Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Read All About It!

‘Miss Robin Hood’ (1952) was made for the Margaret Rutherford fan. She’s as dotty as anything and it’s an utter delight. She is wonderfully supported by Sid James as her taxi driving chauffeur with a penchant for knitting. And I must also mention Dora Bryan as the barmaid, who isn’t in it nearly enough. I always seem to say this about Dora (with ‘A Taste of Honey’ as the exception) – she always leaves us wanting more of her.

The co-star of the film though is Richard Hearne, who I was hitherto unfamiliar with, but apparently he was famous at the time for a character called Mr Pastry. He is well casted, and frankly he is the only believable element of this film. It is fantasy, but a delicious one that you want to repeatedly get lost in. Hearne plays Mr Wrigley, a writer and editor of a childrens’ newspaper. He is most famous for his series of stories about ‘Miss Robin Hood’ – a thieving schoolgirl who is carrying out her own version of justice.  Meanwhile, Miss Honey (Rutherford) wishes to secure a secret drink recipe from James Robertson Justice, whose Great Grandfather stole it from hers. Being a child-like creature, she railroads Wrigley into assisting her in this, believing that the creator of Miss Robin Hood must be a crime expert.  As you can imagine, all sorts of incidents follow on and Wrigley ends up resigning from his post.

But there is a happy ending, of course. And as Wrigley is persuaded to take his job back he is reminded that Conan-Doyle will always be remembered for his series of stories in a newspaper. This is where our history comes in. Think too, of Charles Dickens, whose stories were also serialised before becoming novels. And then there is the wartime film ‘Mrs Miniver’ – a fictional newspaper column by Jan Struther brought to life on screen.

That kind of opening for writers seems to have been killed off. But what better way to sell the product of an ailing industry but to publish gripping serial stories in them? And what an opening for aspiring authors too. Newspaper editors! What have you done? I don’t want soap star gossip! I want a good old fashioned yarn. Just like ‘Miss Robin Hood.’

That's all from me for now. Thanks to all the contributors and supporters of The History Usherette.It's been grand.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Damned if You Don't

‘Child in the House’ (1956) has a fine cast. The child star of the title is Mandy Miller, who so memorably played a deaf child in the film that shared her name. Meanwhile, she is supported by Stanley Baker, Eric Portman, Dora Bryan and Phyllis Calvert. There are also tiny roles for Alfie Bass and Joan Hickson. This roll call alone is enough to send me running to see this film.

Young Elizabeth (Mandy) is sent to live with her aunt and uncle (Phyllis and Eric) when her mother is taken into hospital. Meanwhile, her father (Stanley) is on the run from the law for being a wrong ‘un where money is concerned. It’s all heart-wrenching stuff, only lightened by the presence of the huge-hearted maid (Dora).

What I found most interesting about this film was Phyllis’ role as the aunt. The story opens with her going to collect Elizabeth from Victoria station and we are treated to an excruciating first meeting between the pair. It is obvious from the outset that the aunt has no experience of children and is quite nervous at the prospect of taking care of her niece. It is one of those scenes that is tense to watch and although you want to give her a bit of a talking-to, you can find sympathy for her at being thrust into this unexpected situation.

They arrive home, and luckily for Elizabeth, it turns out that her uncle is a thoroughly nice chap who does know that you can carry on being yourself when a youngster is present, and not have to put on a tense smile the whole time. As the film progresses, you can see them build a rapport. But the aunt’s attitude to Elizabeth spirals downwards, as she is unable to understand the child and therefore handle her. She resorts to shouting and sanctioning. Finally, at a high point of tension, the uncle turns on the aunt, accusing her of marrying him for his prospects while secretly being in love with Elizabeth’s feckless father. It emerges that she has forced him to live in a “loveless home”. The implication here is that she cares only for status and refused to give her husband any children. She is a cold, hard-hearted cow. Just to round off the portrayal of a monster, she breaks the child’s beloved musical handbag.

Clearly, Phyllis’ character is a monster simply because she has no children. Her state is unnatural and she deserves to be vilified. That is the message that I took from this film role. What’s worse, we are forced into feeling sympathy for the criminal father because he is a father and he loves his child. So that’s alright then; basically he is a sound human being even if he is a thief and confidence trickster. Unlike her, the barren-wombed harpie.

What we are seeing here is a society that placed huge importance on parenthood. After World War Two, the government wanted women to desert the freedom of the workplace and become mothers, thus opening jobs up to returning servicemen and pushing up population numbers, decimated over two generations by bombs and guns. To not produce children meant that you were either a sad lost cause or a nasty piece of work. Because of this, the film gets away with this one-dimensioned portrayal of a woman. It is never explained why she remained childless, we are merely invited to condemn. Being a woman in the 1950s was really not all it’s cracked up to be. It is still an issue that has not been satisfactorily resolved.

I reflected how relatively quickly some things can change. There is a growing movement that is calling for action on population. If global population numbers do not slow down or reverse, one day soon we are all going to be in trouble in terms of resources available. Wouldn’t it be interesting if society and culture began to actively frown upon families with more than one child? One hundred years on from the date of this film, maybe Phyllis’ character and real women like her will be seen as saints...

Friday, 28 October 2016

The History Usherette Presents: The Beginner's Guide to British Cinema

I’ve just released a new book which sums up all I have explored while writing this blog.  Here’s the blurb:

The History Usherette's popular blog looks at what British Cinema can tell us about our social history. This is a summary of how trends in cinema from the 1930s to the 1970s show us what was happening to the British people, and what they wanted to see on screen. It is a starting point for the student of 20th Century British Social History who would like to use cinema as a resource - or a reminder of the Saturday afternoon matinee for those of a certain age...
The chapters are separated out as follows:
1. 1930s - the early talkies and the music hall hangover
2. Wartime - propaganda and escapism
3. Post war- the heyday of our films and screen stars
4. Permissive society - the rise of the 'kitchen sink drama'
5. Television on film- the last desperate gasp
Each of the first four chapters is followed by a spotlight feature on a particular aspect of that period.
A bibliography and a calendar of births, deaths and releases finishes the book off, while pencil portraits of the stars enhance the text.

And here’s a couple of extracts:

(Signs of the Times) Part 1 – Leisure

In the 1930s, leisure time became an important issue for workers.  They were tired out – and World War One had woken people up to the fact that life was all too short.  In 1933, the Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout in Derbyshire highlighted the desperate need for industrial city dwellers to get out into the fresh air.  Throughout the decade, trade unions lobbied for holidays with pay, leading to a government act in 1938.  How people spent leisure time varied according to taste – but of course films reflected popular pastimes of the age.  Mention must be made first of the documentary “Spare Time” (1939) made by Humphrey Jennings, which deliberately shows working people at their rest. This is a must-see if your intention is to explore this subject further. But there is also plenty to be gleaned as incidental parts of the plot in entertainments.  A trip to the seaside resort is of course the main reason why people wanted holidays with pay.  Gracie Fields’ ‘Sing As We Go’ (1934) provides us with a good opportunity to see the resort of Blackpool at the height of its popularity. Meanwhile, in ‘No Limit’ (1935) we take an excursion to the Isle of Man with George Formby. The sea crossing, B&B hotels and seaside entertainments take their place alongside the TT races.


Ealing Studios soon became rather good at delivering a more subtle commentary on the times too. Gentle satire on those in power can be picked out of many of the films. For example, ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ (1949) ties in well with the social levelling policies of the post war government, as Dennis Price’s character single-handedly strikes off members of an aristocratic family. ‘The Man in the White Suit’ (1951) shows a foolish commerce industry triumphing over science, coinciding with a brain drain as the best British brains were being forced overseas to find work.

‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’ (1953) meanwhile appears in retrospect to give an uncanny prediction of the future. Mass closure of branch railway lines was a decade away, but this depicts the closure of one village’s line – and it being started up again by volunteers.  Community transport services run by volunteers has become a reality in many places.

With illustrations by the usherette’s artist in residence, Howard Taylor, why not take a quick trip into the projector room with us…

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Working Lives

‘The Lamp Still Burns’ (1943) is a wartime nursing drama, based on a book by Monica Dickens. It stars Rosamund John and Stewart Granger – although I particularly enjoyed seeing John Laurie and Joyce Grenfell in smaller roles.

The whole point of the film is to show how the nursing profession was in need of an overhaul at that point in time. Back then, becoming a nurse was a lifetime commitment – almost akin to becoming a nun. Discipline and order were demanded and there was no time for life outside the hospital. Marriage and children were seen as impossible for a working nurse. Hospitals therefore struggled to recruit and retain nursing staff. As we now know, change did eventually take place.  Some might argue that we have gone too far the other way and we should re-introduce matrons and their disciplinarian ways. The matron in this film (Cathleen Nesbitt) was shown in rather a good light – I wouldn’t argue with her (or Hattie Jacques’ matron!) being in charge of a hospital. So perhaps there is something in this argument, but not being a medical professional I cannot comment further.

The other location in ‘The Lamp Still Burns’ is a factory, which is being run by Stewart Granger’s character. Our heroine trainee nurse (John) starts the film as an architect, who argues with Granger about the need for a larger medical room at the workplace. The factory is indeed the site of first one accident (which John attends at the beginning of her studies) then later on an explosion, when Granger is severely injured. This chimes in with something that I recently learned from talking to someone who was employed at the railway works in Derby during the 1950s and 1960s. He told me that it was such a dangerous place to work that there were doctors and nurses permanently on site – and a works ambulance. Granger’s medical room also got a lot of use. This film didn’t comment on that aspect – where employers fully expected workers to get injured or sick at work and quite often because of it.

We still have much to complain about – but at least we now have health and safety at work legislation to protect us from being killed or maimed at our jobs. For now, anyway...

Coming soon! The History Usherette Presents ‘The Beginner’s Guide to British Cinema’…watch this space…

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Burning Issue

In recent times I’ve been trying to trace the life of Thorley Walters. I started by tracking his family tree to see if we are related. He was born in Devon and my Walters ancestors are all from Somerset and Devon; so I thought there may be a chance that I shared some DNA with someone who had worked at the Old Vic under Lilian Baylis, appeared in St Trinian’s films AND was a Hammer regular. Alas I found nothing definite, although it turned out that his grandparents had been married in the next village along from where my bunch were living…so I cling to this in the hope that it shows that there MUST be a diluted connection somewhere. Surely there weren’t that many Walters families living in Somerset at this point.

Youthful Thorley
Anyway, then I moved onto Thorley’s career and discovered that after his spell at the Old Vic in the early1930s, he moved into film roles – though only in a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-him” way. His very first film was the 1935 quota quickie ‘The Love Test’. I was interested to see this because for one thing it co-starred my fave Googie Withers; and it was directed by William Powell before his partnership with Emeric Pressburger. Finally, someone shared this film onto You Tube and I was able to see it. 

Thorley has a role as a chemist who is working away in the background and I only got a definite sighting of him in the very final scene.  The story involves these chemists seeking a formula to prevent celluloid from bursting into flames (with a bit of romantic shenanigans thrown in). This is an interesting piece of history – and one that relates to cinema itself. Celluloid was a widely used material – in the film they are carrying out tests on dolls made from the substance – a hideous and astonishing thought that children’s health was put at risk in this way. However, in 1929, just six years before this film was made, 70 children were killed at a cinema in Paisley. The cause of the disaster was celluloid film, which has begun smoking in the projection room after being placed on top of a battery. The combination of fumes and crush led to the horrible tragedy. But many ordinary household and personal items were also made from it – including jewellery and cutlery handles. And what with the prevalence of open fires back then it must have been the cause of several accidents in the home.

The search for a non-combustable material to replace celluloid must have kept many chemists busy. This is something that we have forgotten now…but I don’t think we should. So many of us collect old artefacts from the 1920s and 30s – we perhaps need to bear this danger in mind before putting our prized collections on display in our homes, or wearing the jewellery.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Living in Sin

‘When the Bough Breaks’ (1947) stars Patricia Roc and Bill Owen. A strange combination at a cursory glance – especially as they end up married – but it works!  I thought that this was the best new-to-me film that I had seen in a long time. I don’t know if this is because it just caught me in the right mood, or if it is a half-forgotten treasure. It is an all-out weepy and I felt much better for getting into the spirit of the thing.

The storyline can be roughly sketched out as follows. Patricia’s character (Lily) has a baby and immediately discovers that her husband is a bigamist. She tries to bring her baby up alone but she struggles – as you would in those days. A posh lady at the nursery takes a shine to her son and at a particularly low point, Lily allows her to informally adopt him. Fast forward a few years and Lily has a good job in a department store. She goes on holiday to Butlin’s and meets the adoring and persistent Bill (Bill Owen). I was gratified to see that they met in the typical 1940s matchmaking dance, also used to good advantage in ‘Millions Like Us’. All the women form a circle, all the men form a circle facing them, and they do a big opposite directions ring-a-ring-a-roses until the music stops (‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush’). A quaint way of meeting new people that I regret the loss of. Also gratifying is the presence of Leslie Dwyer at the holiday camp – he went on to become the grumpy Punch and Judy man in ‘Hi-di-Hi’.

Lily says that she can’t marry Bill but won’t tell him why (Oh the melodrama! I lapped this up!). Eventually, he prises her past out of her, and being a thoroughly good egg he still wants to marry her and at last she becomes chatelaine of his corner shop in Streatham. Settled – but with no babies forthcoming from Bill – she seeks out her son, now eight years old. She gets him back – but it is no good, she and her son are strangers. She hands him back to his adoptive parents.

Perhaps one of the reasons why I identified so much with this film is because I identified with Lily’s struggles with her new born baby. Being alone in the world and refusing to receive any support from her bigamist husband meant that she had to go to work. After a period of standing at a perfume counter all day and pacing up and down with a crying baby all night, she finally collapses. This is rather melodramatic to our eyes perhaps – but to be a working mother was much more unusual and therefore open to interpretation in the late 1940s. Women were expected to give up jobs to returning servicemen and dedicate their existences to delivering the baby boom. Yet even in wartime, mothers of young children were not conscripted into jobs.

I found myself going back to work too soon after the birth of my first child. Financial need dictated this. I had a traumatic caesarean in October and was back at work after Christmas, my daughter going to a day nursery. She was a difficult baby – I called her Lucifer because she screamed all night and slept all day and it seemed that nothing would persuade her to review her hours of business. I have a vivid memory of sitting at the top of the stairs weeping in utter misery because she’d cried all night and I had to be at work in three hours. Yet the nursery staff thought she was a delight – just like in the film. I fantasised about running away…and I sometimes worry that if I did not have support from others then I might have done something regrettable.

What is identified as being suitable melodrama material here is now normal everyday life for most of us. My story is not unusual, there are thousands of others out there with similar experiences. But I wonder, do we choose to live like this or has it been forced upon us? Mothers of babies are now expected to work, both by society and the government.  The cost of living is such that one wage per household is not enough – recent statistics showed that a large proportion of households claiming Housing Benefit do have a member in employment. To have to live on one wage leads to reliance on expensive credit and potentially damages the life chances of the children. Some mothers enjoy working though and are glad to keep an identity other than ‘Mummy’. Some hate and it and resent how it exhausts them and means that they cannot be there when their babies are learning to walk and talk.  Personally I felt a mixture of both. And as I said above, not even Winston Churchill expected young mothers to go to work in Britain’s darkest hour. What a conundrum this is.

But at least we are not in fear of being morally judged when we have been left in the lurch by the fathers of our babies (not to say that people don’t judge – but we are more able to ignore it). For this reason alone, perhaps we have made some progress. It just doesn’t feel like it at times.


Monday, 1 August 2016

Joyce to the World

My new book, ‘Joyce to the World’ – a collection of short stories inspired by the work of Joyce Grenfell, is now available on Amazon. Here’s the introduction and a taste of the stories:

Cover artwork by Howard Taylor - @aitchteee on Twitter - commissions taken!

Joyce Grenfell died in 1979, just before she was due to become Dame Joyce Grenfell. But she is by no means forgotten, indeed she is thought of fondly by many of us who are too young to have been aware of her during her lifetime. It is interesting to think about the reasons for this, when many of her contemporaries are becoming more obscure as time passes.

The two roles that she is most fondly remembered for are Policewoman Ruby Gates in the St Trinian’s films; and the harassed nursery school teacher as portrayed in her monologues.  Mention Joyce’s name to a lot of people and they will smile and reply “George, don’t do that!” These characters have similarities – at first glance they are failures. Ruby fails to secure marriage with her long-term fiancĂ© Sammy and she is hopeless at controlling the school girls while masquerading as a games mistress. The nursery school teacher loves children but it is not returned in the fashion that she probably envisaged. But, we British love an underdog, especially one that perseveres to the point of insanity. Of course it helps when they have a hilarious turn of phrase too. We adore Joyce as a character that has been lost to progress, to dumbing down and mass boorishness. She represents an England that we feel we have left behind.

But Joyce herself was half American and she was no underdog. The world that she represents to many of us did not exist in the pure form that we sometimes imagine either.

In my blog, The History Usherette, I look at nostalgic films and try to pick out pieces of real history. This history is often not as rose-tinted as we would like it to be. I have applied this thought to this collection of short stories. Each is inspired by a piece of Joyce’s work, they run in chronological order from the 1930s to the 1970s. I hope – and I think that Joyce might approve of this – that this might encourage the reader to appreciate some the progress that we have made in more recent decades. It is fun to look back and think that maybe things were better. But they weren’t. Not always.

Natures Gifts:
The original speaker of ‘Useful and Acceptable Gifts’, first performed by Joyce in revue in the 1930s, is horrified to see herself being parodied on stage.
Many women remained single into middle and old age at this point in time due to the mass slaughter of young men in World War One.  Yet to be married and a mother was still looked upon as a woman’s only natural calling. Those that tried to make themselves useful in other ways were sometimes turned into figures of fun.

The Demi-Angel:
Upper class teenager Julia volunteers to help care for wounded soldiers in 1943, going against her mother’s wishes. She is inspired after watching Joyce in the film ‘The Demi Paradise’.
A rigid class system and narrow constraints for women was to some extent broken down by World War Two. This is a look at how it took death and injury on a mass scale to liberate those trapped at home as well as those in the occupied territories.

Dear Miss Grenfell:
Old soldier Robert writes to Joyce to thank her for cheering him up while she was touring with ENSA.
Like so many household names, it was this wartime work that really helped to shape Joyce into the performer we so loved. It took war to allow talent to shine through, and to introduce people to different forms of culture.

Red Letter Day:
Old bachelor Jim is haunted by Joyce’s song ‘I’m Going to See You Today.’
These 1940s lyrics paint a picture of a nation being reunited again with loved ones. It might refer to short leaves from the fighting, or to the post war homecoming. But the war took a huge toll on British relationships. Divorce rates were hitherto unheard of, and this is only the official picture. Some promised marriages didn’t happen; while some unhappy marriages limped on to save face.

Oh Ruby!:
Billy’s mother discusses his decision to join the police force.
We all love St Trinian’s, although I think it does colour our perception of all-girl schools. Do we let what we see on screen influence our lives too much? Are we losing the capability to make decisions for ourselves?

New husband Bob struggles to reconcile his views of marriage with a society where women are newly liberated. He tries to take back control, implementing a hare-brained scheme inspired by Joyce’s ‘forgetful woman in church’ monologue.
The laws are in place, but male attitudes are too often trailing behind. Even now, I wonder if we’ll ever get true equality.

Some Ladies Have to Dance Together:
A woman reflects on how she first hated, then loved Joyce’s song ‘Stately as a Galleon.’
Another look at how girls are at the mercy of men’s expectations, often rooted in their own base desires.

Retirement Time:
Joyce’s nursery teacher dedicated her life to her job (although she often thought about a change of career, she could never quite break away). But when she reaches a certain age she is forced to retire with no other life to fill her days.

Extract from ‘Red Letter Day’:
He heard the song performed again about a year later. He had listened to Bob Turner whistle it continually as he pinned photographs of his trio of girlfriends onto the wall above his bunk. And then it had played on the radio while he drunk his first beer on English soil. So, from boarding the train to London on that day he remembered too well, the song had been bumping around in his brain. The rhythm altered itself to fit the dominant noise of the moment, whether it was the sound of the train wheels, or the creaking of the carriage body as it pulled away from a platform. He caught a tube train from Kings Cross to Waterloo. He thought he could hear the tune in the wind as it rushed through the tunnels. She would be waiting for him at Waterloo, under the clock, of course. He had told her every time that they had met that this would be the place where it would all begin for them.
“We’ll put our name down for a prefab, then get the marriage licence. When we’ve had our cup of tea and rock cake in the buffet. First thing’s first.”

This refreshment had become their ritual – at the beginning and end of each wartime liaison; a talisman. If they didn’t have it, then perhaps one of them wouldn’t return for next time. It was silly, they knew. But once the suggestion had been made it was difficult to let the idea go. He had smiled about it as he climbed the stairs up from the tube station onto the main concourse at Waterloo. This would be the last time. Now he was home, it would be all house hunting and picnics by the Serpentine.