It Always Rains On Sunday DVD

Stephen Martin revisits Ealing Studios' hybrid noir/social realism picture, which has been remastered for home entertainment release this week

"Doris, your father wants a cup of tea!" yells a shrill voice at the start of Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains On Sunday, encapsulating the combined senses of authority, duty, drudgery and small comforts in one expression. Set in Bethnal Green and originally released by Ealing Studios in 1947, Hamer’s melodramatic take on post-war working-class Britain is deemed a classic. It’s a popular cinematic snapshot of its own time, a forerunner to slice-of-life social realism and to the television soap operas created from the 1960s onwards.

Currently enjoying a limited theatrical revival, It Always Rains On Sunday is this week made available as a special edition DVD and, for the first time, on Blu-ray. Bonus material on StudioCanal’s excellent disc includes a tour of the outdoor locations used in filming (innovative at the time) and retrospective insights from critic Ian Christie and director Terence Davies, whose own work is infused with a nostalgic critiquing of populist spirit. "I saw it one Sunday afternoon on BBC1," explains the latter, "and it really knocked me out."

Davies enthuses that the community realised within the world of the film is recognisable to its audience, unlike other shades of contemporaneous British cinema: "Most films made in England were about middle- and upper-class people who worried about dressing for dinner and that sort of nonsense. You look at a film like Blithe Spirit and where this England is, God alone knows."

The confection of characters and characteristics in It Always Rains On Sunday embodies a multilayered popular mosaic. The mise-en-scène, illustrated by Douglas Slocombe’s inventive cinematography, has sprinkles of verbal and visual colour showing an evolving cosmopolitan world, with Caribbean, Continental and Jewish flavours. Location shooting helps convey an authentic feel, going into bustling markets, penny arcades, music shops, doss houses, grotty pubs and vibrant dance halls. There are hints of neo-realism, film noir and German expressionism, describing by turns the people’s claustrophobia, exhilaration, frustration and resignation.

Its narrative soap-opera stylings prefigure Mike Leigh, Jack Rosenthal, Alan Bleasdale and Jimmy McGovern. The characters form a local network, and their lives and emotional concerns interweave and overlap. At the story-world’s centre is Rose, played by Googie Withers, a "youngish" woman who senses her previously exciting life has become colourless – dazzling nights substituted by daily grind. Rose’s character prefigures (depending your age) Elsie Tanner (Coronation Street), Angie Watts (early EastEnders) or Cat Slater (later EastEnders), women whose vivacity has faded somewhat and whose sexiness has been seasoned with regret.

When we first meet Rose it’s clear we’re seeing a soul who feels trapped, and the imagery of cramped rooms and clutter add to her confinement. While this is a forerunner to social realism in UK drama, it also carries symbolism for director Robert Hamer’s own personal sense of constriction. Hamer was a troubled gay man at a time when homosexuality was illegal (punishable by imprisonment), and whose attempts to conform to convention led him into depression and alcoholism. Ealing screenwriter Diana Morgan said of Hamer: "He’d probably rather have lived as a homosexual." So while Rose’s life in It Always Rains On Sunday stands on its own realistically, it metaphorically evokes the lives of others.

Hamer is deemed to have been a particularly sensitive director of female performers, and he coaxes from Withers a convincing portrayal of a pre-feminist working-class woman. Rose is married to George (Edward Chapman), an older man with two teenaged daughters, Violet and Doris (Susan Shaw and Patricia Plunkett). George is a decent husband and the marriage is solid, if dull, but Rose feels nagging discontent. Some intelligent editing reveals her previous life as a flirty barmaid and dancing girl, contrasted with the drudge she feels she’s become. When her former lover, the strikingly handsome Tommy Swann (John McCallum), breaks out of prison he comes to Rose looking for help, bringing a revitalised sense of excitement – and inevitable trouble.

Among the picture’s appealing qualities is that it never judges the moral, ethical and emotional attitudes of its characters. Instead it depicts rounded people with nuanced sensibilities, who try to stay afloat in murky waters. There are petty crooks and careworn coppers. There are smooth operators, adulterous husbands, their hopeful girlfriends and their hardened wives. Two contrasting characters neatly counterpoint honest dishonesty and pure hypocrisy. Caleb Neesley (John Salew) is a crime boss who piously scolds children for making noise on the Sabbath day, yet deals in stolen goods. Lou Hyams (John Slater) is a dodgy bookie who fixes boxing matches yet contributes to funds for a local gymnasium. "Does the colour of the money matter," he shrugs, "if it’s to be devoted to a noble cause?" Nothing’s more shady than the claim of virtue. The movie’s advertising poster read: ‘The Secrets Of A Street You Know.’

Aside from the odd strained cockney accent It Always Rains On Sunday is a convincingly textured portrait of pinched people and their troubled choices, and a film for all climates.

It Always Rains On Sunday is out now on DVD and Blu-ray via StudioCanal. The film plays at BFI Southbank until November 22 and there’s a screening at Riverside Studios on November 25.

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