Spring 2006

It’s Just Not Cricket!

Alfred Hitchcock, the Nazis, and an all-too-British comedy duo

Philip French

Night Train to Munich (1940), directed by Carol Reed. Courtesy British Film Institute.

Partnerships were a major feature of what is now regarded as the Golden Age of British cinema, the period from shortly before World War II until the mid-1950s. To misquote a familiar Shakespearean aphorism, some were born partners, some acquired partners, and some had partners thrust upon them. The Korda Brothers were born partners, as were the Boulting twins. The four-movie partnership of Noël Coward and David Lean was among the high points of World War II cinema, and even more significant were Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. A less celebrated partnership, though longer enduring, was that between the screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, and the most famous British partnership thrust upon two actors was the one they created for Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne.

The pair first appeared as Charters and Caldicott in Launder and Gilliat’s script for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 comedy thriller, The Lady Vanishes, and went on to inhabit those same characters in two further Launder and Gilliat films. In effect, the screenwriters created in this comic double-act alter egos for themselves and a recurring joke about Englishness that ran, with varying degrees of significance, well into the post-war years.

Radford (tall, plumpish, straight-faced, moustachioed, and with a crescent-shaped scar on his right cheek from a war wound) and Wayne (slight, quick-tongued, with a nervous smile) became national archetypes—English schoolboys who’ve never quite grown up, representatives of bumbling officialdom whether in pin-striped trousers and homburgs or in army service dress and Sam Browne belts. Forever baffled by foreigners, women, and the working classes, they are fundamentally kindly, decent, considerate, and stoical, but unimaginative, and happiest having a gin-and-tonic in an all-male club or drinking warm beer at a cricket match.

The Lady Vanishes, adapted from a popular novel, The Wheel Turns by Ethel Lina White, began as a low-budget production to be called Lost Lady, which the American B-movie filmmaker Roy William Neill was to direct. Fortunately for posterity, things went awry when a second unit shooting background material was kicked out of Yugoslavia after the local authorities discovered a satirical opening sequence in the script that cut from goose-stepping Nazis to waddling geese. The film was postponed, and Neill returned to Hollywood in 1936 to find a kind of fame directing another very British duo at Universal studios—Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

The following year, the story was offered to Alfred Hitchcock, who was looking around for something to complete a contractual obligation before heading for Hollywood. The budget was increased, and Launder and Gilliat set about tightening the script. They didn’t change a great deal in the tale of a beautiful heiress, a middle-aged female spy, a debonair British folk-song collector, and a sinister foreign doctor who meet on a train during a political crisis in the fictional Central European state of Bandrenka (for which Launder and Gilliat invented a language). But as they worked over the script, they became increasingly interested in two minor figures who originally appeared only fleetingly in a scene on a ferry steamer. Gradually, these two characters, typical upper-middle-class Englishmen obsessed with cricket and now called Charters and Caldicott, came to take an increasingly significant place in the film, both as dramatic characters and a source of comedy. The names were picked as alternatives to Carstairs and Carruthers, the most frequently used names for clean-limbed upper-class imperial heroes in boys’ books and comics of the late-Victorian era and early twentieth century.

Radford (who had appeared in Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent the previous year) and Wayne have the best lines from start to finish. We learn that Charters and Caldicott missed the train from Budapest because they respectfully stood for The Hungarian Rhapsody, believing it to be the country’s national anthem. Consigned to sharing a maid’s room in a crowded hotel which has been cut off by an avalanche, they arrive too late to eat as a result of putting on their dinner jackets. Setbacks are confronted with fortitude. They never make jokes or suspect for a second that they’re comic characters.

The Lady Vanishes is, as its authors intended, a modern ship of fools, a portrait of Britain caught up in the great crisis of 1938, and in this respect it is a companion piece to John Ford’s Stagecoach, which came out the following year and presented a metaphor for America as it emerged from the Depression and moved into the storm clouds of impending war. The release of The Lady Vanishes coincided with British rearmament and Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler over Czechoslovakia at Munich. As the film critic of the New Statesman wrote that October: “To complete our pleasure, the film contains a number of lines rendered almost embarrassingly topical by the events of the past few weeks.”

Radford and Wayne became and remained national treasures. Over the next dozen years, they were to make a further ten pictures together in which they invariably played virtually identical parts; and they haunted others—Launder and Gilliat would go on to write roles for them that were turned down and taken by other actors once the characters’ names had been changed. As a duo, they elevated the ordinary to a kind of heroic status. Naunton Wayne, asked by an interviewer to provide some colorful facts and stories about his life, replied: “There’s absolutely none, old chap, absolutely none.”

One or two facts were salvaged nevertheless. Radford and Wayne came from similar middle-class professional families and had been educated at public schools, (i.e., private boarding institutions designed to educate gentlemen for public service). Radford (1897–1952) was born in Cheshire, and it was hoped he would become a Church of England clergyman. After three years’ gallant service as an officer on the Western Front in World War I, Radford went to RADA, Britain’s premier acting school. Wayne (1901–70) grew up in South Wales. As a teenager, he joined touring concert parties and worked in music hall, before coming to London as a celebrated compere of West End revues and cabarets, fronting Josephine Baker’s London show in 1933.

Until they met on the set of The Lady Vanishes, Radford and Wayne had encountered each other socially only. They both belonged to the Green Room Club, a London gathering place for actors, and in 1936 they played against each other as captains of cricket teams representing the London theaters where they were currently appearing.

Cricket is, of course, the game that holds Charters and Caldicott together in the film and it is their principal subject of conversation. The audience discovers that when they talk about “England in trouble” and “England with its back to the wall,” they do not refer to the growing Nazi threat but to the national cricket team who are currently engaged in a vital five-day test match against Australia in Manchester, which the pair are determined to get home to see. Of course, when the chips are finally down, they turn out to display considerable but understated courage, with Charters making light of a bullet wound he receives while confronting the enemy.

The choice of cricket as the subject of Charters and Caldicott’s obsessive, often oblique and elliptical conversation was not arbitrary. “Cricket,” wrote George Orwell in 1944, “gives expression to a well-marked trait in the English character, the tendency to value ‘form’ or ‘style’ more highly than success. … It is a game full of forlorn hopes and sudden dramatic changes of fortune, and its rules are so ill-defined that their interpretation is partly an ethical business. When Larwood, for instance, practised body-line bowling in Australia he was not actually breaking any rule: he was merely doing something that was ‘not cricket.’ Since cricket takes up a lot of time and is rather an expensive game to play, it is predominantly an upper-class game, but for the whole nation it is bound up with such concepts as ‘good form,’ ‘playing the game,’ etc., and it has declined in popularity just as the tradition of ‘don’t hit a man when he’s down’ has declined. It is not a twentieth-century game, and nearly all modern-minded people dislike it. The Nazis, for instance, were at pains to discourage cricket, which had gained a certain footing in Germany before and after [World War I].”[1]

The Lady Vanishes (1938), directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

I once asked Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia, what her first memory of seeing her father at work was. She was seven when she visited the set of The Lady Vanishes at the Gainsborough Studios in Islington, London. It was the penultimate film Hitchcock made in Britain and she vividly recalled her father’s obvious happiness in exchanging jokes and banter with Radford and Wayne; at the end of shooting, they presented him with a cocktail shaker engraved “From Charters and Caldicott.” The story he used to tell interviewers to explain the difference between shock and suspense—two men complacently discussing cricket while a bomb ticked under the table—was soon to become a story of two men discussing baseball.

Launder and Gilliat, rather surprisingly for screenwriters, retained the rights to the names “Charters and Caldicott.” They licensed them to the BBC for a radio series, Crooks Tours, and they revived the duo in Night Train to Munich (1940), which like The Lady Vanishes also stars Margaret Lockwood as a woman in peril and is in effect a reworking of the Hitchcock movie. Set on a train in Germany as war breaks out, Charters and Caldicott are a couple of unflappable Englishmen abroad who recognize Rex Harrison (a British intelligence officer in Nazi disguise) as a fellow Oxford graduate and cricket enthusiast. After nearly blowing his cover with their obtuseness, they come to his assistance. The pair’s characteristic moment comes on a German railway station when Charters is trying to buy the latest number of the British weekly humorous magazine Punch. It’s not available, and confronted with a choice between Gone With The Wind and Mein Kampf, he chooses the latter. Back on the train, he says of Hitler’s testimony, “I understand they give a copy to all the bridal couples.” “I don’t think it’s that kind of book, old man,” Caldicott replies.

The screenwriters used Charters and Caldicott for a third and last time in 1943 in their first joint venture as writer-directors, Millions Like Us, a piece of soft-sell wartime propaganda. It’s a perceptive, affirmative account of life on the home front in World War II, where class and regional differences must be buried to secure victory. Charters and Caldicott have an almost surreal function as a kind of chorus, turning up in the uniform of senior officers to comment in characteristic fashion on the progress of the war. The joke is explained when you remember that the previous year they had appeared in The Next of Kin, a government-sponsored feature film on the subject of national security which featured the popular slogan “Careless Talk Costs Lives”; Radford and Wayne sit in a train carriage chatting away, blithely revealing possible military secrets, whilst the camera pans to the smiling face of their fellow passenger, whom we know to be a Nazi spy.

The only picture in which we see Radford and Wayne actually play their beloved sport, It’s Not Cricket (1949), was one of the last films they made together. However, the game they take part in is pathetically unconvincing (they had made a better job of playing golf in Dead of Night which came out a few years earlier). They appear as Major Bright and Captain Early, two hopeless intelligence officers in occupied Germany who let a fugitive war criminal slip through their fingers. As a consequence, they’re forcibly retired from the army and set up shop as a London private detective agency called Bright and Early. Alfred Roome, who edited The Lady Vanishes, co-directed the picture, but unfortunately he appeared to have learnt little from working with the Master.

At the time of Radford’s early death in 1952, he and Wayne were halfway through a new radio comedy series. It was around this time, in the 1950s, that the careers of Launder and Gilliat also began to tail off as they embarked on a series of conventional, complacent British comedies, lacking their earlier satirical bite.

Through revivals on television, the names and faces of Radford and Wayne have been brought to a new generation, though they now represent a world—black-and-white in both senses—that has passed, never to return. Yet paradoxically, the manner of Charters and Caldicott can be seen as highly modern, or more correctly, postmodern. We now think of the obscurities and non sequiturs of everyday conversation as being as real and meaningful as supposedly lucid rational discourse, perhaps even more so, and this is the skewed way in which the Radford and Wayne characters communicate. Harold Pinter, a fellow devotee of cricket, grew up seeing, hearing, and admiring Charters and Caldicott, and there is reason to believe they influenced his style. Perhaps the most striking piece of evidence for this is to be found in one of his finest plays, Old Times (1975), where two old friends, English and middle-class, meet up after some years apart and converse in an elliptical, often baffling manner, which seems quite logical to them and greatly amuses the audience. They are called Hirst and Spooner, and while this is nowhere mentioned in the text, these are the names of two legendary cricketers who flourished a century ago. Charters and Caldicott would have recognized the names.

  1. George Orwell, “Raffles and Miss Blandish,” in Horizon, 28 August 1944. Orwell refers to the English cricket team’s 1932–1933 tour of Australia when they set out to avenge themselves against their hosts for a humiliating defeat in England two years earlier. To achieve this, they adopted a peculiarly aggressive form of fast bowling that was almost impossible to meet with an orthodox stroke and threatened to injure or seriously intimidate the Australian batsmen. In consequence, a serious crisis arose between the Old Country and the former colony. The practice, dubbed “body-line bowling,” was officially censured, though not before England had won the international series known as test matches. Ironically, Harold Larwood, the legendary English exponent of this kind of bowling, emigrated to Australia where he died in 1995 at the age of 90.

Philip French was a BBC producer for thirty years and since 1978 has been film critic of The Observer. His books include Age of Austerity 1945–1951 (Oxford University Press, 1987), The Movie Moguls (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1969), Westerns (Oxford University Press, 1977), and Malle on Malle (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993). Two volumes of his criticism are to appear next year as joint publications by Guardian Books and Carcanet.

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