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.