Saturday, 26 January 2013

Blowing the Whistle

A few blog posts ago, I mentioned how much I enjoy Stanley Holloway’s performance in ‘Brief Encounter.’  Stanley and trains go well together, it would seem, as another iconic railway film also features him in fine fettle.  Of course, I’m referring to ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’ (1953).

Trains are an incidental feature of ‘Brief Encounter’, but the railway takes centre stage in the ‘Thunderbolt’.  The setting is idyllic – the English countryside at the height of summer.  I’m a confirmed atheist/pessimist, but if anyone ever mentions heaven, this is the sort of mental picture that appears in my mind.  A small branch line with an engine and a couple of dusty carriages meandering through small honey coloured villages and riotous meadows.  And if you were in need of company along this eternal journey, well you could do a lot worse than Stanley’s half-cut-happy-go-lucky chap.  In fact, any of the Titfielders would make for an interesting companion.

The story, if there does happen to be anyone at all out there new to this film, involves the villagers of Titfield joining together to save their branch line railway.  When the closure is announced by poster on the station, there is much distress about the fate of the village – in fact only the local bus company are pleased with the impending axe.  The bus contingent is very much cast as the baddies of the piece.  With the local vicar (literally) driving forward a community-run railway there is a religious element to the film.  The clear cut battle between good and bad; the sermon from John Gregson as the squire as to why the railway needs to be in their lives; the penniless hermit who gives up all he owns to the cause when the original rolling stock is ruined and the redemption of the alcoholic Holloway as the saviour of the line.  During the crucial timed run along the line with the officials on board the train – who are to determine if the trains can continue running under local steam – the carriages become uncoupled from the engine.  As everyone rallies round to quietly push the carriages along, there is something almost spiritual about the scene.  Perhaps this heaven thing going on in my head is not entirely coincidental.

This theme of a community joining together to deliver an important service should be fairly familiar to British people at the moment.  Especially if, like me, you work in the charity/voluntary sector.  The term “Big Society” fills myself and my colleagues within the sector with rage and frustration.  To briefly explain, some Eton/Oxbridge-educated-ivory-tower-dwelling nit thought it would be a good idea to get local services delivered for “nothing” by getting local people to do it themselves.  A common example, much discussed, are local library services.  Many branches are closing, and those in the community bewailing the loss are being told that they can keep it open, if they run it themselves.  For nothing.  It’s a bit like volunteering, only with paid professional workers being made redundant, their qualifications and experience being devalued, along with the whole concept of volunteering.  Volunteering is meant to be an add-on, not a necessity.  Meanwhile, I see voluntary and community organisations all around me going to the wall, and old colleagues and friends being made redundant or having their hours cut.  Funding has dried up, because apparently we’re all in this together and so the services that we deliver should be cut back.  Need any advice, counselling or support because life has dealt you a cruel blow and you don’t have an old boys network to fall back on?  Good luck.  Let me know if you find it.  In a nutshell, we have been told that the community needs to start delivering its own services, but there’s no money to be had to do this.  But there are always costs to services.

And this is where ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’ comes undone as a believable story for me these days. It’s interesting to see that community-run services as an idea go way back, but look closely at it and it appears to be an unsustainable operation.  The vicar (and his friend the Bishop) are the only local people actually able to drive an engine.  So what happens when they are unable to do so?  Properly trained and qualified staff are needed.  Who maintains the rolling stock? What about track maintenance?  Really, it’s an accident waiting to happen. Can people be found to staff the station at peak times, or are they all too busy getting themselves or their families ready for work?  I realise that the very idea for the film was based on one of the heritage railways that were being launched around the time.  But a heritage railway for tourists is different to a daily train service specifically laid on to service a community.    It’s as much an unsubstantiated dream as heaven is…and the “Big Society”.  But the film is certainly a lot more fun than the government’s hare-brained ideas.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Too High Society

Another recent, rather obscure You Tube find was a 1963 film called ‘Ladies Who Do.’ Despite not being particularly well known (I’d never heard of it before anyway) it has a cast of some of the most familiar faces from 1960s TV and film.  Robert Morley, Harry H Corbett, Peggy Mount, Dandy Nicholls, Jon Pertwee, Ron Moody, Miriam Karlin – they’re all there.

Trying to think of a way to summarise the plot is actually quite difficult.  Which may be why the film has sunk into obscurity!  The ‘Ladies Who Do’ are a group of four char ladies who work in fancy London offices.  Using discarded notes and messages that they retrieve on their rounds, they feed information to Robert Morley’s character. By anticipating major moves among companies, he speculates successfully on the Stock Exchange and makes them all tons of money.  One of the businessmen that the ladies clean for (Corbett) turns out to be behind a scheme to knock down their street to make way for a luxury high rise development.  They launch themselves into a battle against the scheme, using their new found capital as muscle, finally triumphing and inviting Corbett’s character into their partnership.  I may be oversimplifying a little there, but you get the general idea.

One of the themes of the film – that of the ruthless businessman taking away people’s homes for speculative building – is an interesting snapshot of the time.  It just so happened that shortly after I watched the film, I reached a confirmation page in one of the books that I was working my way through.  Jonathan Glancey’s ‘20th Century Architecture’ takes the reader through 100 years of prominent buildings worldwide.  On page 215 we reach 1964 (the year after this film was made) and the construction of central London’s Economist Buildings, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson (best known for their flats in Robin Hood Gardens, Poplar).  In his description of the Economist Buildings, Glancey’s words are very telling in relation to this film:

“At the time of their construction, the Centre of London was being ruined by a rash of vile and foolish office blocks designed to make as much money for developers as quickly as possible before someone noticed that something was going horribly wrong.  London’s powerful conservation lobby gained it’s teeth at this time…”

So, like ‘Left, Right and Centre’ (See previous post), this is a commentary on the times in the guise of a tongue-in-cheek entertainment.  I think that many of us associate the high rise boom in the 1960s with slum clearances and redevelopment of World War Two bomb sites.  But this film lifts the lid on a seedier side.  The street up for demolition in ‘Ladies Who Do’ looks to be a perfectly sound Victorian street of terraced houses. Not back-to-backs or slum courtyards but sturdily built, loved homes.  People are given little choice but to move out to alternative accommodation, away from long term neighbours, friends and family.  They are bribed out with payments that may seem a lot to manual workers, but will soon run out.  Those that dig their heels in are subject to bullying tactics.  Glancey’s comment on money grabbing developers during the early 1960s gives this scenario the ring of truth.

Again, I also catch a glimpse of the modern predicament.  Developers are too keen to fill our city centres with expensive business accommodation, while the people who are meant to work in them are pushed further out into the suburbs.  From here, people on the lower rungs of the pay scale, such as cleaners, struggle to pay the commuting costs from their cheaper out of town estates.  And as fuel prices climb, more and more people are going to find themselves in the struggling bracket.  Sometimes our world seems so imbalanced.  And this film shows us how and why the scales began to tip.

Monday, 7 January 2013


I stumbled across an interesting film recently on You Tube entitled ‘Left, Right and Centre.'  Made in 1959, a whole trainload of familiar faces make up the cast, which is what drew me into watching what could have been a rather dated picture.  I initially thought that the reason why it wasn’t more well- known must be the failure of the storyline to move with the times.  After all, it stars Alistair Sim and Ian Carmichael.  There is also a wonderful cameo appearance from Irene Handl.  But the film, including her little piece, is really rather funny and I found one or two belly laughs in it.  I also found it to be actually quite ahead of its time.

The story concerns  a by election being fought in a fictional provincial English town.  Carmichael plays the Conservative candidate, nephew of the local Lord (Sim) and smugly confident that his name will win the election for him.  His sole opponent  is the Labour candidate (Patricia Bredin)  - a young woman fresh out of the London School of Economics and daughter of a Billingsgate fish merchant.  When the pair fall for each other, farce ensues and this aspect of the storyline is perhaps taking us down a well-trodden path.

What interested me so much about the film was the mockery of how politics was becoming inextricably linked with fame and money making.  Before standing for MP, Carmichael’s character is a well-known explorer and game show panel member.  With a cameo from Eammonn Andrews as the panel show host, our Tory candidate is shown to be a vain and affected participant in early television.  On his way to the potential constituency he is photographed on the station concourse with an airhead model who is desperate for him to announce their engagement in front of the waiting press.  Then while on the train, he postures and preens in front of the female passenger sat opposite, aching for recognition.  That he hopes to cash in on people recognising him from the television is obvious, showing that celeb-politicans are indeed nothing new.  It made me wonder if the writers had anyone specific in mind when developing  this part.  As well as bringing to mind several modern day politicians.

When Carmichael arrives at the ancestral pile that he is to stay in with his aristocratic uncle, he finds one big, considerably less than stately, money making machine.  He soon discovers that his candidacy is viewed by his uncle as another grand income maximisation scheme.  He reckons on the publicity machine ensuring maximum footfall through the gates.  As the constituency workers engineer press coverage, it soon becomes apparent that the would be MP is simply a puppet and that his personal kudos is in fact worth very little.

These are truths that we are all now familiar with.  The viewer only needs to watch a couple of episodes of ‘Have I Got News For You’ to realise what politicians have become over the past few decades.  Celebrities become politicians, politicians become celebrities and behind them all are PR gurus raking it in.  But back in 1959, before the revolutions of the 1960s, this is a very observant, if not visionary, tale.