For a studio whose reputation is so rooted in realism, Ealing enjoyed dabbling with fantasy, from dream sequences in Let George Do It (1941) and The Love Lottery (1954) to the more supernatural-infused plots of The Halfway House (1944) and The Ship that Died of Shame (1955) to this curiosity, a portmanteau-style film with sees Lucifer himself (Stanley Hollyway, in a dual role) trying to hypnotise and distract the world through the new technology of television.
The 1950s context of the British film industry cannot be avoided with this film, even if the film vs. television debate is more complex than the standard war/battle analogies allow. Ealing had flirted with anti-television sentiments before (a short sequence in The Titfield Thunderbolt) and had a history of radio mockery from Let's Be Famous (1939) on. While devoting an entire film to the topic seems untypical, this is also a period where Ealing was looking more closely to contemporary events and debates to fuel screenplays: film fanaticism and media manipulation in The Love Lottery, the 'social problem' of youth in The Blue Lamp (1950), racism in Pool of London (1951) or the changing nature of sports and betting in The Square Ring (1953) and The Rainbow Jacket (1954).
However, there is also a sense that television could simply be a useful structural device, no more inherently evil than the fateful crash that brings together the characters of Train of Events, or the plane flight of The Night My Number Came Up (1955), portmanteau Ealing projects that this film bears some resemblance to. The single television set at the heart of this narrative could, then, be nothing more than the narrative glue needed to tell stories about age, retirement, young love, and media obsession. The film makes some broad claims about television - the devil comments that TV is 'so much more effective than the old fashioned lodger' in splitting up relationships, while Hector McPhee (Gordon Jackson) is described as not being the same 'since he got television' - but its devilish impact is never quite as intrusive or all-consuming as you might expect. In fact, given TV content shown during the film - sports, panel shows, documentary, variety, cookery programmes, news - it arguably ends up looking like an attractive technology.
As with any episodic film, Meet Mr Lucifer ebbs and flows, loosely held together by a framing structure of drunken pantomime actor Sam Hollingsworth (Holloway) who, knocked unconscious at the theatre, imagines himself descending into hell, where Lucifer demonstrates how he is trying to use television for evil. The link between this and the individual stories is a single television set that moves between three sets of owners: from retired accountant Pedelty (Joseph Tomelty) and his daughter Pat (Barbara Murray), via his neighbours, honeymoon couple Jim and Kitty Norton (Jack Watling and Peggy Cummins), to Hector, who works alongside Jim in the local pharmacy. In all three cases, the television is placed as the source of tension and trouble - yet it never appears to be a very effective catalyst, simply heightening existing tensions or tendencies. Pedelty runs up debts while entertaining the new friends he makes through his television set; Jim and Kitty split because she is distracted from wifely duties by the television (and because he kisses Pat); while Hector becomes obsessed with a television singer (Kay Kendall).
The film also neglects the comic elements that might have lifted this broad satire: despite posters describing it as a 'devil-may-care joker' the script is leaden when it should be light, and only Stanley Holloway (in a variety of disguises, doing the devil's work) offers the occasional wink at camera that the film needed to disguise its flimsy structure. The rest of the performances are decent, with Cummins and Watling amusing as naive newlyweds, and Jackson moving out of his comfort zone as the steady, reliable type to play a more complex character, one whose infatuation with the TV star (and the set she appears on) presents the film's darkest hypothesis about the impact of television. Hector's growing obsession with the image actually changes him as a person, at first making him more accessible and happy, but gradually turning compulsive and insular: this is most obvious in a series of single shots on Hector as he watches her, a play of emotions passing over his face as the camera pushes in tighter and tighter, offering an example of television's 'mass hypnotism' that Hollingsworth complains about in the film's opening scene.
The film is also confused about more standard Ealing concerns: despite the television apparently fostering new communities (Pedelty has a house full of guests who want to watch the new set; yet they desert him when he gives the set away), the 'true' community remains the local pub and the theatre (television is drawing people away from the latter, where the pantomime plays to much reduced audiences). Old versus new is both supported and satirised: Pedelty's boss Mr Patterson (a brief but magnificent turn by Raymond Huntley) ridicules him for using an abacus, despite it being as fast as a new accounting machine; yet the 'new' television is the butt of many jokes throughout, and 3-D (another concurrent new technology) becomes the devil's plaything in the film's closing scenes (where Holloway's devil swoops out of a cinema screen and lands in the audience, 'a Lucifer in your lap'). Sex is also central to two of the stories: Kitty ('a much more attractive instrument of the devil') makes a pointed off-screen request for Jim to come to bed because she's cold (she also uses seduction to convince him to buy a TV), Pat and Jim's sexual attraction (albeit one fostered by her adopting a more traditional housewife's role, building a fire and offering to make him supper - which he describes as 'throwing her sex appeal at me'), and Hector's sexual obsession with the singer.
Despite confused themes, and problems around humour and structure, the film remains a fascinating window on Ealing's attempt to understand this new medium - a consumerist technology, designed to foster drunkenness and profligate behaviour, and ruin marriages - yet one to which Ealing, several years later, would gratefully sell its film to raise more money to fund its cinematic productions.
[Meet Mr Lucifer is not currently available on commercial DVD from Studio Canal UK]
Next time, politics, assassination, regret and Audrey Hepburn - in Secret People (1952)...