The Ghost Train (1941) ***
Arnold Ridley's theatrical comedy thriller is here reconstructed as a vehicle for Band Waggon's Arthur Askey and (as he is actually billed here) Richard 'Stinker' Murdoch, resulting in an unpretentious masterpiece of British comedy.
It's not, perhaps, the most representative example of Askey's style on film (for that go straight to the eccentric screen version of Band Waggon itself) but probably the most successful attempt to insert him into a conventional narrative, with the original's plot and dialogue well preserved and Askey's own material carefully integrated. Ridley's play had already been filmed several times and was sufficiently familiar to have been ripped off twice without offence by Will Hay and the same writing team (in Oh! Mr Porter and Ask a Policeman). But this potentially superfluous return ticket proved the best overall version, as well as the spookiest of all the baddies-pretending-to-be-ghosts comedies, thanks to great sets and real atmosphere. The moment when the ghost train rushes through the deserted station rivals anything in The Cat and the Canary, aided by the intense performance of that great British actress Linden Travers.
Also notable among the generally excellent supporting ensemble are Herbert Lomas as the lugubrious station master ("if it be a natural thing... where do it come from? Where do it go?"), and the charming Betty Jardine, who only made a few more film appearances (including in Powell's Canterbury Tale) before her tragic early death in childbirth in 1945.
But Askey and Murdoch are the main attraction of course, and this is as good an introduction to Askey's gifts as you'll need, with the eeriness of the setting perfectly complementing his relentless bonhomie. Some of the best of all British comedy has relied on the surefire formula of one irritating comic stuck in a confined space with an assortment of irritable people: think Hancock in The Railway Journey or its unacknowledged remake The Lift, or Norman Wisdom on the train in One Good Turn. But both are amateurs alongside Askey here: he mercilessly pummels his victims with crass observations, end-of-the-pier gags and groundless good cheer. The joke is partly that Askey’s faith in his likeability never falters now matter how often his efforts are repulsed, but mainly the fun of the attack itself: Askey’s barrage of quips, impersonations and inane suggestions for passing the time versus the undentable contempt of his fellow travellers, at least one of whom teeters constantly on the brink of doing him serious physical harm. The one song in the film, Askey’s delightful performance of “The Seaside Band” ends halfway through when the gramophone he is using for accompaniment is thrown on to the line.
It is one of the supreme comic performances of British films, and the film is a fine example of the professionalism in all departments that distinguished British production around this time.