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.