Thursday, 17 May 2018

Spotlight on George Formby's Get Cracking 5

Home Guard Games

The story within the film ‘Get Cracking’ is all rather like an extended episode of ‘Dad’s Army’ and one wonders how well Croft and Perry knew this film. George Formby plays a member (occasional Corporal) of the Home Guard in the village of Minor Wallop. The story begins, after the initial scene setting, when it is discovered that a gun has been left at the local railway station goods depot without a label. A porter telephones to see if it belongs to their platoon, or to the one at Major Wallop. George is immediately despatched on his motor bike to go and claim it before the Major Wallopers hear about it. But the Home Guard office is situated in the back room of the pub, and little do they know, but the barmaid is a fifth columnist. She fancies Ronald Shiner’s character, who is part of Major Wallop’s platoon. The barmaid telephones Shiner and delivers the information on the gun in the hope of a back row liaison at the flicks in return. Shiner’s character sets out for the gun too, and the usual trademark Formby chaos ensues as they collide, then fight to get there first. George loses the gun and to add insult to injury he is accused of giving the game away. He is stripped of his stripe and is in disgrace. So, what with the local Home Guard rivalry between platoons and the acute lack of proper weapons there is more than a touch of Dad’s Army here.

You can have a gun and no uniform, or you can have a uniform and no gun, but you can't have both.

 Of course, I’m not accusing Croft and Perry of plagiarism – the point is that they both reflect the Home Guard as it was, each corroborating the other’s evidence.  It is known that the lack of available uniform and weaponry beset the Local Defence volunteers from the beginning. But I think that it also shows what we all suspect about men of a certain age. Get them together in a unit that has to compete with another one, then they will try their best to outdo each other at all costs as if they were back in the playground!

Mention must also be made at this point of the welcome appearance of E V H Emmett’s voice as the film opens. The famous tones of the Gaumont News narrator (well known to Carry on fans as the voiceover in ‘Carry On Cleo’) is used to commentate on the initial formation of the Home Guard in Major and Minor Wallop, describing how one got weapons while the other got uniform. He really gets the film going with a smile and sets the scene brilliantly.

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Thursday, 10 May 2018

Spotlight on George Formby's Get Cracking 4

Dinah Might

George’s potential squeeze in ‘Get Cracking’ is Dinah Sheridan, aged 23 and at the start of her career. Dinah will always be best known to me (and probably much of my generation) as the mother in the 1970s film of ‘The Railway Children’ and to see her so early on in her life is a happy curiosity. But she does seem to be rather an odd choice for the role of Mary Pemberton. Both George and the actor who plays Mary’s father (Lancashire born Frank Pettingell) sound as northern and as common as can be, while she talks like she has half a pound of plums in her gob and it’s just too noticeable and incongruous. I have to really try hard to believe that snooty Mary fancies dippy George. Lovely as she is, I can’t think why they chose her. I wonder if it was an attempt to appeal to the officers as well as the privates in the Home Guard audience?

"I can't tell a word you're saying"
A much better bit of casting is the glorious appearance from one of my favourite bit-part actresses, Irene Handl. She ramps up the dizzy, wandering in and out of the Home Guard office wittering on about “our Ben”, a mythical character who is always elsewhere. My favourite part is where she comes in seeking the teapot, and finds that their Ben, the tidy soul, has put it in the filing cabinet (under T of course). She adds a great bit of down-to-earth fun to the film and it would be much duller without her. Here we see on screen the forerunner of those Carry On characters that Irene was to so memorably play over a decade later on.

Her role also serves to re-inforce the message that these Local Defence Volunteers were ordinary men with other lives running parallel. Much is made at the beginning of the film of the trouble of fitting guard duties around social lives – you can’t put so and so down for Tuesday because that’s his night at the flicks and so on. The Home Guard had jobs, meetings to attend, courting to do and dippy sisters chasing round after them. It puts the British in a good light – that men were doing this job out of choice, and not because it had been dictated to them.

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Friday, 27 April 2018

Spotlight on George Formby's Get Cracking 3

George v Ronald

‘Get Cracking’ was released in May 1943 – that same month George Formby turned 39 years of age.  His film career was drawing to a close, only 4 more would follow, with ‘Civvy Street’ being his final release three years later. At this point in time, his work in entertaining the troops for ENSA was as well-known as his on-screen entertainments. Perhaps you could say that ‘Get Cracking’ was an extension of this, as he entertained the Home Guard by having a laugh with them at their under-equipped exploits. But after the war ended, George’s career in film stalled. Instead, he had to capitalise on his touring success and he took his act to Africa and Australia. His next big thing in his home country would be his appearance on the West End stage in the play ‘Zip Goes a Million’ in 1951.

There are two good reasons why George’s film career came to a close. Firstly, he had typecast himself as the innocent Lancashire lad, who got himself into daft scrapes but always got the girl. By the time he turned 40, this was getting a bit tired, perhaps also slightly weird.  As he started to look his age, the unworldly-wise act didn’t wash quite so well. His love interest in ‘Get Cracking’ is Dinah Sheridan, who turned 23 in 1943, making George very nearly old enough to be her father.

But also, the war had changed audiences. Compare George’s continuing happy-go-lucky output with the films that Powell and Pressburger were turning out as the war drew to a close. Ours was a nation that was now bereaved, thoughtful and ready for change. George represented pre-war days of seaside trips, motorbike racing and cheeky innocence and perhaps everyone was now just a bit tired of all that.

It is interesting to compare the post war careers of George with his ‘Get Cracking’ nemesis Ronald Shiner. Shiner had been in several of George’s previous films and from memory I seem to think that he usually portrayed the petty villain in some way. I personally always see Shiner as being a wrong-un, which is probably unfair to the actor behind the roles, who may well have been the salt of the earth.  But where George faded, Ronald prospered. He went on to work with the likes of Arthur Askey and Margaret Rutherford and in 1952 he was voted the most popular male film star. After working with George one last time in ‘Civvy Street’ he went on to appear in more than 20 other films. The more cynical kind of character that he was good at – the spiv, the petty crook, the streetwise chum – were in demand.  The film world at least had tipped in favour of Ronald’s type.

Ronald retired in the early 60s to run a pub before his death in 1966 while George’s life ended with some acrimony and scandal. Funny how the roles seem reversed at the end.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Spotlight on George Formby's Get Cracking 2

Geography with George

The action in ‘Get Cracking’ takes place around the villages of Major Wallop and Minor Wallop. The idea for these names of course comes from the actual Wallop villages in Hampshire (Over Wallop, Middle Wallop and Nether Wallop, south west of Andover).  Such is the delightful nonsense of the name Wallop that Will Hay also put it to use – the action in ‘Where’s That Fire’ takes place in Bishop’s Wallop. A name I am so fond of that I stole it for my novella ‘Temporary Accommodation’.  Has anyone named a craft beer Bishop’s Wallop yet? If not, they ought to.

Will Hay films are a great source of made up place names. I also love the setting for his ‘Ask a Policeman’ – Turnbotham Round.  If you are reading this blog post in another part of the world, you might need to be told that Turnbotham is pronounced “Turnbottom” before you get the humour. That’s another thing that we are good at in this country – place names that are not pronounced how they are spelled.  One of George’s co-stars in ‘Get Cracking’, Edward Rigby, also features in a film called ‘Don’t Take it to Heart’ (1944).  In this chucklefest of a film, we are introduced to the fictional village of Chaunduyt, but we soon learn that it is pronounced “Condit”.   It’s a great send up of those pockets of rural Britain where there hasn’t been an injection of fresh bloodstock for far too long.

Rigby and Formby
There are hours of fun to be gleaned from English placenames. People are always compiling lists of double-entendre geography and the area around the real Wallop villages (Hampshire, Dorset and Wiltshire) is particularly blessed. What with names that have the River Piddle as their source and places that sound like a retired Victorian Colonel with a big moustache and ruddy cheeks (Glanvilles Wooton, Compton Chamberlayne, Brown Candover).  We have our rich and chequered history of language and settlers to thank for this and of course our early film industry was going to mine this comedic seam.

As for places that sound different to how they are spelled – every county has places like this. The town where I live is almost always pronounced wrong if we ever get a mention on national television (usually thanks to our famous MP). Bolsover is pronounced “Bolzovva” by residents, but southern TV types usually give it a soft s and a full English pronunciation of the “over” bit. This is how they know when strangers are in town and know when to light the torches and sharpen the pitchforks. I tease, I am from the big city…although me and my children marvel sometimes at how we are the only family here not related to everyone else.  In ‘Don’t Take it to Heart’, Chaunduyt is portrayed as a place stuck in the past, where strangers are frowned upon as foreigners or socialists – perhaps place pronunciation is a quick method of identification of friend or foe, dating back to when these things really were important.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Spotlight on George Formby's Get Cracking 1

A Peach of a Playwright

I’m going to start my Spotlight on George Formby’s “Get Cracking” by looking at one of the screenwriters. The 1943 Home Guard themed film was based on a play originally written by L du Garde Peach – famous for writing the Ladybird Adventure from History books.  Peach also contributed to the screenplay along with Edward Dryhurst and Michael Vaughan. So, you could say that Peach has a significant role at the root of this film. How close the film runs to the original play (called “According to Plan”) I’m not sure, as I have not seen a copy of the script. However, Peach recorded in his book “25 Years of Play Producing” that he thought that his original play was unrecognisable on the screen and that he was glad of this fact.

Although he is now only remembered for his Ladybird books, this is just one small part of the career of my fellow Sheffield-born Lawrence du Garde Peach. After studying English at universities in Manchester and Germany, he was then caught up in World War One. Presumably due to his fluency in the German language, he was given a role in intelligence after a spell in the Manchester regiment.  He survived the conflict and began contributing articles to Punch magazine while lecturing in English at Exeter University. His articles in Punch were popular and this led to him being offered work on the radio. He was an acknowledged pioneer of plays for the radio and by 1937 over 100 of his works had been heard in parlours throughout the land.  During this period he also established the ‘Little Theatre’ in Great Hucklow, near Buxton in Derbyshire. This was where he settled when he was able to earn his living purely through writing – he knew it from spending childhood summers there at a religious holiday home with his father, who was a minister. The Great Hucklow players achieved some fame between the wars and attracted audiences from far afield.

His radio play success had led to several screenwriting roles in the 1930s; and then when World War Two arrived, L du G became a Major in the Home Guard. This role, it seems, was a mine of inspiration for his wartime work.  And so we arrive at “Get Cracking”. This was his final credit in films, but by no means the end of his writing career. Much of his radio career involved writing small plays for Children’s Hour on historical subjects, which in the 1950s led to his Ladybird Adventures From History.

I’m spending 2018 researching the life and work of L du G and you can keep up with what I find out through this Twitter account @LduGardePeach

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Spotlight on Brief Encounter 10

Three Films

Throughout World War Two, Noel Coward and David Lean collaborated on three films
In Which We Serve (1942)
This Happy Breed (1944)
Brief Encounter (1945)

Lean directed, while Coward came up with the story.

One of Laura Jesson’s lines in ‘Brief Encounter’ is

“I didn’t know that such violent things could happen to ordinary people.”

An earthquake in tweed
This sums up what the Coward/Lean wartime partnership was all about.  ‘In Which We Serve’ is about the ordinary Brit facing the violence of war – at sea and in port as both the sailors and their wives are put in mortal danger. ‘This Happy Breed’ follows an ordinary family facing the many trials that life had to offer in the early 20th Century, including death and fates considered to be worse than death. And so the pattern continued with ‘Brief Encounter.’ This time though, the violence is that of complicated love – not quite the same as that faced by women in the previous two films but all the same, this is how Laura feels.  As with the previous two films, it does reflect events that were common to a lot of the British public at this time. By 1945, quite a lot of women had fallen for men who were not their husbands. The evidence can be found in contemporary newspapers.

In January 1945, the Gloucester Citizen reported that the London divorce courts were trying 65 cases per day.

In October 1945, the Lancashire Evening Post reported that the divorce of Winston Churchill’s daughter Sarah was granted at the same time as 291 others.

I must also put a word in for the autobiography of Doreen Hawkins – ‘Drury Lane to Dimapur’. This gives a fascinating description of the process of a post-war divorce, which she went through before marrying her second husband, Jack Hawkins. She also mentions the sheer volume of divorces being handled at that time, and the temporary buildings that had to be given over to get through them all.

Marriage was another, major casualty of World War Two, and though Coward gives it a discreet, middle class treatment, we get a glimpse of the turmoil that it caused. 

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Spotlight on Brief Encounter 9

Laura Jesson’s Guide to Train Travel Etiquette

1. Never stand too close to the edge of the platform when the express is due. A piece of grit is bound to fly up and lodge itself in one’s eye. As well as the immediate pain, there is a high risk of falling in love with the person who removes it for you. Stand right against the nearest wall and look away. Better still; take cover in the ladies’ waiting room.

2. In Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’ it is stated that “one should always have something sensational to read on the train.” Nonsense. One should read either a library book (from a subscription library of course, not a council one) or The Times. On no account complete the crossword in The Times – leave this for one’s husband. In any case, frown lines may be caused by thinking about the answers with too much concentration.

3. When sharing a compartment with an acquaintance that won’t stop talking, it is permissible to fake an illness or extreme fatigue, both of which necessitate a nap. There is no other means of escape without seeming dreadfully rude.

The 'Leaning out of the Open Window' position is only permisable after 12 noon

4. Remember that this is England, and do not speak to those sharing your compartment unless you have been formally introduced.  However, if it is necessary to leave the compartment suddenly, then an explanation is permissible.  So, if one boards a train and then decides that indeed one is only middle aged once, and that invitation to a liaison simply cannot be resisted after all, then one should:
-Affect a worried expression
-Give up one’s seat
-Say to the compartment in general “Oh! I’ve forgotten something.”
-Bustle back on the platform with purpose
This manoeuvre is quite acceptable in polite society.

5. One may spend a train journey staring through the window – but only if one has a corner seat.  If sat in a middle seat, then looking out of the window may involve accidently looking at another person, which is simply not done.

If staring through the window and it becomes dark, people may think that you are vainly staring at your own reflection, so remember to cast eyes downwards or move the eyeballs about. The same applies if it is dark and you are using the reflection of the compartment to keep an eye on the hatless character in the corner.

6. When travelling on a regular route, select a landmark at which alighting preparations should be launched. Mostly, this simply means straightening ones hat and powdering one’s nose. Arrival on the destination platform with an incandescent nose could cause the guard to blow his whistle prematurely.