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The Lavender Hill Mob

I found little over the festive period cinematically to excite me either on the big screen or the little one. So looking for some pre-Xmas cheer I opted for one of my Ealing comedy favourites The Lavender Hill Mob starring Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, Sidney James and Alfie Bass.

I was not disappointed.

It’s the story of the archetypal bowler-hatted clerk, the little man Henry Holland – played by Alec Guinness. All his career, he has supervised the carriage of bullion in bars to the bank.

At his lodgings in Lavender Hill, he meets a rogue artist Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) who makes replicas of Eiffel Towers. The caper is to steal the bars and to have them melted down into Eiffel Towers and thereby exported out of the country.

The two other accomplices are Sidney James and Alfie Bass. Stanley Holloway with his hearty, bluff manner and booming voice had a successful career well into his eighties.

Of the four grand men of twentieth century English acting – Lawrence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud are the others)  Alec Guinness is the most enigmatic.

Perhaps because he did not have a distinct personality like say David Niven or Michael Caine he could employ his undoubted acting ability in any number of roles with enormous versatility.

He appeared in several Ealing comedies, normally on the wrong side of the law, notably in the Ladykillers. This film opens in a bar in South America and a fleeting shot of Audrey Hepburn in her first role as Chiquita.

So you know from the start that he has got away with it but this does not detract from the pace and humour.

Sidney James, the archetypal stage cockney though born in South Africa, who like Tommy Cooper died on stage and two always reliable Jewish actors of that period – Alfie Bass and Sydney Tafler – play supporting roles.

As Holland outwits the bumbling bobbies by sending misleading messages from a stolen Wolseley 8 police car it is laugh out loud funny.

Ealing was always anarchic, the triumph of the little man against a bigger opponent.

It showcased some of the best comedians this country has ever produced, notably Peter Sellers.

Some films like The League of Gentlemen have been remade, never as well, whilst others – like Kind Hearts and Coronets when Alec Guinness plays 8 roles alongside his unctuous assassin Dennis Price – thankfully not. It’s a great contribution to cinema.

When I am tasked to list 10 great British movies I always include a comedy or two but it’s amazing how many critics and compilers do not.

About Neil Rosen

Neil went to the City of London School and Manchester University graduating with a 1st in economics. After a brief stint in accountancy, Neil emigrated to a kibbutz In Israel. His articles on the burgeoning Israeli film industry earned comparisons to Truffaut and Godard in Cahiers du Cinema. Now one of the world's leading film critics and moderators at film Festivals Neil has written definitively in his book Kosher Nostra on Jewish post war actors. Neil lives with his family in North London. More Posts