The Boy Who Turned Yellow

John turns yellow

The Boy Who Turned Yellow is interesting for all sorts of reasons. Released in 1972, it was the final film of both director Michael Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, the powerhouse duo who’d been responsible for some of the UK’s most innovative, technically brilliant, thematically complex and entertaining films.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes are probably the biggest successes in a partnership that lasted from 1939’s The Spy in Black (“the most exciting spy melodrama since the advent of the Second World War,” opined the New York Times) to 1957’s Ill Met by Moonlight aka Night Ambush (Powell himself later said he was “surprised by how bad the film was.”)

Powell and Pressburger usually shared the director’s credit, though it was Powell who did the actual directing on set, while Pressburger was responsible for storylining, shared scripting duties with Powell and assisted him in the editing – this was a creative partnership and that director credit really reflects joint artistic auteurship. Their split, after the tepid reception for Ill Met by Moonlight, was amicable and they’d already reteamed once, on 1967’s They’re a Weird Mob, a post-heyday comic adventure made in Australia.

The Boy Who Turned Yellow is yet another bump down the status ladder, being a shortish film (55 minutes) made for the Children’s Film Foundation (CFF) – a UK quango that turned out the sort of kids films that kids usually didn’t want to watch, ones populated with well spoken urchins straight out of stage school (there’s one with Phil Collins, later of Genesis, another gave an early role to Susan George). Here, the Technicolor and technical glories of a Black Narcissus are swapped out for hard lighting and boomy sound, while the acting is of the “you speak, I speak” variety that marks out lack of rehearsal (or, possibly, talent).

Nic and John in the Tower of London
Nic and John in the Tower of London


Mark Dightam stars as John, the long-haired kid who loses his pet mouse, Alice, while on a school trip to the Tower of London. Sent home the next day by a teacher exasperated by John’s lack of attention in class – he’s been up half the night looking for Alice – John turns yellow on the Tube on the way home, so does the woman sharing the carriage with him, and so (here’s probably where most of the budget went) does the Tube train itself.

In a story that gets better the longer it goes on, and reminds us how brilliant Powell and Pressburger were at the weird stuff, John in short order meets an extra-terrestrial called Nic (short for “electronic” and played by Robert Eddison), is transported first of all to inside his own TV set, before winding up at the Tower of London, where he is arrested by the Beefeaters and sentenced to death by beheading. His mum will be “cross”, John reckons.

Along the way, in CFF style, little gobbets of edu-informative knowledge have been imparted – what the “extra” in “extra-terrestrial” means, what a cartographer does, how electricity works – with Powell and Pressburger, from the other end of the operation, trying to offset the jarring obviousness of the educational add-ins by ladling on the outlandishness. John has another mouse called Father Christmas, the Beefeaters do actually eat beef, John is a fan of Norwich City FC (nicknamed “the Canaries”, they play in yellow). And somehow, somewhere, the film takes off, shaking off the poor production values and wobbly acting and winning us over with inventiveness and charm.

Powell and Pressburger are actually creating a style that would later be made popular by the Horrible Histories books/TV shows/films (like Bill, their one about William Shakespeare) – irreverent, fanciful, funny, bonkers. And Powell’s direction is robust, efficient and serves the story rather than his own legend. As CFF films go, The Boy Who Turned Yellow is about as good as it gets.





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© Steve Morrissey 2021









A Matter of Life and Death

Marius Goring in A Matter of Life and Death

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

29 December

 

 

UK pays off Second World War debt, 2006

On this day in 2006, the last working day of the year, the British Government made the last of 50 payments to the US and Canada, money it had borrowed off them in 1945 at the end of the war, when the British economist John Maynard Keynes had been dispatched to Washington with the begging bowl. With the national debt standing at 180% of gross domestic product, the government had expected, or hoped for, a grant. Instead it was offered a loan, on terms of 2% interest annually, a rate that turned out to be quite advantageous to the UK in the long run. Britain had effectively bankrupted itself and its empire fighting the First World War, and at the end of the Second was so weakened that the empire simply started falling apart. Britain hastily divested itself of its colonies, granting independence almost as fast as members of the royal family could be despatched around the world to witness the lowering of the flag. Decades later, in 2006, the final payment of $83 million was paid from the UK to the US, and a loan which had initially been US$ 3.75 billion (plus US$1.19 billion from Canada) and grown to US$7.5 billion (US$2 billion for Canada) with interest was declared paid in full. The same cannot be said about loans made from the US to the UK after the First World War.

 

 

 

A Matter of Life and Death (1946, dir: Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger)

Made when American GIs stationed in Britain were being portrayed as “overpaid, oversexed and over here”, this film takes the American boy/English girl stereotype that was pissing off so many fighting British Tommies and reverses it. So in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s deliberate pouring of oil on troubled waters it’s a British fighting man, played by David Niven, who falls for the American girl (Kim Hunter). The complication, in a film full of them, being that they only meet as Niven’s plane is hurtling towards earth, and even then it’s not a meeting in person – she’s a radio controller forced to listen to the pilot as he bails out, without a parachute, but not before he’s told her “I love you, June. You’re life and I’m leaving it.” But Peter Carter (Niven) doesn’t die. Miraculously. In fact he washes up on the beach just in time to catch June as she is cycling back to her billet, upset, at the end of her shift. And the two fall in love in earnest. But then Providence realises it has made a mistake – this man really should have died – sends an emissary to earth, who calls Peter to a court in heaven, where he has to go before a celestial court to plead his case. What will win out, divine bureaucracy or true love? The propagandistic intention of this film does declare itself a little over insistently in the third act, when Peter is being prosecuted by an American Revolutionary (Raymond Massey) and defended by the peruqued French Revolutionary emissary (Marius Goring) sent to earth to collect him. But in all other respects this film is a work of intellectual wit and technical brilliance – the way Heaven is in monochrome and Earth is in colour (“One is starved for Technicolor up there” says Goring on his arrival on this side of the eternal veil); the still incredibly impressive “stairway to heaven” (the film’s US title) that conveys people to you know where and back; the fabulously clipped and frightfully British attitudes on display; Powell and Pressburger’s evident love for their largely rural locations (always noticeable in their films); the freeze-frame sections; the strange “closing eye” special effect; the amazing modernist viewing portals from Heaven into its administrative heart below. If you have not seen it, you should. If you have seen it, you are probably now saying “but he’s forgotten the…”.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • In a brilliant career, this is one of Powell and Pressburger’s great films
  • Roger Livesey as bluff old cove Doctor Reeves
  • Cinematography by Jack Cardiff, one of the greats
  • Look out for Lois “Miss Moneypenny” Maxwell in a bit part

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

A Matter of Life and Death aka Stairway to Heaven – at Amazon