The Guinea Pig

A comedy-drama which dramatised concerns of its time about the class divide in education, The Guinea Pig is a dual-format release from the BFI.

Jack Read (Richard Attenborough), son of a London tobacconist, wins a scholarship to Saintbury, a public boarding school, as part of an experiment in mixing boys of different social classes. He’s greeted with particular snobbery by the other boys, and struggles to fit in.

Made in 1948, The Guinea Pig is a comedy-drama based on Warren Chetham Strode’s 1946 play of the same title. Although both play and film are slight period pieces – Jack’s first term at Saintbury is in the autumn of 1942 – they were certainly topical, inspired by the 1944 Fleming Report into education. This called for a greater integration between public schools (for which, read private and fee-paying, so largely the preserve of the wealthy) and the general education system. The report suggested that up to twenty-five per cent of places at public (secondary) schools should go to children from the state system, from working-class backgrounds, to broaden their outlook and opportunities. That’s the situation young Jack Read finds himself in.

The Guinea Pig (released as The Outsider in the United States) is a film of two halves. The first part centres on Jack and his struggles to fit in at the public boarding school he finds himself in. He’s regarded as a “street oik” by his much posher classmates and expected to act as a “fag” to one of the senior boys. But it’s clear that, once he settles in as best he could, his education has benefited him and there’s talk of his going to Cambridge as the years pass. However, around halfway through the film, the emphasis shifts and Read moves more into the background. The film then becomes a dramatisation of the conflict between the traditionalist housemaster Hartley (Cecil Trouncer) and the younger more outward-looking housemaster Lorraine (Robert Flemyng), who at the start of the film had just come back from the war, having lost a leg from being shot at El Alamein. This is complicated by the romance between Lorraine and Hartley’s daughter Lynne (Sheila Sim). There’s a sense by the end of the film that time, and society, just emerging from a devastating world war, have moved on.

The Boulting Brothers, John and Roy, were identical twins who worked as a filmmaking team and had broken into the film industry before the War. The most usual arrangement was that John produced and Roy directed – which is the case with The Guinea Pig – but sometimes this was reversed and sometimes they co-directed. The script credit goes to Chetham Strode and Bernard Miles, the latter doing double duty as he also plays Jack’s father in the film, “in association with” Roy Boulting. What this meant in practice was that both Chetham Strode, who didn’t want too many changes to his play, and Miles worked separately and Boulting produced the final script from both their work. The film is a little censorship milestone, as it was able to retain the line “kick up the arse” which had been in the play. This is often reckoned to be the first use of that mildly rude word in British cinema, though John Oliver in his booklet essay with this release, does identify an earlier “arse” (in the 1933 film Britannia of Billingsgate, for those who like to know these things).

Richard Attenborough gives a sensitive performance as Jack, though he’s clearly too old to be the teenager he’s meant to be. He was actually twenty-four and already married, to his co-star Sheila Sim. The rest of the cast is strong, and you can see some future well-known names playing schoolboys, Anthony Newley and Timothy (billed as Tim) Bateson among them. Although this is nominally a comedy, DP Gilbert Taylor doesn’t shoot the film like you might expect a comedy to be shot, even in black and white: there are some quite shadowy night scenes and the film is quite grainy in places.

The Guinea Pig opened with a gala premiere on 21 October 1948, its main London venue being the Carlton cinema (now the Empire) on Haymarket. It was generally well received though seems to have bypassed awards consideration. The film is along similar lines to many of the ones the Boultings produced, popular entertainment with some food for thought. As its topics have moved on more than seventy years later, it inevitably shows its age, but as craft and entertainment still holds up.

The Disc

The Guinea Pig is a dual-format release from the BFI. A checkdisc of the Blu-ray (Region B) was provided for review. The transfer begins with the film’s original U certificate, though it is now a PG. A Letter from Wales is a U. The remaining extras are documentaries or actualities which are exempt from certification though they contain nothing likely to be troubling.

The film was shot in 35mm black and white in Academy Ratio (1.37:1) and that’s the way it is presented on this disc. The transfer is derived from a 2K scan of two nitrate duplicating positive elements. As mentioned above, the film is quite grainy in places, but that’s a feature not a bug, and not having seen the film before, projected or otherwise, I can’t dispute the way it’s meant to look and the grain and contrast do seem natural if the latter is a little marked. In high definition, what looks like some brief stock footage of a cricket match does stand out somewhat.

The sound is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0, and it’s clear and well-balanced. There are English subtitles available for the feature (not the extras) and I didn’t spot any errors in them.

Those extras are divided into two groups, both with Play All options. The first is “Old School”, films on the subject of education. These begin with two from Mitchell and Kenyon: Audley Range School, Blackburn (1:23) and York Road Board School, Leeds (2:46), from 1905 and 1901 respectively, both silent with music scores, and both putting their respective establishments on display for the camera and the local audiences Mitchell and Kenyon showed their films to soon afterwards. Your Children’s Play (20:04) is a Central Office of Information short from 1951, detailing the importance of play in your child’s development. A Letter from Wales (14:37) is a short drama from the Children’s Film Foundation in 1953 in which young Rhys writes to his Australian penpal about his childhood exploits and his local school. Comprehensive School (11:07) is again from the COI, from 1962, detailing the new system of comprehensive education about to be introduced, a film intended more for overseas viewers than home ones. Finally, That’s GCSE (20:40), from 1987 and the only item on this disc in colour, is an introduction to the new General Certificate of Secondary Education examinations, which replaced the old O Level and CSE. Presented by Esther Rantzen, it’s in the style of, and features many of the personnel of, the popular programme That’s Life! It gave me flashbacks of a programme I used to watch.

The second batch is “The Make-Do-and-Menders”, giving some background to the wartime and immediate post-War setting of The Guinea Pig, with rationing still in force. The first two items featured on the BFI’s DVD release Ration Books and Rabbit Pies from 2016 but here appear in high definition. These are When the Pie was Opened (8:10) and Bob in the Pound (2:18). The former, made in 1941, is a short film made for the Ministry of Food, about making meals with the limited foodstuffs available. But as New Zealand-born Len Lye was the director, the result is an inventively surreal flight of fancy. Bob in the Pound, from 1943, probably needs the explanation to younger viewers that “bob” was slang for the pre-decimal shilling, and this short animated piece is meant to encourage you to invest in wartime saving bonds. Bob the animated coin talks with popular entertainer Tommy Handley and ends with “After you, Tommy.” No, after you, Bob.” “No, I’m after Hitler!” The next item is In Which We Live Being the Life Story of a Suit Told by Itself (12:45), from 1944, is pretty much self-explanatory, in which the suit tells us its journey from first manufacture to becoming worn out and cannibalised into a pair of shorts and a skirt. Make-do-and-Mend (1:22), from 1945, tells you how to make your clothing coupons go further.

The final item on the disc is a self-navigating stills gallery (12:13).

The BFI’s booklet runs to twenty-four pages and begins with an essay by John Oliver (spoiler warning) which is called “Bridging the Divide: Class and Consensus in The Guinea Pig”, which sums up its approach. It’s followed by a profile of the Boultings by Corinna Reicher, full film credits, notes and credits for the extras, transfer notes and stills.


Updated: Jul 29, 2020

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