Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Spotlight on Brief Encounter 7

The Tealady & Albert

If Laura and Alec wear the tragedy masks, Albert Godby (Stanley Holloway) and Myrtle Bagot (Joyce Carey) wear the comedy ones. But is the thing that makes them so amusing the idea that they are “at it” at their age?

If a young sailor came into the refreshment room and tried to goose young Beryl; that would be a matter of course in those days. But when old Albert gets frisky with the middle aged Myrtle, it gives us all a good laugh (although of course some of this is down to the excellent comedy talents of the actors behind the characters). I wonder what the age difference is meant to be between the two couples? It was more difficult to say in those days because everyone seemed to look old after a certain point. I recently read a family memoir by one of my favourite authors, Margaret Forster. She compares her own life to that of her mother and grandmother in “Hidden Lives” and it is fascinating. She includes a photograph of her mother at the age I am now – 45 – and she looks like a tired, wrinkly old granny! These days we try harder to cling on to our youth and embrace diversity in hairstyles and clothes rather than sink gracefully into a pinny and perm. Back in the 1940s, it seems that once you had turned 30 you accepted old age and surgical stockings and that was that. Also, life was harsher and this showed in the face.

How old are Alec and Laura meant to be? They have young children and Laura’s appear on screen and look to be under 10 years old. Women tended to have children earlier in their twenties back then so I think that this puts her a little above 30. Alec also speaks of young children, he must be in his thirties too. There’s not a lot to go on in terms of aging Myrtle Bagot. She’s been married, divorced and seen off a gentleman ‘business partner’. Perhaps she is meant to be 10-15 years older than Laura.

The ages of the actors involved when the film was released are as follows:
Celia 37, Trevor 32, Joyce 47, Stanley 55. At 45 I certainly feel more of a Myrtle than a Laura. If a young doctor started paying me attentions I’d tell him to push off and leave me alone to drink tea and eat buns in peace. Myrtle holds no doe-eyed romantic thoughts about Albert either. She’s going to make him work hard to prove himself worthy of her and that’s where we get our fun.
The sugar's in the spoon...
But it wasn’t all fun being older and single back in the 1930s and 40s. Myrtle’s life has obviously been unsettled while it emerges that Albert lives in lodgings with a mad animal menagerie. A life in lodgings for a gentleman is something that I looked at in my ‘Lavender Hill Mob’ post a few years back. I mused:

  "The Lavender Hill Mob" shows the two main characters each having rooms in a lodging house (or 'private hotel') which is shared by several people.  This is how they meet and formulate the robbery. This gives us a peep at how some single men of the lower middle class lived then.  I wonder how much of this situation was due to the housing shortage, and how much was due to these men never having learned to look after themselves?  It would have been assumed in their upbringing that there would always be a female in their life to see to domestic matters.  Neither of these characters are married so they have placed themselves in the care of a landlady.  In modern times, they would most likely live alone in a small flat each (if not even still be at home with parents!)

To be growing old and not have a home of your own must have been awfully depressing. No wonder Albert was so persistent in his pursuit of the hand that baked those delightful Bath Buns. We can laugh, but old Albert and Myrtle seem to get their happy ending after he saves her from the lippy soldiers – and they will appreciate each other much more than Laura or Alec ever would.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Spotlight on Brief Encounter 6

The History of Celia and Trevor

“Brief Encounter” was Trevor Howard’s ‘breakthrough role’ in modern parlance. Until then, he had only had a couple of bit parts in wartime flicks such as “The Way to the Stars”.  Of course, he wasn’t new to acting, he had put in some well received performances on the stage, both in the West End and in Stratford-on-Avon.  He had also studied at RADA. But to give someone such an intense role without a solid cinematic track record seems to be rather a risk. However, it paid off.  Celia does get all of the acting plaudits it is true. The crew seem to have preferred working with her too, finding her more professional and efficient. There seems to have been issues with Trevor taking a slack attitude to learning his lines. But it is difficult to imagine anyone other than him playing Dr Alec Harvey.

Howard’s personal life is in fact rather more interesting than his role. In 1940 he joined the Royal Signals and publicity from early on in his career suggested acts of heroism. After his death, it emerged that these heroisms were fictional and he had in fact been invalided out due to mental health issues. These perhaps stem from his early life. He was born in Cliftonville in 1913, but moved around a lot with his mother, while his father worked in insurance.  It seems that he was left alone regularly, and reading between the lines he may well have grown up lonely and feeling unloved by his parents.  Perhaps he forever sought approval, no matter the morality behind his actions.

Off screen he lived for cricket – and a regular tipple. He married actress Helen Cherry.

"I have promised David Lean not to punch you on the nose today"
Celia Johnson was a little more experienced than Trevor Howard, and had appeared in two previous Noel Coward/David Lean collaborations – “In Which We Serve” and “This Happy Breed.” Previous to her appearance in film she had also had a successful stage career throughout the 1930s after finishing her course of study at RADA.

It is said that Celia turned to film and radio work because of other pressures that made taking on a long London theatre run undesirable. Married to journalist Peter Fleming (brother of Bond writer Ian), she had given birth to the first of her three children in 1939. When war broke out, she took on several roles outside of the entertainment industry. She enrolled as an Auxiliary Policewoman in Henley-on-Thames as well as helping to maintain the farm that she lived on. She also took in several relatives – and all this while her career continued, albeit at a lower key.

I read recently that Celia earned considerably more than Trevor for her role in “Brief Encounter”. If this is true – how refreshing!  She certainly deserved it, and apparently had to show a great deal of patience as well as talent, sitting through numerous takes while Howard fluffed his lines. Although the pair got on alright, no great friendship blossomed on this film set.

Celia had been hand- picked by Coward to play Laura Jesson and he was very pleased at being proved correct. I’ll finish with a typically modest entry in Coward’s diary from June 1945:

“Saw a very rough cut of “Brief Encounter”. Delighted with it. Celia quite wonderful, Trevor fine and obviously a new star. Whole thing beautifully played and directed – and, let’s face it, most beautifully written.”

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Spotlight on Brief Encounter 5

What Did We Do Before We Had Boxes to Stare At?

Laura Jesson’s reverie about her fleeting romance with Alec takes place in her sitting room at home. This gives us a little look at the kind of thing that middle class people got up to after their evening meal, before the ubiquity of television.  What was a married couple to do to avoid too much contact with one another?

·        Well, there’s always the radio. A bit of Rachmaninov, nice and loud, can drown out any boring conversation.
·        The Times crossword is the perfect way to temporarily forget the futility of life – and if you fill in some of the squares you boost your self-esteem to boot. If your spouse is feeling a tad dejected, then boost their self-esteem by asking them to complete one of the clues that falls within their field of knowledge. They might not look so bloody miserable then.
·        Wives might like to do something with their hands. This is useful tool in resisting the inevitable temptation to throttle their husband as they drone on about what thingummy said to doo-dah when the latest sales figures came in.  Knitting or sewing are the usual activities although sharp pointy things in jabby fingers may not always be a wise choice.

·        There is always your library book, which you can hold at an angle that will prevent you having to look at your spouse. Borrow this from Boots of course, a nice middle class place with a pleasant smell. Not the corporation library which is for grubby poor people. 

"It's alright,darling, I know you didn't really mean to shove that crochet hook up my nostril..."

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Thursday, 1 February 2018

Spotlight on Brief Encounter 4

Cinema at the Cinema

One of my favourite ‘Brief Encounter’ scenes is when Laura and Alec visit the cinema together. Just think, on the film’s release, people went to the cinema to watch two people do the same thing. But what would have been unremarkable viewing for them is a bit of cosy nostalgia for us now. I’m not a one for going to watch modern films, but I occasionally take my children to see the latest child-friendly releases. We went over the Christmas holidays as I was planning this series of blog posts and I was able to compare my experience to Laura and Alec’s.

·        Laura and Alec had a choice of cheaper or more expensive seats – class segregation was everywhere, not just on the railways. Cinema seats now are universally expensive. This is not a weekly occurrence for us.
·        Their seats were in tiers rather like a theatre, facing a single large screen. We were directed to one of 10 smaller screens and our cinema had only 10 rows of seats.
·        A smartly uniformed usherette gave Laura and Alec a funny look as they left their seats. The only human contact I experienced was a youth in a polo shirt who tore my ticket on the way in.

"Excuse me, Modom, would you remove that het?"
·        The main feature at the 1940s cinema was preceded by a Donald Duck cartoon. We got hundreds of adverts and trailers. Buy a hot drink before you go in and it’s cold before anything worth watching starts.
·        The advert that we get a glimpse of on the 1940s screen is delightfully primitive and very local. The cinema now shows the same adverts that you can see on television. Gone are the days when you would be invited to follow up your film with a meal in a restaurant around the corner.
·        And finally, Laura and Alec got to see my favourite bit of all – Irene Handl playing a big organ. It is one of the major disappointments of my life that this never happens to me.

All of these points can be filed in the ‘misty-eyed nostalgia’ drawer of life’s filing cabinet. I’d prefer almost everything about the ‘Brief Encounter’ cinema. But there is one thing that I am glad has changed – the lack of a fug of cigarette smoke. All that second hand stale smoke permeating Laura’s suit and hair…oh dear! 

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Spotlight on Brief Encounter 3

Hell is Being a 20th Century Woman

The 1959 film ‘Hell is a City’ contains an interesting scene that has relevance to our Mrs Laura Jesson. In ‘Hell is a City’, the main character is an up-and-coming senior policeman, whose home life is suffering because of his long and unpredictable hours. His wife is bored and unfulfilled and this leads to arguments. In his opinion, she should prove her worth as a woman and have a child. This, it seems, is the only remedy that she needs. She wonders about getting a job but that move is out of the question. A man of his status could not be seen to be “sending his wife out to work”.  Her employment, no matter what it was, would bring shame onto him.

Fred Jesson is obviously a man of some status too – we don’t know what he does but their home is well furnished, they have a telephone, they take ‘The Times’ newspaper and they talk nicely. Very middle class. Definitely no milk bottle on the table. So we can deduce that Laura has no job because it would reflect badly on Fred.

Laura looks on jealously at someone with a life outside those walls
The highlight of Laura’s week is her weekly trip to Milford, where she changes her library book and goes to the cinema. It’s a bit dreary really, isn’t it? At times of frazzlement, I do admit that her lifestyle has appealed to me – but I would have to have my own money somehow. If I lived off another I would never dare treat myself and that would be the height of dreary. Instead, I just take days off work and don’t tell anyone and go off to Sheffield for a day of treats – this is what gets me through the grind. But it’s all the better because there’s no guilt. I’ve earned time off and I’ve earned my spending money.

I wouldn’t live in Laura’s world for anything. Sheer boredom must have been a major factor in pushing her into the doctor’s arms – a fling costs nothing and puts roses in one's cheeks. I wonder how many marriages went that way before society gave us our independence?

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Thursday, 18 January 2018

Spotlight on Brief Encounter 2

No Chocolate, No Houses

Interested in the initial reception of ‘Brief Encounter’, I did a bit of digging around in the British Newspaper Archive.  I read somewhere, so long ago that I can’t remember the source, that Britain was divided by the film. This division seems to have been along class lines – the middle classes thought it wonderful while the working classes were incredulous.  Something tells me that there were catcalls in some cinemas along the lines of “Oh why don’t he just give her one and get it over with.” We were at the end of a war where a lot of people had seized life where they could get it, resulting in a plethora of illegitimate babies.

I could find nothing along these lines in the Newspaper Archive. I think that the above is the kind of reminiscence told after the event, and not the stuff for the much more staid newspapers of the 1940s. But I did find two reports that interested me. Firstly, the following appeared in the Nottingham Journal on 4th March 1946:

“Audiences in London suburban cinemas have been having a brief encounter with balmier days provided by Noel Coward’s film of that title. Reaction to the wittiest comedy lines has been negligible compared with the gasps of astonishment and roars of laughter which have greeted the apparently prosaic requests in the station refreshment room for bars of chocolate at 6d and 1 shilling…a small brandy and the demand of 7d for 2 cups of tea and 2 Bath buns.”

You would think that the reaction to this reminder of a pre-rationing Britain would be greeted wistfully…the roars of laughter seem to me to be an almost hysterical reaction. No doubt people were really fed up that rationing was worse than ever yet the war had been over for months.

Another interesting article came from the Lancashire Evening Post on 13th June 1946:

A Leyland man tenderly handed an obviously indignant girl into my compartment. She held her wrath until just before she alighted at Chorley. Then out it came. “Call this married life?” she declared to the world in general. “A husband living at Leyland and his wife at Chorley, all because we can’t find a house or room to live in!”

It all added up to yet another tragedy of the housing problem. Here were two people married during the war, both demobbed from the services in December and still seeking somewhere to live.  Until their problem is solved, they must meet each evening and then leave each other on a railway platform. A real life ‘Brief Encounter’ except that unlike Noel Coward’s couple they are married to each other!

Another insight into the audience for the film; and into how unsatisfactory life was for people back then, especially those who had been in the armed forces.

It is easy to fall into the trap of imagining that a film reflects contemporary life when we view it from a distance. As Noel himself said at the beginning of another of his films…”We are QUITE wrong!”

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Spotlight on Brief Encounter 1

The World of ‘Brief Encounter’

My spotlight now moves on from St Trinians to one of our most popular films – ‘Brief Encounter’ starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, as if you needed telling. Who doesn’t love this festival of stiff upper lips among the steam trains? I have loved it for many years and am now going to indulge myself by doing some digging around this classic. I’ll be investigating some historical points thrown up by the film; the people involved in making it, and probably poking a bit of fun too. Because that’s how we British roll, if we love something passionately, we hide our embarrassing feelings by sending up the object of our affections. For the best ever ‘Brief Encounter’ send up, have a look at this Victoria Wood sketch on You Tube.

But now, to work. Let us have a look at what was happening in the news when ‘Brief Encounter’ was released on 26th November, 1945. What a year that was, the end of the war in Europe, then Japan and a landslide election victory for Clement Attlee’s Labour Government. Rationing though – that wasn’t going away anytime soon. But I had a look in the British Newspaper Archive to find out what the papers were reporting on the very same day that the film was released.

The Daily Mirror was obsessing about the striking gas workers in London.  Terms were being discussed with the trade union but in the meantime there was a bread shortage because the gas ovens used by bakers were out of action. The black-out caused by the gas lamps not working had led to a woman having her bag snatched in Notting Hill.  Memories of the Blitz for everyone, there.  Also reminiscent of the war years was a report of a plane crash near Edale in the Peak District. “Bomber Ace” R D Speare was killed.

De-mobilisation of troops was still a major issue. Forces psychologists were alleging that an alarming number of service personnel were “getting a discharge on mental grounds by conscious or unconscious fooling of medical officers.” I expect a lot of men were desperate to get home.

The Daily Herald mentioned a memorial service that had been held at Deptford Town Hall, to mark the V2 rocket attack that had killed 140 one year previously.  The war was over, but the scars were still very raw.

I also had a look at the Manchester Evening News – the station scenes in ‘Brief Encounter’ had been filmed in Carnforth, Lancashire – so I thought I would go a bit more local.  The front page reported rather a relevant incident. Apparently, a father and his two sons from Chester had been remanded in custody for breaking into a cinema. They stole two axes.

Other titbits included praise for Lancashire miners as they had increased their output despite having fewer men working in this industry – but there was a desperate call for more fire fighters. It seems that people wanted to get out of the forces and the jobs were there waiting for them…but good old bureaucracy was getting in the way.

This then, was the world of ‘Brief Encounter’, one that still needed a good helping of escapism despite the positive developments of the past 12 months.  Keep checking the blog for more insights into the world according to Milford Junction.

My story collection ‘Roads to Corryvrekan’ is set in the latter part of 1945 – have a look HERE