Saturday, June 15, 2019

Dick Barton: Special Agent (1948)

 (This post is part of the Great Amicus-Hammer Blogathon hosted by Gill of Realweegiemidget Reviews and Barry of Cinematic Catharsis )

Hammer Films remains best known for their the many horror movies that they have released over the years, as well as a smattering of psychological thrillers, science fiction movies, and comedies. Prior to the release of The Quatermass Xperiment in 1955, however, Hammer had released films in a wide variety of genres. Among these was the action/adventure film Dick Barton: Special Agent (1948).

Dick Barton: Special Agent (1948) was based on the highly successful BBC Light Programme radio show of the same name. Both the film and the radio show centred on Captain Dick Barton MC, a former Commando who worked as a private investigator and occasionally an agent of the British government. Dick was assisted by his friends, the Scotsman Jock Anderson and former platoon sergeant Snowey White. Dick Barton--Special Agent debuted on the BBC Light Programme on October 7 1946. Its 15 minute episodes aired every weekday evening. The show was created by Norman Collins, who was then Controller of the Light Programme (he would later move to the BBC Television Service and still later he would co-found ATV).

Dick Barton--Special Agent proved wildly popular. At its peak over 15 million listeners tuned into the show every night. It should come as no surprise that Dick Barton--Special Agent was most popular with schoolboys. It is for that reason that the BBC drew up a strict code of what was not permissible on the show. There could be no sex, no liquor, and no foul language. Even the violence was limited to fist fights. Despite this, Dick Barton--Special Agent received the disapproval of clergymen, teachers, and other moral watchdogs. Among those who was not particularly comfortable with Dick Barton--Special Agent was Val Gielgud, head of BBC Drama.  It is perhaps for that reason that Dick Barton--Special Agent went off the air March 30 1951. Its time slot was taken over by a relatively young show, The Archers, which continues to air to this day.

Of course, the phenomenal popularity of Dick Barton--Special Agent meant that a feature film was probably inevitable. In Britain in the 1930s and 1940s it was not unusual for popular radio shows to be adapted as motion pictures. The popular radio programme The Band Waggon provided the basis for the 1940 film of the same name. The popular radio show Send for Paul Temple was adapted as a movie in 1946 and was followed by three more films. British audiences probably were not surprised when Dick Barton made it to the big screen.

Dick Barton: Special Agent  was directed by Alfred J. Goulding, who had directed Harold Lloyd shorts for Hal Roach in the Silent Era and later films featuring Roscoe Arbuckle and Harry Langdon. Dick Barton: Special Agent would be Alfred J. Goulding's penultimate film. His last film would also be for Hammer, The Dark Road (1948).

It is perhaps because of Alfred J. Goulding's experience in comedy that Dick Barton: Special Agent plays as a comedy thriller. Much of the film's running time is devoted to the hi-jinks of  Dick's sidekicks Snowey and Jock, as well as the villain Dr. Caspar's henchmen. This was a large shift from the radio show, which was played with deadly seriousness for the most part. That having been said, the film's plot could have come straight from the radio show. While on vacation in a small village, Dick Barton (played by Don Stannard), Snowey (played by George Ford), and Jock (played by Jack Shaw) come upon a plot by unrepentant Nazi Dr. Caspar (played by Geoffrey Wincott) to pollute Britain's water supply with cholera-laced bombs.

Despite the fact that Dick Barton: Special Agent departed from the radio show, it would prove successful. It led to two more Dick Barton movies: Dick Barton Strikes Back (1949) and Dick Barton at Bay (1950). There were plans for a fourth Dick Barton movie, Dick Barton in Africa, but the series ended following star Don Stannard's death in an automobile accident. The success of Dick Barton: Special Agent would also lead Hammer to adapt more radio shows as movies: The Adventures of P.C. 49 (1949), Doctor Morelle (1949), The Man in Black (1949--based on the radio show Appointment with Fear), Meet Simon Cherry (1949--based on the radio show Meet the Rev.), and A Case for PC 49 (1951).

Today Dick Barton: Special Agent is hardly a respected film. It is not unusual to read reviews that not only refer to it as bad, but as possibly the worst movie Hammer Films ever made. At IMDB it has a relatively low rating of 4.1. It is certainly true that Dick Barton: Special Agent departs from the radio show in its tone. It is also true that it was made on a relatively low budget. Too much of the script is devoted to comedy, and the acting does leave something to be desired. That having been said, it must be considered that Dick Barton: Special Agent was made at a time when Hammer was still making quota-quickies (of which this movie is one). It must also be considered that it was made to primarily appeal to children. Indeed, it is no worse and actually a good deal better than many American serials and B-Westerns made in the Forties. Keeping that in mind, Dick Barton: Special Agent is enjoyable enough a way to spend an hour and eleven minutes. Some of the comedic bits are at least slightly amusing and, while the fight scenes obviously look fake (one can tell the punches don't make contact), there is enough excitement to satisfy fans of old-time movie serials and B-movies. It is also an interesting look back at a time when heroes were still nearly infallible and villains were unapologetically evil. Dick Barton: Special Agent can be fun if one simply doesn't expect too much.

Dick Barton would not completely disappear once his radio show ended in 1951. In 1972 a new version of the very first Dick Barton serial, "The Secret Weapon," was broadcast as part of the BBC's Golden Jubilee. In 2013 the BBC produced a new version of a Dick Barton adventure from 1951. The late Seventies would see several Dick Barton novels. In 1979 Southern Television produced a TV series titled Dick Barton: Special Agent. It seems inevitable, particularly in today's atmosphere of reboots and remakes, that Dick Barton will return.

I would not call Dick Barton: Special Agent a classic. It certainly is not a great movie. I am not even sure that I would call it a good movie. That having been said, I don't think it is nearly as a bad as some people make it out to be. As long as one keeps in mind that it is a quota-quickie made primarily for children, Dick Barton: Special Agent can be simple, harmless fun.


John L. Harmon said...

I love this Blogathon because it shows what a variety of genres Hammer and Amicus released.
I've never heard of this one and it sounds entertaining.

Realweegiemidget Reviews said...

Hi there, sorry about the delay in commenting. Love this post as my dad always mentioned Dick Barton but never got the reference til now. So a huge thanks for this fabulous and informative post! from Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews

Barry P. said...

Great review, Terence! Much like the movies I covered this time around, something doesn't necessarily need to be "good" in order to have a good time with it. Thanks for bringing this movie to our attention, and for joining the blogathon!