Monday, 31 December 2012

A Lifelong Encounter

One of my favourite films – and that of many people according to Twitter – is ‘Brief Encounter’(1945).  Who wouldn’t love a film set mainly on a shadowy railway station that is littered with graceful old engines punctuating the pent up dialogue – doing just what the protagonists can’t allow themselves to – by letting off copious amounts of steam.  The station and buffet staff offer brilliantly delivered light relief; who wouldn’t want Stanley Holloway checking their ticket or handling the hooligans?  The film seems to lend itself to any mood that you might be in.  You can laugh along with Holloway and Carey; find poetry in Coward’s clipped dialogue; cry for the never-to-be in life or seek comfort in other peoples’ predicaments.  Need to make a life changing decision?  Watch and be guided on the consequences ahead of you.

Is this a film that I can use as a historical resource though?  I’m not sure that we can use the protagonists’ predicament and their reactions as evidence for a change in society.  To be honest, I think that it is all pure romanticism.  The film was made at the close of World War Two when we know for a fact that many thousands of people quite understandably decided to live for the present and not put so much analysis into their actions as these two.  One only has to check the birth rate and divorce statistics for the 1940s for evidence.  And though I love Noel Coward dearly, one thing that you can’t accuse much of his work of is stark realism.  I’m also willing to bet that there were many contemporary female cinema-goers who quite rightly responded with a sniffy “Well, it would be nice to have so much free time on my hands to even consider running off.”  I think that it would be quite wrong of anyone to use ‘Brief Encounter’ as evidence for a slip in society standards.  We all have moral boundaries that differ from other peoples’, and this happens to be a film about two people’s wrestle with their own.

I wonder if even the steam trains are truly indicative of the stock in use at the time, which would have been very run down or ill-maintained by the late 1940s.  I can’t help thinking that all the stops were pulled out for the well- respected director (David Lean). I’m afraid that I must conclude that most of this film is pure fantasy.  But somehow Coward and Lean gauged the fantasy just right, judging by the widespread love for it.  Which probably says much about the British character – we like our heroes and heroines to be miserable in their sin, and our action to take place on a northern railway station.  None of that euphoric rolling around on California beaches for us thank you very much!  Suits me fine.  But there is one thing about the film which tickles the historian in me.  That is Laura’s visit to Boots to change her library books. 

When I first saw the film as a teenager I was agog.  “Boots?  Yer What?” I probably exclaimed.  Now to me, a child of the 1970s/80s, Boots means headache tablets, baby goods, make up and a constant obsessive accumulation of Advantage Points in order to indulge my terrible addiction to screamingly expensive cosmetics and perfume.  Library books meanwhile are only housed in municipal or academic buildings and are a source of most of my knowledge, my school being on the whole a bit rubbish.  One place is a temple to bodily concerns, the other a temple to knowledge and learning.  The two have nothing in common.  So to learn that Boots the chemist once had a lending library arm was a total revelation.  And so I went on to discover that the sort of branch library that we know (and love if we’ve got any sense) is a relatively recent thing.  A transient thing if certain philistines get their way.  (How else are children going to learn stuff that their school isn’t allowed to teach them anymore?  Google can never live up to that discovery on a dusty back shelf.  It doesn’t offer you results alphabetically by author allowing that random discovery that offers you a lifetime of reading pleasure.)  Previously Boots plugged a bit of a gap in the market by making popular novels available to borrow when you joined their library for a fee.  I’ve since learned that you could also borrow books from libraries in Harrods and Selfridges, if you were the right kind of person. 

So, if Brief Encounter is to be a lesson in anything it’s that without branch libraries you may end up stuck with a limited amount of books sandwiched between other more worldly goods.  And what’s more, you have to pay to borrow them.  It’s enough to make you need a doctor.  Where’s Trevor when you want him?  Trev!  I’ve got something in my eye!

Friday, 21 December 2012

Running in the Family

I’m not sorry to be seeing the back of 2012. It’s not been one of those years that I shall look back on with fondness.  Rather, I shall be filing it away in the back drawer of my memory.

One stand out reason for this casting aside of 2012 was the loss of both of my Grandmothers within six months of each other.  My Mum’s Mum was aged 95, while my Dad’s Mum decided to leave us on her 94th birthday. (Honestly Nan, Clinton’s wouldn’t take the card back.  You could have hung on a bit longer.)  So, I know that I can hardly say that it was unexpected at those ages, but still, they seemed to be doing so well and I almost felt that they would go on forever.  To me, they had been around forever.  Always there, with their subtle grandmotherly encouragement, the sort that has blind faith in your ability to succeed and won’t tolerate your self-perceived limitations.  Of course, like most people, I took them and their gifts for granted.  So, I still can’t quite believe that they have both gone, and at times I almost forget that they’re not here anymore to answer my genealogy questions and wonder at my children’s’ achievements.

The best gift that came from them is my love of old film and so, indirectly, they are partly responsible for this blog.  Both of my parents had to work on Saturdays when I was young and I would go and spend the day with my Mum’s parents.  If it was a fine day, Grandad might drive us out to a place of historical interest.  We went for miles around in his burgundy Hillman Imp and later banana yellow Vauxhall Chevette – and there the seeds of my later study were sown.  On other Saturdays, then we would have some dinner (that’s a proper northern dinner at midday) and settle down with a cup of tea for the BBC2 Saturday afternoon matinee.  Sometimes the film on offer would spark a reminiscence, and so the connection between film and history was made in my head.

Although I didn’t spend as much time with my Dad’s parents (Dad being one of five children, they had a bigger brood to see to).  But, when she was left on her own, Dad’s Mum appreciated time to watch a good old film.  Her taste could be more Hollywood – she lent me the occasional Joan Crawford video.  But for some reason she also absolutely loved the Old Mother Riley films.  I never asked what the attraction was.  When the time came to work through her belongings I was handed a pile of Old Mother Riley double bill DVDs.  As I looked through them with my eldest daughter, I decided to keep just one as a memento.  Being into the vampire trend which seems to have taken grip of our younger generation in recent times, my daughter insisted that I keep the one entitled ‘Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire’.  I did as I was urged and put it to one side for a while.

My daughter and I eventually watched the film one Sunday afternoon, after getting rid of the other two members of our household, neither of whom is tolerant of old films.  I found the humour to be rather bizarre at times, despite having grown up with, say, ‘Vic Reeves Big Night Out’.  But my daughter seemed to thoroughly enjoy it and wanted to watch the second film on the double bill.  For those of you unfamiliar with Old Mother Riley, she is, in fact a bloke dressed as an old woman (always a good starting point with the youngsters).  Played by Arthur Lucan, this music hall act transferred to film in the late 1930s.  The vampire film was his last, made in 1952 not long before he died.  His wife played his sidekick daughter (Kitty McShane) until they separated in the early 1950s so consequently the vampire film is one of the few without a role for her.

The vampire film, as an example of the Old Mother Riley genre, shows it to be an unashamedly old fashioned one which makes no attempt to hide the music hall origins.  Sudden bursts of song, slapstick routines and clunky storylines abound.  But despite this I was happy to pass the time with it, not least for Dora Bryan in her element; a young and gorgeous looking Hattie Jacques and a barely recognisable Richard Wattis.  Opportunities also presented themselves to make this into a little history lesson as my daughter presented me with questions about one or two things that she didn’t understand.  These in fact turned out to be questions about aspects of history that I had not really noticed myself.  They were almost off my radar and so that fresh pair of eyes added something to my own viewing.

Her most interesting question concerned the receipt by Old Mother Riley of a telegram.  “What’s a telegram?” came the question.  I don’t think that I remember telegrams myself, but they are such a major part of 20th Century history that they are firmly embedded in my psyche.  I presume that they are for anyone who has lived with relatives who were involved in World War Two.  In most families, there must be the legend of “that telegram” that turned life inside out.  I managed to outline the procedure of sending and receiving one, and the reasons why you would use this system instead of a letter in the post.  To a child that has grown up with email, this is pretty jaw dropping stuff, I learned.  I immediately felt at once knowledgeable and old!

Another question about lack of seatbelts in the car, followed up by a discussion of when seatbelts became law (in my mind unfortunately linked with the disturbing image of Jimmy Saville shaking an egg box) ensued.  Again, this was another eye-opener for me on what it must be like growing up now, in our culture of safety first.  I compared myself 35 years or so ago, rolling freely around the back seat of my Grandad’s Hillman, to now, when my turning of the ignition key is invariably accompanied by a call of “Are you both plugged in?” and a horror of moving off before both my girls are firmly strapped into their booster seats.

Watching this film made me both think about history and where our future may be heading.  I wonder how Nan felt as, thirty years ago, she in turn explained things to me with first hand experience.  And so, as we watch their favourite films, I keep something alive and running in the family.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

By 'Eck, She was a Grand Lass

A few weeks ago I had a little look at some George Formby films.  While thinking about George, I was reminded of his fellow Lancastrian, Gracie Fields.  There are a lot of similarities between the two.  Both are two of our earliest film stars, with what is perhaps Gracie’s most famous film ‘Sing as we Go’ dating from 1934.  I watched this film on You Tube, along with 1932’s ‘Looking on the Bright Side’.

Popular sing along style music make a big contribution to both Gracie and George’s films, along with down-to-earth Lancastrian humour.  I find it quite surprising that both stars became so popular nationally – going on today’s standards it is easy to imagine them as a regional, niche hit. But there wasn’t a wide variety of entertainment back then.  I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, (though, as a Yorkshirewoman, I am meant to feel some sort of rivalry with Lancastrians!  As a Sheffielder, the main rivalry that I’m aware of is with Leeds.  They think they’re it with their fancy Harvey Nichols ways.  But I digress.) just that mass entertainment was in its infancy.  I expect that the prospect of a good old sing-along was tempting, and regional variation a novelty which added something extra.  People didn’t expect as much as we do now.

Both George and Gracie can be an acquired taste – early cinema Marmite.  Some will have loved the cheery optimism, while the more cynical in the audience will have found that this grated on their nerves.  Especially in a recession like that experienced at the beginning of the 1930s.

Despite my lifelong love of Formby, I remember my Grandad being the polar opposite. He was very dismissive of him, and often talked of the time that he saw him in real life, standing on a barge somewhere.  Apparently, George was telling everyone to clear off out of it.  Grandad was disdainful of this seeming inability to deal with the trappings of fame.

But back to the cheery optimism in time of recession.  This is the thing that I find interesting about Gracie’s films.  They don’t ignore the depression, they face up to it and acknowledge the difficulties that ordinary people were facing.   In later times, recession era entertainment seems to have gone the other way – I’m thinking Glam Rock and the 1970s.  The theme then was to revel in escapism, to douse ourselves in sequins and big hair in an attempt to temporarily forget our troubles.  And look at Hollywood in the 1930s and its lavish musicals.  But in both of Gracie’s films that I watched, she is thrown out of work. ‘Sing as we Go’ is particularly interesting in this aspect. It shows the cotton mill where she works closing down, and Gracie literally getting on her bike and looking for work.  She lands in Blackpool and does all kinds of dead end jobs until, eventually, the mill re-opens.  I suspect that this happy ending was artistic licence and that this wasn’t the outcome that the vast majority of her viewers could rely on.  But it wouldn’t do for Gracie to have sad ending – she needs to give people hope and tell you that if you keep going and keep your chin up, surely things can only improve.

‘Sing as we Go’ is also brilliant viewing for anyone interested in the history of seaside resorts and fairground rides.  Many scenes take place on Blackpool Pleasure Beach.  As I have said before about ‘Brighton Rock’, it shows that our seaside requirements really have not changed over the decades.  I didn’t see anything and think to myself “Well, that’s a piece of history, you don’t see that anymore.”  It’s amazing how contemporary some scenes are.

It seems to me that Gracie is receding into obscurity now though. Where George remains famous – people are still making documentaries about him, and playing his songs on ukeleles- you hear little about her.  It’s a shame.  Look her up on You Tube and join her in a sing song.  We are in recession again after all!    

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Mr Polly and the Nosy Parkers

I have quite recently had a couple of discussions on Twitter where we have wondered at the internet’s startling advertising capacity.  Search for something, or send someone an email asking about a particular item – and suddenly you are bombarded with advertisements for that very item.  Many compare this with Orwellian prophecy and some resent this intrusiveness and wonder what other aspects of their lives are being watched.

Being a Powell and Pressburger junkie, my thoughts turned to Roger Livesey’s character in ‘A Matter of Life and Death’.  He plays a doctor – a senior member of his community – who spends his spare time watching people going about their business using a camera obscura.  It’s a harmless past time really, the doctor is a good man and he’s not doing this with any intent – only for his own entertainment. But he knows everyone, and what they’re doing.  From this point I mused that we have always been watched by those who have some kind of moral or class superiority over us.  One of the reasons why people have migrated from small towns and villages is to escape from the fact that everyone knows their business.  This too-close community spirit has been used for centuries to police people’s actions and apply pressure to conform.  But even in the city, you’re not free from the pressure.  If you have a job, you’re under pressure to conform to your employer’s perspective.  If you’re out of work and reliant on the dole, or in previous eras, charitable handouts – then you have to jump through the ‘deserving’ hoops.  If you slip up, there are always spies somewhere prepared to shop you to the authorities.

Another film that has been on Film 4 quite a lot lately and which helps to illustrate this point is ‘The History of Mr Polly.’  This 1949 film starring John Mills puts the HG Wells novel of the same name onto the screen.  Wells, with his typically early Socialist viewpoint, examines that burgeoning section of society that is always out to climb social ladders and better themselves.  Mr Polly eventually finds his utopia in a simple, rural existence with an ample-bosomed pub landlady that he’s not married to.  You can’t help but approve of Mr Polly, even though by Edwardian values he was at risk of becoming a pariah.  He shuns the previous life that he has been forced into by society pressure.  He had married because he thought that he should – and being a pre-emancipated woman his wife was responsible for much of the pressure because it was the only thing that society allowed her to aspire to.  Mr and Mrs Polly soon find out that they don’t even like each other.  The pressure to run his own business and be respectable is so great that he resorts to drastic actions to escape.  The likes of Mrs Polly are so terrified of society and what they might think – because they know that they are constantly under surveillance from their neighbours and relatives.

Today, thankfully, most of us don’t give a toss what others do, and we can usually carve our chosen life path without too much interference from outside the immediate family.  I don’t know what my neighbours do on a daily basis (though I like a good non-judgemental speculate!) and they know very little about me – a lot less than you dear readers. We have become a very individualist society.  But the price that we pay for this is the advertising industry needing to take more of an active interest in us.  We don’t conform to stereotype anymore, and they need to pigeonhole people to make sure that their campaigns are targeting their potential customers.  And so, we have the software that tries to get clues from our internet activity.  It’s a nuisance, but I’m not worried by it too much.  I don’t completely dismiss people’s concerns.  For example, I don’t do internet banking.  Just in case. I keep my internet activity to things that I don’t mind people knowing.  If anyone wants to read my emails they’re welcome.  But I guarantee that they’ll expire of boredom before they get to the end of the page.  Anyway, in advertising at least I doubt that another human being sees anything. 

Ultimately, we can turn our computers and phones off.  It is possible to function without.  I bet that the real life inspirations for Mr Polly wished that they could shut down and unplug nosy villagers.  I bet that pre-NHS patients would have preferred a more anonymous doctor sometimes, rather than having to be intimately examined by a bloke that they might be stood next to in the queue at the Post Office – or even watching them go about their business through a camera obscura!