Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Spending a Penny

"Carry on Constable" is an early black & white Carry On film, made in 1960.  I prefer these earlier films in the series - the humour is more subtle and restrained.  At the turn of the 1970s this charm had been well and truly lost.  "Constable" benefits from a smut free Sid James, a Charles Hawtrey with a delightful turn of phrase ("You merry quipper you!") and a sublime Joan Hickson as a genteel drunk.

As one of a group of raw police recruits filling in during a flu epidemic, Kenneth Connor plays Constable Constable.  On his first beat, he is dropped off the line at a public convenience. A lady stands outside, frantically rooting about in her endless handbag.  When Connor asks her if she needs any help, she replies "I could do with a copper and no mistake".

While laughing delightedly at this pun, it struck me that anyone watching now under the age of around 25, would have little idea of what was going on.  The phrase 'spending a penny' might sound familiar, but hold no meaning.  It seems that with the rise of the out of town shopping centres, public conveniences have disappeared from the suburban high street.  We now visit toilets in shops and malls where the need to pay a penny for the upkeep of the facilities has gone.  Those remaining stand-alone purpose built conveniences - maybe at the seaside or at the park, no longer seem to charge either.  Has the level of upkeep dropped, or is payment coming in from another source? Car parking charges perhaps?  Judging by the smell in a lot of them it is the former.

I don't include those big metal tardis toilets in town centres.  Does anyone actually use these?  I for one am far too terrified that the door will open on me in my own Carry On moment.  The days of entering a low, concrete and tiled building with a penny for the big metal box on the door are gone.  Probably much to the chagrin of bus drivers, taxi drivers and especially to those who have to pick up the bottles of dubious looking liquid from grass verges on A roads.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Lavender Hill Living

"The Lavender Hill Mob" is one of Ealing Studios' best loved productions.  With Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway as a couple of amateur gold thieves and Sid James and Alfie Bass as their petty criminal sidekicks it's certainly a class act.

One of the reasons why I like it - aside from the cracking cast and story - are the scenes of post war London.  The film was made in 1951 - after the Blitz and before a lot of the redevelopment had taken place.  The London we know today is a mix of period and modern architecture - but halfway through the 20th century it was a very different place.  It was a mix of those buildings that had survived, and fenced-off gaps denoting those that were gone forever.  I hasten to add that we are talking mainly about the east end here.  I recently watched another fifties film called "Touch and Go" which had scenes filmed near the Albert Bridge.  There was no sign at all of Blitzed London down this end of the river.   As the Lavender Hill Mob carry out their planned robbery it showcases the state of the blitzed city, and invites us to reflect on the work and money that went into rebuilding by an exhausted and bankrupt people.  Given the scale of the job I find it amazing that so much was accomplished even by the end of the century.

Of course, the post war period was a time of acute housing shortage.  The most heavily bombed areas were also the most densely populated, and along with returning members of the armed forces this put pressure on the remaining stock.  "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!)  I wonder how our more lonely housing habits lead to less in the way of collaborations in several areas of life - from crime to business?

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Three Old Men and Some Trains

Following on from last week's little rant abut modern actresses, I'd like to move that theme on by looking at a favourite classic.  While writing about railway themed films a few weeks back, I mentioned one of my all time favourites, "Oh!  Mr Porter".  So of course I had to go and watch it again having reminded myself of it.  After mopping up the tea that I spilled during a belly laugh (I've seen it more than a dozen times and was watching it alone, and still it was laugh out loud funny) I reflected on the timeless nature of the humour.  The funniest bits are so because they are still familiar ideas - pinching from your employer, incompetence at work, getting drunk and old man's underpants  - all well established British comedy staples.  I particularly like the scene where Hay, Marriott and Moffatt try and work out what time the express is due, the clocks having just gone forward for summer time.  They eventually agree that it's not due for another two hours - then of course it appears round the bend, coming towards them at full pelt.  Simple but great.

There is one thing about this 1937 film that the modern film industry would shy away from - and I don't mean the references to the IRA gun-runners.  There would be some discussion about this and perhaps this aspect of the plot would be changed - but it is still a relevant storyline.  No, the one thing that would really scare modern film studios would be the nature of the stars.  Hay, Marriott and Moffatt - an old bloke, an even older bloke and a fat lad.  Not a woman or a thin blonde love interest in sight.  It would never be allowed!  Can you imagine a film like this getting the go-ahead today?  'Who will we market this film to?' they would want to know. 'Surely no females will want to watch it if there are no characters for them to identify themselves with?' Because we are really stupid and only want to watch women in silly shoes going shopping don't we?  The people running modern media are all so keen to fit us into neat pigeon holes that it stifles creativity.  I wonder how many glorious comedies have not been made in recent years because of this pandering to imagined audiences?  Off I go, ranting again.  But, I know, "I'm wasting me time!"
Happy birthday Will Hay and Graham Moffatt.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Magnificent Margaret

A while ago I was sent a questionnaire by a glossy women's magazine.  They wanted to know which actress I most admired.  I presume the expected answer was one of the legion of Hollywood stick-insect types.  And I use the word legion as they are akin to soldiers, all dressed the same and marching into a battle for supremacy each day.  However, my answer to this question could only be the delightfully plump Miss Margaret Rutherford.

To my mind, she is an icon of British Cinema, a woman that ooozes character, talent and humanity.  It is rather depressing that even older film actresses these days seem to have sold out to the 'look forever youthful and uncomfortably thin' trend.  It appears to be all that they are appraised on. Woe betide the woman who wants to let herself go a bit in our misogynistic popular press.

I don't think that there is a natural heir to Margaret in modern cinema - someone with a lived-in face and an obvious delight in good food.  Her characterisation is so memorable too - who else could be Madame Arcati in "Blythe Spirit"?  And there will never be a Miss Marple that lives up to hers.

While others may resort to plastic surgery and dreary diets in order to emulate a Hollywood heroine, I'll be donning my tweed cape, getting on my bike and going to the shops for another cream cake.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Bring back the Arch

'Train of Events' also gives us a tantalising glimpse of one of London's lost landmarks.  Being familiar with that trio of stations along the Euston Road - St Pancras, Kings Cross and Euston - I have always been architecturally disappointed by Euston.  It's like an afterthought, a shaky 1960s prefab compared to the glory of St Pancras.  This is the concrete record of one of the most jaw-droppingly arrogant travesties of post war redevelopment.  The station was re-built in the early 1960's and the grand arch at the entrance was dismantled and dumped at the bottom of a brook.  If the Euston Arch had been re-erected somewhere else - in a park for example - it might not have been so bad.  But it was treated as rubbish.  John Betjeman and the Victorian Society campaigned unsuccessfully to save it - as he also had to campaign to save St Pancras. That this station was also under threat is too amazing to contemplate - and shows just how far we have come in the last 40 years in appreciating what we have.  Unfortunately, the Euston Arch was sacrificed on the altar of myopic modernisation, along with many of the country's railway lines.

If you watch 'Train of Events' you can catch a short shot of the arch.  It is there to represent the beginning of a scene on the station itself.  The camera doesn't linger - a second is enough for everyone to recognise the landmark and its meaning and the film takes it for granted.  What a shame it didn't take us through it.

I'm so glad I was born on the St Pancras side of the Pennines, anyone arriving into the capital from Manchester or Liverpool doesn't get much of a welcome at Euston.  We should hold this station up as a lesson in planning and ensure that this kind of arrogance is never allowed to happen again.  Something may eventually be done about it.  Visit for more information.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

An Eventful Journey

As a railway lover, any old film that features shots of the network in pre Beeching days is a particular draw.  There are three railway based films that stand out in my mind:
-'Oh! Mr Porter' starring Will Hay.  This has got to be the funniest railway film and has the added bonus of being filmed on a north Hampshire branch line during the 1930s.
-'The Titfield Thunderbolt', a charming distraction on a wet Sunday afternoon with a wonderful sentiment, but, let's face it, totally unrealistic.
-'Train of Events' a brilliant film that encompasses many of the attractions of railways.  Apart from the crash.  But as well all know, this is a rare occurrence and trains are a lot safer than cars.

I'd like to look at two aspects of 'Train of Events' which I think are historically relevant.  The film begins with scenes of an express train crashing into a vehicle blocking the line (see, the crash was the fault of road, not rail!). Most of the subsequent film follows a few days in the life of the engine driver and some of the passengers, just previous to their boarding the doomed Liverpool-bound service.  It was made in 1949 and stars Jack Warner as the driver of the train.  His character is both likeable and believable and I think that the depiction of his life and family must be realistic for the time.  It is not romanticised.  The family live near the train depot and have steam engines shunting up and down at the end of the garden day and night.  The daughter is seen hanging out the washing among the smoke and smuts.  It's easy to sympathise with her when she eventually yells at a passing engine to shut up!  But of course in the days before car ownership among the working class, workers, especially those on shifts, had to be within easy distance of their workplace.

I particularly like a speech given by the railwayman's wife (Gladys Henson) when she tells him how glad she is that his shiftwork may be coming to an end.  She's never complained before, but now there's an end in sight it all comes flooding out - how she's hated the daft hours, the strange mealtimes and turning over in bed to tell him something then realising that he's not there.  I can identify with her having been in a similar position myself - and so will millions of others.  He's a top link driver, but although this job was every young boy's dream, it did come at a price and this part of the story is finally told in this film.  But the employment at the depot is dependable and there is a comradeship, with the locomen prepared to help each other out.  Are there any professions left that offer this kind of stability?

So 'Train of Events' gives us a realistic glimpse of the life of a railwayman just after World War 2.  It also gives us a glimpse of something else that we have lost - more on this in my next post.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Oh! Mr Portman

Any Powell & Pressburger fan will know the actor Eric Portman.  His most memorable roles are as the uptight magistrate Colpeper in 'A Canterbury Tale' and the zealous Nazi Hirth in 'The 49th Parallel'.  In the latter film he is superbly sinister, and having thoroughly enjoyed his masterly portrayal of evil I have looked out for other films featuring Portman.  I was therefore thrilled to find a dvd set of Ealing films at one of the Buxton Toy and Train Fairs.  Not only was a Portman film listed in the contents, but also another film called 'Train of Events' which I love and have not seen for years.  More on that film in a later blog.

But back to Portman. The film in the Ealing dvd set is called 'His Excellency'.  Not one that I have heard of before.  Having watched it I can understand why it's not considered a classic.  Released in 1952, it follows a former dockworker called George Harrison (Portman) who is sent to a British dependency as its new governor in order to sort out the native dockers.  The new governor is a bluff northerner and his appointment horrifies the local genteel ex-pats.  Cue some clumsy class stereotyping.  Portman's accent sounds unnatural (even though he was born and bred in Halifax) and grates somewhat.  Strangely, he sounds more authentic as a German to my untrained ears.  But, there is some period charm to be found in the film.  Mainly because it shows that once upon a time, you could tell politicians apart.  The governor is spoken of as one of the new breed that have taken power after the war - a trade union man with the accent, manners and dress sense to match his industrial past.  Meanwhile, the genteel conservatives all know the "right people" and speak the Queen's English.

Although laughable to us now, I think that there was some truth to be found in these 2-dimensional portrayals once.  On the whole, Labour politicians in that first post war government had previously held trade union office or had a proper job.  Conservatives had mostly been to public school and were part of an ancient establishment.   It must have been great to know what you were dealing with.  Because look at an MP now, listen to the voice and to what they are saying...and they could represent any of the three main parties.  You've no idea who's side they are supposed to be on and what their motives are.  It's all very boring compared to those heady post war politics these days!  I think I'd prefer an Eric in charge.

Monday, 24 October 2011

All Becomes Cleo

Of all the 'Carry On' films, I would have to chose 'Carry on Cleo' as my favourite.  The main reason for this is the sheer genius of casting Kenneth Williams as Julius Caesar.  His line - "Infamy, infamy, they've all got it infamy!" never fails to induce side ache.  Of course, the film takes outrageous liberties with historical accuracy (we would be disappointed if it didn't).  I never thought I would find anything of historic value to write about here.  But, I was wrong.  If you look carefully enough, any film can tell you something about the time in which it was produced.

There is a scene where Caesar/Williams is delivering a speech.  He announces "Nihil expectorum omnibus" and translates this to mean "No spitting on public transport".  Having a GCSE in Latin (I was one of the lucky generation that received a classical education in a city comprehensive) I could roughly translate the real meaning and laugh at the amusing Carry On aside.  But I never fully understood why that line could amuse - I thought it a little eccentric for a film genre known for a more direct form of humour.  It seemed a bit Monty Python.  But then a read a newspaper report a couple of weeks ago.  This discussed one London Borough's possible return to a spitting ban.  Apparently, spitting was a criminal offence until quite late on in the 20th century.  Of course, this was a relic of the TB age, when spitting was widely feared as a means of spreading the disease. The report went on to say that "Spitting Prohibited" signs were often seen on public transport.

This was all a total revelation to me.  Now I see that Williams' line was based on something that to many viewers would have been part of the furniture of their lives.  The moral of this is, if you find something that you don't quite 'get' in a film, it's worth having a little dig around in the history of the times - you might just dig up a whole new seam of knowledge.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Death and the Duke

Fellow film buffs will no doubt have gathered from my pseudonym that I'm particularly fond of the 1949 black comedy 'Kind Hearts & Coronets'.  Alec Guinness' performance as the entire d'Ascoyne family is so good that I just can't find words to describe it.  And who can ever get over Joan Greenwood's voice?

The film also stars Dennis Price as the ultimate social climber Louis, who systematically murders all those who stand between him and the dukedom of Chalfont.  I have wondered at the theme of the film and the timing if its release.  It treats death in a lighthearted manner - even that of twin babies.  Yet it must have been first viewed by hundreds of thousands of people who were still raw from the deaths of loved ones in World War Two.  So why wasn't there mass outrage at this flippancy?

I think that the answer to this lies in the social standing of the murder victims. In 1949 the creation of the welfare state was in full swing and the aristocracy were finally being made to pay their way.  Country houses throughout the land were falling victim to crippling death duties and being given to the nation via the National Trust. (I must at this point highly recommend  Sarah Waters' book, The Little Stranger which vividly portrays this period of history).  The d'Ascoyne family were therefore expendable.  The man and woman in the Clapham Gaumont were in a frame of mind to say "good riddance to the lot of them."  Setting the film in a bygone era was also a wise move, it highlighted that these people had had their day anyway.

Even today, the film is such a cracking watch as it pokes fun at snobbery - which of course is still very much alive. And it is all done with subtle, very English, humour - as if that nice Mr Price were addressing a Duchess with his reminiscences.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

A Bus to the Shops

The "On the Buses" film seems to have got a lot of airtime on the Freeview channels lately.  It's always good for a giggle if you can suspend your disbelief for the duration.  How did Jack get so many girlfriends when he was almost indistinguishable from the rear end of his own bus?  How on earth did Olive and Arthur end up married?  These are questions that you should not ask - just 'enjoy the ride'!

A substantial chunk of my enjoyment of this tour through early 1970's suburbia is derived from the views.  Because of the nature of the film we get a panorama of how everyday England looked back then.  The suburban streets, the cars, the fashions are all part of the fascination for me - this is the world I was born into but was too small to take notice of.   A particularly good scene shows Stan pulling alongside a row of shops in order to visit the launderette. The backdrop is a joyful reminder of the days before out of town shopping malls and supermarkets.  All major post war estates seemed to have its row of shops back then, with a wide variety of retailers.  It reminds me of my own visits to a row of shops on the outskirts of Sheffield.  This was in the early-mid 1980s, on the cusp of change.  My friend and I would pay our 2p bus fare for the 10 minute journey, then spend a good hour along this single row of shops.  There was a fashion shop; a chemist selling a fantastic range of cheap earrings and bubble baths; a newsagents with magazines, books and toys.  And of course there was the post office, the butcher and the greengrocer.

Now, probably along with the shops shown in the film, there is simply a row of gambling and take away outlets.  Because along that same bus route that my friend and I used to take, there is now an ever expanding out of town shopping centre.  The demise of the launderette I can gratefully accept, but it is a shame that we have abandoned walking or bussing along to these little precincts, exchanging them for homogeneous giant car parks.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Get Thee to a Nunnery? No Thanks

Powell & Pressburger's Black Narcissus is set in a convent in India, and was filmed almost exclusively at Pinewood Studios.  Not a great deal of scope there for commentary on the social history of everyday people.  It is almost a Film Noir (except for the lavish colouring so typical of P & P) and is quite removed from ordinary life.

However, chief nun Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), does have flashbacks to a life before her vows, where we learn the reason for her dedicating herself to the Order.  Sister Clodagh, it turns out, lived in a small village and had a childhood sweetheart that everyone believed she would marry.  The man in question however made no promises and decided to emigrate to the US - without her.  The shame was so great that she went and took holy orders.

This is a totally unfeasible story to a modern woman, but the fact that it was used as a presumably credible storyline then makes me realise that the freedoms that I take for granted are only recently won.  Just a lifetime ago, society was so much more tightly laced morally - if not Victorian in its attitudes.  The implication in the film is that Clodagh brought shame and disappointment on her family by not getting her man.  If this kind of incident had happened in the present day, her parents would have heaved a sigh of relief that the waste of space she'd been pining after had left the area, leaving her free to concentrate on her studies and career.  Clodagh might have taken revenge by posting an embarrassing picture on Facebook, before moving on to a bright future - especially if she had the looks and intelligence of Deborah Kerr.  Or an even better outcome would be that there would be no bad feeling or shame at all, that this was just two people who liked each other, but not enough to marry. They would keep in touch via email and Facebook, before eventually drifting apart and finding their own way in life.

Right wing politicians are often going on about a return to old fashioned morals - like there was some halcyon day when everyone behaved according to a set of unspoken rules.  So this would be the sort of morals that meant that people had to marry someone that they didn't want to just to save reputations?  The sort of morals that meant jilted women were compelled to become nuns and waste their lives shut away somewhere?  The sort of morals where people had to stay married to someone that they didn't even like anymore?  Films like Black Narcissus - full of pent up frustration and anger - confirm my view that I'm actually rather glad that morality has gone to the dogs, thank you.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

We were all doomed!

Back to Colonel Blimp.  One of the highlights of this film is the instantly recognisable John Laurie, who plays the Colonel's long time manservant, Murdoch.  Laurie is of course most famous today for his role as Private Fraser in the comedy show 'Dad's Army'.  In an absolutely delicious scene in Blimp, Murdoch announces to the Colonel that he has joined the Home Guard.  There is an overwhelming temptation to call out to the screen - "Yes!  We know!"

In this part of the film, the Colonel has just been given the push from the army and is in despairing mood.  He decides with some prompting to follow Murdoch's example.  This turns out to be an excellent move and the Colonel's skills are put to good use in training up the guard.  The scenes which illustrate the hard work the Colonel puts into his new vocation make an interesting comparison to the 'Dad's Army' platoon's exploits.  They highlight that in  fact the Home Guard were trained as well as they could be with the highly stretched resources available to them.  The film is a reminder of a fact that the comedy element of 'Dad's Army' can make us forget.  This fact is that these men that we now often associate with laughable incompetence were trained soldiers who were prepared to die a horrible death in defence of their country.  In the early 1940s, invasion of southern England was a highly likely imminent event.  These men were not just playing at  war.  Croft and Perry, the creators of 'Dad's Army', of course knew this and were just playing on the more ludicrous elements of the Home Guard for comedic effect.  Unfortunately, those of us born in the 1950's and beyond can have little or no concept of what World War Two was like and can be tempted to see Dad's Army as being a true portrayal.  We should take a little more heed of Colonel Blimp and reflect on the bravery of those who were prepared to face tanks and machine guns for us.

Monday, 12 September 2011

George and Juliet - History Heroes

I've just finished reading Juliet Gardiner's magnificent book "The Thirties - an intimate history".  This is a must- read for anyone even vaguely interested in 20th century social history and Juliet is now the official History Usherette Historian Heroine.

It was while I was reading this book that I was reminded of my teenage obsession with George Formby films.  Back then I found them a beguiling mixture of simple laugh-out-loud humour and a tantalising glimpse of the 1930's.  But after reading Juliet's book I realised that I was actually appreciating an early form of cutting edge satire.  His film "Keep Fit" was more than just an opportunity to see George in shorts, it was a shot at the fanatical craze which swept through certain parts of British society at the time.  Now that I have a fuller understanding of the thinking behind this film, I think I can see it in others.  My favourite George Formby film is "No Limit", where George takes on the mighty TT Races and triumphs.  Now that I know how much the 1930's were about speed and streamlining, I understand how George was having a laugh at the expense of the rich men obsessed by building things that went faster than ever before.  Even the title now suggests to me that there was "no limit" to the idiocy of the some of their schemes.

Time to revisit some of George's films to see what else made the 1930s tick.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

A Kernal of Truth

I'm slowly working my way through a Powell & Pressburger box set which I found on ebay.  My lack of time to carry out my favourite activity of watching old films means that I had to tackle the very long Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in 4 instalments. It's 20 years since I last watched it so I had forgotten all but the general story line.

The film follows Roger Livesey's Colonel from the turn of the last century to the second world war (when it was made).  One incident following his involvement in world war one sees him find out that an old German friend (against whom he once fought a duel) has been interned in "Hardwick Hall".

Living as I do around the corner from the real life Hardwick Hall I was intrigued - was this based on fact?  This was something that I hadn't really picked up on during my last viewing 20 years ago as I didn't know this corner of Derbyshire then.  This time though I needed to investigate.  In true armchair historian mode I launched my search on Google.  There was no mention of WW1 prisoners being held at Hardwick, but to my surprise the search brought up the information that they were held in nearby Bolsover Castle.  This is so surprising because I once spent a summer volunteering at the castle and was given lots of information about its history - and I never knew this.  It goes to show that our history of keeping enemy soldiers locked up has been kept rather quiet.  The WW2 Isle of Man internments have been much discussed, but the practice of using old country houses and castles as prisoner of war camps seems to have faded in our collective memory.  Were the prisoners treated as well as Colonel Blimp's friend?  Or do we have something to be ashamed of?  I'd like to know more - Colonel Blimp has opened a door.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Carry on loving train travel

I caught a saucy slice of Carry On Loving on Saturday.  There is a scene where Sid James is being followed by Charles Hawtrey.  Sid ducks into a railway station toilet in an attempt to shake Charlie off.  This for me is a highlight of the film as it is a tantalising glimpse of when railway stations had something about them.  Atmosphere that is.  Not necessarily charm but definitely atmosphere.

In recent years railway stations have been sanitised in steel, perspex and bland tiling - this one that Sid visited had wooden panels.  And it was shadowy.  It reminded me of the old St Pancras.  Much as I admire the spirit of this station's re-invention as a modern international travel terminal; and I'm pleased that the beautiful architecture hasn't been neglected or worse - I do miss that old booking office with its Gothic panelling.  Moor Street station in Birmingham is another good old girl that's had a facelift.  But the abandoned station which stood empty for years alongside the through lines looked more like a place where an interesting journey might start.

Imagine if Brief Encounter was to be remade for the modern audience.  Would it work amongst the ticket barriers and mini shopping malls of today? Somehow I doubt it very much.