Ealing Studios are regarded as the bastion of post-war Cinema, the home of the finest comedies Britain has ever produced, but what is often overlooked is their innate Gothicism. With the artifice of its sets and the embers of Victorian London architecture, there is a Gothic grandeur running through the veins of Ealing’s now legendary filmography. Few where as rich as the Victoriana of Pink String and Sealing Wax; one of the less well known films from both the illustrious studio and principal director, Robert Hamer – director of Dead of Night, It Always Rains of Sunday, School of Scoundrels and Kind Hearts and Coronets.
Mervyn Johns is Edward Sutton, chemist and puritanical Father teeming with biblical rage and absolute in his belief that the plans he has for his children’s future happiness are beyond reproach; ignorant to both his Son’s wanderlust and to his elder Daughter’s secretive plan to become a singer. During one of his son’s (David (Gordon Jackson)) late night visits to London town, David happens upon Pearl (Googie Withers), long suffering wife to an abusive tavern owner. With her adulterous liaisons being no secret, Pearl’s husband lashes out and as she flees she happens upon David, using his thinly veiled affections as an opportunity to escape the shackles of her marriage by murdering her Husband.
Released in December 1945, mere months after the end of World War II, Hamer doesn’t feel the need to sugar coat the murder, blackmail and deception in an era that was triumphant and positive with both the romance and musical genres reigning dominant. To play contrary to the national mood, to value story over all else, hints towards the director that Robert Hamer would become; a director responsible for some of the finest British films of all time. That’s before a final scene which courted darker themes than anything campy British Horror institutions Hammer or Amicus would dare to touch, yet Ealing is always tarred as a comedy factory first and foremost.
Even with its 1945 vintage and the gothic allure of its costumes & sets, it would be foolish to overlook Pink String and Sealing Wax’ similarities to the soap opera. It’s in that comparison that the biggest problem with Hamer’s full directorial debut (he co-directed Dead of Night previously) arises. The purpose of the soap opera form is to be without a central protagonist, instead telling the stories of a community. Likewise there is no obvious lead here. While unquestionably Googie Withers film she isn’t introduced till after the 40 minute mark, until then the film concerns itself with Edward Sutton’s family and his daughters’ unresolved pursuit of fame.
Be it Hammer, Amicus or Ealing, post-War British studios were never renowned for their photographic nous. Yet that doesn’t mean inventive camera work was ever beyond the realms of possibility. The moment in which Withers finally sees off her husband doesn’t show a single act of malice or violence, instead DoP Stanley Pavey’s camera uses her reaction to tell a story. The camera observes Withers from her elation of being free to the almost immediate horror that recognises what has just been done, a grave act in an England that still enforced execution by hanging.
The distance of history gives traditional Ealing the warm nostalgia that continues to see their output cherished by new generations of fans. There’s a constant nostalgia to the then contemporary Ealing film, one which shows the unpretentiousness of old London – the cobbled streets, the working classes, and a humility that has been lost amid gentrification. Pink String and Sealing Wax adds new strings to that bow. The puritanism of John’s Edward Sutton has evolved over time to almost villainous degrees, where once he was a defender of Christian morality he has since become the dominant antagonist. Likewise with Jean Ireland’s (Victoria) singing, since its release it has only become more of an active barometer for how much popular music has changed – a point of great personal fascination.
Sitting at the top of this under-rated piece is Googie Withers who embodies the same raw charm that saw Pam Grier become an icon of American cinema. While not without its problems, Pink String and Sealing Wax furthers the already bounteous riches of the Ealing film whilst offering counter programming to the otherwise Alec Guinness dominated studio.