In which G.M. Norton comes over all Barry Norman and waxes lyrical about one of his favourite films.
When I look back at my childhood, some of my happiest memories are curling up on a rainy day, staring up at the idiot’s lantern and watching a film.
Laurel and Hardy featured quite prominently and in later years, I was introduced to the Carry Ons, Alfred Hitchcock masterpieces and James Bond. Ealing comedies were also a favourite of the Norton household, especially The Ladykillers.
Released in 1955, The Ladykillers featured a stellar cast including Sir Alec Guinness and Peter Sellars, in one of his early roles.
The Ladykillers has it all - a dotty old dear; a topsy-turvy house; caricature crooks posing as a string quintet; a heist; double-crossing; a battle of morality over money and even a pet parrot going under the marvellous moniker of General Gordon. Bracing stuff, what?
Set in post-war Britain, it is during an age where peelers stood on every street corner, telephone boxes were painted red (and in full working order) and steam trains chugged triumphantly along in the background.
The star of the show is one Mrs. Wilberforce, played with aplomb by the wonderful Katie Johnson, aged seventy-six at the time.
Mrs. Wilberforce is a staple of society, only too happy to help the police with their enquiries. However, as her extensive reports are rather fanciful and far-fetched, the police officers politely listen to her tall tales before filing the information in the over-stacked waste paper bin.
Sitting amongst the remnants of the bomb-hit King’s Cross in Old London Town, the eccentric widow is offering rooms to let in her sweet little lopsided house. It is here that she receives a visit from a Professor Marcus (Sir Alec Guinness) who is most interested in taking lodgings in her abode.
Sporting a smile that has a whopping great whiff of trouble, the ‘Professor’ claims to be part of an amateur string quintet interested in using the room for rehearsals. However, unbeknown to Mrs. Wilberforce, the ‘musicians’ are actually a gang the Professor has assembled, with the intention to loot a security van at the nearby King’s Cross Station. What’s more, Mrs. Wilberforce has a vital role to play in the plan, as devised by the sinister ‘Professor’.
Professor Marcus heads a gang of four very different men that includes a Cockney spiv; a gentlemanly Mayor (and con-artist which somewhat harms his gentlemanly credentials); a slow-witted ex-boxer who is quite the gentle giant; and last, but by certainly no means least, the vicious continental gangster complete with signature violin case.
The comedy crime caper is all the more memorable by a series of incidents brought about by the meddling of the sweet Mrs. Wilberforce, which the gang are forced to deal with, or stare upon in disbelief and horror.
The screenplay by William Rose is quite exemplary.
The first act concentrates on the planning and execution of the robbery and the gang generally charming Mrs. Wilberforce who is really quite impressed with their purported musical abilities.
The second act deals with Mrs. Wilberforce smelling a rat. This may have something to do with the ex-boxer chap catching his cello case in the front door during the gang’s attempt to leave the lodgings. A banknote splattered floor and the discovery that the cello case contained no musical instrument at all certainly raised alarm bells for Mrs. Wilberforce.
The third and final act is the most interesting of the lot. This is the one where the gang devise how to deal with their interfering landlady.
I will not spoilt the ending for those who haven’t had the good sense to watch this fine example of film-making. As if you haven’t already surmised (you are a clever lot, after all), I thoroughly recommend this rip-roaring yarn.
With black comedy blended with social-commentary characters, delightful music and a first class ensemble of Thespians, The Ladykillers is in my mind at least, quite unparalleled in charm.
Protagonist of ‘Norton of Morton’