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.