Cheer Boys Cheer, produced by Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios in 1939, is a romantic comedy set against the backdrop of the battle between technology and tradition in brewing.
Ironside Brewery is a technological wonder, staffed by efficient white-coated technicians, resembling something from The Shape of Things to Come — rocket-like fermenting vessels reach to the sky, and everything is gleaming metal. (It is cleverly constructed using a mix of matte paintings, models, and, we think, shots of somewhere like Acton Lane power station.)
Nonetheless, in the words of a rebellious new members of its board:
The beer isn’t worth drinking… You’ve rationalised the taste out if it… What’s the use of machinery that can produce ten million bottles a minute when you can’t offer one of them to your friend?
Old Mr Ironside (Edmund Gwenn) and his ruthlessly scheming son John (Peter Coke) don’t care about that: they want to expand for the sake of expansion. But where will they sell all the extra beer they produce? Their search for lebensraum leads them to the rural Greenleaf Brewery and it’s ‘100 first class houses’. (That reference to Nazism isn’t glib: Old Man Ironside is actually shown leafing casually through Mein Kampf later in the film.)
Greenleaf vs. Ironside… The symbolism in this film is not subtle. Ironside is metal, electricity, lorries and sharp suits; Greenleaf is wood, steam, horses and rumpled tweed. Taste is everything at Greenleaf and the head brewer, Matt Boyle (Jimmy O’Dea), first appears proudly brandishing a glass of the latest batch of his XXX for his colleagues to try. When he sees buffoonish brewery worker Albert (Graham Moffat) kicking a cask of XXX across the room, he reacts furiously: ‘You’ll bruise it!’ He would no doubt today be described as ‘passionate’ about brewing.
Later in the film, high on his own supply, he produces his grandfather’s tattered brewing book and boasts:
He could brew a beer for any purpose. A beer to make you happy, a beer to make you sigh, a beer to make you laugh, and a beer to make you cry.
A stereotypical drunk comic Irishman, Boyle is nonetheless the film’s most engaging character, and O’Dea certainly knew how to make a beer look tasty on screen, smacking his lips, widening his eyes and sighing contentedly with each draught of dark, foamy mild.
A predictable plot gives the film its rather flabby shape: young John Ironside inveigles his way into Greenleaf’s and seduces the owner’s daughter (Nova Pilbeam), but their simple, honest ways and truly delicious beers win him over. Proving himself to be a good egg at heart, he joins them to fight back against his increasingly gangsterish father and his gangs of violent goons: ‘Gone idealist, eh?’ sneers the old man.
It is expert brewing which saves the day when Boyle produces a batch of his grandfather’s masterpiece — a beer containing ‘all the sorrows of Ireland’, the ‘tears of Deidre’. It is literally so astonishingly brilliant that it causes grown men to cry when they drink it.
The humour throughout is of the ‘Ooo, yaroo! It’s on me blinkin’ foot!’ variety, and the double act of Graham Moffat and Moore Marriot, familiar from the films of Will Hay, has not aged well. Frankly, if this film had been about, say, the dairy industry, we would probably not have enjoyed it half as much.
The value of Cheer Boys Cheer is as an early expression of a point of view that would later inform the founding of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood and the Campaign for Real Ale, and which arguably underlies the ‘small is beautiful’, ‘buy local’ trend of the last forty years: dispassionate technicians in a factory cannot possibly make really satisfying beer.