The Bells Go Down

The Bells Go Down

DVD cover
Directed by Basil Dearden
Produced by Michael Balcon
Written by Roger MacDougall and Stephen Black (novel)
Starring Tommy Trinder
James Mason
Music by Roy Douglas
Release dates
  • 1943 (1943)
Running time
90 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English

The Bells Go Down is a black & white wartime film made by Ealing Studios in 1943. The reference in the title is to the alarm bells in the fire station that "go down" when a call to respond is made. The film is an ensemble piece that covers the period between 27 August 1939, and 9 September 1940, when World War II began and London was subjected to aerial bombing, and is a tribute to the solidarity of not just those engaged in service, but among the British people as a whole.[1]

It was produced by Michael Balcon and directed by Basil Dearden and was intended to give praise to the British Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS). Although a fictional plot employing fictitious landmarks and localities, many of the incidental shots were taken at actual fires that were started during the air raids on London in the previous two years. A sub-plot depicted the rivalry between the part-time AFS and the full-time London Fire Brigade (the two brigades merged into the National Fire Service in 1941). The reasons for joining the service, the training and finally the work and tragedy during September 1940 blitz on London were shown for several characters. A background narration was spoken by Leo Genn.[1]

The film was released at nearly the same time as the similar Fires Were Started, a fictional "documentary" that used actual firemen instead of professional actors, and as a result was sometimes reviewed unfavorably by comparison.

The score was originally offered to William Walton, but for various reasons (possibly including that he had lost his own home in the Blitz) he offered it to his musical assistant Roy Douglas.[2]


On 3 September 1939, at the start of World War II, several East End Londoners join the London County Council Auxiliary Fire Service. Tommy Turk (Trinder) is a light-hearted gambler who avoids work, living with his mother (Varley) who runs a local fish and chips shop. Tommy has bought a greyhound pup he names "Short Head" and hopes to race. Bob Matthews (Friend) is a newcomer to the East End who just lost his job and has to postpone his wedding to Nan Harper (Hiatt) as a result. Tommy and Bob meet in The Hopvine, a pub run by Ma and Pa Robbins (Muriel George and Pierce), whose son Ted (Mason) is a fireman with the London Fire Brigade. Ted's girl Susie has just joined the brigade as a dispatcher, but Ma Robbins' cannot hide her thinly disguised disapproval of Susie's love of dance halls. The Army won't accept new enlistments, so Tommy persuades Bob to join the AFS with him. Sam, a small-time thief of Guinness, inadvertently joins the service trying to avoid the clutches of Eastchapel Police Constable O'Brien (Richard George), who dogs him with the persistence of Javert. The three are assigned immediately to the "Q" sub-station of the East End's District 21, set up in a school to train under Ted.

"Q sub" responds to its first call at Christmas. Although the fire is out when they arrive, crusty District Officer MacFarlane (Currie) is impressed with Ted's efforts and posts him, along with Tommy, Sam, and Bob, as a crew at District 21's superintendent's station. Nan and Bob finally marry and take a flat near Benjamin's Wharf. She becomes pregnant, suffering fainting spells, and befriends Ma Turk. Ted is reluctant to marry, so Susie goes dancing with ladies' man Tommy as a means of making Ted jealous, while Ted rides Tommy for his apparent aversion to fighting fires. Tommy races Short Head, who perpetually loses, costing not just Tommy, but his fellow firemen who have wagered on her. Sam continues to steal barrels of Guinness, but O'Brien begins to close in.

In August 1940 the Battle of Britain is raging, but London has not been bombed. The 21-Q crew have yet to fight a serious fire and has become sensitive about it. Tommy discovers Short Head has been losing because Ma Turk has been feeding her doughnuts, and he enters her in a high-stakes race on 7 September, planning to wager all his money. His plans are interrupted that afternoon by the first massive German air raid on London, which targets the East End Docks. The widespread fires cause chaos as water lines are broken and AFS crews are pressed into front-line service. Ted saves Tommy's life by using a high-pressure hose to knock him away from a delay-action bomb just before it explodes. The second night of the blitz, the 21-Q crew, still struggling to bring the Docks' fire under control, have forged bonds with their full-time counterparts and officers in action. Ted's parents are unaccounted for, and Susie goes to find them. The Hopvine has been bombed, but through Susie's persistence, they are found in the cellar and rescued. The next morning, during a break, Tommy learns that Short Hand won her race—but he forgot to place the wager.

The third night German bombers return again, creating a huge fire at Benjamin's Wharf, and the District 21 crews are shifted there. Bob ironically finds himself fighting a warehouse fire from his inside own burning flat, which has been declared expendable. However he takes comfort in the knowledge that Nan, about to give birth, is safe with Ma Turk at St John's Hospital. P.C. O'Brien arrives to arrest Sam, but a bomb explosion blows him into the Thames River, where Sam rescues him from drowning. Soon they learn that St. John's Hospital is also on fire. Chief MacFarlane transfers Ted's crew to the hospital fire and enters the burning building to direct efforts to save the main building. Bob learns that Nan is safe and he has a new son. Another bomb strikes the hospital, trapping Chief MacFarlane. Tommy beats Ted to the ladder and finds the chief, but the building collapses, killing both. Some time after the fire is out, all the survivors and their families gather to christen the baby, who Nan and Bob have decided to name "Tommy".



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