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.