Writer. Nationality: British. Born: Thomas Ernest Bennett Clarke in Watford, Hertfordshire, England, 7 June 1907. Education: Attended Cambridge University. Lived in Australia (where he edited the magazine The Red Heart ) and Argentina in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Family: Married Joyce Steel, 1932 (died 1983); two children. Career: 1932—first of several books published; reporter for the Daily Sketch , London; 1940–43—served with the War Reserve Police, London; 1944—first film as writer, For Those in Peril . Award: Academy Award and Venice Festival Award for The Lavender Hill Mob , 1952. Officer, Order of the British Empire, 1952. Died: In Surrey, 11 February 1989.
For Those in Peril (Crichton) (co); The Halfway House (Dearden) (co); Champagne Charlie (Cavalcanti) (co-lyrics)
Johnny Frenchman (Frend); "The Golfing Story" ep. of Dead of Night (Crichton) (additional dialogue)
Hue and Cry (Crichton)
Against the Wind (Crichton); Passport to Pimlico (Cornelius); "The Engine Driver" ep. of Train of Events (Cole); The Blue Lamp (Dearden)
The Magnet (Frend)
The Lavender Hill Mob (Crichton); "The Ant and the Grasshopper" ep. of Encore (Jackson)
The Titfield Thunderbolt (Crichton)
The Rainbow Jacket (Dearden)
Who Done It? (Relph and Dearden)
Barnacle Bill ( All at Sea ) (Frend)
A Tale of Two Cities (Thomas); Gideon's Day ( Gideon of Scotland Yard ) (Ford); Law and Disorder (Crichton) (co)
Sons and Lovers (Cardiff) (co)
The Horse without a Head (Chaffey)
A Man Could Get Killed (Neame and Owen) (co)
A Hitch in Time (Darnley-Smith)
High Rise Donkey (Forlong)
Go South—Go West , London, 1932.
Jeremy's England , London, 1934.
Cartwright Was a Cad , London, 1937.
Two and Two Make Five , London, 1938.
What's Yours? The Student's Guide to Publand , London, 1938.
Mr. Spirket Reforms , London, 1940.
Encore (script), London, 1951.
The World Was Mine , London, 1964.
The Wide Open Door , London, 1966.
The Wrong Turning , London, 1971.
Intimate Relations , London, 1971.
This Is Where I Came In (autobiography), London, 1974.
Highlights and Shadows , New York, 1989.
Picturegoer (London), 16 July 1949.
Obituary in Variety (New York), 15 February 1989.
Obituary in Skoop , April 1989.
* * *
If any one person can be credited with inventing Ealing Comedy, it would have to be T. E. B. Clarke. Not that Michael Balcon's studio had produced no comedies prior to Clarke's arrival; but they had largely been vehicles for such superannuated British comics as George Formby or Will Hay—crude, slapdash productions in the broad music-hall tradition, lacking any distinctively Ealing look or tone. With Hue and Cry , Clarke's first comedy, something fresh had unmistakably arrived.
Hue and Cry —like its more accomplished successor, Passport to Pimlico —draws on the Ealing documentary heritage, making effective use of the blitzed buildings and bomb-craters of postwar London. Its humour is soundly based in character and observation, without recourse to tired comic routines. And, like all Clarke's comedies, it celebrates a degree of anarchy—the liberating power of fantasy to break through the drab, commonsense fabric of everyday life. A group normally subject to the prosaic weight of authority (schoolboys, in this case) suddenly find themselves able to wriggle free, to realise—at least for a time—their daydreams. (The plot stems from an isolated image conceived by the film's producer, Henry Cornelius: "the impression that for one glorious hour boys have taken over the city.")
Yet—as so often in Clarke's work, and indeed in Ealing generally—the anarchy is limited, controlled, ultimately unambitious, feeding safely back into the society which surrounds and, in the end, contains it. The boys "take over the city" for no more subversive purpose than to round up a gang of crooks. Similarly, in Passport to Pimlico the Londoners who have joyfully thrown off the burdens of austerity and bureaucracy soon feel themselves constrained to reimpose their own versions of these things, and finally return, thankfully, to the cosily regulated world of ration-books. ("Never thought I'd welcome the sight of these again.") The status quo is teased, rumpled a little, but never seriously endangered.
Of all the Clarke comedies, The Lavender Hill Mob comes closest to shattering these self-prescribed limits. Alec Guinness's downtrodden, patronized bank clerk does get away with his stolen bullion, does enjoy the high life in South America—but even here convention imposes, in the last reel, a well-spoken Interpol detective, complete with handcuffs. The script, which won an Oscar and a prize at Venice, includes some of Clarke's most inventive and enjoyable writing. The "seduction scene" has become deservedly famous: Guinness circling restlessly around the more slow-witted Stanley Holloway, slily insinuating, until realization dawns in Holloway's eyes—"By Jove, Holland, it's a good job we're both honest men." The distance, though, between this, archetype of the good-natured Ealing mainstream, and the darker vision of Hamer or Mackendrick, can readily be estimated by comparison with The Ladykillers . Both movies feature Guinness as gang boss; but the brutal deaths of the later film would be unthinkable in Lavender Hill Mob , wrecking its gentle make-believe.
"Its good humour," Charles Barr wrote of Lavender Hill Mob (and the judgment holds good for all Clarke's comedies), "has the effect of continuously endorsing the 'social' values even while the plot is ostensibly defying them." This endorsement figures even more clearly in his non-comedies such as The Blue Lamp , seminal ancestor of every British TV police series ever since. In the closing scenes, police and criminal underworld unite to trap a young cop-killer. The episode recalls M , but with none of Lang's Brechtian irony ("Child-murderers are bad for business"); the delinquent in The Blue Lamp has broken a set of rules acknowledged equally by cops and villains, and thus placed himself beyond the communal pale.
The best comedy, it can be argued, needs an element of cruelty in the mix. But cruelty seems to have been something absent from the character of Clarke, an exceptionally genial and tolerant man, and in the post- Lavender Hill comedies the kindliness threatens to become stifling. The Titfield Thunderbolt , Barnacle Bill : fantasy shades off into whimsy, individuality into eccentricity. There are still enjoyable moments, but it's hard not to lose patience with the pervasive air of parochial self-indulgence as Ealing's vision turns increasingly in on itself. "This little, close-knit community," Clarke commented in a TV interview, "had really failed to see how life was changing round about us."
After Ealing closed down, many of its alumni seemed to lose their way, missing the supportive team atmosphere that Balcon had created. Clarke was no exception; the handful of films he scripted for other producers show little sign of his distinctive quirkiness, and he largely withdrew from screenwriting midway through the 1960s. To judge from his autobiography, it was as much with relief as with regret.