Jack Read (Richard Attenborough) is a fourteen-year-old about to embark on his schooling at Saintbury, a British public school, but he is not like the other boys, for his background is lower class rather than upper class like his contemporaries, and he is acutely aware of this. The reason he has taken a place at this establishment is because of a scholarship to encourage the public school system to take in a broader section of society rather than simply the highest echelon, but the Housemaster, Mr Hartley (Cecil Trouncer) is far from happy about this situation and means to prove that it is an experiment doomed to fail. But Mr Lorraine (Robert Flemyng), the House Tutor, disagrees...
The word "class" is not mentioned in The Guinea Pig (but "arse" is), but the British disease is all over it as the twin filmmakers The Boulting Brothers chose to examine the issues of the system through the microcosm of placing a working class boy (or lower middle class, at highest) in the middle of some of the poshest kids imaginable. That this is ultimately decided to be a positive experience was testament to the Boultings' own private education, so you could say naturally they were going to approve of it in a "Look what it did for us - didn't do me any harm!" kind of way, though not everyone who went through public schooling in Britain was necessarily happy about how it affected their prospects.
Not to mention the trauma of being separated from your parents and having to knuckle under various traditions that come across like organised bullying from a set of institutions that never did go on to welcome a spectrum of children from various strata of society anyway, yet still managed to produce adults who would run the country. The experiment in this film was a real one, but unlike this fiction never got off the ground to be implemented, leaving its contented conclusion that now the war was over Britain would be forging a classless utopia somewhat absurd and deserving of the hollow laughs it has prompted down the decades since its initial release. Still, they could dream.
At the time, the main bone of contention was the casting of twenty-four-year-old Attenborough as someone ten years his junior, and to have in the cast Sheila Sim, who played Flemyng's love interest and daughter of Mr Hartley, who was Attenborough's wife (though the characters barely speak to one another), topped the ridiculousness. Nowadays, you can see they just about get away with it, and what could have been an update of Tom Brown's Schooldays instead was infused with the new political movement of the nineteen-forties once the war was out of the way and the Welfare State was shaking up the country in generally positive ways. But it was possible to set that to one side and simply watch this as a somewhat fanciful tale of how schools used to be for the posh kids, with a little adventure for a non-posh kid.
The cast were generally excellent, which made this more enjoyable, Attenborough committing to the role and making for a decent hero whose range from bafflement to outright alarm at what he is asked to do to fit in surely shared by most of those watching who were invited to put themselves in his place. Some of the rules seem preposterous, a charter for victimisation by both the older pupils and even the staff: because Jack has been chatted up by bookshop assistant Brenda Hogan (a great little performance in a scene and a half) he goes for a walk with her, but when spotted by one of the masters he is informed this is against the rules and he must be punished by caning. To modern eyes, this is bizarre to the point of near outrage, but Jack has to bend over and take it regardless. The implications of power plays like these are touched upon, but the interesting first half gave way to a more sentimental second, and you may find your inner revolutionary making themselves plain. Music by John Wooldridge.
[The BFI release this on Blu-ray with the following features:
Newly remastered by the BFI and presented in High Definition and Standard Definition
Old School (1901-1987, 71 mins): learn all about British education as seen on screen - from Edwardian Boarding School parades to 1980s comprehensive kids getting to grips with GCSEs - with a century-spanning selection of rare documentary films from the BFI National Archive
The Make-Do-And-Menders (1941-1945, 24 mins): recall the Ration-book world that provided the real-life social background for The Guinea Pig in this eccentric assortment of archive oddities from the war years
***FIRST PRESSING ONLY*** Fully illustrated booklet with new essays by John Oliver and Corinna Reicher and full film credits.]