Tuesday, 29 May 2012

I See Bus Conductors and Dog Tracks

"Seance on a Wet Afternoon" (1964) is an extremely atmospheric film - sinister and really quite disturbing.  It concerns a small-time medium, who brow-beats her timid husband (superbly portrayed by Richard Attenborough) into kidnapping the young daughter of a wealthy businessman.  She intends to make herself  famous (a la Doris Stokes - remember her?) by using her psychic powers to 'find' the missing girl.

Incidentally, this film is a must see for any historian of London transport.  Attenborough is shown on buses and tube trains as he carries out the various kidnap and ransom note tasks assigned to him.  As a fan of old transport posters, I was enthralled by the underground journeys, and then I laughed incredulously as I glimpsed a woman sat on a tube train nonchalantly smoking.  Imagine the furore that would cause today!  Attenborough also travels upstairs on the bus (is it me or are there considerably fewer double deckers these days?) Then he pays his fare to the long gone and much missed bus conductor.  I say much missed because who hasn't been stuck behind a bus, unable to overtake it, while the driver deals with a queue of fare payers or just one awkward one?  Buses could keep moving and felt much safer with a conductor.  As the daughter of a conductor turned driver, I also know how much more stressful single manning is for the driver.  The abolition of the conductor was a bad move all round, that only benefited the wrongly privatised companies paying the wages.

The film also offers excellent opportunities for the student of old cars and street furniture, much of it having been filmed on location.  I especially liked the use of a disused dog racing track near the beginning of the film.  I immediately wanted to know where this was and what the scene looks like now.  And why was the track disused?  I thought that greyhound racing was an enduringly popular pastime. As ever, a Google search answered many of the questions.  Several sources agree that the location is Staines Stadium, and that the M25 now cuts right through the venue.  One page that I read informed me that it opened in 1928 and continued to be popular until 1960.  So my question as to why it closed remains unanswered.  I can only make assumptions - perhaps the facilities were considered old fashioned, or the competition from bigger London tracks started to put pressure on as people began to travel further afield for their leisure.  This just goes to prove that a simple scene in a film can open a door of historical interest and research.  Or you can just wallow in nostalgia.  Either way, "Seance on a Wet Afternoon" is an excellent way to spend 90 minutes.

Monday, 21 May 2012

An Archers Pilgrimage

The fan of Powell and Pressburger (or 'The Archers') films has several top quality productions from which to select a favourite.  'The Red Shoes' and 'A Matter of Life and Death' are the deservedly obvious ones.  But for me, 'A Canterbury Tale' has the edge.  It has a strange, ethereal quality that seems to sometimes predict the likes of David Lynch much later on.  Filmed during World War Two and the Baedeker raids which had damaged much of Canterbury, it clings to the idea that history is not just about buildings - it's in us all - we just need to find it within our subconscious.

So we are treated to the sounds of Chaucer-esque pilgrims on their way through Kent merging with the noise of  tanks and aircraft.  Then a Land Girl and two soldiers - one from the US army - arrive in a village peopled with the embodiment of English history.  Of these villagers, the most important is a misogynist magistrate called Colpeper, who has taken to throwing glue into girls' hair of an evening.  His only redeeming feature is his dedication to advancing the study of local history and archaeology.  He believes this to be so important, he fears that modern life and women are driving men away from it.  But he is shown that tangible history does not need to be defended so vigorously.

The most telling scene features the US soldier Bob Johnson and the local wheelwright.  Often bewildered about the English language and customs, he is a refreshing portrayal of a GI.  So often, British films set in WW2 show these servicemen in an unflattering light - as being brash, annoying and taking liberties.  But Bob is an ordinary, polite young man who misses home and is comically confused much of the time.  However, back in Oregon he has grown up around wood and all its associated crafts.  So the scene where he meets the wheelwright and communicates with him better that the London Land Girl ever could is extremely salient.  The world has changed, but they can both tap into an ancient language that is fixed deeply within.  We all have a place to start to find our history.

When the primary characters arrive in Canterbury towards the end of the film they all receive a blessing.  They are all given a second chance in some important aspect of their lives.  Meanwhile, we are shown the freshly bombed ruins of one of our most historic cities.  But it's not such a sad sight, because we've been shown a way forward.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Oh! We Do Like to be Beside the Seaside

Talking of some things not changing...

The Graham Greene novel 'Brighton Rock' is among my favourites - if not my top novel of all time. Quite often, people are hyper-critical of films of their favourite novels, but I have nothing but praise for the 1947 film of the same name.  Perhaps it is because I grew up knowing the film, and it coloured my view of the novel when I came to read it.  But equally it could simply be because it is one heck of a film.  Richard Attenborough is so menacing in the role of Pinky that you wouldn't dare say a word against him!  William Hartnell also needs singling out for his portrayal of Dalloway, and translating this multi faceted personality into a screen character.  Greene himself wrote the screenplay, ensuring that nothing was lost from the story.  It is a film of style and integrity and must rank among the top classic novel to screen translations.

The scenes of the British at leisure are just as much a draw to me as the storyline.  After watching the film you can conclude that in fact, little has changed over the past 60+ years.  A visit to a seaside resort today could still follow a pattern that would be familiar to our ancestors - except of course the method of travel.  The pier, the beach and sitting in the sun are the backbones of the day.  Hale meets his doom on the ghost train, and Pinky follows up the murder by winning a prize at a shooting stall - activities still far from obsolete.  Cafes and pubs still make up a large part of the seafront.  Compare this to, say, George Formby in the 1930s film 'No Limit', and the Carry On team in Brighton in the 1970s 'Carry on at Your Convenience'.  Shooting ranges, the ghost train - they're all there.  It seems that since the seaside resort took off with the invention of paid holidays we've only ever been after one thing - a drink, a sit down and then being scared half to death in the name of fun.

See http://drmattkerry.blogspot.co.uk/ for some more seaside films.