His Excellency is one of those films that is difficult to love, partly because it often fails to deliver a coherent experience or meaning: it has moments of jingoism and anti-foreigner attitudes that feel alien to a 21st century audience, yet also goes to great pains to mock the British patriarchal attitude to ‘the colonies’; it mocks socialism yet offers a partial celebration of unionism and collective action; ridicules military might but ultimately relies on it to resolve narrative issues; celebrates a particular ‘northern’ personality within Britain but dilutes that through the imposition of upper class knowledge and restraint. And, worst of all for some critics, it is not the darkly wry and subversively witty film that Robert Hamer, director of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), was expected to deliver.
However, for all of the above reasons, the film is never less than fascinating, not least when it is imploding under the weight of its own narrative devices and themes.
From the opening announcement it is clear the film has a political and satirical point to make: ‘Great Britain’s Colonies are known to be the outposts of her Empire. They are reputed also to be the outposts of dressing for dinner, reading “The Times”, cricket and afternoon tea... This film tells of a mythical Colony of this kind during Britain’s recent Labour regime.’ That statement is a clue to the balancing act of mockery and patriotism the narrative tries to accomplish. In the colony (and naval base) of Artisa, the existing governor is replaced after a worker’s strike and dockyard riot. Instead of reliable aristocratic candidate Sir James Kirkman (Cecil Parker), Britain installs northern trade union leader George Harrison (Eric Portman). A man of action rather than a diplomat, Harrison rejects much of Kirkman’s advice and tries to change working conditions for the Arista dockyard workers, leading to a confrontation with Arista’s corrupt Prime Minister (Gerard Heinz) and local union leader Morellos (Geoffrey Keen). As the military are called out to deal with another strike and riot, Harrison relies on a final speech to try and get the workers on his side and back to work.
The class and political conflict is clear from the opening words and dialogue. One of the film’s representations of colonial ‘Britishness’ is a group of old ladies who gather at ‘Ye Olde Tea Shoppe’, read The Times and discuss the latest developments in London society. It is one of these ladies who declares, upon hearing of Harrison’s appointment, ‘I suppose with this wretched government one had to expect a Socialist, but they might at least have sent us one of the right sort’ (i.e. a socialist from the right background) It is tempting to compare this old-fashioned and fusty version of Britain with a similar gathering of old ladies in The Ladykillers (1955) three years later. In both cases, it is possible to read the gatherings as a clash of modernity, tradition and party politics – if the The Ladykillers (as director Mackendrick claimed) was about the Edwardian anachronism of Mrs Wilberforce (and her gloriously skewed house), then His Excellency signals the Victorian/Edwardian colonial mindset is equally anachronistic. If The Ladykillers can be read as a veiled comment on the post-war political landscape (as suggested by Jeffrey Richards and Anthony Aldgate), His Excellency offers a more explicit intervention in such debates.
Ealing’s politics and productions were class-ridden, but the content of their films can also be seen as driven by a reformer’s zeal, an often middle class exploration of modern society and different areas of Britain and abroad. While much of its representation of Britain here is aristocratic or militaristic, Harrison and his daughter Peggy (Susan Stephen) are the voices of the sensible middle classes, mediators that can attempt to talk to both sides and reach a compromise. This is hardly the socialism rejected in the line of dialogue quoted above, but it is a return to wartime values of compromise and coalition (Harrison accepts the need for Kirkman’s upper class help, Kirkman accepts Harrison’s perspective is valid). These are elements and ideals that Ealing understood, given Balcon’s description of their ‘mild revolution’ when many of them supported the post-war Labour government. However, the other side of this exploration of Britishness abroad means the film gives little voice to the natives of Arista, who are broadly scheming or in the pocket of large corporations. The local police chief Dobrieda (Eric Pohlmann), for example, is a caricature, a pompous colourful peacock of a figure that struts around the film like a bad Mussolini impersonator.
Harrison, as the film’s patriarch, believes he can walk the streets of his capital city until he understands the living conditions of his new people and find a solution (notably he never visits the tea shoppe, but prefers local bars). He may still hark back to his working class roots (Portman has a striking Manchester accent throughout), but it is clear from Peggy’s attitudes and accent that theirs is now a middle class life. Harrison, however, does succeed in wrestling sense from both upper and working class perspectives though his language alone – he attends a meeting of striking workers and convinces them to return to work through his oratory alone, while Kirkman and others are browbeaten by his ideas and orders. Where military might failed, working class language and logic triumph.
As might be imagined, this story offers little feminine perspective beyond the old ladies in the tea shoppe. Lady Kirkman (Helen Cherry) makes snide comments about the Harrisons, but is won over by Peggy’s charm and approach to running the governor’s palace; yet this is hardly a celebration of Peggy, who is reduced to a housewife’s role, chastising the chef and giving speeches to the local Red Cross. Stephen gives a solid, light performance but has little role beyond a sounding board for Portman to test rhetoric on.
Given the incoherent nature of much of the film, there are elements that can be celebrated: Portman and Parker give committed and enjoyable performances, the opulent set design of the palace is well used throughout (there are several shots of Harrison, Kirkman and Admiral Barclay (Edward Chapman) arranged across those spaces, like chess pieces on the chequered floor beneath them), and it continues Ealing’s strong tradition of location filming (the images of Portman striding through the streets and alleys of Arista, lingering in the empty town square, or yelling at the dockyard add colour to the story). Indeed, in places, the film is crying out for actual colour – Technicolor or Eastmancolour – and it is a shame it wasn’t made two years later, when the studio embraced colour filmmaking.
[UPDATED April 2014: His Excellency is available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 10, from Network]
Next time, we go (almost) back to the start, with the second film after Michael Balcon took over, The Ware Case (1938)...