some of the best creative cinematographers and camera crews anywhere in the world in the late 1940s/early 50s. The Magnet is only 79 minutes and I think it is certainly worth watching for the representation of Merseyside and for its perfectly serviceable narrative about a 10 year-old. (See where the film was shot on Reelstreets.) Contemporary critics thought it was too ‘moralistic’, but it didn’t bother me in that way. My only real gripe is that it would have worked better if Jonny had been lower middle-class rather than middle-class. I think the father’s role could have been written differently too. It struck me that Johnny could have been a young John Lennon living in his Aunt’s house.
Here’s a clip from the scene near the Anglican Cathedral: