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.