For many years there has been talk about a possible film drama on the life and work of John Logie Baird. In 1993 the California-based Point Blank Productions drew up a treatment based on claims that Baird had played a major part in the radar effort in World War II, but nothing came of it. Another television pioneer, Philo Farnsworth, has been subjected to an unsuccessful and inaccurate film drama treatment; see "The Farnsworth Invention Saga" in this Gallery.
Getting back to radar, only one film drama has ever been produced about its history; it was recently reissued as a DVD and Malcolm Baird has written a short review which follows.
School for Secrets (1946)
For many years, this film lay in the archives of the British Film Institute. Recently it was restored and transferred to DVD and it is available from Amazon UK for a few pounds. Technically the quality is excellent but viewing on DVD players is only possible in the UK/Europe area. As I live in Canada, I had to watch the film on my computer monitor.
The film was made in black and white by Two Cities, a unit of the Rank Organization; it is a highly fictionalized version of UK radar developments in WW II. One of the scientist characters who was killed in a plane crash was based loosely on Alan D. Blumlein of EMI, who had been honorably mentioned in the company’s annual report in December 1945. SfS was a hit of its day and it was seen by Queen Mary at a royal performance in late 1946. It had a delayed US release in 1952 under the title "Secret Flight" and it was well reviewed in the New York Times despite its UK-centric approach.
The large cast included some of the great UK character actors of its time; Raymond Huntley, Ralph Richardson, John Laurie and Finlay Currie played the parts of crusty and eccentric (but lovable) scientists, also known as boffins. Much was made of the culture clash between the boffins and the more conventional military types. One of the RAF pilots was played by a young Richard Attenborough who looked like a teenager. The women were not forgotten: the long-suffering wives of the boffins played their parts and there was a nosy landlady who resented the secrecy, plus a WAAF contingent manning the radar screens. Last but not least was a harrowing scene when the young wife of "Watlington" (modeled on Blumlein) was told of his death in a plane crash.
The talented Peter Ustinov directed and scripted the production. SfS divides into two parts; more than half of the 100 minute film is spent in establishing the various characters and threads of the plot, with frightfully witty dialogue showing how eccentric the scientists were and how frightfully secret everything was. Later in the film there are war scenes with a German bomber being shot down thanks to AI radar, and a commando raid on a German radar installation. Alan Rawsthorne’s rather edgy musical score, mostly in a minor key, is not quite in tune with the scientist characters who would be more at home in an Ealing comedy.
The details of radar technology and how it came about are kept tantalizingly in the background, adding to the atmosphere of secrecy. There is a very brief mention of cathode ray tubes and a wavelength of 12 metres being used, but detail is left to the guesswork of the informed viewer. A short scene is set in a "Sunday Soviet", the name unofficially given to the informal weekend technical meetings between scientists and serving officers. At another point a captured German scientist is interrogated and it is made to seem that the Germans had used infra-red detection and not radar. One gets the sense that Ustinov had been briefed technically and it is known that Sir Robert Watson-Watt was a consultant to the Rank Organization. Nevertheless, Ustinov avoided having too much technical material in his script…he focused instead on his fictitious characters.
For entertainment value, I’d give "School for Secrets" 6 points out of 10. Even allowing for the difficulty of making a successful film based on a wartime science theme, SfS falls well short of "The Small Back Room" (1949) and "The Dam Busters" (1954).
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