BFI Black Star Season Review: Pool of London - the film that launched Earl Cameron's career

Director: Basil Deardon

A | 1h 25min | Crime, Drama | 13 August 1951 (Sweden)

On DVD/Bluray from StudioCanal from 25 October

RATING: ★★★★☆

Screening as part of the BFI’s Black Star season, and now released on bluray for the first time as part of Studiocanal’s Vintage Classics Collection, Pool of London is an enjoyable, compact Ealing Studios crime caper directed by Basil Deardon (The Blue Lamp, Dead of Night) that became notable for featuring veteran actor Earl Cameron CBE, known as one of the first black screen actors to break the colour bar in the UK. He has acted in 91 films and TV series, has over 70 years in the business, and is still working. His role in Ealing Studios’ classic thriller was a breakout opportunity for him.

In Pool of London, Cameron plays Johnny, a young and upbeat Jamaican ship worker earning his way on board the Durham; a British Empire merchant marine vessel with a mixed nationality crew. Johnny idolises Dan MacDonald (Bonar Colleano), a roguish American of Italian heritage who looks out for Johnny and has clearly enjoyed playing the older brother role. Arriving in the Docklands for shore leave and to offload the Dunbar’s cargo during the summer of 1951, the two men find themselves getting into troubled waters when ashore. Dan falls in with a gang of smugglers looking to use his boat to smuggle a diamond stash out of the country, whilst Johnny finds himself falling for Pat, a white girl (Susan Shaw) who’s race and nationality means it is impossible for him to really consider being with her. Dan ends up using Johnny to further the heist scheme, assuming he won’t get his pal into trouble so long as things go smoothly, but when the heist goes wrong and the police get onto his tail, he risks getting Johnny stitched up in it all. Dan has to face a choice: let Johnny fall under police suspicion which, given his race, will surely be fatal, or stick up for his friend.

Apart from offering the great Cameron a breakout role, Pool of London also was the first British-made post-Windrush film to feature an interracial relationship, and although the lack of seeing it consummated on screen might have been due to the conservative sensibilities of the time, this enforced distance between Johnny and Pat does serve the film’s wider purpose of commenting on race relations and gives the story quite a poignant tone. Restrained though the film might seem compared to today’s standards - there is no blood or harsh language to be seen or heard - the screenplay does not shy away from putting Johnny in situations where he is subjected to discrimination due to his colour. Though the “N” word is never used, the phrases “you people” and “your kind” are all too frequently thrown at the young Jamaican, usually following some kind of exclusionary act, whether it is a security guard moving him on when he is simply waiting near a door, or bouncers throwing him out of a gin joint.

And speaking of gin joints, the film pleasingly drinks in the rarefied air of such night life haunts, as well as underground dance halls, vaudeville theatres, and even those quaint places known as “milk bars”. The plot ranges across a London still visibly recovering from the Second World War and dotted with piles of rubble and half-repaired buildings, a place all the more striking for being without the hyper-gentrification of today. Trams still trundle through central (though Pat notes they are due to be closed down - the irony!), and the Thames bustles with commercial shipping. Thus, even though the crime at the centre of Pool of London’s central story arc could hardly be called epic (though the band of criminals have a nice touch of eccentricity to them, one being a circus performer who uses his jumping skills to get into the bank) the film functions as a compelling time capsule of a London long gone.

DVD/BR Special Features:

  • New interview with Earl Cameron.
  • New locations featurette with film historian Richard Dacre.
  • Production stills gallery.

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.