My local marine engineer recently recommended I should watch The Bargee, as it was filmed locally on the Grand Union, around Bulbourne, at the top of the Marsworth flight. I wasn’t disappointed. It was such fun to see the familiar sights of my local area in a classic British film. But it was also interesting to note that leisure boats were far less common in the 1960’s. Whole stretches of the bank, which I now know to be populated with moored boats, were empty.

The film, scripted by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (who wrote ‘Steptoe and Son’) follows Hemel Pike (Harry H. Corbett) and his cousin Ronnie (Ronnie Barker) taking a cargo-carrying pair of narrowboats up the Grand Union to Birmingham. There are some brilliant comedy lines in this old British film. The lead character is called Hemel, as his parents were moored at Hemel Hempstead when he was born.

“Lucky they weren’t moored up at Berkhamsted then!” quips Ronnie Barker, and is reprimanded by the BW office girl.
“There’s no need to be coarse!”

Although essentially a comedy there is also a poignant nostalgia in seeing so many working boats moored up side by side, smoke merrily puffing from stove chimneys with a fellow on the towpath painting roses on to his Buckby can. The storyline covers the imminent decline of the working boats and the fading of the traditional lifestyles of generations of boat families.

Hemel is a canal Casanova and has a girl at every lock – each one wants to marry him.
“I’ve been married twice before and I liked it!” says Nellie at Rickmansworth.
Cynthia at Winkwell is willing to do Hemel’s laundry.
“Not so much starch in the shirts,” he tells her. “I couldn’t bend my arms last time!”
Hemel tells Christine at Leg O’Mutton lock,
“Look, a wife’s supposed to go where her husband goes. That’s set. That’s the way of the world that is!”

While Hemel plans their trip around his many romances, Ronnie asks,
“Now that’s you fixed up. What about me?”
“Leave it to me, I’ll fix you up. I fixed you up in Tring didn’t I?”
“Fixed me up? Cor blimey, I can find ugly girls myself. It’s a bit of class that’s hard to come by innit?”

The cast is an array of well-loved British actors; Derek Nimmo, Eric Sykes, Richard Briers, Julia Foster, Eric Barker, Miriam Karlin, and Hugh Griffith: A wonderful bearded lock keeper who rises to a drinking challenge in the local pub. Slamming his pint glass on to the bar he proudly announces,
“29! I’ve broken my own record!”

Leg O’Mutton lock is the part that is filmed around Bulbourne. The lock cottage is still there today and the building that is now Bates’s Boatyard is featured often in the film.

This is an old style British comedy with less innuendo than a Carry On film, and packed with beautiful scenes of the waterways and old pairs of working boats – the likes of which are no longer seen on the canals today. If you like old British comedy, narrowboats and canals, you’ll like this one. It could be an idea for a gift for the canal boater in your life...

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