'The Belles of St Trinians' (1954) seems to have been away from our screens for a long time, but it made a welcome return to Channel 4 in January. With Alistair Sim as the Headmistress Miss Fritton (and her brother); Joyce Grenfell as the undercover policewoman Ruby Gates and George Cole as Flash Harry it has a cast to dream of. This particular film has a strong gambling theme, which is of heightened interest to me. My mum worked for many years for a large chain of bookmakers, and I spent a good four or five years myself helping out as a relief cashier and boardmarker. That dates me doesn't it? A boardmarker. This was in the early 1990s and two shops in my area still had boards instead of television monitors. It was a good lesson in listening very carefully which may have stood me in very good stead.
St Trinians helps to track the changes in betting on the horses. When Miss Fritton wishes to place a bet on a horse, she whistles for Flash Harry to sort it out. Because the high street betting shop didn't put in an appearance until 1961. In those days, betting was only supposed to be carried out on course and so anything else was illegal. Going to the races was a popular past time with excursion trains packing people into the various race meetings across the country. The sheer number of English racecourses testifies to its place in our historic culture - along with clues to lost courses. In the Derbyshire town of Chesterfield, Racecourse Road is the only surviving relic of its own course. Another film aired recently on Channel 4 gives a great view of just how popular the races were. 'Brighton Rock'(1947) shows a scene at the Brighton track and conveys the crowded festival atmosphere brilliantly. But, of course working people would not be able to indulge their betting fancies on course every week. Greyhound meetings, taking place in the city of an evening were one outlet. But if you studied the form and really wanted a bet on a particular horse, then you would have to turn to your own local Flash Harry. In one shop that I worked in, an old customer told me of his days as a bookies' lookout boy in the 1930s. He would stand at the end of a gennel keeping an eye open for the local bobby while business was transacted among the back yards.
I would imagine that betting shops were made legal when the government realised that they were missing out on a tax goldmine. Early ones must have carried on the reputation as being a place where some shady types hung around and were certainly not glamorous spots. A good film for a view inside an early betting shop is 'Carry on at Your Convenience' (1971). The best scenes in this film revolve around Sid's psychic budgie (if I were in a band that's what I'd call it!) who can pick winners when Sid reads out the race card. His local betting shop is primitive and rather seedy looking, you can almost feel the fag ends stuck to your shoes. It's certainly not a place where any but the most hardened gambler would have wanted to hang out. Even up to my time in the early 1990s, you had two main types of clientele. Firstly there were those that fancied themselves as racing experts, who studied the form and made strategic investments (your Sids). Racing was their hobby or they might even have seen it as their primary occupation. Then there was the old 'uns (male and female alike - the former mainly being male). They bet small amounts on multiple horse bets, Round Robins being a favourite, simply to liven up an afternoon in front of the telly. There were many characters among these, and they all to some extent took an interest in racing, the runners and the jockeys. Less often would you find someone coming in simply to pass the time, or to place a bet for the sake of it on their way to the shops.
But then greed set in - and I don't mean on the part of the punters. The bookies themselves first began to make themselves look more like ordinary shops. Bandit screens were taken away from the counters and windows opened up so that you could see in from the street. Gradually they introduced more and more things for you to gamble on - fruit machines arrived - and they did away with restricted opening times. Holidays got eroded, evening working went on to 9 or 10pm and then Sunday working was introduced. It seems they will stop at nothing to get any old soul in off the street to part with their money - and the old atmosphere is as dead as Red Rum. My Mum left after 25 years service after feeling more demanded and less valued by her employer. I was glad to have found a career elsewhere. None of our old friends who remain are happy in their work. I bet that many of their older clientele long for the days depicted in Carry On, when they didn't get stuck in a queue behind somebody putting on the Irish Lottery during their dinner break.
Does anyone know of any other films featuring betting on the horses or dogs? I'd like to look into this further for a longer article. Any comments appreciated.