Watching The Bells Go Down is a little like a murder-mystery in reverse, or a very early disaster movie, where part of the fun is guessing which characters are going to die before the end. In the case of this Ealing film, it may not be the ones you think are most obviously cannon-fodder, particularly the fate of the film’s ostensible star, Tommy Trinder, who opts to shelve some of his more obvious comic tics for a more straightforward role as Tommy Turk, an ordinary man who can’t get into the army so opts to join the Auxiliary Fire Service instead (although, admittedly, this is largely because he thinks he’ll get to rescue girls in distress).
That’s really all there is to the narrative: some men (and women) join the AFS (the women answer phones, they don’t fight fires), start as a joke to normal firemen but are accepted as they show their commitment to the job, and the community they are protecting. There is uptight Ted Robbins (James Mason), in love with Susie (Merial Forbes) but unable to commit to her (Susie is also the wrong kind of girl according to Ted’s mum, who doesn’t like the amount of time she spends ‘hanging around dance halls’); local thief Sam (Mervyn Johns) who hides in the AFS recruitment line to avoid a policeman, and gets drafted; old hand Brookes (William Hartnell), wise, knowledgeable and aware of the Germans from his time fighting with the International Brigade in Spain; and Bob (Philip Friend), who marries Nan (Philippa Hiatt) and, if we’re playing disaster movie bingo, seems most likely to die: he promises to call the local phone box after each shift to let Nan know he’s okay, he’s often at the top of the ladder over the fire, or in the room that is burning down around him; and when it becomes clear Nan is pregnant (and in a hospital that, in the final act, is burning down) it seems certain his card is marked. While the film doesn’t opt for that ending – this despite Ealing being the kind of studio that, in wartime, appeared quite happy to kill off nice, safe characters (just look at Went the Day Well? (1943) or The Next of Kin, 1942) – it does feel as though Bob is a marked man throughout the whole film.
The film looks good, with strong practical effects around the different fires that the teams tackle, and a solid (if occasionally rocky) series of model shots to offer the kind of scale that matte paintings and studio work can’t quite capture. While it would be stretching a point to say that it appears realistic – it is difficult for anything to feel completely realistic when Tommy Trinder, James Mason and the First Doctor are running around putting out fires – those live action sequences remain the film’s strength, with the actors smeared in soot, drenched in water, lit by flame, and surrounded by smoke and chaos. As Basil Dearden’s first full director credit – after three films co-directing with Will Hay – this is playful in some places, with a wandering camera chasing around as water pulses through hoses, and solid in others, intercutting known actors with documentary footage of real firefighting.
The film opens and closes with its most propagandistic statement about community, pushing in over the heads of locals at a busy market to Bob and Nan’s wedding bans being posted at St Mark’s church, at the centre of this little ‘village’ (the opening voiceover discusses London as a series of villages, thus reducing the sprawling metropolis to manageable dramatic size). At the end, the film offers a reverse of that opening image, as the camera pulls back from the christening of Bob and Nan’s son, out of a hole in the church (caused by bombing) to reveal the market still bustling, still active, still a strong community. Throughout, this message is emphasised – it may be one of Ealing’s strongest statements about community and togetherness – Susie is accepted by Ted’s pub-owning parents when she rallies the air raid wardens to rescue them from their bombed-out premises; village news and gossip is passed around by the local milkman; the fire crews are pulled together through adversity; and the village gathers in air raid shelters, helps repair damage.
But what’s nice about the film is that it has little moments of a more subversive nature than the community ethos suggests: Sam remains a criminal throughout, stealing barrels of Guinness (a nice moment of what feels like early product placement) – he may rescue a policeman near the end, but there is little sign in Johns’ performance that Sam is now a reformed man; equally, Trinder is as single-mindedly in pursuit of girls and a good time as in earlier films, messing around in the telephone room, chatting up Susie, and always smoking on fire call-outs, something the Scottish District Officer McFarlane (Finlay Currie) chastises him for. Trinder’s persona is, therefore, only partially contained within the unit – his fate in the hospital fire could be read as the only way to contain the character within the community (individuals not useful in wartime as much as cohesive groups), yet he dies while sharing a cigarette with McFarlane, who is a community leader, which undermines such easy assumptions.
Overall then, another strong Ealing propaganda piece which manages to combine dramatic reconstruction of fire-fighting during the Blitz with soap-y melodrama and hints of comedy.
Next time, we head back to the Victorian music hall, with Tommy Trinder as Champagne Charlie (1944)...