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.