Based on J.B. Priestley’s play of the same name, They Came To A City is a remarkable, and still timely, work focusing on a group of strangers brought together to a mysterious city from their everyday, sometimes mundane, sometimes power hungry lives. This mish-mash of personalities sees tempers fray and friendships made.
As the “guests” gather, it becomes clear that optimism is just as important as opportunism and when you’re no longer in control, there are others with all the power and one person’s heaven is another person’s hell.
As a representation of class, They Came To A City is an effective allegory, with business men and aristocrats, the working classes, the criminal and downtrodden represented in that uniquely British way that would later become a staple of the works of the likes of Ken Loach, Alan Bennett and other pioneers of British observation.
Largely filmed on set, the construction is impressive and visually complicated. It’s easy to visualise many of these sets on the stage and, even today, they’d be breathtaking in their design.
In what was thought of, at the time, as left wing propaganda, the film broadly avoids the type of cliched or hysterical performances that may be expected from someone trying to make a clear point. The cast is impressive, with Googie Withers, as Alice Foster, on wonderful form, dripping with cynicism whilst still longing for a better life, as is Ada Reeve, as the older Mrs Batley, world wise and somewhat weary and who may know more than she lets on.
This is a solid film for strong female characters, with the aristocratic Lady Loxfield (Mabel Terry Lewis) and her daughter Philippa (Frances Rowe) giving equally worthy performances as the well-to-do women unsure of the “commoners” around them and keeping themselves to themselves.
There’s a superb male cast, too, led by John Clements, as Joe, the man of the streets, a “mechanic or something”. Elsewhere, we’ve got the misogynist businessman, Cudworth, portrayed with relish by Norman Shelley, providing a wonderful contrast to the avuncular, Sir George Gedney (A.E. Matthews) and Raymond Huntley as Malcolm Stritton, a businessman who doesn’t feel he fits the business world, with his loving wife, Dorothy (Renee Gadd).
A film about privilege and power, and how having one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other, the divisions of opinion and position are effectively rendered before they enter the city of the title.
Whilst we never get to see it, the final act makes it clear that the place has had an effect on each of the characters, changing their very nature. It’s a strong enough cast, and well enough directed by Basil Dearden, to carry off this conceit effectively. Priestley acts as the bridge for the journey into the city, having started the story with a couple on the hillside, recounting what happened and the impact it had upon them and setting his beliefs out clearly from the opening line to the final moments.
For a film released towards the end of World War II, this is a surprisingly dour and dark work, with touches of humour and a sense of reality that may not have fit easily with an audience seeking escapism. It certainly wasn’t the normal product of Ealing Studios, but it’s still a fine example of the post-World War II British film, restored to its former glory by the BFI from the original 35mm negatives and presented in its original 1.37:1 ratio and mono sound.
The film is a wonderful contrast to the well curated special features, including the Priestley narrated short film Britain at War, a veritable morale booster for the British audiences, A City Reborn, a propaganda drama short that look at plans for post-war reconstruction of Coventry, directed by John Eldridge and written by Dylan Thomas and the delightful animated Charley in New Town, a short about the new towns that would spring up after the war ended and how wonderful they’d be compared to the cities of old.
We also get Charley again, this time in Your Very Good Health, an animated look at the newly introduced NHS that would give anyone hope for a healthy future, We Live in Two Towns, again narrated by Priestley, which looks at communications technologies and the NFT lecture with Michael Balcon, the producer as he discusses his career.
As with many of the BFI releases, the features aren’t the only thing that bolsters these packages. An accompanying booklet adds much depth to the experience, with essays by a range of academics and experts giving context and meaning to the film. It’s an impressive bundle, all in the all, that should have pride of place in film aficionados collections.
Dir: Basil Dearden
Scr: J.B. Priestley
Starring: Googie Withers, John Clements, Raymond Huntley
Prd: Michael Balcon
Music: Alexander Scriabin
Runtime: 78 minutes
They Came To A City is available on the BFI Player as well as on dual-format BluRay/DVD.