"Novels about scientists: Nigel Balchin, The Small Back Room, and the Black Magic Chocolate Box"
This chocolate box will be instantly recognised by everybody in Britain of any age. In these days I was surprised to learn the identity of the man behind the design, someone with a reputation well known to me in a completely different field - the novelist whose books were successful In Britain in the postwar two decades or so, Nigel Balchin. And other things he had a hand in stirred some memories.
His best known novel, made also into a successful film as well as an exceptionally impactful radio drama , was 'The Small Back Room'*. Story of a small scientific team that does various wartime jobs for the military, like evaluating weapons, discovering mechanisms of enemy mines, etc.
*(A US issue was entitled 'Hour of Glory')
It would be hard to overestimate the impact and influence these had at the time. To this day a British journalist will, confident of being understood, use the term "back room boys" to mean scientists, particularly industrial scientists. It tapped into a postwar mood of interest and support for science, that had to do with the stories, some emerging out of secret, of how vitally British scientists had helped the war effort.
Scientist as hero story invited me and I think many other boys and adolescents of the time. It gave an idea that a scientist could have a life, could fight back against the fools or villains trying to frustrate or exploit him, could have an emotional life, a sex life.While in my earlier schooldays I had some slight ambition to be a scientist or engineer, well that is what my parents told me I wanted to be, the trouble was I didn't find much life in boring experiments and calculations of densities of substances etc. So the film, and the book (and others by Balchin) I read a few years later aged 16-17 gave me if not exactly inspiration, at least a something that helped keep my nose to the grindstone of density etc. stuff. For an emotional life I could indeed feel confident of more success than Balchin's hero (who somewhat scandalously for the epoch lived with a woman not his wife) - I would not treat my woman with the inconsideration and rudeness that Balchin's character does, which did somewhat shock me even back then. Nor, though almost equally inexperienced in the matter, did I to expect to have have his hero's problems with alcohol. Which features and problems recur in several other Balchin novels. And have led to suspicion that Balchin himself suffered from such problems. According to the biography 'His Own Executioner' by Derek Collett (2015)
I just learned that he did. In fact I learnt now all about his interesting life, not in the usual literally rut and connecting with other memories and history dating from the 1940s and 50s.
Above I give reasons I largely appreciated and enjoyed, but underneath in part was disturbed by and rejected a part of, Balchin's novels - they are psychological novels, and Balchin was after all a psychologist (I'll come to that). I had at the time scarcely yet matured out of the simplicities of boys' adventure stories, and the adult world had till then presented to me an unambiguous united front of morals.
Balchin was born into a very modest background but was both gifted and lucky enough to have access to a scholarship to Cambridge University. He studied biological sciences intended to lead to a career in agriculture according to the scholarship terms, but finding his greatest interests were different he opted, with some struggle with his grant givers, to take up the then very new course and subject of psychology. After graduation 1930 he found a perfect outlet in industrial psychology and management in a new if shoestring organisation, the National Institute of Industrial Psychology meant to bring modern scientific approach into management and organisation in the technology – such matters as workplace layout, worker and consumer motivation. They were discovering things that now seem more obvious and commonplace about worker and consumer behaviour and motivations. He got noticed for his effective solutions which saved manufacturers noticeable money.
Example: The Black Magic box came out of the disappointing sales Rowntrees were achieving with their luxury end product. Balchin conducted in-depth consumer inivestigations, a new thing at the time. Who was buying this product and why? He discovered that it was bought mostly by men for the women in their lives, often in courtship.He reasoned that they would go for a product that conveyed a calm, sober elegance and luxury. While he did not design the box himself, he laid down the concept, and numerous designs were then again experimentally customer-tested. Result: a design which has been scarcely modified in 90 years! To see how revolutionary this was, read the description of manufacturers idea back in the earlier 20th century of what a chocolate box should be:
"Before Black Magic came into being, what we now understand by the pejorative term ‘chocolate box art’ was exemplified by cartons adorned with soft-focus paintings of adorable kittens and puppies, idyllic, creeper-clad country cottages or angelic, rosy-cheeked children and fussily decorated with frills and foils".
This episode illustrates the qualities that made Balchin a valued employee: penetrating insight and methodologically sound investigation, followed by practical solution followed up to successful conclusion. Plus hard work – he even found time in this period to start his writing career. Much of his literary production concerns the world of work - he has been called "novelist of work", subject that other novelists avoid or are inexperienced in! His 1930s production is various: humorous articles for Punch magazine, light touch books on enterprise management and on home economics, two novels, Radio talks for the BBC, short stories, three plays. Some were slightly noted by public and critics, but no great breakthrough - the plays achieved in the West End a total of one night. Still most of his writing was at least published, not too discouraging.
It helped that In 1935 left he left the NIIP and was employed by Rowntrees, the chocolate manufacturer with increased salary – and also leisure since the previous work that involved a great deal of travel around the country. They appreciated him so much that long-term they paid him a retainer for advice. This income was still economically necessary.Had married in 1933, couple's lifestyle tended to be expensive.
Came the war and In 1941 after some unsatisfactory work in the Civil Service Balchin joined the Army. But he made sure, using his academic or industrial contacts to join in a function where he was not wasted. He joined something called the Directorate of Biological Research set up to see to the application of science, including the kind of innovative management experience he had had in industry, to the war effort. Its duties seem to have been not unlike those of the setup pictured in the novel and subsequent film 'The Small Back Room.' His greatest contribution there was probably (the full story may never be known) ensuring that not only his own abilities but those of a large number of people were enabled and not wasted in the war effort.
As emerges ever more strongly the more we hear about the war, WW2 was a technological and logistic war. So the rapidly expanded British Army had an immense training job to do to supply its needs for mechanics, drivers, engineers, electronics and radio experts, caterers,… etc. etc. as well as the more obvious military personnel. At the start of the war the Army, amazingly, had no system for allocating conscripted recruits to suitable units according to their qualifications, experience or talents - they were distributed according to place of recruitment and might or might not find a way later to a suitable role. The solution emerged from Balchin's department (individual contributions are not for sure recorded by history, but this has the hallmarks of the kind of problem and solution Balchin had often found in his industrial work). There were of course no computers, but there were considerably automated methods for treatment of relatively large amounts of data which he had previously used in his research - the Hollerith punched card system. The system was set up and the data of the recruits, including the results of aptitude tests, was fed into the system and made available to the (Also new and reorganised) Primary Training Centres, which at the end of their induction course redistributed them to the appropriate arm. The new system with its Hollerith-recorded intelligence and aptitude testing also facilitated on a large scale the discovery of leadership and officer talent and aptitude that would not have found its way under the old traditional of 'what school did you go to?' question.
(The book recounts the story I remember hearing but here see for the first time in print, that in the actions routine laid down in the Army manual for an artillery gunnery team, there seem to be one man of the six who did nothing. It turned out that the manual had descended from other versions in which the job of the original sixth Man had been to hold the horses! Many "always been done this way" routines were changed by this research, with increase in the efficiency and morale of our forces. )
The army did recognise Balchin's usefulness and contribution and, evidently discerning the need for the clout of rank to be able to push things through, promoted him eventually to Brigadier, the rank above full Colonel. I know of only two other non-career soldiers who attained that rank in the British Army. Though sadly after he was discharged in 1946 the only honour given him was the Defence Medal, which half the people in the country including many civilians got.
Postwar Balchin continued his novel production and other extensive literary work including official reports. Then he branched into film scripting. His style was well adapted to this, his ability to keep a plot moving and at the same time including subplots and character vignettesAnd striking dialogue and phrases. His second job of this kind was was, most unusually, his own novel, Mine Own Executioner.The result (1947) was a notable box office as well as critical success.
Balchin did not himself script the Small Back Room. But he had little to complain about in the 1949 film: at the most in the understandable and usual commercial compromises the main character's weaknesses are mitigated, the alcohol weakness turned into an amusing quirk if I remember right, and his partial failure in the end turned into a heroic success. But the film has been called "the best acted British film of its time". I did not register the names of actors at the time, in any case many were at the start of their careers. But over time it did register, ah that was Robert Morley in the comic–satirical scene where he plays a visiting minister. An exceptionally impressive vignette was a minor part character played by Cyril Kuzak - after all these decades since when I have not thought of it it is brought vividly back by Collett's biography. A strong part as the hero's nemesis was played, now I learned, by Jack Hawkins. The film contains what must be one of the most intense cinematic tension sequences of all films. The same is true of reading the same episode in the book. I'm trying to say that the film has to be worth seeing, or the book reading still now, especially if you can recreate the undistracted time for it that it would have been given back then.
Balchin's psychology background knowledge was surely large factor in the success of a totally different kind of film, Mandy (1952), a moving story of the recovery under psychotherapy of a dumb (literally) girl, for which Balchin's psychological knowledge was useful. With its more feminine focus I remember my mother and sister impassioned for it. Only now I discover from the biography that the headmaster of the girl's special school (and my memory hypnotist and psychotherapist) was played by Jack Hawkins. And that he reckoned it was what established him as a serious film actor. And said that ‘It is rare to find a part with such depth of character.’ Again a critical and also box office success.
This was followed by two films which I remember in the genre 'British war films' that flourished in the 1950s that we schoolkids mocked, but secretly lapped up. The genre has of late had an overdue critical upgrade.
The first, Malta Story, the story of the wartime air defence of Malta I did like, or rather could say wanted to like, but I guess Collett's adjudication "A lacklustre piece of film-making (enlivened only by some action sequences and a few characteristic Balchin touches in the dialogue) that retains the ability to quell an outbreak of boredom on a wet Sunday afternoon but otherwise has little to commend it." is not too unfair. Most memorable in it was Jack Hawkins, who by then I did recognise.But it is not up there with the obvious comparison "Angels One Five" (about the battle of Britain) - also starring Jack Hawkins.
The second, slightly topical as there has been a recent remake, was The Man who Never Was. This was of course based on a true story in which a cadaver in British military uniform with pockets and briefcase stuffed with false documents was planted to wash up on the shores of Spain looking like the result of an air accident so that it would be seen by German intelligence and plant on them false information about the forthcoming invasion of Italy, such that they would divert forces to the pretended target invasion area, Corsica and Sardinia, away from the really intended one. German intelligence did take sight of and note of the documents, and it is said that they did divert some divisions in consequence. I don't know what military effect it really had on the invasion which was difficult enough even so. (This sort of true story is very popular in Britain – in the 20th century we discovered that war, which for centuries was something that happened somewhere else, was nasty. The idea that it could be won through intelligent dodges like this or technology has had a great appeal; fortunately there were quite a few successful ones, like the Overlord deception and the Enigma etc. decryption.)
And at the time I was predisposed myself to like it, but didn't much. I think the problem was the casting. British film producers at the time sometimes shoehorned American actors into parts which they thought they were needed to obtain an American viewership. The actor in question was Clifton Webb, not everybody's cup of tea at the best of times. Collett captures it well by "Webb’s accent veers freely between both sides of the Atlantic but the actor reins in the more irritating of his mannerisms." It was anyway a box office success – although that was helped by stunts and gimmicks occasioned by the fact that the film industry was having to fight back as TV just around then started to make inroads into its audience. Balchin obtained an academy award for best British screenplay. He had had the advantage of being familiar with the of kind of ambient were such things were dreamt up (I believe Ian Fleming had a big hand in this).
Balchin's best novels were written in the 1940s and 50s. He and Hollywood had been eyeing each other for some time when in 1957 he almost inevitably moved there – and found it dull. With his industrial background he did not have the illusions of more artistic writers. But the industrial production style, lack of choice and of control of the product was more frustrating than the conditions of the workers in the chocolate industry whose control over their own movements he had improved.
And it was the start of a period of years spent abroad, in the US and then in Italy and later in Switzerland. His exile was strongly motivated by his need for income for the support of wife, ex-wife and family, British tax levels having reached punitive proportions.
That was not good either for his creativity even though it was the first time he had been free to spend all his time on writing and related jobs like TV productions, He did not produce novels on the level of those during the 40s and 50s.This was because he was cut off from the origins of his particular inspiration. He has been called "the novelist of work", that is he got his sources of inspiration from a world of which other novelists had little interest or indeed experience. "I write better when doing other work." he said.
And connects with rather commoner problem areas inimical to talent - women and alcohol! His not very successful marriages are both anatomised in some detail in Collett's biography. He practised, by agreement, open marriages. But he was not happy that one of his first wife's affairs became serious and they divorced. His second marriage was based on physical attraction and was no meeting of minds.
And his alcohol consumption habits were not good for his health. He had periods of illness during the 60s, but continued to be active even branching into new fields like TV, just the quality was not up to that of his 40s and 50s novels. Yet, Collett finds some compensation even in that weakness: "Balchin’s legacy of fine novels would be impoverished if some of their characters were not in the habit of drinking far more than is good for anyone". One way of sacrificing oneself for one's Art I suppose
So, as he continued to work hard and to be in some demand, no one was expecting it when after a short three days of illness he died in 1970 at age 61.
I have concentrated in this essay on just one novel among his good ones which I remember, and just a few films some of which I did not know before now he had anything to do with. To persuade you that the films have got to be worth seeing and the novels worth reading, I conclude this with a few quotations about them.
“Somebody had to write The Small Back Room; to deal with the question of the treatment of scientists in the war. It was an important subject and, of course, I was in the business so I knew something about it and felt deeply about it — it was a natural for me and the subject was of general public interest at the time.”
and about his Hollywood period:
I haven’t rushed off clutching my skirts. It was an experiment that I wanted to make that I have now made.”
“Balchin would later become extremely adept at creating quirky and amusing minor figures with which to enliven his narratives.
‘Pamela Hansford Johnson once said that the trouble with most Balchin novels is that everything in them is relevant.’
Mine Own Executioner. the extraordinary experiment of writing the screen play of his own novel goes a long way to make the film ring true and the tale stick to the point.
his body of work was consistently stimulating, with novels such as The Small Back Room, Mine Own Executioner, Darkness Falls from the Air and The Fall of the Sparrow standing out as some of the most absorbing and mesmerically readable books ever written.
Of The Small Back Room "it contains a sustained piece of action-writing near the end which, for sheer excitement, would beat most thrillers hollow."
a fine array of cameos...Jack Hawkins conveys quite a lot of the odiousness... required of him.
‘the best-acted British picture I can remember’.
'Mr Nigel Balchin could not be boring if he tried'
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