School for Secrets (1946) and Castles in the Sky (2014)

two films reviewed by Malcolm Baird, June 2015

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 unsubstantiated claims that Baird had done secret work in World War II, but nothing came of it. In 2009 another such treatment met the same fate. In 2004 the American television pioneer, Philo Farnsworth, was subjected to a film treatment which was attacked in the USA for its inaccuracy it never made it to the screen although it has been produced a few times as a stage play. In my article "The Farnsworth Invention Saga" on this website, some of the issues surrounding that project are discussed.

Although no film drama has yet been made about television history, the equally important subject of radar history has been the theme of two British films -- separated by a gap of 68 years. These two films are reviewed below and they show the difficulty of portraying scientific history on film with anything approaching accuracy. The same challenge faces anyone who would try to make a film about television history.

Typically, film-makers are non-scientists who are afraid to overtax their audience or themselves with technicalities. They use popular fictional devices and they avoid loose ends, whereas real science and its history are full of complications and contradictions. As Mark Twain once said, "Truth is stranger than Fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities Truth isn't."

The best that can be said of the two films reviewed below is that they have reminded us of the enormous historical importance of radar, without which the outcome of World War II could have been very different.

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.

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 in spite of its UK-centric approach.

The large cast included some of the great British character actors of the 1940s Raymond Huntley, Ralph Richardson, John Laurie and Finlay Currie played the parts of crusty and eccentric (but lovable) scientists who were also known as boffins. Much was made of the culture clash between the boffins and the more conventional military chaps. 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 all 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 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).

Castles in the Sky (2014)

This drama was first shown on television (BBC 2) in September 2014 and it has since been issued as a DVD. It focuses on the early stages of radar development by Robert Watson-Watt in the 1930s. Unlike School for Secrets it identifies real historical characters including Winston Churchill and his ascetic German-born scientific advisor, "Prof." Frederick Lindemann, who is cast in the role of villain. This is a gross oversimplification. As in the case of its predecessor, Castles in the Sky focuses on human interest at the expense of technology. The central figure, Robert Watson-Watt, has faded into obscurity since his rather verbose autobiography was published in 1958. A good film about him is long overdue, but alas, this film is a disappointment and it has been heavily criticised for historical and technical inaccuracy. Leaving aside these criticisms, I found the film hard to grasp because of poor diction and sound quality, overdone accents, and a fragmented script. Rating: 4 out of 10, could do better.

A film about television?

Film dramas have been made about most of the great discoveries and inventions of the 20th century. Back in 1951, The Magic Box celebrated the invention of the cine camera. In the 1980s an excellent film The Race for the Double Helix was made about the discovery of the DNA structure. Last year the computer was featured in The Imitation Game, with the plot centred on the neglected pioneer Alan Turing.

No feature film has ever been made about the history of television. The lack of such a film seems strange in view of television's huge influence, but it ties in with the damage that television inflicted on the film industry after 1950. The folk-memory lives on and the film industry has largely ignored its more successful rival.

But since about 2000, the rivalry between film and television has decreased. The two industries face a new threat from the internet in its various forms. John Logie Baird became an early believer in the common ground between film and television after his company was taken over by a film-maker (Gaumont British). In the 1930s Baird Television showed large screen television in London cinemas and it also used film technology in the "intermediate film" television system. Perhaps the time is at last ripe for a film about television history. This year marks the 90th anniversary of J.L. Baird's first television picture.