A series of articles on cricket and popular culture with our arts editor Barry Tynan
The sport of cricket and popular culture have proved difficult bedfellows, particularly in the realms of film and music. Whilst there have been many excellent examples of cricket fiction in prose, replicating action on screen with actors has proved a major stumbling block.
So much so that the first (and so far only) British attempt at a wholly cricket themed movie has been The Final Test (1953). Originally a TV play, the film had an excellent pedigree, penned by renown playwright Terence Rattigan and directed by the distinguished Anthony Asquith (son of Liberal Prime Minister Herbert). Rattigan was an excellent cricketer and opened the batting for Harrow against Eton at Lord’s in 1929. The film was released in May 1953 to coincide with the Ashes series against Australia that summer (won back by England at The Oval after four draws).
Billed as ‘The only feature film about cricket’ The Final Test starred Jack Warner and Robert Morley, two of the most popular British film actors of the day. The thrust of the plot involved veteran England batsman Sam Palmer (Warner) playing his final match at The Oval against Australia before retirement. However, his son has no interest in cricket, preferring instead the company of the country’s most popular poet Alexander Whitehead (Morley). The dichotomy between cricket and poetry is pertinent, since poetry was the rock’n’roll of the early ‘fifties before rock’n’roll. Fortunately for Sam, Whitehead turns out to be his biggest fan and father and son are reconciled in time to see Sam dismissed for a duck in his final innings but given a standing ovation (an obvious homage to Bradman 1948).
A comedy drama, the film opens with an American visitor arriving in London to be baffled by the booming broadsheet headlines ‘England to collapse today’, until it is explained that the England cricket team are facing an Australia first innings total of 560. At the game he encounters a quintessential Englishman (Richard Wattis). Respectable, bespectacled, slightly balding and probably sexually repressed, the Wattis character rejects any idea that the day’s play may be exciting (‘I hope not!).
The script attempts to introduce some authenticity by the inclusion in the cast of England cricketers of the day (Hutton, Washbrook, Compton, Evans, Laker and Bedser), some with speaking parts (possibly the greatest array of sporting talent in a fictional film until Bobby Moore, Pele et al in the appallingly hilarious Escape to Victory (1981)), plus commentary from John Arlott (It’s a long slow delivery but the only one I know).
ENGLAND’S BATTING LINE-UP : Washbrook. Hutton, Compton and Palmer
Jack Warner (real name Horace Waters and the brother of comedians Elsie and Doris Waters) had a long career in films, TV and radio, but is probably best known for his role as PC George Dixon. Although killed off in the famous British film The Blue Lamp (1950), his character was resurrected for the long-running TV series Dixon of Dock Green (1955-1978). The credulity of his role as Palmer was somewhat strained as he was in his late fifties at the time of filming, with a paunch that would have made a Sunday cricketer proud!
The heavily-jowled Robert Morley had a film career that lasted over fifty years. Often portrayed as a pompous English gentleman, he was nevertheless cast in a number of historical roles, including his film debut as the ill-fated French king Louis XVI in Marie Antionette (1938).
The Final Test had mixed reviews: Halliwell’s Film Guide describes it as ‘A flat character study somewhat below the author’s best style, cluttered up with real cricketers and stymied by lack of action’, but is now available on DVD and well worth a watch.
Coming soon: Bodyline, Lagaan, Dad’s Army and Roy Harper