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.

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