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).
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