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Clarke, T.E.B. (1907-1989)


Main image of Clarke, T.E.B. (1907-1989)

Thomas Ernest Bennett Clarke (known almost universally as 'Tibby') was one of the key architects of the iconic cycle of comedies made at Ealing Studios from the late 1940s to the early 50s, still among the most cherished films in the canon of British cinema.

Clarke was Ealing's most prolific writer of comedies, and his output included some of the most enduring, from the film that kickstarted the cycle, Hue and Cry (d. Charles Crichton, 1946), to Passport to Pimlico (d. Henry Cornelius, 1949) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (d. Crichton, 1953). His biggest success came with the Alec Guinness-starring crime caper The Lavender Hill Mob (d. Crichton, 1951). But of the 15 films he wrote at Ealing, just under half - seven - were comedies.

For a publicity officer who arrived at Ealing in his mid-thirties, his belated apprenticeship in film proved as fruitful as it was unexpected. His original scenarios tended to be rooted in his own personal experiences. Passport to Pimlico sprang out of an interest in collecting arcane laws he had developed as a policeman. The Rainbow Jacket (d. Basil Dearden, 1954) was born of his lifelong fascination with horseracing (the film also gave him an excuse to buy a racehorse). After his son got into trouble for persuading another child to swap an expensive toy for 'an invisible watch', Clarke penned The Magnet (d. Charles Frend, 1950), in which a boy obtains a magnet by the same trick and then finds his attempts to make amends continually thwarted. It might also be pertinent to The Lavender Hill Mob that Clarke's father worked for a company dealing in goldmines.

As well as providing him with anecdotal pegs on which to hang his scripts, there is a sense that these early Ealing films not only capture something of Clarke's personal stamp, but also the wider worldview of the generation that grew up in the chaotic aftermath of the 1930s economic slump. His arrival at Ealing followed dispiriting stints as a door-to-door salesman, a Temperance movement propagandist and a policeman and a disastrous sojourn to Argentina in the midst of a military coup (he had been trying to book a ticket to Spain and apparently ended up in Rosario by mistake). Consequently, while Clarke might have grown up in the cloistered environment of Frinton-on-Sea and attended Charterhouse, a sense of anarchy lurks in the shadows of even his mildest conceits. Although historian Charles Barr, in his definitive Ealing account, positioned Clarke at the cosier end of the Ealing spectrum, random happenstance (ludicrous, menacing, or both) is tightly woven into his scripts.

Perhaps his greatest influence on British film and television was born of a sustained period of writer's block. Without a project of his own, he was asked to put his police background to use in the adaptation of an unproduced original play by Ted Willis. In 1948, Clarke had written Against the Wind (d. Crichton, 1948) a commercially unsuccessful attempt to subvert the heroic conventions of the war film. In The Blue Lamp (d. Dearden, 1950) he attempted to give the police thriller a similar twist. The film's opening half hour saw star Jack Warner (playing PC Dixon) killed off, allowing a then little-known Dirk Bogarde's vicious young villain to take centre stage. Dearden's film proved to be a hit that came with a 21-year half-life. Ironically, The Blue Lamp's murky and slightly paranoid world became the source of the long-running and, ultimately, slightly anodyne TV spin-off Dixon of Dock Green (BBC, 1955-76).

The second phase of Clarke's career followed Ealing's 1955 sale to the BBC. Working for Harold Hecht, James Hill and Burt Lancaster, he began to supplement British assignments with work in Hollywood. His police background helped land him the job of scripting Scotland Yard thriller Gideon's Day (US, 1958) for John Ford. Literary adaptations, including A Tale of Two Cities (d. Ralph Thomas, 1958) and Sons and Lovers (d. Jack Cardiff, 1960), became another stock in trade.

Whether by cause or by consequence, his 'professional' period curtailed the development of further original scripts, and with that some of his enthusiasm for contemporary cinema. "Since I have to enjoy what I write, I doubt I should be able to provide the kind of scripts chiefly in demand these days," Clarke reflected in his autobiography, "if a film of any importance spares me the blood and orgasms, the chances are that it will nevertheless be an intolerably slow product of a director determined to be classed as an artist rather than an entertainer."

Alongside his work in film, he produced a number of novels (a film version of his book Two and Two make Five gave Benny Hill his big screen debut), as well as unusual pieces of non-fiction such as Intimate Relations or Sixty Years a Bastard (1971). One of his last works, Murder at the Buckingham Palace (1981), provided 'documentary' evidence of a murder in the Royal household supposedly covered up in 1935. He received an OBE in 1952.

Scott Anthony

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Blue Lamp, The (1949)Blue Lamp, The (1949)

Classic Ealing police drama that introduced PC George Dixon

Thumbnail image of Champagne Charlie (1944)Champagne Charlie (1944)

Lively recreation of the bawdy atmosphere of Victorian music-halls

Thumbnail image of Dead of Night (1945)Dead of Night (1945)

Classic Ealing portmanteau film: five tales of the supernatural

Thumbnail image of Halfway House, The (1944)Halfway House, The (1944)

Unusual cross between ghost story and WWII propaganda film

Thumbnail image of Hitch in Time, A (1978)Hitch in Time, A (1978)

Children's drama about an eccentric professor's time machine

Thumbnail image of Hue and Cry (1947)Hue and Cry (1947)

First of the postwar Ealing comedies: a joyous boy's own romp

Thumbnail image of Lavender Hill Mob, The (1951)Lavender Hill Mob, The (1951)

A group of eccentric Londoners plot the perfect crime

Thumbnail image of Magnet, The (1950)Magnet, The (1950)

Lesser-known Ealing comedy about a young boy with a guilty conscience

Thumbnail image of Passport to Pimlico (1949)Passport to Pimlico (1949)

Cherished comedy in which a Pimlico street declares its independence

Thumbnail image of Tale of Two Cities, A (1958)Tale of Two Cities, A (1958)

Dirk Bogarde stars as an idealistic lawyer in this Dickens adaptation

Thumbnail image of Titfield Thunderbolt, The (1953)Titfield Thunderbolt, The (1953)

Ealing comedy in which the villagers of Titfield decide to run their own railway

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Thumbnail image of Crichton, Charles (1910-1999)Crichton, Charles (1910-1999)

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Thumbnail image of Dearden, Basil (1911-1971)Dearden, Basil (1911-1971)

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Thumbnail image of Ealing Studios (1938-59)Ealing Studios (1938-59)

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