Weak and the Wicked, The (1954): J. Lee Thompson’s British Prison Drama, Glynis Johns and Diana Dors

J. Lee Thompson directed The Weak and the Wicked (“Young and Willing” in the US), a British drama, starring Glynis Johns and Diana Dors.

Based on a best-selling book and prison experiences of author Joan Henry, director Thompson’s prison saga explores the life of inmates behind bars.

Despite its pulpy pot-boiler title, the film unfolds as an earnest social message drama.

Frank “women in prison” story tracks several inmates through their imprisonment and subsequent return to society. Some are successfully rehabilitated; some are not.

Female prisoners talk about the events that brought them there and each of their stories is detailed in a series of flashbacks; the upper-class Jean (Glynis Johns), the brash Betty (Diana Dors), and the pregnant Pat (Rachel Roberts).

Jean, for examle, has a gambling habit and owes money to a gambling den, and it’s her friend Pam that frames her.

The film follows the inmates’ progress behind bars; Jean’s ordeal improves after some sympathetic bonding with her fellow inmates, followed by a move to an experimental open prison.

Joan Henry, a writer with connections in society, had gambling problem. She was sentenced to 12 months in prison for passing a fraudulent cheque (she claimed she was framed). Henry wound up serving 8 months, at Holloway and the more liberal Askham Grange open prison, where she came under the care of Mary Size. Henry wrote a book about her experience, Who Lie in Gaol, which was published in 1952, and became a best-seller.  (The title was taken from “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”.)

The book was read by J. Lee Thompson, who decided to turn it into a film. He received backing from Robert Clark, head of production at Associated British. In the process, Thompson wound up falling in love with Henry, and leaving his wife and two children to marry her.

The British Home Office refused co-operation, because they were unhappy with its depiction of prison.

Diana Dors was cast just weeks after having been convicted in real life of stealing alcohol from a friend’s house. The role marked a significant change of pace for Dors, who was better known for comedic roles. Simone Silva was another actor better known for glamour roles.

The film began shooting at Elstree Studios on August 10, 1953 under the title Women Behind Bars. Mary Size and Joan Henry were on set as advisers.

The film was successful at the British box office, estimated to have earned between $75,000 and $100,000 for Associated British in the US.

Joan Henry later wrote the novel Yield to the Night, which Thompson filmed with Dors in 1956.

Glynis Johns as Jean Raymond
Diana Dors as Betty Brown
John Gregson as Dr. Michael Hale
Olive Sloane as Nellie Baden, inmate
Rachel Roberts as Pat, pregnant inmate
Jane Hylton as Babs Peters, inmate
Athene Seyler as Millie Williams, inmate
Jean Taylor Smith as Prison Governor (Grange)
Cecil Trouncer as Presiding Judge
Ursula Howells as Pam Vickers
Edwin Styles as Seymour
Sid James as Syd Baden
Eliot Makeham as Grandad Baden
Joan Haythorne as Prison Governor (Blackdown)