Wednesday, 24 October 2012

People So Busy, Makes Me Feel Dizzy

I have an old railway poster print on my wall.  Well, actually, I have a lot of old railway poster prints on many of my walls.  I’m incapable of leaving the National Railway Museum shop without at least one.  They are my favourite art form of all, especially those commissioned by the “Big 4” companies, London Transport and early British Railways.  Imaginative, idyllic, colourful – I find them the perfect thing to break up the monotony of a bare wall.  Anyway, one of those posters depicts Waterloo Station with the legend

“A centenary of uninterrupted service during war and peace.”

 I recently watched two films in a row which upheld this proud Southern Railway statement; a company which must have been giving out a dying gasp as the railways were privatised at the beginning of the centenary year (1948).  The first of the films was ‘Bell Bottom George’ (1945) starring George Formby.  George, who has accidentally joined the navy, returns to the docks after playing his ukulele on a BBC radio show in London.  He joins his train at Waterloo – so recognisable from the platform gates which are almost closed on his would-be girlfriend.  The train is crowded with servicemen of all kinds as well as civilians.  The strain that must have been felt by train services in wartime is palpable, but after over five years of fighting, people are still getting around on the network.  This is one of our quietest but greatest feats of World War Two.  I have a book called ‘The LMS at War’, written by George Nash and published in 1946.  This tells us that the railways were a vital component of the Normandy Landings; and of movements of service personnel both on troop trains and ambulance trains.  Also, that the infrastructure took direct bomb hits to tracks, trains and lineside equipment.  Yet the Glasgow LMS station alone handled 3 million personnel between 1939 and 1943.  And in 1943, the LMS alone ran 400 special trains each week.  ‘Bell Bottom George’ was filmed at the end of this long and weary fight, and the system hadn’t collapsed.  I think that’s rather wonderful.

A couple of days later I watched ‘The Good Die Young’ (1954), a forgettable film featuring a young Joan Collins.  This is about the only notable thing about it.  Oh, and that the boxer character (Stanley Baker) looked like Morrissey’s more handsome older brother.  However, there is a scene on Waterloo station.  One of the characters is a member of the US Army and is in the process of being posted to Germany.  His unit departs from again that instantly recognisable terminus.  The soldier decides to go AWOL and leaves by those famous steps.

This serves as a reminder that even though World War Two had ended, the railway still had much to do – bringing troops home; ferrying GIs and National Service soldiers about; taking ordinary workers into the City and fulfilling their expectations of peace time holidays and days out.  It managed to do it with very run down infrastructure.  This certainly substantiates the Southern Railway poster’s declaration.

There are a few other scenes in ‘The Good Die Young’ for transport enthusiasts - for example a depiction of what happens if you touch a third rail (ouch) and the interior of an early airport (boo).  It might pass on a snowed-in afternoon. 

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

With His Little Ukelele in his Hand

I put on a couple of George Formby films while carrying out a few chores the other week.  I like to have these playing in the background, rather than actually sitting still and watching them.  I tend to get a bit frustrated with him in some parts and get a strong urge to chew my cardigan sleeve and yell out "OHFORGOD'SSAKEGEORGE!! JUST TELL THEM!!"  But to make up for this I always have a laugh at the way he wins everybody round with his double-entendre riddled songs; and that despite having a face that only a mother could love and being extremely gauche as well, he always gets a very pretty and intelligent girl. And there is always the potential for interesting location scenes.

'Bell-Bottom George' and 'I Didn't Do It' (both 1945 - busy boy!) were the films that I selected this time.  Both involve cases of mistaken identity - and are ideal examples of why I feel the need to shout at him.  In 'I Didn't Do It' George stands accused of murder, even though he patently couldn't murder a pint of beer. Luckily the policeman in charge recognises this.  And George sings the very funny 'She's Got Two of Everything.'   So it's all alright.  But I always think that there are some sinister undertones to a film like this, when you realise that, back then, a convicted murderer might well hang.  And without scientific advances that we have made such as DNA sampling, it makes me shudder to think that people were hung on what we might consider to be flimsy evidence.  But of course Formby films don't go that deep and the fate of a convicted murderer isn't really covered.  As  I mentioned in a previous post, George's main objective is to poke fun at society in general.  This time, it's Agatha Christie and her ilk that are being sent up.

'Bell-Bottom George' meanwhile is a piece of wartime propaganda, aimed at raising the morale of serving sailors and portraying the services as the salt of the earth, if you'll pardon the pun.  George accidentally joins the Navy when he exchanges clothing with a sailor, who then gets caught up in an air raid.  Whenever he attempts to escape to change back into civilian clothing he's picked up by the police and taken to the docks.  Again, this shows something a little more darker than you might expect.  It's a nod to the loss in civil liberties that took place in World War Two.  As a whole, Britain is looked upon as a noble, free nation that was battling against those who would have us all obeying a rigid set of rules - or facing the consequences.  This is true in a way, though our rigid class system meant that this freedom is not the sort that we would recognise as such now.  But the onset of total war necessitated a curtailing of that freedom.  People were given identity cards and ration books.  They were conscripted into the services and movement was restricted.  Many were unable to divulge what they were doing to their own families.  George is closely watched in this film and is unable to get back to normality - just a small reminder to the lack of freedom for the duration.  Each time he's arrested, you can get the feeling that it's a big metaphorical wink to the audience a "You can't do anything these days can yer lads?"  But it is through the temporary curtailment of civil liberties that we eventually achieved more freedom than George's contemporaries would have dreamed of.  The film is telling people to hang in in there, sing a slightly mucky song and one day it'll all be over.

More on 'Bell-Bottom George' next time.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

(Don't) Carry on Caning

'Carry on Teacher' (1959) is one of the earlier Carry On films, and I think that there is a tendency to overlook it.  Yet it deserves attention as one of the series with real substance to the story.  Granted, you're not always looking for substance from a Carry On film. And 'Teacher' still offers enough slapstick (the itching powder scene) and double entendre (the film stars Leslie Phillips - say no more) to satisfy someone in search of light-hearted banter.  But it also offers more.  Ted Ray puts in a brilliant performance as the Headteacher of Maudlin Street School.  He is thinking of moving on but the children don't want him to go, resulting in some genuinely touching scenes.  The acerbic exchanges between Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey are so realistic that you can't help feeling that you are witnessing something of their real life relationship.  (According to Wes Butters, the pair were not unfriendly, but were very competitive.)  And, as all the best cinematic comedy does, the film gently mocks important issues of the time.  In Teacher's case, progressive education ideas are offered up as the Aunt Sally.  Leslie Phillips' character is one of the peddlers of those airy-fairy child centred education themes.  He has the stuffing knocked out of him at Maudlin Street School, and towards the end of the film he proclaims that all these ideas are alright for other people's kids.  The film really comes down on intellectual outsiders and government officials interfering with schools and teachers, who are the ones that really know what they are doing.

But even more interesting than this is the tackling of corporal punishment.  The head is firmly against any form of physical punishment, while Hattie Jacques' character bemoans the lack of it within the school.  I feel sure that this must be a reflection of the wider debate that was brewing at the time.  Corporal punishment was banned in UK schools as late as 1987 but I have no doubt that debate raged for many years before this.  Changes to cultural ideas such as this don't happen overnight and this film is evidence of this.  The film comes down on the side of the headteacher and of not caning children.  I think that unusually for a film of its time, it shows children as intelligent and aware small humans, whom adults should take time to understand rather than lash out at.  I find this stance admirable.  I'm pleased to say that I wasn't ever at the receiving end of a cane, but I do remember seeing the headmaster of my primary school giving a boy the slipper - and the unpleasant look of enjoyment on the head's face has stayed with me forever.  I have subsequently never had any respect for this particular man.

So, as well as being a Carry On film with substance, it shows insight and attitudes ahead of its time. Viva Carry On!