Brandy For The Parson
Group 3 Films, 1951; Directed by John Eldridge, 73 mins
 

Grierson And Group 3
John GriersonGroup 3 Films was a state-backed production company set up in 1951 by the National Film Finance Corporation to supply low-budget feature films that would be a training ground for a new postwar generation of British filmmakers. The NFFC appointed as its head the Scots ‘father of documentary’ John Grierson (a 1950s Wiltshire resident), though he had no experience with making popular comedies or dramas, his interest being in continuing in the social-realist vein of the 1930s-40s British Documentary Movement. In the 30s, Grierson had spearheaded this movement with films like Drifters and Night Mail, and in 1938 had then gone to Canada to set up the National Film Board there. It would become the world’s most award-winning maker of documentaries - one reason Grierson is considered the father of the documentary film. But he returned to England in 1946 at the start of the anti-Communist witch-hunts after being blacklisted by conservative Canadian senators who resented him and (as they put it) “his Jew friends”. He got the job of setting up Group 3 Films as the production arm of the National Film Finance Corporation in 1950.
     The British Film Encyclopaedia notes Grierson was so slow starting their debut feature that another producer-director had to step in. This premiere feature was a work with vague Dorset connections, the doss-house drama Judgment Deferred, which gets a footnote in film history for being Joan Collins’s debut. Judgment Deferred also supposedly concerns smuggling - the TV listings synopsis refers to "Dorset folk" who suspect smugglers in their midst and ‘some nice shots of Dorset’. But a viewing of the film (or at least the surviving 16mm TV print) shows it is studio-shot and the story setting, a bombed-out church used as a doss-house, fits London better than Dorset. In fact the same producer-director, John Baxter, had filmed the story twice before, so the story was prewar, here updated to a postwar “rubble” setting. (A businessman goes to jail to protect his daughter, played by Collins, and a newsman has to abandon his holiday in ‘Lulwater’ - presumably based on Lulworth in Dorset - to help him as the former saved his life at Dunkirk.) Grierson would be credited as Executive Producer on Brandy For The Parson, with his fellow documentary filmmaker John Eldridge taking over direction, his name being then sufficiently reputable to be placed on the film's original poster, below.


Story And Script
DVD cover Brandy For The Parson seems to have been Group 3’s attempt in particular to emulate the success of the postwar Ealing comedies like Whisky Galore! and Passport To Pimlico. These addressed popular discontent with postwar rationing and other continuing economic privations which saw these restrictions not as proper law worth respecting but leftover wartime regulations to be got around with a bit of ingenuity. (The academic 'subtext' explanation for the appeal of these beating-the-system comedies would likely be how the human desire for freedom instinctively rebels against a big-brother killjoy bureaucracy.) The source material is usually given as a 'novel', though Google Books lists it as published by 'Curtis Publishing Company, 1948, 14 pages' - suggesting a short story. The author, Geoffrey Household, did write short stories, though he remains better known for his political thriller novels like Rough Shoot and the better-known Rogue Male (both set in Dorset, and filmed there, in 1952 and 1976), who also wrote the original screenplay (which was then reworked by 2 others). The Dorset countryside is central to both the thrillers mentioned, as it is in this comedy adventure.
     An unmarried couple (James Donald and Jean Lodge) on a sailing holiday along the southwest coast become involved in smuggling kegs of brandy across the West Country, after they collide with and sink the smaller boat of smooth-talking Kenneth More. The title is from a famous Kipling poem about smugglers, its opening line "Five and twenty ponies trotting through the dark" giving them the idea how to proceed when they meet up with a travelling circus complete with a troupe of performing Shetland ponies. They buy them as pack ponies to carry the kegs cross-country, their cover story being they are training them for the "British Imperial Trans-Andean Exploration Society." As in Ealing's Whisky Galore, the locals connive to help them outfox the humourless Excise men, out of traditional regional dislike of London laws as well as rebellion against a postwar rationing that was in ways stricter than during wartime. (Most luxury goods, and even much of the food produced were officially designated "For Export Only" to help pay off Britain's war debt to America.)

Behind The Camera
Though Group 3 aimed to make inexpensive British films with the common touch, judging from this and a viewing of their other such attempt, Laxdale Hall (US title Scotch On The Rocks), their output ironically lacked the deft anti-establishment vox-pop quality brought by experienced Ealing scriptwriters via characterful dialogue. Group 3's comedies seemed a pale imitation of Ealing's. And as far as introducing young talent goes behind the camera, this proved rather hit and miss. The IMDB lists co-scriptwriter Walter Meade as having been born in 1882. Nor was he a comedy specialist, his recent Ealing credit being Dorsettheir stoic 1948 biopic Scott Of The Antarctic, and he wrote the aforementioned social-realist drama Judgment Deferred. The credit for what humour there presumably must go to John Dighton, who was born in 1909, was a playwright pre-WW2, and then worked as an Ealing scriptwriter, on both wartime realist dramas like Went The Day Well?, Next Of Kin and The Foreman Went To France, and classic postwar comedies like Kind Hearts And Coronets, The Man In The White Suit, and the non-Ealing 'St Trinian's' forerunner about a postwar schools billeting mixup, The Happiest Days Of Your Life. He would next work on the Audrey Hepburn star-launch vehicle Roman Holiday. (As mentioned below, Hepburn was originally to play the lead here.)
     Director John Eldridge had made the attractively narration-free 1947 featurette-length drama-documentary of vignettes of Edinburgh life, Waverley Steps. He would also script and direct Group 3's next effort at sub-Ealing comedy, the Highlands-set anti road tax comedy Laxdale Hall, and their innocuous RAF-v-birdwatchers colour comedy, the lamely-titled Conflict Of Wings aka Fuss Over Feathers, the last film he directed himself. Later, he would co-script (with Genevieve scriptwriter William Rose) a better-known 50s comedy, The Smallest Show On Earth (1957). The IMDB says he suffered from poor health and died in 1960 age 43. It’s been said his forte was his gentle, slightly lyrical, quasi-documentary style - early British documentaries often made lyrical use of location resources. Here the location scenes have a nostalgic quality today, showing country villages and roads like the now busy A30 with almost no cars.
     Group 3 was not a successful venture, and Grierson returned to documentary presenting and campaigning work, dying in Bath in 1972. Its films have not been seen much since, and Brandy For The Parson is only one of a number of Group 3 productions released under the "Long-Lost Comedy Classics" DVD-release banner - cf Time Gentlemen Please, Orders Are Orders, Make Me An Offer, and The Love Match. Its most fondly remembered film would be another in the series, John And Julie (1955), a charming tale of a pair of Dorset school-children who run off to London to watch the 1953 Coronation, filmed in colour, again with a supporting cast of now-familiar faces.

The Cast
As far as Group 3 being a development ground for film actors, it does seem to have been the supporting casts of these films that went on to more famous careers, as you can see from the pair on the DVD cover above (the 'parson' played by Frank Tickle is a small role, there to illustrate the title): Kenneth More and Charles Hawtrey, both in supporting roles here. (The same can be said for the other "Long Lost" releases mentioned above.)
The smugglers confer on plans. Amazon UK lists the DVD as a Charles Hawtrey film. Hawtrey, here a laundry-van driver gulled into being More's accomplice, would of course become a household name via radio on Hancock’s Half-Hour and then the Carry On films. The DVD cover pictured toplines the cast as Kenneth More, Charles Hawtrey, Alfie Bass, and Frank Tickle (who only appears briefly as the parson referred to in the title), while Amazon lists the cast as Hawtrey, Kenneth More, Frederick Piper (the Customs officer), Alfie Bass (a lorry driver), and James Donald. The latter is actually the film’s lead - though "straight man" might be more apt. Comedy was not really the glum Scots actor’s forte, and his film career was mainly as a supporting player in WWII dramas, such as the doctor in The Bridge On The River Kwai and the SBO in The Great Escape. Alfie Bass also became a regular awkward-squad working-class type in war dramas and service comedies. Michael Trubshawe, here a sympathetic ex-Colonial squire, would become stereotyped as an ex-military type (with trademark RAF handlebar moustache), often appearing in the same films as his ex-Army colleague David Niven. The female lead, Jean Lodge, was destined to wind up in horror films. The IMDB says Lodge replaced Audrey Hepburn (who had then only appeared as a bit player in two Ealing comedies) when the start of filming was delayed. Kenneth More (1914-1982), like Hepburn here a year away from comedy stardom (in Genevieve), is most effective  - though he plays only the second lead, he also narrates, and ends the film talking to camera - an unusual technique for 1951.

"Agreeable Locations"
Cerne Abbas: hillside with chalk Giant, and New Inn courtyard todayThe DVD case warns that the film "Contains comic innuendo" though this seems sheer wishful thinking. (Nothing is made of the fact the couple are unmarried.) The New York Times reviewed the film as "A merry but decidedly slender little British lark."

... It represents the first American exposure to a new English outfit called Group 3, Ltd., which unsurprisingly receives financial endorsement from that Government. For the ingenious pleasantries of this undertaking are the most familiarly British to reach these shores in some time.
Crisply performed by Kenneth More, James Donald and Jean Lodge and a carefully picaresque round-up of rustic and urban types and directed with droll resonance by John Eldridge, the film emerges as one designed for face value. As such, most of it is good fun... John Dighton and Walter Meade have turned a story by Geoffrey Household into a disarmingly brazen odyssey across the English countryside, with the trio and their cargo getting sympathetic boosts from a troop of Scouts, a circus, a farmer and random tradespeople along the way (including probably the most bizarre caravan ever to detour via the Old Roman Road)....But unfortunately a good deal of the dialogue undergoes a clipped mumbling and lands unintelligibly in the scenery. And Mr. Eldridge not only starts the picture at a leisurely crawl, but has blunted its good-natured tidiness with some rather arch overtones. This also applied to the writers, who, for instance, barely conjure up a lip-smacking parson as the climactic courtroom benefactor, for the sole purpose of rounding out the Kipling lyrics of the title. Everything considered, though, Group 3, Ltd., with "Brandy for the Parson," has sent us a mild but tasty distillate.

Halliwell's Film Guide characterizes the film as a "Pleasant little sub-Ealing comedy with agreeable locations but not much drive." The agreeable locations remain uncredited but the first half-hour (the boating scenes) is evidently south Devon, evidently around the Salcombe estuary and Torquay (doubling as a French port), while the "on the road" and cross-country pack-pony scenes are west-central Dorset, around Cerne Abbas. The village of 'Cordley' they arrive at [55 minutes in] is plainly Cerne Abbas, with the old coaching inn there playing a role. This is the New Inn, in both plot and real life, the generic name dating back to the 1540s Dissolution of the Monasteries, when inns first opened as commercial businesses - before that, the monasteries ran English inns as hostelries for pilgrims.
The Cerne area would make sense logistically as the closest point to the London studio where typical open West Country landscape complete with chalk tracks appears, the hills above Cerne being on the old London-Exeter road which became the A30 (both mentioned in the script dialogue), where the bus-car crash happens when the ponies stray onto the road. (The same area of downland would later be seen in the 1963 comedy Tom Jones.) The courthouse finale was shot at Dorchester, in the Old Crown Court where the Tolpuddle Martyrs were tried in the 1830s. As an IMDB user comments, "Location shots alone make it a keeper for England country-side lovers."

 
  Location Screengrabs
The screengrabs below showing the locations are set up as rollover-image pairs: mouse over the image to see the 2nd one.
 
 

Leading the ponies over the chalk downs

 

Leading the ponies over the chalk downs somewhere above Cerne Abbas (probably just to the north of the village).

 
 

The old Roman pack road, now the busy A30.

 

The old London-Exeter Roman pack road, now the busy A30 main east-west route.

 
 

The circle of stones on the hill.

The circle of megalithic stones on the downs where the duo meet the photographer. In case you're not familiar with the area, the hilltop standing stones are just film props.

 
 

Arriving at Cerne Abbas and entering the courtyard of the New Inn.

The couple arrive at Cerne Abbas with their string of pack ponies and then entering the courtyard of the New Inn. The narrow street with the church, right, is actually the same one used in various other films (e.g. Tom Jones), which always film the street from the opposite end to showcase the old half-timbered houses down its west side.

 
 

 The road-pursuit sequence: the Customs officer's car behind the smugglers' delivery van.

 

The road-pursuit sequence: the Customs officer's car behind the smugglers' delivery van. The chase goes from the Inn at Cerne Abbas eastward towards Dorchester.

 
 

courthouse finale and Dorchester High St

The courthouse finale was shot at Dorchester, in the Old Crown Court, with the closing shot outside, on the High Street. L to R, the defendants are Kenneth More, Michael Trubshawe, Jean Lodge, James Donald and Charles Hawtrey.

 

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