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The Boulting brothers: Double visionaries of British cinema

In their centenary year, the idealism of the Boulting brothers' early work is celebrated in a BFI season. By Geoffrey Macnab

Back in the days when they were recreating a little corner of Nazi Germany in Highbury Studios in north London for their wartime propaganda movie Pastor Hall (1940), the Boulting brothers were the fiercest idealists the British film industry had.

Think of John and his identical twin brother, Roy, today and idealism is not what comes to mind. Their best-remembered films are Peter Sellers, Ian Carmichael and Terry-Thomas comedies poking fun at the British establishment. They aren't feted in anything like the same way as the work of their contemporaries, such as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger or David Lean. Roy, who died in 2001, is better known as the father of the pop star Crispian Mills (of Kula Shaker fame) than he is as one of British cinema's most distinguished directors.

The strange journey of the Boultings is chronicled in a season of their films at the BFI to mark the centenary of their birth in 1913. On one level, it's a depressing story. The Boultings we first encounter in features such as Pastor Hall and Thunder Rock (1942) are, as a contemporary journalist called them, “the youngest, most enterprising and daring of producers in the British film industry”.

John Boulting had driven ambulances for the Republicans during the Spanish civil war. His brother Roy shared his sense of social and political engagement. After forming Charter Film Productions together in 1937, the two began making tiny-budget documentaries together and then graduated to fiction with The Landlady and Consider Your Verdict in 1938. The press wrote of their “fearless and sensitive presentation of controversial subjects”.

The brothers, who had been born a few minutes apart, had such unity of purpose that no one was quite sure who did what.

“It is the twins' intention to alternate their jobs on successive pictures on the theory that a change is better than a rest,” a journalist wrote of them early in their careers. “If John removes his glasses, no one will know the difference anyway.”

Pastor Hall, made at Highbury and Twickenham, isn't an especially polished piece of work. The sets are on the creaky side and the cast is full of patrician British actors. The dialogue is wildly uneven. “Oh, you're a stormtrooper now?” a youthful Bernard Miles is asked. “Well, it's a job, Herr Pastor,” he replies blandly.

Nonetheless, this story, inspired by the true case of Pastor Martin Niemöller, is unflinching in its account of Nazi brutality and anti-Semitism. The brothers had started planning the film in the late 1930s, a period when the British weren't fully aware of the Nazi's genocidal treatment of many of its own citizens. It was dismissed as far-fetched and controversial, and was even banned in several countries under Axis influence.

The brothers were separated in the war. John went into the RAF while Roy joined the Royal Armoured Corps. Both continued to do exceptional work. Roy directed and edited the Oscar-winning propaganda documentary Desert Victory (1943). John made Journey Together (1945), a rousing film about a bomber crew that was scripted by Terence Rattigan, featured Edward G Robinson and gave a leading role to a very youthful Richard Attenborough. Meanwhile, also during the war, the brothers were given special leave to make the anti-Nazi film Thunder Rock (1942) together. This was an earnest and experimental affair, full of flashbacks and supernatural elements, as close as British wartime cinema came to the avant-garde. Noël Coward pronounced the brothers “quite brilliant but absolutely humourless”.

Even after the war, the brothers kept their momentum. The bravura chase sequence that opens their version of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock (1947) had a dynamism and visual inventiveness that few other British film-makers of the era could match. They were clearly affected, though, by the failure of Fame Is the Spur (1947), their ambitious adaptation of Howard Spring's novel about a socialist politician (Michael Redgrave) who is slowly corrupted by power.

It was around this point that the Boultings underwent their bizarre metamorphosis. Their old radicalism somehow dissipated. Instead of Pastor Hall and Thunder Rock, the Boultings began to make snide (and sometimes very funny) comedies knocking the British establishment. I'm All Right Jack (1959) features one of Peter Sellers' greatest performances as shop steward Fred Kite.

The Boultings may have lost their idealism along the way but social historians looking to assess changes in Britain in the post-war era will find very rich pickings in their work. The Boultings' later films also proved Noël Coward wrong. The brothers may have been sardonic and even cynical but there's no denying that their films were also often very funny.

The Boulting Brothers centenary season runs throughout August and September at BFI Southbank, London SE1