Monday, 31 December 2012

A Lifelong Encounter

One of my favourite films – and that of many people according to Twitter – is ‘Brief Encounter’(1945).  Who wouldn’t love a film set mainly on a shadowy railway station that is littered with graceful old engines punctuating the pent up dialogue – doing just what the protagonists can’t allow themselves to – by letting off copious amounts of steam.  The station and buffet staff offer brilliantly delivered light relief; who wouldn’t want Stanley Holloway checking their ticket or handling the hooligans?  The film seems to lend itself to any mood that you might be in.  You can laugh along with Holloway and Carey; find poetry in Coward’s clipped dialogue; cry for the never-to-be in life or seek comfort in other peoples’ predicaments.  Need to make a life changing decision?  Watch and be guided on the consequences ahead of you.

Is this a film that I can use as a historical resource though?  I’m not sure that we can use the protagonists’ predicament and their reactions as evidence for a change in society.  To be honest, I think that it is all pure romanticism.  The film was made at the close of World War Two when we know for a fact that many thousands of people quite understandably decided to live for the present and not put so much analysis into their actions as these two.  One only has to check the birth rate and divorce statistics for the 1940s for evidence.  And though I love Noel Coward dearly, one thing that you can’t accuse much of his work of is stark realism.  I’m also willing to bet that there were many contemporary female cinema-goers who quite rightly responded with a sniffy “Well, it would be nice to have so much free time on my hands to even consider running off.”  I think that it would be quite wrong of anyone to use ‘Brief Encounter’ as evidence for a slip in society standards.  We all have moral boundaries that differ from other peoples’, and this happens to be a film about two people’s wrestle with their own.

I wonder if even the steam trains are truly indicative of the stock in use at the time, which would have been very run down or ill-maintained by the late 1940s.  I can’t help thinking that all the stops were pulled out for the well- respected director (David Lean). I’m afraid that I must conclude that most of this film is pure fantasy.  But somehow Coward and Lean gauged the fantasy just right, judging by the widespread love for it.  Which probably says much about the British character – we like our heroes and heroines to be miserable in their sin, and our action to take place on a northern railway station.  None of that euphoric rolling around on California beaches for us thank you very much!  Suits me fine.  But there is one thing about the film which tickles the historian in me.  That is Laura’s visit to Boots to change her library books. 

When I first saw the film as a teenager I was agog.  “Boots?  Yer What?” I probably exclaimed.  Now to me, a child of the 1970s/80s, Boots means headache tablets, baby goods, make up and a constant obsessive accumulation of Advantage Points in order to indulge my terrible addiction to screamingly expensive cosmetics and perfume.  Library books meanwhile are only housed in municipal or academic buildings and are a source of most of my knowledge, my school being on the whole a bit rubbish.  One place is a temple to bodily concerns, the other a temple to knowledge and learning.  The two have nothing in common.  So to learn that Boots the chemist once had a lending library arm was a total revelation.  And so I went on to discover that the sort of branch library that we know (and love if we’ve got any sense) is a relatively recent thing.  A transient thing if certain philistines get their way.  (How else are children going to learn stuff that their school isn’t allowed to teach them anymore?  Google can never live up to that discovery on a dusty back shelf.  It doesn’t offer you results alphabetically by author allowing that random discovery that offers you a lifetime of reading pleasure.)  Previously Boots plugged a bit of a gap in the market by making popular novels available to borrow when you joined their library for a fee.  I’ve since learned that you could also borrow books from libraries in Harrods and Selfridges, if you were the right kind of person. 

So, if Brief Encounter is to be a lesson in anything it’s that without branch libraries you may end up stuck with a limited amount of books sandwiched between other more worldly goods.  And what’s more, you have to pay to borrow them.  It’s enough to make you need a doctor.  Where’s Trevor when you want him?  Trev!  I’ve got something in my eye!

Friday, 21 December 2012

Running in the Family

I’m not sorry to be seeing the back of 2012. It’s not been one of those years that I shall look back on with fondness.  Rather, I shall be filing it away in the back drawer of my memory.

One stand out reason for this casting aside of 2012 was the loss of both of my Grandmothers within six months of each other.  My Mum’s Mum was aged 95, while my Dad’s Mum decided to leave us on her 94th birthday. (Honestly Nan, Clinton’s wouldn’t take the card back.  You could have hung on a bit longer.)  So, I know that I can hardly say that it was unexpected at those ages, but still, they seemed to be doing so well and I almost felt that they would go on forever.  To me, they had been around forever.  Always there, with their subtle grandmotherly encouragement, the sort that has blind faith in your ability to succeed and won’t tolerate your self-perceived limitations.  Of course, like most people, I took them and their gifts for granted.  So, I still can’t quite believe that they have both gone, and at times I almost forget that they’re not here anymore to answer my genealogy questions and wonder at my children’s’ achievements.

The best gift that came from them is my love of old film and so, indirectly, they are partly responsible for this blog.  Both of my parents had to work on Saturdays when I was young and I would go and spend the day with my Mum’s parents.  If it was a fine day, Grandad might drive us out to a place of historical interest.  We went for miles around in his burgundy Hillman Imp and later banana yellow Vauxhall Chevette – and there the seeds of my later study were sown.  On other Saturdays, then we would have some dinner (that’s a proper northern dinner at midday) and settle down with a cup of tea for the BBC2 Saturday afternoon matinee.  Sometimes the film on offer would spark a reminiscence, and so the connection between film and history was made in my head.

Although I didn’t spend as much time with my Dad’s parents (Dad being one of five children, they had a bigger brood to see to).  But, when she was left on her own, Dad’s Mum appreciated time to watch a good old film.  Her taste could be more Hollywood – she lent me the occasional Joan Crawford video.  But for some reason she also absolutely loved the Old Mother Riley films.  I never asked what the attraction was.  When the time came to work through her belongings I was handed a pile of Old Mother Riley double bill DVDs.  As I looked through them with my eldest daughter, I decided to keep just one as a memento.  Being into the vampire trend which seems to have taken grip of our younger generation in recent times, my daughter insisted that I keep the one entitled ‘Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire’.  I did as I was urged and put it to one side for a while.

My daughter and I eventually watched the film one Sunday afternoon, after getting rid of the other two members of our household, neither of whom is tolerant of old films.  I found the humour to be rather bizarre at times, despite having grown up with, say, ‘Vic Reeves Big Night Out’.  But my daughter seemed to thoroughly enjoy it and wanted to watch the second film on the double bill.  For those of you unfamiliar with Old Mother Riley, she is, in fact a bloke dressed as an old woman (always a good starting point with the youngsters).  Played by Arthur Lucan, this music hall act transferred to film in the late 1930s.  The vampire film was his last, made in 1952 not long before he died.  His wife played his sidekick daughter (Kitty McShane) until they separated in the early 1950s so consequently the vampire film is one of the few without a role for her.

The vampire film, as an example of the Old Mother Riley genre, shows it to be an unashamedly old fashioned one which makes no attempt to hide the music hall origins.  Sudden bursts of song, slapstick routines and clunky storylines abound.  But despite this I was happy to pass the time with it, not least for Dora Bryan in her element; a young and gorgeous looking Hattie Jacques and a barely recognisable Richard Wattis.  Opportunities also presented themselves to make this into a little history lesson as my daughter presented me with questions about one or two things that she didn’t understand.  These in fact turned out to be questions about aspects of history that I had not really noticed myself.  They were almost off my radar and so that fresh pair of eyes added something to my own viewing.

Her most interesting question concerned the receipt by Old Mother Riley of a telegram.  “What’s a telegram?” came the question.  I don’t think that I remember telegrams myself, but they are such a major part of 20th Century history that they are firmly embedded in my psyche.  I presume that they are for anyone who has lived with relatives who were involved in World War Two.  In most families, there must be the legend of “that telegram” that turned life inside out.  I managed to outline the procedure of sending and receiving one, and the reasons why you would use this system instead of a letter in the post.  To a child that has grown up with email, this is pretty jaw dropping stuff, I learned.  I immediately felt at once knowledgeable and old!

Another question about lack of seatbelts in the car, followed up by a discussion of when seatbelts became law (in my mind unfortunately linked with the disturbing image of Jimmy Saville shaking an egg box) ensued.  Again, this was another eye-opener for me on what it must be like growing up now, in our culture of safety first.  I compared myself 35 years or so ago, rolling freely around the back seat of my Grandad’s Hillman, to now, when my turning of the ignition key is invariably accompanied by a call of “Are you both plugged in?” and a horror of moving off before both my girls are firmly strapped into their booster seats.

Watching this film made me both think about history and where our future may be heading.  I wonder how Nan felt as, thirty years ago, she in turn explained things to me with first hand experience.  And so, as we watch their favourite films, I keep something alive and running in the family.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

By 'Eck, She was a Grand Lass

A few weeks ago I had a little look at some George Formby films.  While thinking about George, I was reminded of his fellow Lancastrian, Gracie Fields.  There are a lot of similarities between the two.  Both are two of our earliest film stars, with what is perhaps Gracie’s most famous film ‘Sing as we Go’ dating from 1934.  I watched this film on You Tube, along with 1932’s ‘Looking on the Bright Side’.

Popular sing along style music make a big contribution to both Gracie and George’s films, along with down-to-earth Lancastrian humour.  I find it quite surprising that both stars became so popular nationally – going on today’s standards it is easy to imagine them as a regional, niche hit. But there wasn’t a wide variety of entertainment back then.  I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, (though, as a Yorkshirewoman, I am meant to feel some sort of rivalry with Lancastrians!  As a Sheffielder, the main rivalry that I’m aware of is with Leeds.  They think they’re it with their fancy Harvey Nichols ways.  But I digress.) just that mass entertainment was in its infancy.  I expect that the prospect of a good old sing-along was tempting, and regional variation a novelty which added something extra.  People didn’t expect as much as we do now.

Both George and Gracie can be an acquired taste – early cinema Marmite.  Some will have loved the cheery optimism, while the more cynical in the audience will have found that this grated on their nerves.  Especially in a recession like that experienced at the beginning of the 1930s.

Despite my lifelong love of Formby, I remember my Grandad being the polar opposite. He was very dismissive of him, and often talked of the time that he saw him in real life, standing on a barge somewhere.  Apparently, George was telling everyone to clear off out of it.  Grandad was disdainful of this seeming inability to deal with the trappings of fame.

But back to the cheery optimism in time of recession.  This is the thing that I find interesting about Gracie’s films.  They don’t ignore the depression, they face up to it and acknowledge the difficulties that ordinary people were facing.   In later times, recession era entertainment seems to have gone the other way – I’m thinking Glam Rock and the 1970s.  The theme then was to revel in escapism, to douse ourselves in sequins and big hair in an attempt to temporarily forget our troubles.  And look at Hollywood in the 1930s and its lavish musicals.  But in both of Gracie’s films that I watched, she is thrown out of work. ‘Sing as we Go’ is particularly interesting in this aspect. It shows the cotton mill where she works closing down, and Gracie literally getting on her bike and looking for work.  She lands in Blackpool and does all kinds of dead end jobs until, eventually, the mill re-opens.  I suspect that this happy ending was artistic licence and that this wasn’t the outcome that the vast majority of her viewers could rely on.  But it wouldn’t do for Gracie to have sad ending – she needs to give people hope and tell you that if you keep going and keep your chin up, surely things can only improve.

‘Sing as we Go’ is also brilliant viewing for anyone interested in the history of seaside resorts and fairground rides.  Many scenes take place on Blackpool Pleasure Beach.  As I have said before about ‘Brighton Rock’, it shows that our seaside requirements really have not changed over the decades.  I didn’t see anything and think to myself “Well, that’s a piece of history, you don’t see that anymore.”  It’s amazing how contemporary some scenes are.

It seems to me that Gracie is receding into obscurity now though. Where George remains famous – people are still making documentaries about him, and playing his songs on ukeleles- you hear little about her.  It’s a shame.  Look her up on You Tube and join her in a sing song.  We are in recession again after all!    

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Mr Polly and the Nosy Parkers

I have quite recently had a couple of discussions on Twitter where we have wondered at the internet’s startling advertising capacity.  Search for something, or send someone an email asking about a particular item – and suddenly you are bombarded with advertisements for that very item.  Many compare this with Orwellian prophecy and some resent this intrusiveness and wonder what other aspects of their lives are being watched.

Being a Powell and Pressburger junkie, my thoughts turned to Roger Livesey’s character in ‘A Matter of Life and Death’.  He plays a doctor – a senior member of his community – who spends his spare time watching people going about their business using a camera obscura.  It’s a harmless past time really, the doctor is a good man and he’s not doing this with any intent – only for his own entertainment. But he knows everyone, and what they’re doing.  From this point I mused that we have always been watched by those who have some kind of moral or class superiority over us.  One of the reasons why people have migrated from small towns and villages is to escape from the fact that everyone knows their business.  This too-close community spirit has been used for centuries to police people’s actions and apply pressure to conform.  But even in the city, you’re not free from the pressure.  If you have a job, you’re under pressure to conform to your employer’s perspective.  If you’re out of work and reliant on the dole, or in previous eras, charitable handouts – then you have to jump through the ‘deserving’ hoops.  If you slip up, there are always spies somewhere prepared to shop you to the authorities.

Another film that has been on Film 4 quite a lot lately and which helps to illustrate this point is ‘The History of Mr Polly.’  This 1949 film starring John Mills puts the HG Wells novel of the same name onto the screen.  Wells, with his typically early Socialist viewpoint, examines that burgeoning section of society that is always out to climb social ladders and better themselves.  Mr Polly eventually finds his utopia in a simple, rural existence with an ample-bosomed pub landlady that he’s not married to.  You can’t help but approve of Mr Polly, even though by Edwardian values he was at risk of becoming a pariah.  He shuns the previous life that he has been forced into by society pressure.  He had married because he thought that he should – and being a pre-emancipated woman his wife was responsible for much of the pressure because it was the only thing that society allowed her to aspire to.  Mr and Mrs Polly soon find out that they don’t even like each other.  The pressure to run his own business and be respectable is so great that he resorts to drastic actions to escape.  The likes of Mrs Polly are so terrified of society and what they might think – because they know that they are constantly under surveillance from their neighbours and relatives.

Today, thankfully, most of us don’t give a toss what others do, and we can usually carve our chosen life path without too much interference from outside the immediate family.  I don’t know what my neighbours do on a daily basis (though I like a good non-judgemental speculate!) and they know very little about me – a lot less than you dear readers. We have become a very individualist society.  But the price that we pay for this is the advertising industry needing to take more of an active interest in us.  We don’t conform to stereotype anymore, and they need to pigeonhole people to make sure that their campaigns are targeting their potential customers.  And so, we have the software that tries to get clues from our internet activity.  It’s a nuisance, but I’m not worried by it too much.  I don’t completely dismiss people’s concerns.  For example, I don’t do internet banking.  Just in case. I keep my internet activity to things that I don’t mind people knowing.  If anyone wants to read my emails they’re welcome.  But I guarantee that they’ll expire of boredom before they get to the end of the page.  Anyway, in advertising at least I doubt that another human being sees anything. 

Ultimately, we can turn our computers and phones off.  It is possible to function without.  I bet that the real life inspirations for Mr Polly wished that they could shut down and unplug nosy villagers.  I bet that pre-NHS patients would have preferred a more anonymous doctor sometimes, rather than having to be intimately examined by a bloke that they might be stood next to in the queue at the Post Office – or even watching them go about their business through a camera obscura!

Thursday, 22 November 2012

The Doodlebug Dance

One good Alistair Sim film deserves another.  And after ear-wigging on someone else's Twitter conversation I was reminded of an old favourite - 'Green For Danger'.  Again, the full film is available on You Tube and is well worth a view.  If you don't know the film, but you do know your 1930s/40s film actors, here's how to be thoroughly surprised.  Don't watch the opening credits.  But when Joe Higgins, the Postman, appears have a good look at him.  Who do you think is playing him?  Have a guess and look for Joe Higgins in the closing credits.  The transformation from the character that he is most well known for is amazing.

'Green for Danger' was made in 1946 and is a murder mystery.  On the face of it, a straightforward bit of entertainment.  But there are oddities.  First of all it's a serious film, but Sim often plays his character for laughs.  Then, there is the constant presence of the flying bombs or Doodlebugs as they were nicknamed.  I'm not really sure why these things need to keep re-appearing after the first one has done it's damage and launched the storyline.

Officially called V1 and later V2 rockets, the Doodlebugs appeared towards the end of the Second World War.  They were in effect pilotless planes packed with explosives.  They were launched from continental Europe towards south eastern England, and when the fuel ran out, the engine cut and the rocket plummeted to earth, causing devastation.  Accounts from the time tell of the kind of fear that they caused, that listening with breath held for the engine to splutter out.  This is well illustrated in the film as Joe Higgins listens in the bunker and braces himself for the blast.  I think that the Doodlebugs were much more sinister than the Luftwaffe.  They were impersonal  with their lack of a human pilot.  I think that if I were experiencing that kind of warfare, I would have preferred to have been bombed by a human.  Not only were the Luftwaffe targeting infrastructure as a priority; there was the potential for human error - that they might miss your city altogether or even that the bomber might make a decision that ultimately saves you.  Unlikely I know, but with people involved you have that little sliver of hope.  With the Doodlebugs, it was simply a case of if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, you've had it.  Because the V weapons could be launched at any time without risk to a pilot, they came over in the day time, when people were going about their business.  You could sleep the night away in an underground shelter, but you have to go out at some point in the daytime to work or shop.  People fell victim while working, shopping and just walking down the street.

Back in the film, Sim seems to use the sudden need to take shelter from Doodlebugs to comic effect.  He is repeatedly shown dithering outside potential shelters or diving to the ground in a kind of dance.  Well, it's comical to us now.  But I wonder if the 1946 audience would view it in the same way.  To them, it might simply have been a harking back to 12-18 months ago and how their lives were then.  It could all be for dramatic effect - this pernicious threat of death from an invisible source, that even he who is meant to be controlling it is at a loss of what to do next.  Is Sim the comic relief - or are we a completely changed audience?  To really find out, we would need to return to that situation of daily threat of death from the skies.  I hope that this film remains a delightful little mystery to us.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Foxes, Felons and Fillies

I subscribe to an excellent literary quarterly called Slightly Foxed.  In each issue a wide range of writers praise lesser known books; old novels and such that probably aren't on your shelves but should be.  It's an expensive read - every issue contains at least one book that I feel I must purchase immediately, resulting in ebay and Green Metropolis crawls for the out of print ones.  Slightly Foxed has introduced me to books and writers that have enhanced my existence and I recommend it to any fan of old literature.

One recent issue contained an article by Sarah Crowden on a book called 'London Belongs to Me' by Norman Collins.  I was interested.  But my interest barometer burst its glass when it was mentioned that a film had been made of the book in 1948.  A film featuring Richard Attenborough, Joyce Carey and (sharp intake of breath) Alistair Sim.  An Alistair Sim film that I didn't know about?  I went a bit dizzy and then hastily did a search on You Tube.  Thankfully, the whole film is up there.  I put the kettle on and settled down in front of the lap top.

And what a film this is, I really can't understand how I could have missed it.  Sim takes a fantastic part as a fake Medium, his first scene shows off his delightfully subtle humour to magnificent effect.  I had an urge to give it a standing ovation.  Richard Attenborough is as excellent as ever too, there are shades of his 'Brighton Rock' role in this multi faceted part.  And if you enjoyed Joyce Carey behind the buffet counter in 'Brief Encounter', then you'll appreciate her in this film too.

I don't want to give away too much about the plot, but basically it revolves around residents of a large house which has been split into flats.  Joyce Carey is the landlady presiding over a mixed bunch of residents as World War Two approaches.  As a window on history - well I was most intregued by how some parts of the film were startlingly contemporary. I suppose that I shouldn't be all that surprised, as the film is derived from a novel, and all good novels have something to tell us about the human condition. At one point, one of the characters picks up a newspaper, which features a sensational murder investigation on the front page.  He is outraged that the newspapers should give priority coverage to this sensationalist case over reports of the imminent war.  Isn't that familiar?

When the perpetrator of the suspicious death in question is up in court and his sentence is discussed, I wondered why he was not being charged with manslaughter.  This led to an internet trawl to find out when this particular charge was introduced.  This wasn't the easiest search that I've ever undertaken, but I came to the conclusion that it was 1957.  I could be wrong.  But anyway, that was a historical snippet that I learned.  I was never one for a detective/murder mystery novel.

In recognition of the harshness of the murder defendant's treatment a campaign is launched.  Again, this brought me right up to the present day.  There seems to have been one or two campaigns stemming from the present law's difficulty in keeping up with technology's so rapid advances.  And I suppose that at the end of the 1930's deaths associated with a car (as this one was) - with their rapidly growing numbers and speeds - were something relatively new.  The campaign shown in 'London Belongs to Me' certainly rang some bells, despite the lack of computer technology.  The petition, the march, the banners - we see them now.

One aspect of the film gave away the true age of the story, and that is the portrayal of women.  With a nod to my previous posts around Jessica Mann's book, The Fifties Mystique, I can only re-iterate how glad I am to live now.  In this film, the women are completely defined by their relationships with men.  The landlady is clinging on to precarious respectability on her dead husband's legacy, and is so desperate for male company that she is taken in by the fake Medium. Then there is the mother of Richard Attenborough's character; the wife of another strong male character - and his daughter.  The daughter's story revolves around her boyfriends and her parents' hope that she will marry so that her future will be assured and they will have no further need to consider her in their plans.  There is one exception.  The single woman tenant who has got by on her wits, who has a job and a fair bit of cheek/gumption.  But, guess what?  She's portrayed as a scrounging, sad slattern that they all despise.  She just doesn't know her place.

But I began to wonder about this.  We all know that films often take liberties with the original texts that they are drawn from.  Were the characters written this way, or does the film do the book an injustice?  An interesting thought, given that the film was made in 1948, when women were being pressurised to know their place as mothers and home-makers and give up their wartime work.  Have the book's characters been sacrificed to a sneaky bit of propaganda?  There's only one way to find out.  Better add it to my towering To Be Read pile.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Carry On Conscripting

In my last post I mentioned National Service.  Following World War Two, UK males were subject to being called up to carry out compulsory military training, a practice which lasted until around 1960.  One film immediately springs to mind when National Service is mentioned – and that is Carry On Sergeant.  This was the very first Carry On and it was made in 1958.    Many of the Carry On regulars are there, along with famous faces such as William Hartnell, Bill Owen and Bob Monkhouse.  I really don’t like Bob Monkhouse I’m afraid, he sits firmly in my personal category of smarmy git, but his appearance is more than made up for by a delightful turn from one of my film heroines.  Dora Bryan plays Naafi Nora, who inexplicably falls desperately in love with lovely Kenneth Connor’s hypochondriac Horace.  Her attempts to woo him are the hilarious highlight of the film, especially her line where she describes her love as “painful, yet exquisite” in her inimitable style.  Oh and the bit where she corners him with her tea urn…I could go on – it’s a fantastic part.

The storyline follows one company of misfits through their 10 week training under Sgt. Grimshaw (Hartnell).  I mentioned in my previous post that troop movements continued to put pressure on the railways after World War Two and an early scene demonstrates this.  Monkhouse and Connor’s characters first meet on the train as they make their way to camp – taking the form of transport that most would have done in an age before mass car ownership.  How far the rest of the film can be used as historical evidence is difficult for me to say.  National Service is something that I know little about.  It has never been a part of any syllabus that I have studied formally, it’s not really turned up in any of the books that I’ve read and I don’t know anybody who was called up to serve it.  It’s quite a mysterious subject to me, so what can be gleaned from the film?

In order to engage and entertain the first Carry On audience, then the film has to include elements that were recognisable to an audience that would have been familiar with National Service.  It’s also a fair assumption to make that several people involved with the making of the film had done their own spell.  So there has to be some real history in here somewhere.  If I had to pick out one element of the story that rings with the most truth, that had been the catalyst for the original storyline, then it would be the character mix.  It would have been difficult to gain exemption from this conscription – only a handful of professions were exempt, including coal mining and farming.  It would have therefore brought together men from various walks of life – one of those acts of social levelling that World War Two is credited with in continuation.  The characters found in the film’s Able platoon may not be all that exaggerated, you may well have found the academic, the factory worker and mollycoddled mummy’s boy all in one barrack room.  This can only have led to friendships and changes in outlook that have lasted a lifetime.  But it is obvious that rose tinted spectacles have been put onto the camera lens.  In the film, differences and weaknesses are overcome to succeed – the required view of the era.  In my many years of observing human nature, I’m sure that this wasn’t always the case.  I expect that there were many fights, prejudices re-inforced and bad examples set.

The film also shows us the types of activities carried out by National Service soldiers – the sort of activities that you would expect.  How to put a gun together, running at the enemy with a bayonet and taking part in obstacle courses are probably basic soldiering skills and so fairly accurate.  I also wouldn’t be surprised if some of the characters were based on real people encountered by the writers or the actors interpreting their words.  It’s a taste of National Service that we should take with a pinch of Naafi Nora’s table salt, and use as a stimulating starting point for further study.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

People So Busy, Makes Me Feel Dizzy

I have an old railway poster print on my wall.  Well, actually, I have a lot of old railway poster prints on many of my walls.  I’m incapable of leaving the National Railway Museum shop without at least one.  They are my favourite art form of all, especially those commissioned by the “Big 4” companies, London Transport and early British Railways.  Imaginative, idyllic, colourful – I find them the perfect thing to break up the monotony of a bare wall.  Anyway, one of those posters depicts Waterloo Station with the legend

“A centenary of uninterrupted service during war and peace.”

 I recently watched two films in a row which upheld this proud Southern Railway statement; a company which must have been giving out a dying gasp as the railways were privatised at the beginning of the centenary year (1948).  The first of the films was ‘Bell Bottom George’ (1945) starring George Formby.  George, who has accidentally joined the navy, returns to the docks after playing his ukulele on a BBC radio show in London.  He joins his train at Waterloo – so recognisable from the platform gates which are almost closed on his would-be girlfriend.  The train is crowded with servicemen of all kinds as well as civilians.  The strain that must have been felt by train services in wartime is palpable, but after over five years of fighting, people are still getting around on the network.  This is one of our quietest but greatest feats of World War Two.  I have a book called ‘The LMS at War’, written by George Nash and published in 1946.  This tells us that the railways were a vital component of the Normandy Landings; and of movements of service personnel both on troop trains and ambulance trains.  Also, that the infrastructure took direct bomb hits to tracks, trains and lineside equipment.  Yet the Glasgow LMS station alone handled 3 million personnel between 1939 and 1943.  And in 1943, the LMS alone ran 400 special trains each week.  ‘Bell Bottom George’ was filmed at the end of this long and weary fight, and the system hadn’t collapsed.  I think that’s rather wonderful.

A couple of days later I watched ‘The Good Die Young’ (1954), a forgettable film featuring a young Joan Collins.  This is about the only notable thing about it.  Oh, and that the boxer character (Stanley Baker) looked like Morrissey’s more handsome older brother.  However, there is a scene on Waterloo station.  One of the characters is a member of the US Army and is in the process of being posted to Germany.  His unit departs from again that instantly recognisable terminus.  The soldier decides to go AWOL and leaves by those famous steps.

This serves as a reminder that even though World War Two had ended, the railway still had much to do – bringing troops home; ferrying GIs and National Service soldiers about; taking ordinary workers into the City and fulfilling their expectations of peace time holidays and days out.  It managed to do it with very run down infrastructure.  This certainly substantiates the Southern Railway poster’s declaration.

There are a few other scenes in ‘The Good Die Young’ for transport enthusiasts - for example a depiction of what happens if you touch a third rail (ouch) and the interior of an early airport (boo).  It might pass on a snowed-in afternoon. 

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

With His Little Ukelele in his Hand

I put on a couple of George Formby films while carrying out a few chores the other week.  I like to have these playing in the background, rather than actually sitting still and watching them.  I tend to get a bit frustrated with him in some parts and get a strong urge to chew my cardigan sleeve and yell out "OHFORGOD'SSAKEGEORGE!! JUST TELL THEM!!"  But to make up for this I always have a laugh at the way he wins everybody round with his double-entendre riddled songs; and that despite having a face that only a mother could love and being extremely gauche as well, he always gets a very pretty and intelligent girl. And there is always the potential for interesting location scenes.

'Bell-Bottom George' and 'I Didn't Do It' (both 1945 - busy boy!) were the films that I selected this time.  Both involve cases of mistaken identity - and are ideal examples of why I feel the need to shout at him.  In 'I Didn't Do It' George stands accused of murder, even though he patently couldn't murder a pint of beer. Luckily the policeman in charge recognises this.  And George sings the very funny 'She's Got Two of Everything.'   So it's all alright.  But I always think that there are some sinister undertones to a film like this, when you realise that, back then, a convicted murderer might well hang.  And without scientific advances that we have made such as DNA sampling, it makes me shudder to think that people were hung on what we might consider to be flimsy evidence.  But of course Formby films don't go that deep and the fate of a convicted murderer isn't really covered.  As  I mentioned in a previous post, George's main objective is to poke fun at society in general.  This time, it's Agatha Christie and her ilk that are being sent up.

'Bell-Bottom George' meanwhile is a piece of wartime propaganda, aimed at raising the morale of serving sailors and portraying the services as the salt of the earth, if you'll pardon the pun.  George accidentally joins the Navy when he exchanges clothing with a sailor, who then gets caught up in an air raid.  Whenever he attempts to escape to change back into civilian clothing he's picked up by the police and taken to the docks.  Again, this shows something a little more darker than you might expect.  It's a nod to the loss in civil liberties that took place in World War Two.  As a whole, Britain is looked upon as a noble, free nation that was battling against those who would have us all obeying a rigid set of rules - or facing the consequences.  This is true in a way, though our rigid class system meant that this freedom is not the sort that we would recognise as such now.  But the onset of total war necessitated a curtailing of that freedom.  People were given identity cards and ration books.  They were conscripted into the services and movement was restricted.  Many were unable to divulge what they were doing to their own families.  George is closely watched in this film and is unable to get back to normality - just a small reminder to the lack of freedom for the duration.  Each time he's arrested, you can get the feeling that it's a big metaphorical wink to the audience a "You can't do anything these days can yer lads?"  But it is through the temporary curtailment of civil liberties that we eventually achieved more freedom than George's contemporaries would have dreamed of.  The film is telling people to hang in in there, sing a slightly mucky song and one day it'll all be over.

More on 'Bell-Bottom George' next time.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

(Don't) Carry on Caning

'Carry on Teacher' (1959) is one of the earlier Carry On films, and I think that there is a tendency to overlook it.  Yet it deserves attention as one of the series with real substance to the story.  Granted, you're not always looking for substance from a Carry On film. And 'Teacher' still offers enough slapstick (the itching powder scene) and double entendre (the film stars Leslie Phillips - say no more) to satisfy someone in search of light-hearted banter.  But it also offers more.  Ted Ray puts in a brilliant performance as the Headteacher of Maudlin Street School.  He is thinking of moving on but the children don't want him to go, resulting in some genuinely touching scenes.  The acerbic exchanges between Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey are so realistic that you can't help feeling that you are witnessing something of their real life relationship.  (According to Wes Butters, the pair were not unfriendly, but were very competitive.)  And, as all the best cinematic comedy does, the film gently mocks important issues of the time.  In Teacher's case, progressive education ideas are offered up as the Aunt Sally.  Leslie Phillips' character is one of the peddlers of those airy-fairy child centred education themes.  He has the stuffing knocked out of him at Maudlin Street School, and towards the end of the film he proclaims that all these ideas are alright for other people's kids.  The film really comes down on intellectual outsiders and government officials interfering with schools and teachers, who are the ones that really know what they are doing.

But even more interesting than this is the tackling of corporal punishment.  The head is firmly against any form of physical punishment, while Hattie Jacques' character bemoans the lack of it within the school.  I feel sure that this must be a reflection of the wider debate that was brewing at the time.  Corporal punishment was banned in UK schools as late as 1987 but I have no doubt that debate raged for many years before this.  Changes to cultural ideas such as this don't happen overnight and this film is evidence of this.  The film comes down on the side of the headteacher and of not caning children.  I think that unusually for a film of its time, it shows children as intelligent and aware small humans, whom adults should take time to understand rather than lash out at.  I find this stance admirable.  I'm pleased to say that I wasn't ever at the receiving end of a cane, but I do remember seeing the headmaster of my primary school giving a boy the slipper - and the unpleasant look of enjoyment on the head's face has stayed with me forever.  I have subsequently never had any respect for this particular man.

So, as well as being a Carry On film with substance, it shows insight and attitudes ahead of its time. Viva Carry On!

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Funny Men and Fast Cars

While on the subject of Will Hay, I was compelled to return to 'Ask a Policeman' - an old favourite of mine.  Along with 'Where's that Fire' and 'Oh, Mr Porter', it is, in my opinion, one third of Hay's top triumvirate of film.

This time, Hay and his sidekicks (the old one - Moore Marriott and the fat lad - Graham Moffatt) are useless thieving policemen in a sleepy village.  After they get mixed up with a smuggling ring the film finishes in a magnificent chase through the southern English countryside into London. It is really only during this chase that any potential history appears.  Obviously, Hay and friends don't depict what it was really like to be in the police force in the 1930s.  Having said that though, the famous speed trap scene does encourage you to think about how traffic crime was managed before speed cameras.

The chase begins in the depths of the Home Counties, in the middle of the night.  The most notable thing about these scenes is the sheer darkness.  I have never seen a road as dark as those depicted in this film.  At one point the smugglers turn off the lights on their lorry in an attempt to shake the policemen off.  Sure enough, the lorry disappears from sight.  It's so hard to imagine this.  I'm sure that there are still pockets of total darkness in the UK - but I can't say that I've ever seen one.  Although I'm not a one for getting out and camping in the wilds.  Center Parcs is the closest I get to the great outdoors.  But you can see that there are no street lights and no glow from neighbouring towns.  I'll bet that this is not the case at this location now - there will probably be a permanent orange glow in the sky from the direction of London.

When the chase reaches suburban London, Hay commandeers a Routemaster bus and pursues the villains along busy streets.  Here we do get some old street views - but tantalisingly few.  The finale takes place at Brooklands race track in the middle of a race.  I'm guessing that this must be a golden scene for vintage racing car aficionados   The cars certainly look very different to F1 versions.  Not that I take much notice so I'm not really qualified to comment.  I find motor racing the height of stupidity - all those resources wasted in driving round in circles - barmy!  Why should I struggle back from the local shops on a Saturday morning trying to be 'green' by shopping locally and leaving my car at home when F1 is allowed to happen?  But I suppose I feel a little bit affectionate towards Brooklands as a lost symbol of early 20th century leisure architecture.  Well, here, again just a tantalising glimpse is offered of early modern life.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

The Science of Laughter

While recently reading Wes Butters' fascinating biography of Charles Hawtrey -
- I was reminded of that classic Will Hay film 'Where's that Fire (1940).'  Hawtrey had a part in this film, and, according to Butters, was in awe of Hay and his intelligence.  He held a respect for Hay until his days were up - a respect that he didn't give out freely.  It's easy to forget just how clever Hay was; he always played the buffoon on screen with conviction.  But in life, he was a noted astronomer and linguist'. So we can therefore assume that he would have had a keen grasp of mathematics as this often goes hand in hand with astronomy.

However, in 'Where's that Fire', Hay leads a mockery at those with scientific or mathematical talents.  He plays a fireman, who, rather than listening out for the alarm bell, spends his time tinkering around in the cellar of the fire station.  He is searching for a fire extinguisher recipe that will make him pots of cash.  He accidentally finds a formula - not by hard work or equasions - but with a bottle of beer which falls into the ingredients.  Hawtrey meanwhile plays a precocious schoolboy, who buzzes around their achingly funny efforts to install a pole into the fire station.  He offers various mathematical answers to the problem of the wedged pole, and is met with annoyed incomprehension from Hay.

This would seem rather strange - a scientist and mathematician making fun of boffins - if you didn't get this very British humour.  Self depreciation is our thing; if Hay was building up his scientific learnings we would find him obnoxious.  And this film also shows that the tendancy for both boffin-baiting and self depriciation is by no means anything new.  I'm reminded of so many interviews given by comedians .  Whenever they are asked about the catalyst for their careers the answer is often the same.  It began in the classroom to deflect attention away from something else - a physical or learning attribute.  I wonder now, did Will Hay become such a successful comedy act in film, and before that in music hall, to deflect unwelcome comments about his other talents?  Was it only the comedy success that gave him the confidence to openly pursue his astronomy? Has there always been a tendency within us to poke fun at those whose knowledge far outstrips our own?

Hay was a true genius who excelled in both his entertainment and scientific careers. Unfortunately, Hawtrey died a bitter man, who felt completely unfilfilled and that his true talents had been ignored.  He did have talent but never took it to its potential.  The reason?  I think that it is because he was unable to laugh at himself - whereas Hay succeeded because he could see situations from other angles - not just the self.

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Sleepers Sleep

A recent trawl of You Tube brought up an ancient film called 'The Ghost Train' (1941).  Based on a play by Arnold Ridley (better known as Dad's Army's Private Godfrey, he of the sister Dolly) the film stars Arthur Askey in a particularly irritating turn as a music hall comedian en route to the summer season in  Newquay. After Askey's character pulls the communication cord in order to retrieve a lost hat; a handful of passengers miss a connection at a lonely Cornish junction.  They face an overnight wait for the next train that will enable them to complete their journeys .  The sinister looking Stationmaster (who seems vaguely familiar, I think from one of Will Hay's films) tells them that there is nowhere to stay for the night.  The nearest village is apparently four miles away and the only option is to walk.

Anyone familiar with the modern UK rail system might find this a little far-fetched - a station four miles from where anyone lives?  This is virtually unknown today, perhaps with a couple of exceptions on the West Highland or Settle and Carlisle line.  But, in the pre-Beeching era, stations like this did exist more regularly. Quite often, they would take the name of the nearest settlement and follow it up with 'Road', to signify that a further journey would be needed to get there.

To find the reason why these lonely stations existed, you could do worse than refer to a small volume called 'John Betjeman on Trains'.  Edited and commentated by architectural critic, rail enthusiast and posh boy totty Jonathan Glancey, the book contains a small selection of letters written by Betjeman about trains.

It can be gleaned from this little treasure trove of information that there were two reasons why a railway station might exist in such a neglected spot.  The third letter published was written in 1962 and concerns the Somerset and Dorset railway, perhaps one the most delightful lines that I have never seen.  How I long to change trains at Evercreech Junction.  I have such a soft spot for the S&D - not only did Betjeman love it, it joins two most glorious counties.  Somerset, land of my forebears.  And then Dorset, the county with the most delightfully silly village names in Britain - the entertainment value of which are only surpassed by the beauty of the landscape.  I've passed many a happy time poring over OS maps of the county and having a good laugh.  Anyway, Betjeman's letter makes clear that the S&D was built 'speculatively, hoping to build up passenger and freight traffic that never materialised.'  The letter states:

'And no doubt the S&D directors thought, when they built their stations alone on Sedgemoor - Shapwick, Bason Bridge and the like - that there would grow up around them thriving communities.'  (p28)

But the communities never came.  The S&D was a calculated risk, that just didn't come off.  So when railway mania hit Britain, many lines and stations were built that never made any money.  Most went either under Dr Beeching, or even before he weilded his scythe.

The other reason for these underused stations is simply landowner opposition.  In a Victorian Version of Farmer Palmer, many snobbish and insular local gentry called out "Get orf my laand" when the surveyors came calling.  They didn't want anything so common as a steam engine spoiling the view, rattling the china and curdling the milk.  So the railway engineers had no choice but to divert around the boundaries of the gentry's estates. (Contrast this with all those poor people's dwellings which were swept away in the cities without a second thought.)  To support this, the final letter in 'John Betjeman on Trains' concerns Bodmin Road, which has mercifully survived as Bodmin Parkway (we still have out of town stations called Parkways, but these now generally connect with some other form of transport such as airports).  In his letter, Betjeman dreams about an alternative life at the station.  Glancey provides us with more information in his commentary.  He tells us that:

'Such was the snobbery concerning  railways coming to town - coupled to a real fear of the smoking, snorting train - that local land owners refused to allow tracks into Bodmin itself.' (pp109-110)

These are the quirks that make the history of our railways so appealing, but also I'm afraid sent us down the Beeching route.  Unfortunately, he pruned the branches far harder then he should have done, and I think that only in recent years have the blooms showed any signs of coming back.  Closed routes are starting to open again.  I'd like to add my voice here to the call for the Woodhead route to be re-opened across the Pennines, if only for freight. There's recently been a very interesting series on the campaign for Woodhead in recent issues of the Great Central Railway Society's journal.

'The Ghost Train' is an apt title for a film about an underused station, because so many of them are now only visited by the ghosts of people's memories and imaginations.  Lets' replace some of these with real trains again.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

A High Rise Tale

In my previous post I mentioned Battersea Power Station.  I’m a fan of this building and in general I find 20th Century architecture appealing.  I don’t know if this is in any way connected with my appreciation for John Betjeman, one of the last century’s most famous architectural enthusiasts.  Did his poetry inspire me, or do I like his poetry because he writes about buildings so well?  Who knows?  We do disagree on some things.  I actually rather like the 1930s “Tudorbethan” houses that he so often rails against.  I think that they demonstrate the mentality of the time when they were built – as the country spiralled its way into World War Two and battled through depression, people needed to hark back to English supremacy and daring knights and their castles.

Betjeman was a founder member of the Thirties Society, which later became the 20th Century Society.  I am a member of the society, although I just hang around the periphery, not quite confident enough to join in.  I’d like to study the subject academically, but unfortunately time does not permit me such frivolous pursuits.  Instead I have to learn what I can from the 20th Century Society journal and those wonderful information-tardis books from Shire Publications.

To finally get around to the subject of this blog, you can also get a good look at architecture in some old films.  Those set in contemporary London – such as ‘Up the Junction’ – often give some good panoramic shots of the capital with iconic buildings and bridges to help you get your bearings.  Some early films give you a glimpse of what the capital looked like before the Luftwaffe did their work, some show you what streets were like before some equally damaging post war redevelopment.

One aspect of 20th century architecture that I am increasingly drawn to looking at on film is the high rise flat.  This is probably because my life started out in one; it is where my earliest memories are.  I spent five or six years living near the top of a block on one of Sheffield’s several high rise developments.  Unfortunately, I didn’t live in Park Hill – that famous set of flats now listed by English Heritage and the subject of many an academic article and documentary.  What an architectural claim to fame that would be.  Our block was further along that same hillside, and looked out over a similar panorama.  Our flats were demolished around twelve years ago to make way for an estate of two storey houses – it is strange to think that my first memories took place in what is now a patch of sky.  This whole replacing of the streets in the sky with ‘normal’ houses, after a working life of less than half a century, is a sure indication that such developments were a failure.  I agree- despite my nostalgic tendencies to look for them on film.  I remember the lifts that stank – and sometimes didn’t work leaving my Mum to get toddler me and the shopping up thirteen flights of stairs.  I also remember having no other children of my age on our landing to play with, and a trip to the playground being such a hassle from so far up.  But I also have little nostalgic memories of seeing a magnificent thunderstorm rage across the city from the best vantage point, and watching Dad’s car weave its way home from work.

I can think of two films that show high rise living from a contemporary view.  Firstly, I remember watching ‘The Likely Lads’ film one lazy evening a few months ago.  A spin off from the TV series of the same name, it was filmed around Tyneside in 1976 – the same time that I was living the high rise life.  It stars James Bolam as Terry, a “bit of a lad” and his middle class aspirational friend Bob (Rodney Bewes).  While Bob lives in suburbia, Terry lives in a flat.  While Terry enjoys his home as being better than the slums that they replaced, it is clear that his abode is a step down from Bob’s proper house.  Bob moves in with Terry for a while – a definite step down.  Bob’s loss of privacy is emphasised with even the milkman watching the comings and goings and drawing his own conclusions.  One of the most difficult things that the British found with flat-life is the lack of a sense of ownership and privacy.  Without a garden and a fence to delineate our boundaries we are just not comfortable.  We don’t even like sharing our driveways, never mind walkways, lifts and balconies – often poorly designed ones at that.  In this film I’m reminded of how we aspired to a proper house, and were elated when the council offered us a brand new one on a new estate.

Another spin off film from this period is ‘Steptoe and Son’ (1972).  During the course of this, Harold (Harry H Corbett) enters a block of flats while on his rag and bone rounds in London.  The fact that he is shunned by residents serves to emphasise just how low he has sunk at this point of the film.  Even high rise dwellers don’t want him.  It is also interesting to compare different styles of architecture between the two films – one with covered walkways and the other with the street in the sky open to the elements.

I shall be looking out for more high rise films to compare and contrast with these two.

Friday, 10 August 2012

A Thirst For Knowledge

From Waterloo, lets have a chug down the line to Clapham Junction.  I've been watching the 1968 film 'Up the Junction' which is available on You Tube.  I don't think that I have ever seen this film before but I was interested to see it, what with the railway reference and it being the inspiration behind a song by one of my favourite lyricists - Squeeze's Chris Difford.  I also presume that the content of the film had some influence over the Pulp anthem 'Common People', Jarvis Cocker being another fine example of a lyricist who can spin a good story during the course of a short pop song.  In fact, listen to their sublime album 'Different Class' and you can hear shades of 'Up the Junction' spun throughout it.

The film has a lot to recommend it:  starring roles from 1980s TV favourites Dennis Waterman and Maureen Lipman; images of 1960s Southern Region suburban stock; and a view of the now sterile Battersea Power Station puthering smoke from its iconic chimneys.  The story focuses on Polly, a posh girl from over the river who wants to live like common people, to borrow one of Jarvis' phrases.  For some reason, that we are not really given any insight into, she's unhappy being a member of the monied classes.  She thinks that that they are not "real."  So, she gets a job packing lollies in Battersea, makes some new friends, rents a hovel of a flat and gets mixed up with local boy Pete.  Polly is given a dose of reality alright - she helps one of her new friends through a back street abortion, witnesses a fatal motorbike collision, gets a taste of domestic violence as street entertainment and experiences the daily grind of life in a factory with some rather rowdy work colleagues.

While watching on You Tube, I had a scroll down to some of the comments.  I don't always like reading internet comments because it can temporarily destroy my faith in human nature.  The comments under this film were no exception. The first comment was a mini polemic about how the film showed how wonderful London used to be before modern life took hold. Really?  It seems that if some people had their way then we would return to a life that may have some nice imagery for us to look back on, but in reality was nasty, brutish and short for most of us.   Oh yes, I thought,  do lets go back to marrying the first person that you like the look of, then finding out that they're abusive and you can't afford to divorce them so you're stuck with them.  Lets go back to marriage being almost compulsory, such were the pressures of society.  And please please let's go back to a lack of sex education/female empowerment leading to pregnancy leading to an illegal abortion and nearly dying in agony. Sounds marvellous.  Of course, that old chestnut immigration came up on the You Tube comments - as it always seems to.  Apparently immigrants have changed everything that was good in London.  So, it transpires, we need to send everyone back from whence they came. As anyone with a passing interest in history would realise, if we followed that idea to the letter then we would be left with, ooh, a bloke on a Welsh mountain somewhere.  I'd have to move back to Hanover I think.  Now, I like their nice reliable cars, but I can't speak much German.  It could be tricky.

Any road up.  These comments, in a way, support the overall message of the film.  And that is simply the old saying that the grass always seems greener on the other side. But in reality, life is never without its problems. These internet trolls are harking back to an imagined world which they never knew and in doing so are missing the point of the film completely.  Polly is the embodiment of the greener grass seeker by physically crossing the Thames and trying to work for her living, using only her factory wages instead of Daddy's money.  But in the end, it's not much fun. The most telling scene is when she shows her new friends her flat, which she has furnished from a second hand shop.  They can barely contain their disgust and amusement as they tell her that their mother threw stuff like that out.  Their mother replaced it with modern furniture on the never-never and they tell Polly where she might find some.  They all want what Polly can so easily have, and they can't understand whey she doesn't want it.  Meanwhile, Pete's attempts to lead a richer life land him in prison.  He tells Polly the reason why everyone with no money do the football pools.  Money appears to be the answer to all their troubles, yet she thinks that it is the cause of all hers.

This is proof that our aspirations have always been thus.  It is a lesson in human nature, the reason why poor people spend their last pound on a lottery ticket, while rich people furnish their houses in the "shabby chic farm labourers cottage" style.  Personally, I watched 'Up the Junction' and came away quite satisfied with my 21st Century lifestyle...though if I could just pay off the mortgage I'd be able to watch more old films...

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Second Class (citizen) Return to Waterloo

After my little sojourn with Sykes, I'm just popping back to 'Waterloo Road' with John Mills.  Reading Jessica Mann's book, "The Fifties Mystique" just after watching this film highlighted its role in the propaganda of the time. Tilly (Joy Shelton) is verging on straying from her husband (John Mills).  We are given a reason for her dissatisfaction with her marriage.  Her husband has failed to fulfil her desire to have a family before going off to war.  She has, apparently, nothing to focus on.  It is implicit that if she were fulfilling her natural maternal urges, then she wouldn't be threatening to do unnatural things with Stewart Granger.  And towards the end of the film, she has been forgiven and there is a baby in a pram.  This is the happy ending.  The final scene sees the doctor (Alistair Sim) delivering a speech in support of children.

From our perspective this is old fashioned and sentimental.  But there is more to it than sentiment.  Jessica Mann tells us on pp 28-30 of her book:

Women had worked during the war whether they liked it or not...(But when it was all over) Not only did society need jobs for the boys on their return from war service, but the economy needed women to have time to go shopping.

And how to get them back into the home?  Play on their maternal instincts that lead to such readiness to accept guilt and to do what everyone else says is for the best.

The biological imperative seemed unanswerable...and if there is to be a nation in the future, there must be children and children mean homes and endless chores. 

Running a family and working were seen as completely incompatible. If any women out there were wavering, hankering after wages and freedom,  this film is patently designed to tell them where their place is and their true vocation.  Men are being warned that if they don't go home and impregnate their wives (or marry their girlfriends and then go straight on to fulfilling that obligation) then their women will doubtless do something wicked and it will be all their own fault!  Worrying about bringing more cannon fodder into the world, or feeding another mouth on the meagre post war rations could not be countenanced.

Alistair Sim's final speech pretty much lays it on the line.  He might as well turn to the camera and say "Come on ladies!  Fertilise an egg today!"  Unfortunately, Mann also tells us that a large proportion of this film's 1945 audience would be a bit hazy on how they should fulfil this obligation.  I doubt that particular sort of film was on the Gaumont circuit that week.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Bin and Gone

The passing of Eric Sykes earlier this month was a melancholy day.  Sykes is an integral part of British comedy heritage.  He had a hand in many of the best loved radio and television comedies of the mid 20th Century.  For me, it was his partnership with Hattie Jacques in his eponymous television programme that stood out as the best of his work. Particularly the episode guest starring Peter Sellers.  But on hearing of his death, my thoughts turned to 'The Plank', a short film that once seemed to be a Saturday afternoon staple.  I hoped that the BBC would show it as a tribute, but if they did it passed me by.  So, I presume along with many others, I turned to You Tube to watch him in action again.

This almost silent film shows Sykes' blend of scholarly comedy at its best.  By scholarly I mean that he put a great deal of thought and theory into his work.  It wasn't, as it could easily have been, plain old slapstick with reams of people being smacked over the head with a length of wood.  I think that I read in his autobiography ("If I don't write it, nobody else will" - a title which never fails to make me smile) that he believed that true comedy was not man slips on banana skin and falls over.  That's just too obvious.  Rather, comedy is when man steps to one side to avoid banana skin and then walks confidently on straight into a lamppost. So, all kinds of scenarios ensue in 'The Plank' as the piece of wood takes a journey through London streets in the late 1960s.

Watching the film again was a real trip down the back alleys of my memory, taking me back to Saturday afternoons in the 1980s, when it would be used as a filler, or a replacement when the sport was called off due to bad weather.  Being on the look out for snippets of history I was also taken back by the car types, many of which were still on the road when I was young.  One particular vehicle and its operators opened up a whole avenue of reminiscence - and that was the dustbin lorry.  How things have changed in the collection of household refuse in the past 40 years.  Before wheelie bins and their myriad rules and regulations about when to put it out, where to leave it, what should be in it etc we had proper collections.  I remember the round metal bin with black rubber lid that was emptied weekly.  The binmen would come to your back yard, pick the bin up on their shoulder and carry it to be emptied into the lorry.  This service was more human and flexible - especially near Christmas when there was chance of a tip!  But we don't even know our binmen anymore.  I never even see my bin being emptied, never mind knowing the people who do it.   That's when I can get my head round when I should be putting it out.

I presume that the main reason for this change is the increase in rubbish.  In the 1960s there wasn't nearly so much packaging on our foods.  Or on anything else for that matter.  Whatever you buy now comes wrapped in cellophane, cardboard, polystyrene and bubble wrap.  Binmen simply couldn't carry a modern binful.  But it's a shame that we have lost the human contact element - one more move towards isolation of the individual.

I could go on about how 'The Plank' portrays late 1960s society.  What a legacy Sykes has left us with that short film, indeed with all his work.  He was a national treasure, and an undervalued one. I hope to look at more of his work again in the future and to remember this comedy great - and apparently very nice man too.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Waterloo Station Every Friday Night

I recently watched the 1945 film 'Waterloo Road', which stars John Mills as an AWOL soldier.  He has been tipped off that his wife is carrying-on with the local cad (Stewart Granger) and he sets out to find the pair and sort the situation out.  This film shouldn't be confused with the 1940 Vivian Leigh melodrama 'Waterloo Bridge', also about a "fallen woman".  What is it about Waterloo and women of dubious virtue?  Having spent a couple of years in Southampton, I'm no stranger to Waterloo station and I was never tempted to cast aside my virtue there I must say.  Although I did once lose my shoe on the tube stairs a la Cinderella.  But I digress.

'Waterloo Road' is watchable for several reasons - Alistair Sim in a supporting role as a doctor; scenes filmed in bombed out South London and a hilarious bout of fisticuffs between Mills and Granger.  It also portrays an old fashioned method of wooing - as Granger takes his intended victim (Tilly) to a tea dance.  The pair spend a day together and they meet at a pre arranged spot under the station clock, a small scene that I was reminded of later on when Richard Hawley's 'Cole's Corner' came around on my MP3.  I love this song, which I find so evocative of my youth.  Cole's Corner was a famous meeting point in my home city of Sheffield, everyone of my generation is likely to have parents and grandparents who met there on their dates.  As Hawley says, every town had its Cole's Corner.  THE meeting point.

Cole's Corner was part of history by the time I was old enough to go off downtown on the booze.  Our generation never referred to it, even though we had all heard of it.  My friend, who lived in a different part of the city to me ,was often my drinking partner.   Our meeting place was at the top of the escalators from the Hole in the Road (an underground precinct) which is also now consigned to history.  But this spot was just a few steps down from the Cole's site and was always dotted with people obviously waiting for dates.  Some looking well scrubbed.  Some smelling like a tart's boudoir.  Some looking keen.  Others looking resigned.

There is a crucial difference between the station clock scene in 'Waterloo Road'; mine and Hawley's memories of Sheffield and the present day.  That is a lack of need for a well known meeting place.  This is in part down to the mobile phone.  People can now just give each other running commentaries on their current location and direct their paths so that they cross.  Some mobiles can give you the location of friends without having to even talk to them.  But another reason for the demise of the meeting point is spelled out in Jessica Mann's excellent book 'The Fifties Mystique."  Mann has written this memoir of the 1950s as a warning to modern women not to hark back to this decade with rose tinted spectacles.  On the whole, being a woman in the 1950s was boring, repressive and frustrating.  This is amply illustrated by her words from page 124:

Most hotels and restaurants would not serve young women on their own, the implication being that they were probably prostitutes waiting for clients.  Bars often displayed a sign announcing that 'a lady will not be served unless accompanied by a gentleman' and many pubs did not let women in at all.

As it was also assumed that men would pay for everything (being the ones with the money) so external meeting points were needed.

As a teenager I wouldn't have gone into a pub alone.  1980s Sheffield still had its corners of chauvinism and it was always best to hit the bar as a twosome.  But now I would have no qualms about meeting a friend in a familiar pub and ordering the first round while I waited.  This may be partly the self confidence that comes with age but I do believe that women alone in city centre bars are not given a second thought anymore.  Even if you are subject to unwelcome attention you can resort to the mobile phone for deflection tactics.  Having a real or pretend conversation with someone until your friend arrives is normal. (For any inexperienced youngsters reading who are subject to unwelcome overtures, I suggest "Mother? Did you make me that appointment at the GU clinic? It's weeping again!")

These points signify progress - and I am happy to support the right of any woman to walk into a pub rather than have to stand in the rain waiting for a gentleman to accompany her.  But this loss of meeting points is another erosion of the individuality of our towns and cities.  Which is a bit of a shame.

Above are some links to websites about things mentioned in this post.  Little plug:  I've also got a book of short stories based in old Sheffield:

Monday, 9 July 2012

A Film With a View

'The Ladykillers' (1955) is definitely near the top of my list of favourite films.  In fact, I might put it at second place, after 'Kind Hearts and Coronets'.   Like 'Kind Hearts', 'The Ladykillers' stars Alec Guinness, who displays his prodigious acting talent to the full alongside a top notch supporting cast.  Apparently this film was remade in recent years - I haven't seen it.  I felt disgusted that anyone thought they could come anywhere near the original.  How very, very dare they.  What's wrong with getting some new ideas anyway?  I'm sure there are many unknown screenwriters out there that would agree with that sentiment.

I do enjoy a black comedy, and the demise of Alec Guinness' character in this film is the supreme example of how funny this genre can be.  For me, it is a highlight of the story - the kind of development that takes you by surprise, makes you gasp and guffaw simultaneously.  But if that scene is the highlight of the storyline, the historical highlights are the views of St Pancras/Kings Cross stations.  Not only do we get railway scenes with freight movements; antique signalling equipment and blood and custard coloured coaches; we get street scenes with advertisements and shop fronts.  The scenes show a very different district to the one there now.  I have regularly walked from St Pancras to Bloomsbury and it is a different world.  This is why I'm so interested in 20th Century history.  It is an alternative world but it was really there, and within living memory. You can keep your sci-fi with its different planets and alternative universes, I've got one that really existed in 'The Ladykillers'.

On my most recent viewing of the film, one street scene stood out.  This took place outside a hotel called the Jesmond Dene.  An unusual name, I thought to myself.  But then I realised, Jesmond Dene is in Newcastle, a park built for pleasure and relaxation.  Whoever founded this hotel had a keen eye for marketing.  Homesick people arriving from Newcastle into Kings Cross would quite likely head for somewhere with a familiar name, a name which had connotations with serenity and promised a leisurely stay.  Looking at the hotel and its environs back then, I presume some residents were disappointed!

So, not such an unusual choice of name after all.  I wondered if this was a common occurrence - this naming of hotels after the London termini passenger sources.  I did a Google and found that the Jesmond Dene hotel still exists!  I feel quite delighted that a piece of 'The Ladykillers'  is still there and hope to do a little pilgrimage one day.  Other indications of the practice of naming hotels after relevant places include the Lancaster and Cheshire hotels near Euston and the Shaftesbury near Paddington.  In this age of big business and length chains, I have no doubt that many hotel names have disappeared in recent decades.  A trawl of a London Kelly's Directory from the railway age would surely highlight more geographically appropriate names.  Perhaps one day I'll have time to look.

Update October 2012

Well I finally got a look and here's a photograph. My pilgrimage down Argyle Street was interesting.  Some slight gentrification in places sitting alongside some the the edgyness that you might expect from King's Cross.  There are a lot of guest houses and hotels, but disappointingly these have boring generic names that I can't even recall a day later.  There is a Chester Hotel, but for Chester you would need to go a bit further down the road to Euston.  I was quite gratified to see that across the road from The Jesmond Dene is a conference centre called Derbyshire House - you need St Pancras for Derbyshire (and it's where the ironwork comes from) and perhaps it did start out life as a hotel.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Magnificent Sim

I wonder why 'The Green Man' (1956) is not more well known.  It stars Alistair Sim in full dour-droll mode, and it is a black comedy in the best old British tradition.  Add in to the mix some great supporting characters, many with familiar faces, and you have a good old nostalgic giggle.

Sim plays a professional hit man, who enjoys his work of blowing up pompous asses who are too big for their boots.  He's had a break during WW2 (the competition was too fierce) but is now intent on finishing off a government minister.  This deed is to be carried out at an hotel on the coast called the Green Man.  George Cole, playing a vacuum cleaner salesman and Sim's new neighbour (Jill Adams) uncover the plot and chase him down to the coast in order to save the day.

The part of the film set in the hotel is where the comedy turns more slapstick.  Terry-Thomas arrives as one of the guests, and is obviously 'carrying on' with the barmaid, played by the fabulous Dora Bryan.  The waiter, played by Michael Ripper, has a set of facial expressions that could almost steal the whole film.  When  Sim's bomb finally does go off - just after being thrown out of the window by Cole - Terry-Thomas looks at his whisky bottle with incredulity. This is a definite highlight - an old joke but one of the best, especially in the hands of a pro like him!

Sim hides his bomb in a radio and is dismayed to find a musical trio playing in the sitting room. Obviously it would be far too rude to put the radio on and activate the bomb when these fine old ladies are playing away. A lot of the comedy stems from his trying to distract them from playing by plying them with drink.  I find this an interesting little window on history.  Having a communal sitting room with live music for guests really dates this story.  Sitting down in a communal area to write letters or listen to the radio is anathema to us now. As time progressed this sitting room would have become a TV room - but now it's rare to find an hotel without a TV in every room.  How many hoteliers would go to the expense of hiring live background music for so few guests now? We have become a much more insular society from the days when we would sit and etch our postcards together, accompanied by chamber music or the BBC Light Programme.

Thursday, 28 June 2012


Cue Pearl and Dean music.  It's time for an intermission.  Go and get yourself a Kia-Ora and an ice cream tub with a wooden spoon.  Pretend that somewhere in the background a cheesy version of Girl from Ipanema is playing.

I've just published a small collection of short stories on Amazon called Seven Stories from the Seven Hills: here's the link. 

Download it if you like!  Here's the description:
I was born in Sheffield, a city built on seven hills, 40 years ago. I have therefore been witness to much social change, such as the demise of the traditional industries; the decline and fall of high rise living and the electro-pop boom. I have also known or spoken with many people whose city was a very different one to mine. Their stories have inspired my keenness for social history, a desire to view places and actions through this medium.

This is a collection of little stories inspired by local events, characters and family folklore. They are all based in or near the city and it is an important aspect of each story. It is the city that shaped it – the history, geography and industry.

As the title suggests, there are 7 stories.  And yes that delightful child in the picture is me - in the city's Norfolk Park around 1975.  Hope you enjoy it.