Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Funny Men and Fast Cars

While on the subject of Will Hay, I was compelled to return to 'Ask a Policeman' - an old favourite of mine.  Along with 'Where's that Fire' and 'Oh, Mr Porter', it is, in my opinion, one third of Hay's top triumvirate of film.

This time, Hay and his sidekicks (the old one - Moore Marriott and the fat lad - Graham Moffatt) are useless thieving policemen in a sleepy village.  After they get mixed up with a smuggling ring the film finishes in a magnificent chase through the southern English countryside into London. It is really only during this chase that any potential history appears.  Obviously, Hay and friends don't depict what it was really like to be in the police force in the 1930s.  Having said that though, the famous speed trap scene does encourage you to think about how traffic crime was managed before speed cameras.

The chase begins in the depths of the Home Counties, in the middle of the night.  The most notable thing about these scenes is the sheer darkness.  I have never seen a road as dark as those depicted in this film.  At one point the smugglers turn off the lights on their lorry in an attempt to shake the policemen off.  Sure enough, the lorry disappears from sight.  It's so hard to imagine this.  I'm sure that there are still pockets of total darkness in the UK - but I can't say that I've ever seen one.  Although I'm not a one for getting out and camping in the wilds.  Center Parcs is the closest I get to the great outdoors.  But you can see that there are no street lights and no glow from neighbouring towns.  I'll bet that this is not the case at this location now - there will probably be a permanent orange glow in the sky from the direction of London.

When the chase reaches suburban London, Hay commandeers a Routemaster bus and pursues the villains along busy streets.  Here we do get some old street views - but tantalisingly few.  The finale takes place at Brooklands race track in the middle of a race.  I'm guessing that this must be a golden scene for vintage racing car aficionados   The cars certainly look very different to F1 versions.  Not that I take much notice so I'm not really qualified to comment.  I find motor racing the height of stupidity - all those resources wasted in driving round in circles - barmy!  Why should I struggle back from the local shops on a Saturday morning trying to be 'green' by shopping locally and leaving my car at home when F1 is allowed to happen?  But I suppose I feel a little bit affectionate towards Brooklands as a lost symbol of early 20th century leisure architecture.  Well, here, again just a tantalising glimpse is offered of early modern life.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

The Science of Laughter

While recently reading Wes Butters' fascinating biography of Charles Hawtrey -
- I was reminded of that classic Will Hay film 'Where's that Fire (1940).'  Hawtrey had a part in this film, and, according to Butters, was in awe of Hay and his intelligence.  He held a respect for Hay until his days were up - a respect that he didn't give out freely.  It's easy to forget just how clever Hay was; he always played the buffoon on screen with conviction.  But in life, he was a noted astronomer and linguist'. So we can therefore assume that he would have had a keen grasp of mathematics as this often goes hand in hand with astronomy.

However, in 'Where's that Fire', Hay leads a mockery at those with scientific or mathematical talents.  He plays a fireman, who, rather than listening out for the alarm bell, spends his time tinkering around in the cellar of the fire station.  He is searching for a fire extinguisher recipe that will make him pots of cash.  He accidentally finds a formula - not by hard work or equasions - but with a bottle of beer which falls into the ingredients.  Hawtrey meanwhile plays a precocious schoolboy, who buzzes around their achingly funny efforts to install a pole into the fire station.  He offers various mathematical answers to the problem of the wedged pole, and is met with annoyed incomprehension from Hay.

This would seem rather strange - a scientist and mathematician making fun of boffins - if you didn't get this very British humour.  Self depreciation is our thing; if Hay was building up his scientific learnings we would find him obnoxious.  And this film also shows that the tendancy for both boffin-baiting and self depriciation is by no means anything new.  I'm reminded of so many interviews given by comedians .  Whenever they are asked about the catalyst for their careers the answer is often the same.  It began in the classroom to deflect attention away from something else - a physical or learning attribute.  I wonder now, did Will Hay become such a successful comedy act in film, and before that in music hall, to deflect unwelcome comments about his other talents?  Was it only the comedy success that gave him the confidence to openly pursue his astronomy? Has there always been a tendency within us to poke fun at those whose knowledge far outstrips our own?

Hay was a true genius who excelled in both his entertainment and scientific careers. Unfortunately, Hawtrey died a bitter man, who felt completely unfilfilled and that his true talents had been ignored.  He did have talent but never took it to its potential.  The reason?  I think that it is because he was unable to laugh at himself - whereas Hay succeeded because he could see situations from other angles - not just the self.

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Sleepers Sleep

A recent trawl of You Tube brought up an ancient film called 'The Ghost Train' (1941).  Based on a play by Arnold Ridley (better known as Dad's Army's Private Godfrey, he of the sister Dolly) the film stars Arthur Askey in a particularly irritating turn as a music hall comedian en route to the summer season in  Newquay. After Askey's character pulls the communication cord in order to retrieve a lost hat; a handful of passengers miss a connection at a lonely Cornish junction.  They face an overnight wait for the next train that will enable them to complete their journeys .  The sinister looking Stationmaster (who seems vaguely familiar, I think from one of Will Hay's films) tells them that there is nowhere to stay for the night.  The nearest village is apparently four miles away and the only option is to walk.

Anyone familiar with the modern UK rail system might find this a little far-fetched - a station four miles from where anyone lives?  This is virtually unknown today, perhaps with a couple of exceptions on the West Highland or Settle and Carlisle line.  But, in the pre-Beeching era, stations like this did exist more regularly. Quite often, they would take the name of the nearest settlement and follow it up with 'Road', to signify that a further journey would be needed to get there.

To find the reason why these lonely stations existed, you could do worse than refer to a small volume called 'John Betjeman on Trains'.  Edited and commentated by architectural critic, rail enthusiast and posh boy totty Jonathan Glancey, the book contains a small selection of letters written by Betjeman about trains.

It can be gleaned from this little treasure trove of information that there were two reasons why a railway station might exist in such a neglected spot.  The third letter published was written in 1962 and concerns the Somerset and Dorset railway, perhaps one the most delightful lines that I have never seen.  How I long to change trains at Evercreech Junction.  I have such a soft spot for the S&D - not only did Betjeman love it, it joins two most glorious counties.  Somerset, land of my forebears.  And then Dorset, the county with the most delightfully silly village names in Britain - the entertainment value of which are only surpassed by the beauty of the landscape.  I've passed many a happy time poring over OS maps of the county and having a good laugh.  Anyway, Betjeman's letter makes clear that the S&D was built 'speculatively, hoping to build up passenger and freight traffic that never materialised.'  The letter states:

'And no doubt the S&D directors thought, when they built their stations alone on Sedgemoor - Shapwick, Bason Bridge and the like - that there would grow up around them thriving communities.'  (p28)

But the communities never came.  The S&D was a calculated risk, that just didn't come off.  So when railway mania hit Britain, many lines and stations were built that never made any money.  Most went either under Dr Beeching, or even before he weilded his scythe.

The other reason for these underused stations is simply landowner opposition.  In a Victorian Version of Farmer Palmer, many snobbish and insular local gentry called out "Get orf my laand" when the surveyors came calling.  They didn't want anything so common as a steam engine spoiling the view, rattling the china and curdling the milk.  So the railway engineers had no choice but to divert around the boundaries of the gentry's estates. (Contrast this with all those poor people's dwellings which were swept away in the cities without a second thought.)  To support this, the final letter in 'John Betjeman on Trains' concerns Bodmin Road, which has mercifully survived as Bodmin Parkway (we still have out of town stations called Parkways, but these now generally connect with some other form of transport such as airports).  In his letter, Betjeman dreams about an alternative life at the station.  Glancey provides us with more information in his commentary.  He tells us that:

'Such was the snobbery concerning  railways coming to town - coupled to a real fear of the smoking, snorting train - that local land owners refused to allow tracks into Bodmin itself.' (pp109-110)

These are the quirks that make the history of our railways so appealing, but also I'm afraid sent us down the Beeching route.  Unfortunately, he pruned the branches far harder then he should have done, and I think that only in recent years have the blooms showed any signs of coming back.  Closed routes are starting to open again.  I'd like to add my voice here to the call for the Woodhead route to be re-opened across the Pennines, if only for freight. There's recently been a very interesting series on the campaign for Woodhead in recent issues of the Great Central Railway Society's journal.

'The Ghost Train' is an apt title for a film about an underused station, because so many of them are now only visited by the ghosts of people's memories and imaginations.  Lets' replace some of these with real trains again.