ANOTHER EMINENT PETREAN? MAKING THE CASE FOR NIGEL BALCHIN
‘Rather self-confident, intelligent.’
These are the words that Paul Cairn Vellacott, the Senior Tutor of Peterhouse, scribbled on the bottom of the application form of a seventeen-year-old schoolboy after interviewing him for a place at the College in 1926. The schoolboy in question, Nigel Marlin Balchin, had grounds for appearing both intelligent and self-confident. During his seven years as a pupil of Dauntsey’s School in West Lavington, Wiltshire, Balchin won several school prizes, captained his school at soccer and cricket, represented it at a host of other sports and was made Captain of the School in his final year. He seems to have been the golden boy of his headmaster, who supported his precocious pupil’s application to Peterhouse by describing him as ‘one of the best boy biologists I have known’.
Balchin’s desire to study at Peterhouse was rewarded by Vellacott and he spent three years as a Petrean between 1927 and 1930. At the start of the student’s third year in residence, Vellacott told a colleague that Balchin was, in his opinion, ‘a man who will go a long way’. When Balchin returned to Cambridge about twenty years later, in 1949, to give a talk to a student society he called in at the Lodge beforehand to pay a visit to his former tutor, who by then was Master of Peterhouse. Vellacott’s prediction had by now been triumphantly fulfilled: Balchin had gone a long way already, and would go considerably further in the years that followed.
After leaving Cambridge, Balchin enjoyed a glittering career as an industrial psychologist, the pinnacle coming in 1933 when he played a key rôle in the launch of Black Magic chocolates whilst seconded to the confectioners Rowntree’s. Balchin served in the army during World War Two and was instrumental in revolutionizing its personnel selection procedure. When peace in Europe was declared, he had risen to become Deputy Scientific Adviser to the Army Council and had been made up to brigadier, an astonishing rise through the ranks for a man aged just thirty-six. It was Balchin’s war work that supplied him with both the material and the impetus to make his breakthrough as a novelist. The critically acclaimed Darkness Falls from the Air was followed by two best-sellers (The Small Back Room and Mine Own Executioner) that established him as unequivocally one of the finest fiction writers of his generation.
Balchin at Peterhouse
In his final year at Dauntsey’s, Balchin had won a Ministry of Agriculture scholarship to Cambridge under the ‘Sons and Daughters of Agriculture Workers Scheme’ (his eligibility for this award having apparently been secured by the fact that his father was a baker) and he sought admission to Peterhouse. His Higher School Certificate for Natural Sciences exempted him from the entire Previous Examination with the exception of the obligatory Latin examination, which he sat (and subsequently passed) in Cambridge in December 1926. Balchin was then formally admitted to the University on 5 January 1927.
Life as an undergraduate began for the eighteen-year-old Balchin on 5 October 1927. His home during his first year was 7 Tennis Court Road, a two-storey terraced house that functioned as a College lodging and was conveniently situated a few hundred yards away from Peterhouse. Not unnaturally, given that the young Wiltshireman’s scholarship was intended to train scientific agriculturists, Balchin had set his sights on passing the Natural Sciences Tripos.
When not engaged with his academic studies, the freshman continued to indulge the love of sport that had been nurtured during his time at Dauntsey’s. His school magazine reported in March 1928 that the back-row forward’s proficiency at rugby union had survived the transition to a higher level of performance (‘He was the only fresher to get a place in the Peterhouse 1st XV., he has been given colours this term’) and Dauntsey’s pupils were also informed that Balchin had ‘played for the college hockey XI occasionally’.
To cap a successful first year as an undergraduate, Balchin sailed through his Intercollegiate Examination in Natural Sciences. He was placed in Class I when the exam results were announced in June 1928 and awarded a prize in books, the only Peterhouse student that year to receive a prize for the subject. In an article he wrote for Punch in 1937, Balchin made light of this academic triumph and, in doing so, utilized what by then had become almost a trademark vein of self-deprecatory humour:
…through a clerical error on the part of my examiners (who, presumably, added the date in with my marks), I won a prize at Cambridge. It wasn’t two hundred pounds. I think, in point of fact, it was three guineas.
Balchin’s excellent exam result was rewarded by the bestowal of an Exhibition for Natural Sciences. This minor scholarship was worth £40 (about £2000 today) and when added to his £200 Ministry of Agriculture scholarship enabled him, during his second year, to exceed the £220 threshold that a Petrean of a very similar vintage, Frank Walbank, later observed was required in order ‘To get by at Cambridge in those days (without any extravagance)’.
Where extra-curricular activities were concerned, Balchin’s second year at Peterhouse seems to have been characterized less by playing sport and more by pursuing an interest in the arts. In a letter written to a colleague, Vellacott described how the Exhibitioner had deployed his leisure time during the 1928/29 academic year:
…all these interests, in the direction of literature, music, and various societies, have shown that he has a genuine keenness and capacity to get the best out of his time here.
When he mentioned literature, Vellacott was perhaps referring obliquely to Balchin’s association with The Sex. The Magazine of the Peterhouse Sexcentenary Club, to give it its full (and less titillating) title, was a student periodical that was published termly during Balchin’s undergraduate days. The former Dauntsey’s pupil was given the job of sub-editing The Sex in Michaelmas term 1928, was elevated to Editor the following term and then passed on the editorship to another student at the end of his second year in preference to swotting for his approaching Tripos examinations.
The Sex consisted of a mixture of College gossip, sports reports and interviews with notable students. Balchin wrote a gushing profile of his fellow Petrean J. D. F. Green (who was made president of the Cambridge Union in Lent term 1931) but the only other item he wrote for the magazine was included in the issue that he edited. The brief editorial he composed on that occasion does not tell us much about Balchin at all but when he remarked at one point that ‘We deplore semi-serious literature’ it is worth noting that for many years after going down Balchin attracted more attention for his comic writing (such as 1934’s faux instruction manual for budding business executives How to Run a Bassoon Factory) than for his more serious literary work.
In the same edition of The Sex in which Balchin interviewed Green, the periodical’s golf correspondent penned an amusing account of a 5-0 thrashing meted out to the College by Magdalene and suggested that Balchin had not disgraced himself with his mashies and niblicks:
‘Mr. Balchin played a very pretty shot from the first tee, straight as a dye and at least 20 yards. Maintaining this excellent standard of play he soon secured a commanding lead of three holes. Unfortunately the pace was too hot to last. Reserving some of his really worst shots for the last few holes, Mr. Balchin nevertheless emerged from a furious contest with a great moral victory. Under the circumstances the fact that his opponent won by 2 and 1 is of no great importance.’
When discussing Oxbridge students from the first few decades of the twentieth century it has become almost a cliché to talk about ‘Golden Generations’. Balchin’s Cambridge contemporaries may have been no more gilded than those he would have brushed shoulders with had he gone up a few years earlier or later but they still comprise a mightily impressive collection of talents who would later make their names in a range of disciplines although principally, like Balchin, in the arts. Balchin’s generation included the likes of Anthony Blunt, Michael Redgrave, Jacob Bronowski, the novelist Malcolm Lowry, poet William Empson, Petrean and inventor of the hovercraft Christopher Cockerell and the documentary film makers Humphrey Jennings (director of Fires Were Started and co-founder of Mass-Observation) and Basil Wright (co-director of Night Mail). In addition, three latter-day stars of television and radio were at Cambridge at the same time as Balchin: the irascible Gilbert Harding, a regular on the 1950s panel game What’s My Line?, Arthur Marshall of Call My Bluff fame and Alistair Cooke, presenter of the long-running radio programme Letter from America.
There is no evidence that Balchin socialized with any of these gifted undergraduates; he seems to have preferred to have drawn his companions instead from among the lowlier ranks of students, although several of his friends did achieve some success in later life. They included Eric St. Johnston, who went on to become Chief Inspector of Constabulary for England and Wales, and Elisabeth Walshe, a Newnham College student whom Balchin befriended during his third year. Elisabeth married Balchin in 1933, was divorced by him eighteen years later and after marrying the artist Michael Ayrton established herself as both a novelist and an acclaimed writer of cookery books.
Without question, Balchin’s most celebrated Cambridge friend was a future star of stage and screen, the writer later joking that ‘I suppose the only really distinguished thing about me is that I sang in the college choir with Mr James Mason. And very good he was too.’ Mason was the son of a textile merchant from Huddersfield who came up to Peterhouse in October 1928. Balchin apparently first made his acquaintance ‘down at the boats’. Mason rowed as part of the second-string Peterhouse 2 crew in his first year and may therefore have met Balchin during the May Races held on the Cam in June 1929. Balchin described Mason on one occasion as ‘a rather shy, very handsome and completely charming undergraduate’. In 1937 Balchin wrote a play, Miserable Sinners, specifically as a vehicle for the actor (it sank without trace) but remained friends with him for the rest of his life.
Balchin spent his second year at Peterhouse living in New Court, on the other side of Trumpington Street from the main College buildings and thus close to the chapel where he and Mason exercised their vocal cords. During the 1928 Michaelmas term Balchin successfully competed for one of four Choral Exhibitions awarded annually by Peterhouse. This Exhibition may have permitted him to have his voice professionally tested and to pay for singing lessons.
Between 20 May and 7 June 1929, Balchin spent a total of forty-six hours sitting examinations. The reward for this feat of endurance was a Second in Part I of the Natural Sciences Tripos (Chemistry, Botany and Physiology). In a letter written a few months later, Vellacott expressed some disappointment at the result, although Balchin’s immersion in extra-curricular diversions over the year provided a ready explanation for this relative ‘failure’:
‘We were somewhat surprised that he did not get a First Class in Part I of his Natural Sciences Tripos… I think perhaps he has had rather too many interests up here to allow full justice to himself in his Tripos…’
Although Balchin had failed to meet Vellacott’s expectations his Exhibition—still to the value of £40—was renewed for his final year at Peterhouse.
After the 1929 Long Vacation, the Exhibitioner returned to Cambridge to begin his final year of study. His residence this time was 12 Fitzwilliam Street, a three-storey terraced house just a short walk from the College that afforded a view of the front elevation of the Fitzwilliam Museum had Balchin cared to stick his head out of one of its upstairs windows.
Academically speaking, Balchin’s third year was very different from the previous two. Having made serene progress until this point, the road towards graduation was about to be strewn with tin tacks. Balchin wished to take Part II of the Natural Sciences Tripos, in the subject of Botany, at the end of his third year. But the Ministry of Agriculture were of course paying for his university education and they intervened shortly before the student moved into 12 Fitzwilliam Street. The Ministry stipulated that Balchin should study towards a Diploma in Agriculture Science either in place of, or in addition to, Part II of the Tripos. This proposed programme would have taken two years to complete. Supported by Vellacott, Balchin protested, but to no avail: the Ministry refused to budge and so, with great reluctance, Balchin embarked on a course of study that he now had no interest in, and no desire to see through to a successful conclusion.
Matters came to a head again about halfway through Balchin’s final year. Prompted (and again supported) by Vellacott, Balchin wrote to the Ministry in February 1930 asking them once more if they would release him from the ‘moral obligation’ that he felt bound him to the study of Agriculture. This was because, in the student’s words, ‘for some time I have been doubtful of my suitability to Agricultural work; and recently these doubts have become certainty.’ On this second occasion the Ministry gave way; swayed perhaps by Vellacott’s eloquent insistence that his student should not be ‘compelled to follow a course and a career for which he now feels something approaching distaste’, the government department released Balchin from the terms of his scholarship. The young Wiltshireman now had a free hand to determine the nature of his studies for the remainder of his time in Cambridge. Tellingly, he plumped for Psychology.
In addition to the pull of the subject itself, I believe that the aura and magnetic personality of a prominent Cambridge psychologist probably played a large part in Balchin’s decision to turn his back on agriculture and put all his eggs in the psychology basket instead. Frederic Bartlett was Director of the Cambridge Psychological Laboratory and Reader in Experimental Psychology when Balchin was in his final year at Peterhouse. Bartlett was apparently ‘kindly, encouraging, and informal’ and his public appearances were so popular and revered that news of their appeal had quite possibly reached Balchin’s ears from talking to his fellow students:
His weekly lecture-discussions were a festive performance which nobody would have dreamed of missing, so that every corner of the small room was crammed.
As will become apparent later, many of the professional successes that Balchin enjoyed after receiving his degree can be traced back to his brave and momentous decision in February 1930 to study Psychology under Bartlett.
Many years later, St. Johnston reported that Balchin had displayed an interest during the 1929/30 academic year in the scientific and psychological aspects of human sexuality:
‘Nigel was an odd character with an intelligent, enquiring mind and a disconcerting habit of turning his upper lip inside out when he smiled, which was often. He kept copious notes of conversations that he had and would question all his friends and acquaintances about their dreams and, if they would discuss it, about their sexual thoughts and experiences. This was not for prurient reasons, but because of his scientific interest.’
Balchin’s clean-cut good looks and fresh-faced innocence perhaps acted as some defence against getting his face slapped when he pursued this intrusive line of questioning among Cambridge’s small population of female students…
Another aspect of Balchin’s psychological studies consisted of the execution of an experiment on the Cambridge University Farm during the last fortnight of May 1930, one that enabled him to combine his previous interest in agriculture with his new-found love of psychology. Balchin studied four farm labourers hoeing a field of kale. He observed that they worked at a level well below their maximum capacity and that this slothfulness was attributable more to boredom than fatigue. When the men were offered a financial stimulus to work harder they did; in fact, they almost doubled their output. Balchin considered that his experiment afforded ‘evidence of how much might be hoped from the large-scale application of Industrial Psychology to English agriculture’ although he would not be involved in such an application himself.
As Balchin’s third year at Peterhouse had been divided between the study of Agriculture and Psychology, Vellacott had to submit a Certificate of Diligent Study (C.D.S.) to prove that his student had been in residence for three more terms after passing Part I of the Tripos and had been engaged in worthwhile studies during that time. Balchin duly received a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) degree in Natural Sciences, which he was awarded in person at Senate House on 24 June 1930. Although it is very rarely used today, it is still possible to obtain a degree via this route. Because Balchin used a C.D.S. to cover his third year, no class was specified when he was awarded his degree. He did not receive a First, as has been widely reported previously, including in some otherwise reputable reference books!
In the summer of 1930, Balchin obtained a job with the National Institute of Industrial Psychology (N.I.I.P.), a non-governmental body brought into being in 1921 with the aim of applying psychological techniques in the workplace and getting British industry working along more efficient and scientific lines. As Bartlett was a member of the Scientific Committee of the N.I.I.P. in 1930 it seems very likely that he pulled some strings for Balchin and held open the door to industrial psychology for him.
Balchin’s work on Black Magic was the highlight of his five-year spell as an industrial investigator with the N.I.I.P. The huge market research project that he coordinated prior to the launch of the chocolate assortment was groundbreaking and helped to make Black Magic a successful line for Rowntree’s. One of Balchin’s most inspired ideas whilst employed on the project was his concept for a plain black box in which to contain the plain chocolates that comprised the assortment. Before this time, the words ‘chocolate box’ tended to conjure up the sort of clichéd images that spring to mind when the phrase is used in a derogatory sense nowadays, namely soft-focus paintings of angelic children, ivy-clad country cottages or adorable kittens or puppies. Balchin’s ‘Eureka’ moment came when he took himself off to a confectioner’s shop to do some market research of his own. Standing in front of the shop window, his eyes were assailed by ‘every colour but black’ and shortly afterwards the now iconic black-and-white Black Magic carton came into being. It is a testament to Balchin’s far-sighted perspicacity that Rowntree’s resisted the temptation to alter his design for several decades after its introduction and it is only in the last few years that the box has finally undergone a significant makeover .
Balchin’s appointment as a member of the army’s Directorate of Selection of Personnel (D.S.P.) during World War Two was probably also fixed for him by Bartlett. The Cambridge professor was part of a group of eminent psychologists who recommended that D.S.P. should be set up and the first intake of staff was largely drawn from the ranks of past or present members of the N.I.I.P., a body with which Bartlett was still associated at the time.
In the wake of the humiliating reverse at Dunkirk, Balchin and his D.S.P. colleagues introduced an entirely new type of selection procedure in the army based on aptitude tests. ‘Hollerith’ technology had been employed by Balchin to analyse the data collected during the Black Magic research project and he persuaded the army to also adopt it at D.S.P. The Hollerith machine was a primitive form of computerization (Balchin joked that it looked something like a cross between ‘a pianola and a penny-in-the-slot machine’) that used punched cards to store and sort data. At D.S.P. it was harnessed to process the vast amount of information generated during the selection procedure. D.S.P. helped to improve the quality of the human raw material reaching the front line and to select and process recruits much more quickly and efficiently than had been the case at the start of the war. One of the men who worked alongside Balchin stated that ‘psychologists transformed morale in the British Army from zero level in 1942’.
It was during Balchin’s time in the army during the middle of World War Two that he made his breakthrough as a novelist, three pre-war works of fiction having made little impression. His first truly successful novel was Darkness Falls from the Air—published at the end of 1942, sales were affected by the paper shortages that were blighting book production at this point in the war but the book itself, set during the Blitz, was warmly welcomed by literary critics including Balchin’s fellow novelist L.P. Hartley, who described it as ‘very effective’. Darkness Falls from the Air was followed a year later by The Small Back Room, Balchin’s best-known novel, an excellently plotted tale about a disabled scientist battling against time to solve the deadly mystery of an airborne Nazi booby-trapped bomb. The rivetingly tense ending provided the centrepiece for an excellent Powell and Pressburger movie adaptation of the book that opened in British cinemas in 1949.
These first two literary triumphs were followed by a steady stream of greatly accomplished novels. Among the most eye-catching of these works were Mine Own Executioner (1945), the story of a psychoanalyst who attempts to treat a murderous, schizophrenic RAF pilot, with disastrous consequences, A Sort of Traitors (1949), in which a naїve young biologist is tempted to commit treason because his department’s research into the nature of epidemics is suppressed by the government, and The Fall of the Sparrow (1955), the heart-breaking tale of a young man with every advantage in life who wanders off the straight and narrow and lands in jail owing to a personality disorder. As can be readily appreciated from the foregoing, many of Balchin’s novels have a pronounced psychological element to them and he certainly made good use of the information that he had gleaned from Bartlett’s Psychology lectures during his final term at Cambridge. Sadly, almost all of Balchin’s books are now out of print but new editions of his two finest novels, Darkness Falls from the Air and The Small Back Room, were published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the autumn of 2015. Copies of Balchin’s other novels can often be picked up quite cheaply in second-hand bookshops or charity shops or on the Internet.
The critical and commercial success of Balchin’s novels allowed the retired brigadier to launch a parallel career for himself in the mid-1940s as a writer of film scripts. The best movies that Balchin had a hand in include Mine Own Executioner, which he adapted from his own novel in 1947, the Ealing weepie Mandy (1952) and 1956’s The Man Who Never Was, an atmospheric wartime espionage picture based on a true story (one that was brought to widespread public notice by Ben Macintyre’s 2010 book Operation Mincemeat). Balchin won a B.A.F.T.A. for Best British Screenplay for his work on the film. Unsurprisingly in view of the content of many of his novels, Balchin was often employed by the cinema industry to write scripts for movies with psychological themes.
Because Balchin excelled in a wide variety of disciplines, and not just as a novelist, he has proved difficult to pigeonhole and many of his achievements have been overlooked. But in my opinion he was a fascinating and exceptionally talented individual whose name deserves to be appended to any list of eminent Petreans, alongside that of his great friend James Mason, he of the mellifluous singing voice.
Much of the content of this article is taken from Derek Collett’s biography of Balchin, His Own Executioner: The Life of Nigel Balchin, published in 2015 by SilverWood Books, price £11.99. Further information can be obtained from the following website: www.nigelmarlinbalchin.co.uk