Thursday, 22 November 2012

The Doodlebug Dance

One good Alistair Sim film deserves another.  And after ear-wigging on someone else's Twitter conversation I was reminded of an old favourite - 'Green For Danger'.  Again, the full film is available on You Tube and is well worth a view.  If you don't know the film, but you do know your 1930s/40s film actors, here's how to be thoroughly surprised.  Don't watch the opening credits.  But when Joe Higgins, the Postman, appears have a good look at him.  Who do you think is playing him?  Have a guess and look for Joe Higgins in the closing credits.  The transformation from the character that he is most well known for is amazing.

'Green for Danger' was made in 1946 and is a murder mystery.  On the face of it, a straightforward bit of entertainment.  But there are oddities.  First of all it's a serious film, but Sim often plays his character for laughs.  Then, there is the constant presence of the flying bombs or Doodlebugs as they were nicknamed.  I'm not really sure why these things need to keep re-appearing after the first one has done it's damage and launched the storyline.

Officially called V1 and later V2 rockets, the Doodlebugs appeared towards the end of the Second World War.  They were in effect pilotless planes packed with explosives.  They were launched from continental Europe towards south eastern England, and when the fuel ran out, the engine cut and the rocket plummeted to earth, causing devastation.  Accounts from the time tell of the kind of fear that they caused, that listening with breath held for the engine to splutter out.  This is well illustrated in the film as Joe Higgins listens in the bunker and braces himself for the blast.  I think that the Doodlebugs were much more sinister than the Luftwaffe.  They were impersonal  with their lack of a human pilot.  I think that if I were experiencing that kind of warfare, I would have preferred to have been bombed by a human.  Not only were the Luftwaffe targeting infrastructure as a priority; there was the potential for human error - that they might miss your city altogether or even that the bomber might make a decision that ultimately saves you.  Unlikely I know, but with people involved you have that little sliver of hope.  With the Doodlebugs, it was simply a case of if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, you've had it.  Because the V weapons could be launched at any time without risk to a pilot, they came over in the day time, when people were going about their business.  You could sleep the night away in an underground shelter, but you have to go out at some point in the daytime to work or shop.  People fell victim while working, shopping and just walking down the street.

Back in the film, Sim seems to use the sudden need to take shelter from Doodlebugs to comic effect.  He is repeatedly shown dithering outside potential shelters or diving to the ground in a kind of dance.  Well, it's comical to us now.  But I wonder if the 1946 audience would view it in the same way.  To them, it might simply have been a harking back to 12-18 months ago and how their lives were then.  It could all be for dramatic effect - this pernicious threat of death from an invisible source, that even he who is meant to be controlling it is at a loss of what to do next.  Is Sim the comic relief - or are we a completely changed audience?  To really find out, we would need to return to that situation of daily threat of death from the skies.  I hope that this film remains a delightful little mystery to us.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Foxes, Felons and Fillies

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.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Carry On Conscripting

In my last post I mentioned National Service.  Following World War Two, UK males were subject to being called up to carry out compulsory military training, a practice which lasted until around 1960.  One film immediately springs to mind when National Service is mentioned – and that is Carry On Sergeant.  This was the very first Carry On and it was made in 1958.    Many of the Carry On regulars are there, along with famous faces such as William Hartnell, Bill Owen and Bob Monkhouse.  I really don’t like Bob Monkhouse I’m afraid, he sits firmly in my personal category of smarmy git, but his appearance is more than made up for by a delightful turn from one of my film heroines.  Dora Bryan plays Naafi Nora, who inexplicably falls desperately in love with lovely Kenneth Connor’s hypochondriac Horace.  Her attempts to woo him are the hilarious highlight of the film, especially her line where she describes her love as “painful, yet exquisite” in her inimitable style.  Oh and the bit where she corners him with her tea urn…I could go on – it’s a fantastic part.

The storyline follows one company of misfits through their 10 week training under Sgt. Grimshaw (Hartnell).  I mentioned in my previous post that troop movements continued to put pressure on the railways after World War Two and an early scene demonstrates this.  Monkhouse and Connor’s characters first meet on the train as they make their way to camp – taking the form of transport that most would have done in an age before mass car ownership.  How far the rest of the film can be used as historical evidence is difficult for me to say.  National Service is something that I know little about.  It has never been a part of any syllabus that I have studied formally, it’s not really turned up in any of the books that I’ve read and I don’t know anybody who was called up to serve it.  It’s quite a mysterious subject to me, so what can be gleaned from the film?

In order to engage and entertain the first Carry On audience, then the film has to include elements that were recognisable to an audience that would have been familiar with National Service.  It’s also a fair assumption to make that several people involved with the making of the film had done their own spell.  So there has to be some real history in here somewhere.  If I had to pick out one element of the story that rings with the most truth, that had been the catalyst for the original storyline, then it would be the character mix.  It would have been difficult to gain exemption from this conscription – only a handful of professions were exempt, including coal mining and farming.  It would have therefore brought together men from various walks of life – one of those acts of social levelling that World War Two is credited with in continuation.  The characters found in the film’s Able platoon may not be all that exaggerated, you may well have found the academic, the factory worker and mollycoddled mummy’s boy all in one barrack room.  This can only have led to friendships and changes in outlook that have lasted a lifetime.  But it is obvious that rose tinted spectacles have been put onto the camera lens.  In the film, differences and weaknesses are overcome to succeed – the required view of the era.  In my many years of observing human nature, I’m sure that this wasn’t always the case.  I expect that there were many fights, prejudices re-inforced and bad examples set.

The film also shows us the types of activities carried out by National Service soldiers – the sort of activities that you would expect.  How to put a gun together, running at the enemy with a bayonet and taking part in obstacle courses are probably basic soldiering skills and so fairly accurate.  I also wouldn’t be surprised if some of the characters were based on real people encountered by the writers or the actors interpreting their words.  It’s a taste of National Service that we should take with a pinch of Naafi Nora’s table salt, and use as a stimulating starting point for further study.