Thursday, 12 December 2013

Naval Gazing

Having attempted to trace my family tree, I can confidently assert that I have sea-salt in my blood.  I am descended from a long line of Cornish/Devonian sailors.  We even have a seafaring claim to fame as Jack Crawford – “Hero of the Battle of Camperdown” is apparently a great-times-several uncle.  He even has his own statue in Sunderland and a Wikipedia page – and having read this and how he sold his medal to buy booze I am quite convinced and ready to accept him as one of my own.  More recently, my great uncle was lost on the HMS Prince of Wales, sunk off Singapore in the middle of World War Two.  His memory has resonated down three generations.

But I know that I am not unusual in this – despite my having grown up nowhere near the coast.  We are a small group of islands so it is only natural that many of us have taken to the seas over the centuries.  There has also been a lot of prestige attached to the Royal Navy, which must have made it an attractive proposition to a young man with not much in the way of an interesting future before him, especially in the days before there were planes to fly.  The navy has also been an attractive subject to film-makers, and the service’s Second World War exploits have been well documented.

I recently stumbled across a 1939 film called ‘Sons of the Sea’.  Filmed in lavish colour, this is very obviously a recruitment drive for the impending war.  The storyline mostly takes place at Dartmouth Naval College, and I would guess that permission to film there meant that the film did have official blessing.  Scenes of parades at the college and the beautiful local scenery are deliberately placed to make the hardest of British hearts swell with pride.  There’s a lot here for the vintage transport enthusiast, including some delicious chocolate and cream GWR action.  But there are not that many boats – surprising for a film about navy personnel.  This could be because the film is mainly about the officer class and it is mainly parades and desks.  If this film was an officially blessed recruitment drive, it appears that the navy at this point in time were much more interested in attracting officers than ratings.  They knew that conscription would bring them enough of the general cannon fodder that they needed, but they worked to attract the cream of the middle classes to come and give the orders.

If there is one contemporary navy-themed war film that stands out for me, it is ‘In Which We Serve’. This 1942 film is, in the film’s own words, the story of a ship.  It follows the adventures of the fictional HMS Torrin and its crew – going right across the board from Noel Coward’s upper class captain to John Mills’ salt of the earth cockney.  This too had the blessing of the Ministry of Information, and of course it had to have some sort of feelgood and morale boosting factor about it.  But it does not shy away from reality.  The ship is torpedoed and sailors lose their lives, perhaps illustrating that British audiences wouldn’t have accepted a load of old flannel and the powers that be knew that.   This is good news for us, because we do see some genuine concerns from the time.  I was particularly interested to see the recognition of how modern warfare made life even more difficult for servicemen than it had ever been before.  The bombing of cities by the Luftwaffe meant that for the first time, those serving on board ships had as much cause to worry about their loved ones as vice-versa.  Plymouth, where many naval wives and families lived, was particularly targeted by bombers.  The Chief Petty Officer’s loss of his wife and mother-in-law during a raid in the film was true to life.  Miraculously, John Mills’ wife and unborn child survive, despite being in the same house.  This is where the censors must have stepped in – because countless children and babies were killed in the Plymouth raids.  The death of a pregnant woman must have been deemed too much for contemporary audiences to take, showing us where the morale line was drawn.

Looking at these two films together provides some perspective on how attitudes changed in World War Two.  As Britain approached war, ordinary sailors were not deemed interesting enough to star in a film or worth a lot of effort to recruit.  By 1942 their lives take centre stage in a screenplay written by upper-class aspirational Noel Coward.  At last the efforts of the masses are being recognised, I wonder if this was a sea-change for film? 

But let’s not forget our naval heroes, as depicted in this sort of film. Not those heroes with statues or pubs named after them.  Those whose only memorial is the sea itself, the same sea that defines us as a nation.

This is the last posting for 2013, I'll be back in 2014.  In the meantime, you might like to spend your Christmas break reading my book, Matinee Musings, available on Amazon:

I will also be bringing out a new book of short stories very soon.  Look out for it on my Amazon page - 'Athene and Other Stories' by Sarah Miller Walters.  Publication will be announced on my other blog: Here's an extract to get you in the mood:  

 Not many of the evacuees wanted to go to Owl Farm.  It was run by the Widow Woolton, a tall and stocky woman whose voice violently ricocheted off the walls of the village hall as she made her selection.  Her husband, Farmer Woolton, had given up his life during the 1939 harvest.  That is, a lot of people said that the incident with the thresher had been suicide.  His wife had patently married him for his farm and it has to be said that she was born to a life dedicated to the country.  Ever since their union, he had declined in strength while hers continually multiplied.  She became expert in new farming methods where he remained novice and she flaunted her skills making him feel less useful by the month.  None of Farmer Woolton’s relatives had dared to claim inheritance of the farm and besides; they were all away with the forces.  Widow Woolton remained in firm control of Owl Farm, and relished the challenge of helping to feed a country at war.

There were several spare rooms at the farmhouse, it being of the tall sash-windowed Georgian type of building.  Land Girls took up some of those, the widow relishing the opportunity to act the part of Amazon Queen over such green young women.  But she had one large bedroom set aside for evacuees, and insisted on having first choice of any healthy looking boys that arrived in the district.  All but the most bravado filled boy shrunk from being selected by Widow Woolton.  Her eyes reminded them of bus headlamps from before the blackout.  When they realised that they were destined for a farm, they knew that they would be put to work, that they has been chosen for their ability to lift and carry. The best that they could make of it was to hope for extra rations.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Getting Away With It

‘Private’s Progress’ (1956) is an interesting film in that it seems to have had a big influence over two other films from the late 1950s.  Produced by the Boulting Brothers, they must have enjoyed making the film and its success.  Much of the cast reappeared in their more famous ‘I’m Alright Jack’ three years later, cast in similar roles.  Also, there are heavy reminders of 1958’s ‘Carry on Sergeant’, with the presence of William Hartnell playing pretty much the same character in both films.
Who's the Sergeant by @aitchteee

 Ian Carmichael plays the useless Private Windrush, whose disastrous progress we follow throughout the film.  Being a posh boy he should of course have been an officer, but his total ineptitude in everything he tries leads to him being shoved in with the masses.  The film is set around 1943-ish – over halfway through the war.  Being a Boulting production there is a heavy element of satire in the story, the target of which is criminal activity.  If we take on board what the film suggests, we can only conclude that wartime crime was rife – that almost everybody was dabbling in something.  Of course we are all aware of the archetypal spiv, but the idea of so many taking part doesn’t sit easily with the idea of noble Britain fighting the good fight as if it were a game of cricket.  As ever, I turned to my wartime bible for answers – that is Juliet Gardiner’s book ‘Wartime Britain 1939 – 1945’.  There are unarguable statistics which back up ‘Private’s Progress’’ insinuation that crime was indeed rife.  By 1945, crime was up 57% on the 1939 statistics. To some extent this was because there were more crimes to commit under wartime legislation.  Circumstances also provided a lot of new opportunities – for example the blackout leading to an increase in theft, and bombing leading to a shameful explosion of looting.

Richard Attenborough’s character, Cox, has all the scams and delightfully shares them with anyone who’ll listen.  We particularly learn how to get away with making a railway journey without paying for a ticket.  It does seem to be the case that the railways did suffer greatly from the crimewave – and not just in terms of non fare paying passengers.  According to a book published by the LMS in 1946, detailing its role in World War Two, theft from the company ranged from a huge amount of petty pilfering to organised raids on warehouses.  Some gangs took full advantage of the confusion and panic caused by air raids to loot railway property while bombs fell around them.  So, railways were a good choice to focus on and allowed the film to avoid getting too heavy.  Not all petty crime was amusing, as many of Gardiner’s looting accounts attest.

‘Private’s Progress’ also points out that this increase in crime or opportunism wasn’t just taking place among the lower classes.  And it suggests that the higher you stood in society, the bigger and better the opportunity.  There is, however, not as much solid information to be had on crime among the elite.  Not surprising – the rich were always more likely to get away with their misdemeanours.  The class system is shown up as the biggest accomplice that there ever was.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Frankie Says...

‘The Lady is a Square’ (1959) is Anna Neagle’s final film, made just before she retired from the screen in favour of the stage.  Although not one of the greats, this film is certainly a pleasant way to fill 90 minutes.  Neagle is supported by a host of familiar faces including Wilfred Hyde-White, Frankie Vaughn, Janette Scott and Antony Newley.  All give a solid performance of an engaging storyline.

I found the story of particular resonance because of a book that I had just finished reading.  That is David Kynaston’s “Modernity Britain – Opening the box 1957 -1959.”  This exceptionally readable history book describes how Britain had begun to shake off austerity and lay the foundations of a country that we would recognise today.  ‘The Lady is a Square’ could also, in a much more simplistic way, tell us something about this transitional period.  Although Kynaston’s work is more rigorous and far-reaching, contemporary film is like a message in a bottle sent to us from that period of history itself.

The note inside this bottle would tell us that this is the point when talent began to take precedence over name.  Neagle plays Mrs Baring, the “old money”; she has taken over the running of her late husband’s orchestra and knows all the right names.  She and her daughter (Janette Scott) live in a fashionable townhouse and have servants.  However, it soon becomes apparent that this is a financial fa├žade.  The bills are unpaid and it transpires that the overdraft is big.  Her world is on the brink of collapse.
Anna by @aitchteee
Of course it is Frankie Vaughn who saves her, after becoming smitten with her daughter.  He is a fledgling rock singer, and when his career takes off it is his money that bails out the Barings and the orchestra.  It is only when Neagle joins in with the “kids” on the dancefloor that you know her future has been secured.  She couldn’t beat them so she joined them.

This has to be a reflection of the general feeling of the time.  Old money was out of fashion.  The rich were being taxed to oblivion (there is a direct reference to this in the film).  If they were to keep up their lifestyles then they had to join the modern world and diversify their act.  The old guard were losing influence.  People were beginning to take notice of rock stars, film stars and entrepreneurs, who were a great deal more interesting to look at and to listen to.  Cliff was in the Hit Parade and The Beatles were on their way.  This film gives us a snapshot of this actually happening.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Don’t Envy Jim

‘Lucky Jim’ (1957) is based on the novel of the same name by Kingsley Amis.  As is usual with films derived from famous novels, it presents a much abridged version of the story.  Any attempt at analysing the film as a historical resource would therefore be a shadow of what could be gleaned by analysing the book instead.  There may be some visuals that provide incidental information – car types, railway scenes or fashions for example.  But Amis meant this story to be a document of its time and it deliberately lays into the education and class systems.  This isn’t a literary criticism blog.  I had enough of that to last me a lifetime when I did A Level in English Literature.  Blimey, if I never see “The Grapes of Wrath” again it’ll be too soon. Anyway, I’m sure many intelligent people have made a much better go of analysing the literary ‘Lucky Jim’ than I have the capability or inclination to.

But, as a student of history, there was one particular scene which caught my attention.  Towards the end of the film, Jim Dixon (Ian Carmichael) drunkenly rebels against being forced to deliver a history lecture that has been prepared by his boss, Professor Welch.  The lecture is on the subject of “Merrie England”, and it paints the English Middle Ages as a golden age of music and dance.  Anyone can see that this is a heavily biased view of a period that for most people was nasty, brutish and short.  It goes completely against Jim’s principles to deliver this “bunkum” and Professor Welch is shown as being completely out of touch with modern academic study.  This caught my interest because, 60 + years on, we still struggle against an often over-romantic view of history.  But now, we are over-romanticising the period in which ‘Jim’ was written and filmed.
Ian Carmichael as Lucky Jim by @aitchteee
The current craze for vintage, which seems to centre on the 1950s – from fashion to music styles to home baking - has in no doubt been initiated by the often overwhelming pressure of modern life.  But as we hark back we are selective.  We seem to imagine the 1950s as a golden era, sandwiched between austerity and psychedelia, when everyone had a job and knew their place.  Where everything was stylishly designed and built to last.  We conveniently forget that those cosy coal fires caused deadly smogs, that those chromed up cars caused carnage on the roads, that too many people lived in slums and didn’t have access to an inside toilet never mind the latest furniture designs. Look at ‘Lucky Jim’ itself for evidence that the 1950s were not so golden.  Despite the advent of grammar schools, introduced to give the intelligent from the lower classes a hand up, the class system still exerted a toughened glass ceiling.  You were judged on your voice, on your school and on your clothes.  Womens’ roles are only supportive and their presence in academia is treated as a joke.

As the film might have been subtitled: We never learn, do we?

Monday, 21 October 2013

Gravy Trains

Two Way Stretch’ (1960) should be listed among British cinema classics.  It stars Peter Sellers – a man whose work is much picked over and discussed.  Personally, I really like to see this film because of Bernard Cribbins, perfectly cast in the role of Lenny the Dip.  I particularly like the scene when his screen mother, played by Irene Handl, visits him in the prison where much of the film is set.  Having caused raised eyebrows when her shopping bag breaks to release a torrent of tools (“Ain’t you ever seen a home perm kit before, Officer?”) she then goes on to berate her son for bringing shame on the family by not attempting to escape.  Lenny’s sister is played by Liz Fraser in one of her best film roles.  I always think it a shame that Irene and Liz’s turns as a crooked mother and daughter were never reprised in a further film.  They are a brilliant double act, but I presume that, being female, they were not thought able to carry a feature on their own merits.  Another sterling turn is delivered by Wilfred Hyde-White as Soapy Stevens, a part that was surely written with him in mind.
Hyde White by @aitchteee
An added cast attraction for me is seeing “Our Thorley” (as we always refer to him) in action.  Thorley Walters is one of those bit-part actors that appeared in a lot of films in the 1950s and 60s. I often wonder if we have a common ancestor, as he was from Devon and my Walters roots are firmly in Devon and Somerset.  It would be rather wonderful to have a classic British film connection in the family tree.

A perfect cast then, and some very funny lines as part of a nail-biting storyline.  ‘Two Way Stretch’ is a shining example of how well we used to make films.  However, on my recent viewing, I found something rather melancholy about the final scenes of the film.  A sense that we really are losing our way in some respects.  It begins when the newly released prisoners arrive at the railway station – possibly Paddington although I’m not completely sure.  But as a comparison with a modern mainline station it certainly comes off best.  The station looks grander, neater, less cluttered with signs and advertisements.   There are advertising posters, but these are the classic artistic depictions of Western Region destinations, tastefully situated.  When I stand on my local station, all I can see are adverts – every available space filled in with in-your-face clever-clever selling.  Of course every bit of the railway is going to be given over to commercialism now that they are privately run, and the sole purpose is to make money rather than run an efficient transport system.

Once the gang are on the train – with a sackful of stolen diamonds, they are able to have a quiet compartment to themselves.  A much more civilised way of travel over the crammed cattle-class carriages of today.  Fearing that they have been rumbled, Lenny is sent up onto the train roof with the diamonds.  Inevitably, the sack of loot ends up being collected on one of those lineside nets that used to collect sacks of mail.  There again is a reminder of something else lost to the modern world.  Mail trains are already a thing of the past, and now the Royal Mail itself is being sold off to greedy people who already owned it.  This isn’t just nostalgia that the film brought out in me, but sadness that we now live in a society where everything is a commodity and nothing is a service.  A service that, if it was run properly by far-sighted people, could really do something positive for the economy.  

How very apt that those thoughts were brought to me by a film about thieves. 

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Strictly Off The Record

Most of us are familiar with the World War Two information poster.  Indeed only those that have been in a coma for the past couple of years could have failed to miss the ubiquitous “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster.  This seems to have become the most famous, though ironically it was not used at the time.  Several other well known wartime posters were produced with the purpose of persuading the country to watch what it was saying:
·        Careless Talk Costs Lives
·        Walls Have Ears
·        Be Like Dad, Keep Mum
are still familiar phrases to us today.  But do we ever give any thought to what lies behind those exhortions to watch your mouth?

I recently watched a film which was made to be a feature length moving Careless Talk Costs Lives poster.  ‘Next of Kin’ was released by Ealing Studios in 1942, after originally being commissioned for troop information. It sets out in detail how enemy spying worked, the kind of information that spies were after and how this information is easily given away.  The cost of this careless talk – telegrams to the next of kin – is spelt out starkly.  It is not just a series of instructions – it is an involving story peopled by sympathetic characters and acted out by familiar actors.  The storyline is compelling and I’m sure would have held the interest of the contemporary viewer (especially the bits with the striptease and the topless model – included to retain troop interest I’ll wager). 

It would certainly have made people stop and think about what they said and where they said it.  And for the first time it made me stop and think about the story behind the posters.  I had seen them so often in my social history books that I had never actually given a great deal of thought to why it was such an important message.   But through this film I now understand why all troop movements had to be kept secret.  I also see exactly why not another soul could be trusted to keep information to themselves, even if they betrayed by accident.  The overall message is to never trust a soul, not even those that you are closest to.  This must have been so difficult, in time of war people must have been crying out to talk to someone about their worries and their work. It reminds me of the sad story of the man whose Father was convinced that he was a coward and was shirking a “proper” wartime role. He died thinking that his son had brought him shame.  But that son was an important cog in the code breaking works at Bletchley Park and was unable to give anyone any indication of his role.  It must have taken a huge amount of stoicism and bravery to honour his vow of silence in this situation.

I highly recommend ‘Next of Kin’ to anyone who would like to know the story behind the enforced silence.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Intermission Part 3

Just published on Amazon Kindle….Matinee Musings by The History Usherette!
This book contains five extended essays on themes beloved of this blog, along with illustrations of its stars by @aitchteee.

1.    A Favourite Pastime
This looks at how film has tracked the changes to one of our favourite leisure pursuits – betting on the horses.  Between Formby in ‘Come on George’ to Sid James in ‘Carry on at Your Convenience’ there was a revolution in how betting was carried out and perceived. 
“But this shows how legalisation of off-course betting changed the demographic of those taking part.  From being something that seemingly everyone indulged in and followed, the betting shops banned children and created an atmosphere that often excluded women.  Even when I was working there, as a woman walking into some of the more down at heel branches I did at times feel daunted and under scrutiny.”

2.    Carry on NHS
This takes three of the medical Carry on films and looks at how our favourite bit of the welfare state changed during its first three decades.
“The respect for the NHS and medical profession is considerably less than in ’Carry On Nurse’.  Frankie Howerd’s character, Mr Biggar, is highly vocal in his criticism:
Nurse: “No bleeding.  Good.”
Mr Biggar: “Just like the service.” “

3.    Tunnel of Time
The British love railways, even when they don’t do what we want them to.  This looks at how our rail services have been portrayed on film, from ‘Oh! Mr Porter’ to ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’.
“Even that most famous of 1940s railway films, ‘Brief Encounter’, gives no indication of shortages or the poor condition of the engines and coaching stock that were in general use at the time.  But perhaps the omission of this information is instructive in its own way.  Even when the war had been won, there was still a need to keep morale up. “

4.    Let George Win it!
George Formby made films throughout World War Two.  He was a man of the people, so what do his films tell us about how the people fared in the war?
“If Formby’s entertainments were a gentle morale boosting contribution to the war effort, his war themed films made up for any subtlety.   Indeed, subtlety is cast aside like a grenade.  First among these is ‘Let George Do It’ (1940).  It all starts off quite normally, with a mix up on a railway station and a healthy dose of innuendo.  But George soon accidentally finds himself in Norway, as only George can do.”

5.    Films With Spirit
Spiritualism was in the air after World War Two…how was this handled by film?  This one looks at three of my favourite post war films- ‘Blithe Spirit’, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and ‘The Ghosts of Berkeley Square’.

“Powell and Pressburger depict an afterlife which has all the trappings of the traditional idea of the place, including a misty position among the stars.  One of the features of this otherworld is its unswerving bureaucracy.  Peter’s time is up.  That is an end to it and he must be called in.  A Conductor is despatched to collect him.  This, I think, is a reflection of a fatalism that must have been rife at that point in time. “ 

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Withering Heights

I recently purchased a box set of six Anna Neagle films, one of which is the 1952 drama ‘Derby Day’.  This is a more than adequate way to spend an hour and a half, but really I think that they got the star names in the wrong order.  Googie Withers is the supporting headline name.  But she is the reason to watch this film, if you needed one.  I like Googie – a lot.  She never seemed to quite reach the top, to achieve that one defining role that put her on the highest shelf.  But she was an extremely fine actress.  I wonder if it was merely a case of the starring roles never being offered because she didn’t quite fit a required mould – or if she deliberately kept stardom at arm’s length.   Either way, I admire her for what she managed to achieve in the face of it.  She also achieved that rarity – a long marriage to a fellow actor.  Her husband, John McCullum, stars alongside her in Derby Day.  They were separated only by his death more than half a century after this film was made.
Googie by @aitchteee
I think that her best role was in ‘Miranda’.  In this very witty comedy film she is mistress of the raised eyebrow.  Her delightfully expressive face is one the unsung highlights of a female-centric film where she faces stiff competition from Margaret Rutherford and Glynis Johns.  But her role in ‘Miranda’ – a well-heeled doctor’s wife – is probably not that far off her real background, as she was empire-reared and privately educated.  Her role in ‘Derby Day’ however was probably much more of an acting challenge for Googie.  She plays a poor housewife, whose husband works at Battersea Power Station and who has to take in lodgers to help make ends meet.  Quite possibly a natural born Londoner might take issue with her accent, but it sounded fine to me.  I thought that she tackled the role well and was wholly believable in the role.

I was also interested to see the post-war working class household as depicted by Googie and her screen husband and lodger.  Some aspects of this have gone forever.  Waiting in for the Tuesday coal delivery, to be tipped into a purpose built outhouse is most definitely a thing of the past.  The Clean Air Act has seen to that.  Changes in society have meant that Googie’s character could have got a decent full time job rather than spend her days drudging away for two men.  I wonder if there has been a rise in the number of lodgers again in recent years, as homes have become so unaffordable in many parts of the country.  If this is the case though, it will not be on the same footing, where they have their meals cooked for them and all household jobs done.  It will be more a case of the spare room being rented out and cooking/cleaning facilities shared.

There was one other small scene which stood out for me.  This was the keeping of savings in the house.  I was brought up – along with most of my generation I presume – to believe that all savings were safest in the bank.  Not only could nobody pinch it, you might get some interest too.  We had a mini Yorkshire Bank branch at school and I had a Post Office savings account from very early on.  This film not only harks back to the days when banks were not for the working class, but also reminds us of what could happen if people do lose faith in them.  Over the past few years, banks have lost much of their respectability, people no longer trust them as they did and to make matters worse, interest rates have plummeted.  I have heard it said many times that “you would be better keeping it under the mattress.”  Just where unsavoury visitors to your home – or intruders – can get to it.  Googie’s lodger goes off with her savings after murdering her husband – let that be a lesson to us all!

The way forward out of this situation is to join your local Credit Union, a community savings bank and lender.  I have carried out work alongside my local one in my professional life and I really believe that everyone should invest in their local union.  But whether you take this advice or not, don’t put it all on a horse in the Derby!

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Going To Extremes

‘The Yellow Canary’ (1943) stars Anna Neagle and Richard Greene, with show-stealing support from Margaret Rutherford.  Neagle plays the upper class socialite Sally Maitland, and the action is set in 1940.  At the beginning of the film we see her being shunned, insulted and berated over her pro-Nazi sympathies.  We learn that she has spent time in Berlin with the upper echelons of the Nazi party and that she makes no secret of her admiration for them.

Through this early plot line I was immediately reminded of those controversial 1930s socialites the Mitford sisters.  These women  continue to hold a fascination for us even today and I have to admit that I am among those who devour their diaries, letters and memoirs.  This is not, I hasten to add, out of any sense of admiration.  I think I speak for a lot of Mitford-ites when I say that their appeal is like that of a diamond-encrusted car crash.  To anyone with an interest in inter-war society and politics they are unavoidable.  Diana, Unity and Jessica – the politically active half of the set – represent the extremes of everything about that time. And to add to the spice they were all three of them as mad as a fruitcake inside a box of frogs.

I was first made aware of the Mitfords when I studied 1930s British history.  As part of my coursework I was sent off to examine why British politics did not succumb to extremism, unlike other European countries during those restless years.  From Oswald Moseley and his Fascist Blackshirts it is an easy step to take to Diana (Moseley’s lover, then wife) and Unity Mitford and their pro-Hitler antics.  I concluded that one relevant factor in the British retention of democracy is simply the national personality and our collective sense of humour.  Our determination to prick the bubbles of pomposity is a national sport.  Moseley and his Blackshirts were deliciously sent up by P.G. Wodehouse with his Roderick Spode character.  Even his sister-in-law Nancy Mitford (the marginally sane one) wrote a satirical novel starring Captain Jack and the Union Jackshirts called “Wigs on the Green” (1935).  Nancy was so patently having a pop at Diana’s beloved that it opened up a long standing rift between the sisters.  If this is what was happening in the higher echelons, I find it very easy to imagine that variety theatres in Blackshirt stamping grounds would have had a few turns who poked fun at the local lads who liked to play at dressing up and go mincing about the streets.  There is also a Mass Observation report of a Blackshirt meeting in the East End being broken up by a group of people doing the Lambeth Walk through the middle of it.   Where some countries stood in thrall to enigmatic extremists, we found that whole speeching/marching thing slightly embarrassing and giggled at it.

To return to ‘The Yellow Canary’, the storyline of this film gave me a new dimension to the story of Britain and of the fascist Mitfords.  That Sally Maitland is meant to represent a Mitford is obvious.  But the outcome of her story is vastly different to that of Diana and Unity. Sally turns out to be on our side after all, and has merely cultivated a pro-Nazi cover for her spying activities.  At the end of the film she saves half of Canada from being blown up and is publicly exonerated.  Neither Diana nor Unity ever renounced Fascism or Hitler, the former spending the war in Holloway Prison; the latter attempting suicide on the outbreak of hostilities and never recovering from her gunshot wound.  This demonstrates how war temporarily changed our national personality in a way that we tend to forget, or gloss over.  During the 1930s, people followed the Mitfords’ antics with a raised eyebrow, they took up space in the gossip columns, causing minor sensations.  In wartime, this amusement was replaced by fear.  No matter how we are portrayed as smiling through the worst of it, fear permeated society.  The possibility that people at the top, those with connections and power, were against democracy was too much to countenance.  All we had was hope.  Hope that there was some good in these people somewhere, and that there might be a reasonable explanation behind their behaviour.

Over time we have been fed images of Churchill, of the Battle of Britain and of blitzed cities battling on.  We have been fed a belief that the British bloody-minded attitude, a refusal to give in is what got us through.  Amid all the glorification, which grows with each passing year, we must remember that war means fear, it means subjugation of other facets of our personality.  And the source of that fear could be anywhere amongst us.

Please visit my Amazon page for more film fun

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Never Never Land

‘Turned Out Nice Again’ starring George Formby, seems quite an unusual film.  Firstly, he marries at the beginning of the story, which hardly ever happens to him.  Usually, much of the storyline revolves around him getting his girl against all the odds.  Secondly, although it was made in the darkest days of World War Two (1941) there is no mention of the war.  There doesn’t even seem to be any underlying message along the lines of “Keep Calm and Carry On” or “Dig For Victory”.  It is 75 minutes of pure escapism back to the pre-war world, with not a uniform in sight to jolt viewers back to an unpleasant reality.  This is actually not that out of kilter with the times.  Cinema and theatre receipts from the time do show that people unsurprisingly had a strong preference for escapism.

I was also quite surprised by the rampant capitalism shown in ‘Turned Out Nice Again’.  The storyline involves George working as an overseer at a textile mill in Preston.  He is climbing up the career ladder and a recent promotion has enabled his marriage to take place.  Charged with running a sales exhibition in that London, he finds himself in ruthless company a long way from home and sensible advice.  He is duped into giving away his life savings in return for the rights to a new type of yarn.  He returns back to the mill with it, has a row with the stuffy company director and is sacked.  But of course, this being a morale boosting feelgood film, it all comes good for George.  The yarn becomes highly sought after and he both gets his job back and a share of the profits.

This film seems to be showing us an idealised lifestyle that you would think would be more in keeping with the 1980s.  George is keen to move up in life, he saves well, and then risks those savings in order to increase his income and the output of the mill.  Much is also made of the marital home, which is furnished on “tick”, that is on credit with regular payments.  I didn’t realise that hire purchase was so easily available pre-war, and that the tradition of the older generation berating the young for buying things that they can’t afford was so well established.  But George and his new wife furnish their entire house, probably using an h.p. price plan, from a local furniture store.  They return to take it all back when George appears to be bankrupt and it is as if the removal men were in.  So this shows that even then, families were being encouraged to aspire to a way of life beyond their immediate means.  This is actually quite a modern film for one that is over 70 years old – if you put aside George’s wife’s role as the deferential housewife.

Finally, I must just put a word in for George’s mother, who has a strong role in this film (usually she remains behind the scenes, despite his frequent exhortions to her).  She is played here, quite hilariously, by Elliott Mason.  I think I may adopt her catchphrase to throw at my own children:

“Eeeh to think, I was four and a half hours under chloroform having you!”

Turned Out Nice Again! by @aitchteee

Monday, 2 September 2013

Intermission 2

September 2013 marks the second anniversary of The History Usherette.  To mark the occasion I have put together my top 16 posts in a Kindle book entitled Past Projections – The Best of The History Usherette.  There is also a short introduction and illustrations of your favourite film stars!  The book can be found here:

All of the little essays are still available on this blog, this is a little posterity collection that can be kept on a kindle or tablet device for when you need an old film fix.  I am currently nearing completion of a book of new material to be called Matinee Musings.  This is a series of five extended essays on some of my favourite film themes.  Keep an eye out here, Facebook or on my Amazon Author Page for this one.  I hope to publish before the end of the year.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Match of the Year

You Tube suggested another Arthur Askey film to me after I had watched him in ‘Miss London Limited’.  More Arthur and more steam trains beckoned, this time with the added bonus of Thora Hird (such an underrated film actress) in fine fettle as Arthur’s wife.  The only downside of this 1955 film, entitled ‘The Love Match’, is Shirley Eaton’s dodgy Lancashire accent.  The rest is a giddy trot through a storyline which plays second fiddle to pure slapstick and some hilarious lines.  In particular, Danny Ross’ turn as gauche youth Alf Hall made me shed tears of joy.  This film is an absolute gem that deserves to be much better known.

I think that the story is rather too longwinded for me to go into here.  As I said earlier, it is, strangely, not that important either.  It is the characters and their interactions that make this film for me.  But much of the plot involves football matches and this gives us a little mid-century glimpse of the game and how it used to be.  The earliest scenes show Askey as an engine driver, who, along with his fireman, is desperate to get back home in time to see the City game.  Finding the ground full when they arrive, they climb over a fence into the kop.  Once in, not only do they stand and watch the game, the loco fireman lights a cigarette.  Neither of these two actions are permitted today due to health and safety concerns.  Another change is that the spectators are absolutely male.  Although the modern terraces are still dominated by men, women and families are much more visible now.  This 1950s game is like an outdoor working men’s club, where you get the impression that a female would be seen as spoiling the men’s freedom to swear at the referee and to expect their tea on the table when they get home.

In order to keep the working lads going until that evening meal that they feel entitled to, they may well indulge in a meat pie; one of these features heavily in the first match shown in this film.  As far as I’m aware, a meat pie is still a vital part of the experience for many supporters today.  This is one of the few aspects that does remain the same, along with wearing scarves in team colours, and the mid Saturday afternoon kick off time – presumably a hang over from the days when most men’s jobs involved a Saturday morning shift.  Another important role that football plays in this film is as a source of partisanship. Growing up in a northern city, this is something that I am very familiar with.  It seems that with one or two southern exceptions (London and Bristol spring to mind), it is mainly the old industrial centres of the midlands and the north that are prone to this situation.  I’m not sure why this should be the case – perhaps it was something to do with the need for more than one sports club to meet demand for respite from the suffocating furnaces and mines.  My city is firmly divided between two teams, your team is chosen for you by family tradition and it forms the basis for many a good playground punch-up, and also which colour wrapper that you choose when offered a Penguin biscuit.  If both teams are in the same league, the city is faced with a couple of derbies a season.  The playground punch-up urge bubbles up into grown men and the evening following the match can be a policing nightmare.  ‘The Love Match’ shows no scenes of violence, but it is clear that it is frowned upon for sons to stray from the father’s team, and that even a potential son-in-law from the other side is a major disappointment.   It also helps if close workmates are on the same side.  This film is over 50 years old, this partisanship is therefore shown to be deep-rooted and will never go away.  It also gently highlights the futility and reminds us that family is more important than the team…just.
Askey by @aitchteee

Finally, you can’t talk about 1950s football without mentioning gambling.  Even the Magistrate in ‘The Love Match’ has his pools coupon, while Askey’s character runs a book on which team will win the local derby.  The few pence on predicting which team will win adds to the fun of a Saturday afternoon and was also taken quite seriously.  The Magistrate is shown asking advice on how Liverpool will do and this was the subject in pubs and around kitchen tables across the land.  Huge amounts of people played the pools back then.  I think that it’s a shame that it seems to be dying out – I still have a go and enjoy the ritual of watching the results come in of a winter Saturday tea time.  The lottery has taken over now.  Where’s the skill in that?  And it’s all over in a minute.  At least people got involved with the pools and interacted with each other over the selections.

I’d select ‘The Love Match’ as a home win.  I just wish there had been a bit of extra time for the injury that I nearly did myself while laughing.

Monday, 5 August 2013

On Form With Carry On

‘Carry on Nurse’ (1959), the second film in the series, is perhaps most well known for that final scene with the daffodil thermometer.  I’ve always particularly enjoyed it for Charles Hawtrey’s performance as the headphone- wearing radio addict.  And the priceless expression on his face as he slides himself into the role of an illicit night nurse.

I revisited ‘Carry on Nurse’ earlier this year in order to remind myself of some references for a more in depth essay that I am preparing.  Quite unexpectedly, I found myself wholly identifying with a small, quite inconsequential scene that has recently taken on relevance.  Mr Hickson (Bill Owen) is laid up in traction with a broken leg, after an accident at work.  When visiting time comes around, we find Mrs Hickson is pleasingly played by Irene Handl.  Those little tastes of Irene that we find in the 1950s are always delicious.  I think that she was at her best in these small pieces, which leave us more satisfied than a whole film of her might have done.  Anyway she dutifully visits her husband, and brings along with her a form that needs to be completed in order for him to claim compensation.  Although he has merely broken a leg, it is Mrs Hickson that has to fill the form in – despite Mr Hickson holding all the answers to many of the questions.

I found the scene funnier than I ever had before, and not just because of Irene’s portrayal of her character.  A close friend of mine had only recently been telling me of a similar situation she had found herself in twice over. The first time round her OH had broken his arm and so quite naturally it was her that had had to fill in the insurance forms. But now he had hit a spell of unemployment, and despite him being able bodied and at a loose end, there was still an expectation that she should be the one who completed the necessary forms!  She's a working mum, she came home from work and carried out many of her household chores  (the washing machine being as unfathomable as a female’s temperament...apparently) and did general mum stuff, and yet it was still the assumption it was her job to fill in the claim and job application forms! It became quite a contentious issue, and they could easily have ended up as another divorce statistic.

So I found Mrs Hickson’s plight very funny – as my friend said, quoting Morrissey, “I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible.” But with it came a realisation that it wasn’t just her that had taken up with a big girls’ blouse where holding a pen is concerned.  It would appear from my own little straw poll that quite often, once a man has a woman in his life, anything that involves writing is automatically allocated to her.  It can be forms, cheques or greetings cards.  This may be more of a traditional working classes thing.  Those men who earn a living by manual work are, I suppose, just not confident in their abilities where literacy is concerned.

I wonder how much 20th century education has been to blame for this.  Back in the days when it was assumed that boys would go and work in the coal mine, steel works or foundry, literacy just wasn’t top of the list of concerns.  Not that long ago, a job in the pit was for life.  There would never be any need to fill in another job application form.  Girls meanwhile would be the ones to work as secretaries; to write the invites and thank you notes and letters to family.  I hope that this is therefore a phenomenon that is dying out under increasing educational expectations and changes to our employment patterns.  Or the realisation that these days, everyone needs to know how to fill in a JSA form.
Matron! By @aitchteee

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Union Jackie

‘I’m Alright Jack’ (1959) is perhaps one of the Boulting Brothers’ best known films.  It features so many famous faces that it’s hard to pick out just one actor or actress to focus on.  It is one of Peter Sellers’ best known roles, but how can you single him out over Dennis Price, Ian Carmichael and Richard Attenborough?  There are also fine performances from Margaret Rutherford, Irene Handl and Liz Fraser.  It was reading Liz Fraser’s autobiography which reminded me of the film – she has such fond memories of her time on this set, the actors seem to have had fun, which shines through in their performances.
Sellers as Kite by @aitchteee

The film is of course well known for its acerbic take on industrial relations in post war Britain.  As well as industrialists being portrayed as a bunch of sly old robbers, the trade unionists are shown in a highly unflattering light.  I was particularly interested in this side of the storyline.  My old day job for an anti-poverty group brought me into contact with a lot of trade unionist types and I have spent many an hour hanging around the TUC HQ in London, and at various conferences.  In fact, I was at the TUC conference when the 9/11 attacks occurred, which put me in the highly disconcerting position of being in the same building as the Prime Minister as the country went into red alert.  I won’t forget that day in a hurry.  So this puts me in a position of being able to compare and contrast modern trade unionism with that depicted on the screen as being typical of the 1950s.  It would be obvious to say that we can conclude that there has been a significant loss of power and membership.  Also that this film, even if it is an exaggeration, shows the reasons why certain people determined to strip unions of every power.  But the aspect that I was most drawn to was the gender balance.

In ‘I’m Alright Jack’ the union is portrayed as a kind of working class gentlemens' club.  Sellers’ character as shop steward leads a gang of all male committee members/hangers on.  No women are shown as union members, and if their activity has any effect on women, it is to inconvenience them and give them opportunity to roll their eyes and indulge their menfolk.  This demographic is changing considerably.  At the beginning of the 21st century, the number of female trade union members overtook the number of males and the gap is steadily getting wider.  This is yet to be reflected in the higher echelons perhaps – there are few female General Secretaries out there among the individual unions.  But as of this year, the TUC is being led by its first female General Secretary in its long history.  Trade unions are truly moving on from their image of a fusty old male’s domain.

But aside from all this positivity, we must question why more women now feel the need to join a union.  Is it because we still feel that we need protection from unscrupulous employers and that our working conditions are not as they should be?  Is it because women do all the worst jobs? Or have we now just got more nous when it comes to standing up for ourselves than we ever had before?

‘I’m Alright Jack’ shows us that in fact, although women have muscled their way in to the workplace since 1959, there is still plenty of reasons for us to join together and call for continued progress.  Sadly, we’re not there yet.