I subscribe to an excellent literary quarterly called Slightly Foxed. In each issue a wide range of writers praise lesser known books; old novels and such that probably aren't on your shelves but should be. It's an expensive read - every issue contains at least one book that I feel I must purchase immediately, resulting in ebay and Green Metropolis crawls for the out of print ones. Slightly Foxed has introduced me to books and writers that have enhanced my existence and I recommend it to any fan of old literature.
One recent issue contained an article by Sarah Crowden on a book called 'London Belongs to Me' by Norman Collins. I was interested. But my interest barometer burst its glass when it was mentioned that a film had been made of the book in 1948. A film featuring Richard Attenborough, Joyce Carey and (sharp intake of breath) Alistair Sim. An Alistair Sim film that I didn't know about? I went a bit dizzy and then hastily did a search on You Tube. Thankfully, the whole film is up there. I put the kettle on and settled down in front of the lap top.
And what a film this is, I really can't understand how I could have missed it. Sim takes a fantastic part as a fake Medium, his first scene shows off his delightfully subtle humour to magnificent effect. I had an urge to give it a standing ovation. Richard Attenborough is as excellent as ever too, there are shades of his 'Brighton Rock' role in this multi faceted part. And if you enjoyed Joyce Carey behind the buffet counter in 'Brief Encounter', then you'll appreciate her in this film too.
I don't want to give away too much about the plot, but basically it revolves around residents of a large house which has been split into flats. Joyce Carey is the landlady presiding over a mixed bunch of residents as World War Two approaches. As a window on history - well I was most intregued by how some parts of the film were startlingly contemporary. I suppose that I shouldn't be all that surprised, as the film is derived from a novel, and all good novels have something to tell us about the human condition. At one point, one of the characters picks up a newspaper, which features a sensational murder investigation on the front page. He is outraged that the newspapers should give priority coverage to this sensationalist case over reports of the imminent war. Isn't that familiar?
When the perpetrator of the suspicious death in question is up in court and his sentence is discussed, I wondered why he was not being charged with manslaughter. This led to an internet trawl to find out when this particular charge was introduced. This wasn't the easiest search that I've ever undertaken, but I came to the conclusion that it was 1957. I could be wrong. But anyway, that was a historical snippet that I learned. I was never one for a detective/murder mystery novel.
In recognition of the harshness of the murder defendant's treatment a campaign is launched. Again, this brought me right up to the present day. There seems to have been one or two campaigns stemming from the present law's difficulty in keeping up with technology's so rapid advances. And I suppose that at the end of the 1930's deaths associated with a car (as this one was) - with their rapidly growing numbers and speeds - were something relatively new. The campaign shown in 'London Belongs to Me' certainly rang some bells, despite the lack of computer technology. The petition, the march, the banners - we see them now.
One aspect of the film gave away the true age of the story, and that is the portrayal of women. With a nod to my previous posts around Jessica Mann's book, The Fifties Mystique, I can only re-iterate how glad I am to live now. In this film, the women are completely defined by their relationships with men. The landlady is clinging on to precarious respectability on her dead husband's legacy, and is so desperate for male company that she is taken in by the fake Medium. Then there is the mother of Richard Attenborough's character; the wife of another strong male character - and his daughter. The daughter's story revolves around her boyfriends and her parents' hope that she will marry so that her future will be assured and they will have no further need to consider her in their plans. There is one exception. The single woman tenant who has got by on her wits, who has a job and a fair bit of cheek/gumption. But, guess what? She's portrayed as a scrounging, sad slattern that they all despise. She just doesn't know her place.
But I began to wonder about this. We all know that films often take liberties with the original texts that they are drawn from. Were the characters written this way, or does the film do the book an injustice? An interesting thought, given that the film was made in 1948, when women were being pressurised to know their place as mothers and home-makers and give up their wartime work. Have the book's characters been sacrificed to a sneaky bit of propaganda? There's only one way to find out. Better add it to my towering To Be Read pile.