Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Fair Games

Any film starring Alistair Sim is worth a look and the 1941 'Cottage to Let' is up there with the best of them.  His character, Charles Dimble, is initially an annoying nosy parker, whom the viewer is led into suspecting is up to no good.  One memorable exchange between him and another of the characters concerns his reading of a postcard.  He speaks for us all when he responds to the challenge "Do you always read other people's letters?" with a "No.  But postcards are fair game."

Aside from Alistair and his deft games with the audience (we don't find out his true motives until the very end of the film) there is a delightful performance from a young George Cole as an evacuee.  I also have another, professional interest in the film.  I work as a fundraiser (no, before you go off me, not one of those really annoying people with tabards who try and mug you with a clipboard and their sparkling personality while you're minding your own business.  I hate those chuggers as much as anyone else.  It really goes against the grain to the British charity giver to be approached in this way.  We will give money, but we will choose who to give it to in our own time and we will certainly not be bullied into it by a gap year student with too much character and not enough inhibitions, thank you.)  My job involves writing grant applications to big grant givers such as the Lottery, local authorities and charitable trusts and foundations.  This is just one of many fundraising jobs out there now in a professional and regulated sector.  I have a certificate to prove it!

In the early 20th Century, fundraising was very different.  In many cases it was a past time to keep ladies of leisure occupied and to guarantee their place in heaven. People who were disadvantaged in any way relied on acts of kindness by the richer classes to ensure their survival.  As the current government does its best to erode the welfare state, we would do well to remember that this 'lady bountiful' kind of philanthropy could be all that stood between a disabled person and destitution.  But I digress a little.  In 'Cottage to Let', the Mrs Barrington character showcases the kind of fundraising activities that took place during World War Two. It shows that interestingly, the bread and butter fundraising events activities have remained the same for 70 years or more. An auction of donated goods.  A guess the weight of the cake.  A bric-a-brac stall.  Something to aim missiles at.  All present in both Mrs Barrington's 1941 garden and my daughter's school fete last summer.  But don't get me started on schools needing to raise money...

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Love Bombs

I've never been a big fan of war films, of which there were understandably many in the 1940s and 50s. Possibly because it was my grandparents who instilled in me a love of old British cinema - and they may have avoided some films that dug out old memories that were best left unstirred.

Laid up ill one day, with no energy to do anything else, I switched on Film4 to be greeted by a film called 'The Gift Horse'.  If my conjecture about my grandparents is correct, this would definitely have been off the list.  Its subject matter is a British naval ship during WW2, and my Great Uncle Joe, having being torpedoed on the HMS Prince of Wales in 1941, was always much missed.  But as the cast list included favourites such as Dora Bryan, Sid James and Richard Attenborough, I watched on.  The film basically follows the crew of the ship - nicknamed the gift horse as it was a piece of equipment donated by the US navy.  It certainly doesn't pull any punches concerning the fate of many sailors in the war.  The crew either end up dead or captured by the closing titles.  It also brings home the speed at which life had to be lived during those dark days of the early 1940s.

It was interesting to compare life as depicted in the film with a debate that I had been listening to on Radio 4's Today programme a few days previous to watching.  We are now having children much later in life, and various reasons were given as to why this is.  The difficulty in meeting potential partners, the desire to be settled and  to have made headway in a career were all put forward as valid points.  However, in 'The Gift Horse', marriages are made in haste, almost desperation.  Dora Bryan's character is railroaded into marriage and pregnancy (despite her misgivings) by a sailor desperate to leave his mark on the world.  These days there are no bombs aimed at us on a daily basis and fewer diseases to kill us early.  We don't have the same pressure to continue our line.  Life is comfortable and children can be detrimental to this comfort!  Neither Dora or her sailor made it to the end of the film, one being bombed and the other shot.  They were right to grab happiness while they could after all.  I wonder how many people watching the film on its release in 1952 were at that moment repenting their wartime haste?  Judging by the divorce statistics it was quite a few ( see http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171778_246403.pdf and look for the spike in the chart!). We are perhaps right to take our time.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Murder and the Post Office

"Went the Day Well"  (1942) is a dream of a film.  It is based on a short story by one of my favourite authors, Graham Greene, and features a young Thora Hird.  A tale about the Home Front in World War Two, it shocks with a very sinister turn of events.

That sinister turn of events is the invasion of an idyllic English village by a division of Nazi parachutists.  All trained to sound just like 'one of us' and disguised as a platoon of British engineers, the villagers are at first fooled into accepting them into their homes and village hall.  Their true provenance and motives are soon outed though, and the beastly Hun round up the villagers and hold them hostage.  How frightening this must have been to contemporary audiences in those dark days of the early '40s, when invasion did seem imminent.

If  this film gives us one true insight into the life of a British village in WW2, it is into the role of the Post Office.  This is at the hub of the village and the events that unfold.  It holds the key to the villagers escape from the jackboot poised above their heads.  It is the only means by which people can communicate with those who don't live nearby.  It is the telephone exchange -all calls must be put through there in these days before direct dialling.  It is where the telegrams and post arrive and are despatched.  Our modern Post Office seems to be slowly being wound down, so it is surprising just how crucial it once was.

During the film the jolly plump postmistress is murdered while attempting to make contact with the outside world.  This is where the film really takes a turn for the sinister.  If you weren't taking it seriously up to that point - then you will when the friendly, half familiar figure takes a bayonet for her country.  It is as if Greene is telling us that if you kill off the Post Office, you kill off much more besides - the means to come and go freely, to talk without fear.

It's true that we don't need the Post Office a quarter as much as we once did.  This demise has been brought on by Orwellian rather than Greenian means.