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Common Touch, The (1941)

Main image of Common Touch, The (1941)
35mm, black and white, 100 mins
Directed byJohn Baxter
Production CompanyBritish National Films
Produced byJohn Baxter
Screen Play byBarbara K. Emary
 Geoffrey Orme
Story byC.G.H. Ayres
PhotographyJames Wilson
MusicKennedy Russell

Cast: Geoffrey Hibbert (Peter Henderson); Harry Welchman ('Lincoln's Inn'); Greta Gynt (Sylvia Meadows); Joyce Howard (Mary Wetherby); Edward Rigby ('Tich'); George Carney (Charlie)

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Suddenly orphaned, an 18-year-old finds himself head of his father's large business concern. He is accepted as a figurehead only, but the youth shows enterprise and determination.

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The Common Touch is a loose remake of John Baxter's first film as a director, Doss House (1933); he would go on to remake it yet again as Judgement Deferred (1951). Like most of his work - including his best-known film, Love on the Dole (1940) - it's a social-problem piece, imbued with his sentimental left-wing politics. Salt-of-the-earth working-class types, speaking words of simple wisdom, figure strongly, along with cheery musical interludes drawing on his early experience in provincial music halls.

Baxter was never the most sophisticated of filmmakers, and there's a naivety to The Common Touch that it would be easy to mock. 'Charlie's', the Covent Garden doss-house on which the action centres, appears a remarkably cosy, clean and unthreatening place, devoid of violence or drunken outbursts; indeed none of the down-and-outs living there seems even slightly partial to alcohol. But there's a warmth to Baxter's direction, and an unfeigned affection for his characters, that makes the film impossible to dislike.

The overall message is simple enough, though not without contemporary relevance: people matter more than profits, and businesses should be actuated by wider considerations than just making money. Holmes Paul's art direction dramatises the contrast: Henderson's boardroom is all cool, clean art deco lines, its flat-lit high-ceilinged expanses dwarfing human figures, where the subterranean Charlie's is dark brick pillars and low curved arches, breaking up the shadowy space into intimate corners and cubby-holes. The set design is altogether impressive, belying its modest budget.

To bulk out the basic storyline - Peter Henderson, catapulted at age 18 into heading his late father's firm, goes 'undercover' first to investigate, and then save, the doss-house - Baxter introduces a few subplots and a romantic interest, none of which adds much to the action. Some incidental musical numbers are diverting, though, such as the rendition of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no 1 by 'Chopin' (Mark Hambourg), evidently a once eminent concert pianist down on his luck, and a spirited Carmen Miranda parody from Greta Gynt.

As Peter, Geoffrey Hibbert gives a callow performance, and Raymond Lovell's Cartwright makes a one-dimensional villain, but such veterans as Edward Rigby and Bransby Williams (a regular in Baxter's films) throw themselves into their roles with gusto. Though The Common Touch was made early in WWII, with the outcome still far from certain, Baxter's inherent optimism allows him to look forward to a peaceful, more equitable society once the war was over.

Philip Kemp

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Video Clips
1. Master Peter (1:38)
2. A bit of a shakedown (4:07)
3. In the boardroom (2:26)
Baxter, John (1896-1975)
Miles, Bernard (1907-1991)
Slater, John (1916-1975)
Verno, Jerry (1894-1975)