Film Review: Painted Boats
Released on DVD 11 January 2010
By Guy Sangster Adams
During the Second World War both Britain’s deteriorating canal system and the declining number of working boats plying its waterways enjoyed a brief period of revivification. This fascinating, evocative, and beautifully shot Ealing Studios gem, which is available on DVD for the first time, is part drama and part documentary and was filmed along the Grand Union Canal in the summer of 1944, though not released until September 1945. The film centres on two families, the Smiths and the Stoners, who have lived and worked afloat for generations and the love story that unfolds between Mary Smith (Jenny Laird) and Ted Stoner (Robert Griffiths). Whilst also documenting and trumpeting not only the revival of the inland waterways for the war effort but also the history of canals from the eighteenth century onwards.
Tradition versus progressiveness is also at the heart of Painted Boats, in common with a number of Ealing Studios films and not least with director Charles Crichton’s later film The Titfield Thunderbolt. With Painted Boats this is encapsulated by the juxtaposition between the Smith’s horse-drawn barge Sunny Valley and the Stoner’s diesel-powered Golden Boy, and the extra hardships that refusing to change brings to the Smiths, not least ‘legging’ Sunny Valley loaded with thirty tons of coal through tunnels. Though mechanical horsepower does not inure the Stoners from change either as the increasing dilemma as to how long they can continue on the canals or whether they may have to move ashore hangs over them as it does over all their contemporaries.
In fact, post war the decline of commercial canal traffic was phenomenally rapid, until by the 1960s only a token number of working boats remained. Of course we are now very familiar with the leisure based reinvigoration of canals, but Painted Boats provides a wonderful insight into the closing chapter of a way of life, and is made all the more evocative by the poetic commentary written by Louis Macneice.