September 16, 2007

The alternative Ashes

A review of the The Final Test on DVD

The Final Test Odeon Entertainment DVD, £9.99

Cricket is not overly represented in the movies. With the exception of the excellent Lagaan in 2001, there are few films that centre on the game. One that does is Anthony Asquith's 1953 drama The Final Test, which has been issued for the first time on DVD.

And lest we think that cashing in is a modern phenomenon, the film premiered in April of that year, a fortnight before the Australians arrived. Most sports-based films are bad box office, but The Final Test was an exception.

The basic story centres on Sam Palmer (played by Jack Warner, who for years played Dixon Of Dock Green on British TV) who is at the end of his England career and about to play his farewell Test. Some might argue it was long overdue as Warner was 59 when he played the role.

While Palmer is feted by all and sundry, his main concern is that his poetry-obsessed son is not remotely interested in watching his father's last performance. Instead the boy sets off to meet a famous playwright and poet. Will he relent and traipse down to The Oval?

Therein lies the real problem. In the end we don't really care one way or the other. It is hard to empathise with any of the leading characters and that is surprising as the author was the Oscar-nominated Terence Rattigan, no mean cricketer himself.

Despite that, it's an entertaining 90 minutes and offers a glimpse into a different England. A number of the vignettes - Richard Wattis as a man in the crowd at The Oval, and the gathering listening to the match on the radio in the pub - stand out, and the end result is well worth watching.

What also appeals about this film are the cameos from a number of members of the England side that went on to regain the Ashes that year. Len Hutton, the captain, Denis Compton, Godfrey Evans, Jim Laker and Cyril Washbrook all make appearances. Asquith said that Compton and Evans were natural actors but that Bedser and Laker should stick to cricket.

Hutton has more than a walk-on part and he copes with it admirably. His diction is a fascinating reflection on an age where class was still prevalent. In 1938, as a 21-year-old, Hutton scored his world-record 364 against Australia and when he was interviewed by the BBC there was no mistaking his Yorkshireness. By 1953 he was England captain and seemingly had taken elocution lessons. He was close to accentless, albeit rather strained. England could tolerate him as their first professional captain as long as he spoke correctly.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo