Saturday, 23 February 2013

Happy Hour Again

The film ’23 Paces to Baker Street’ (1956, starring Van Johnson, Vera Miles and Cecil Parker) is not exactly a subtle piece of work.  Firstly, it owes much to Hitchcock and you could say that it is an overt copy of his particular genre.  The story revolves around a blind playwright who overhears a suspect conversation in a London pub.  The police dismiss him when he makes a report to them, and in true movie style he undertakes an investigation himself.  His old flame turns up as the love interest/assistant – of course she is perfect in every way and is absolutely devoted to him.  It’s all very Jimmy Stewart/Grace Kelly.  And even though the film is set in London, the American influence shines through strongly.  Both of the lead characters are American – and the third star – the City of London – is that of the American tourist.  Think of a London stereotype and it’s probably there on the screen for you.  The pea-souper fog; the Routemaster bus; a red telephone box and a boat trip down the Thames.  Near the beginning of the film, Van helpfully points out the Houses of Parliament for us.  Thanks, Van.  Glad you cleared that up.

But in spite of these old chestnuts, I did enjoy the film.  Perhaps it was even because of these old familiars, which acted like a comfort blanket one cold afternoon.  If I were to pick out the scenes which appealed the most, it would be those taking place in the pub.  The old British ale house is rapidly disappearing from our streets.  Those that survive must branch out – serve food, let families in, put up enormous TV screens to show football matches and create fake atmosphere.  The pub in this film does none of the above.   There is a bar, a few stools, a few tables and a pinball machine.  It looks incredibly sparse to the modern eye, wonderfully conducive to concentrating on your drink.  Our hero first sits himself in front of a screened off area, with a connecting door which declares it to be the Ladies Room.  I feel quite sure that this is now an obsolete form of pub annex, and one that is as evocative of a bygone era as a mention of the snug in Coronation Street’s Rovers Return. 

The barmaid too gave my eyes cause to mist over with nostalgia.  Go into a pub these days and more often than not, the girl behind the bar is a student – inexperienced in life and too worried about her debts to make herself the soul of the place.  Our barmaid in ‘Baker Street’ is a proper old school professional, able to identify her drinker’s requirements and deliver just what they need – a sympathetic ear, a bit of banter or just to be left alone – and do it with sensitivity.  I felt nostalgia for some distant memories of my own.  And I don’t mean childhood drinking trips – we weren’t allowed in the pub when I was young!  But one of my Grandmothers was a barmaid of the variety just described.  She worked at two Sheffield pubs over a number of years.  I remember as a small child being taken to say hello to her of an evening, and being snuck in through the off-licence door like a bundle of contraband goods.  I was often given a small cardboard box of chocolate raisins and perched in a corner, out of sight.  My memories of the peeps through into the bar support my view that this film is a good representation of how pubs used to be.  The floor was tiled, the walls sparse, no television and maybe a dartboard for entertainment purposes.  That sort of pub is a real bit of England which is disappearing fast, if it hasn’t already gone.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

As I was Going to St Ives...

The 1948 film ‘Miranda’ is a wonderfully satisfying confection.  I would definitely put this in my top five ever films.  The three main female roles (and just for a change, the women stars absolutely take control of the screen) are taken by a dream list of comedy actresses.  Foremost, in my book, is Margaret Rutherford as Nurse Carey.  Her role is as eccentric as ever and she delivers some absolute sparklers amongst her lines.  My favourite is when the lead character asks her if she has ever been married.  Nurse Carey responds that her husband died ten years ago. “Oh, I’m sorry” is the stock response from Miranda.  “Oh I wasn’t.” Nurse Cary deadpans “Men can be such fickle creatures.”  Quite.  How anyone can be so no-nonsense yet patently away with the fairies is beyond me – but dear Margaret pulls it off so believably.  Look out also for a brilliant scene in the museum, when Nurse Carey tut-tuts at the state of the bandaging on the mummies!

Glynis Johns plays Miranda the mermaid, who is under Nurse Carey’s charge as she spends a few weeks out of water.  Johns, with that voice and those eyes that most of us can only dream of owning, plays her part as though Miranda is a curious child. She acts innocent of the correct etiquette, although she is definitely not altogether innocent of her charm.  Those scenes shared by Miranda and her nurse hint at a double act that might have developed into something marvellous given a longer screen time, but, alas, the film is only 75 minutes in length.  A sequel, ‘Mad About Men’ was produced but I don’t think that this has anything like the same impact.

Miranda spends much of the film running rings around three emotionally incompetent men, dangling herself like, well, like a fish before a cat.  Perhaps her best line is when she turns to her artist suitor and declares “You have a face that makes me want to cry.” Miranda stays with a doctor, whom she ensnared while he was on a lone fishing trip.  His playing host to a land-based jaunt is the condition of his freedom from her underwater abode (“I want to see Billingsgate and everything”).  Unfortunately, the doctor has a wife, Clare, from whom he tries to keep Miranda’s true state a secret.  Clare is played by Googie Withers, who proves herself to be the master of the raised eyebrow.  She perhaps doesn’t get any laugh-out-loud lines, but she more than makes up for it by her reactions to the men- being turned one by one into human blancmanges.  Withers’ withering glance wins every scene.  And although she has every reason to suspect her husband’s fidelity, she remains admirably dignified and retains control, right until the very end of the film.  These three characters are refreshingly different to the stock characters that can often be found in 1940s films and in this respect it hasn’t dated where other films have.

But where’s the history?  I could point to the very limited mobility options available to someone who does not have legs.  And I’m always interested in the doctor’s flat.  A flat to me has always meant a poky affair and a council tower block.  This flat is huge – a mansion all on one level with en-suites, a study and servants quarters.  It was a revelation to realise that early life in the skies could be so luxurious.  I hankered after that kind of lifestyle for myself – and still do if I’m honest.  It’s so appealing, the way that they sit out on the balcony sipping aperitifs with the jazzy music in the background.  That and David Tomlinson to run you about in a big old car – just idyllic!  But what I’d really like to do here is go right back to the early scenes, when we are first introduced to Miranda.  The doctor takes his fishing trip in Cornwall and we are given a few glimpses of what screams out to me as being John Betjeman land.  Any fan of his poetry will now how much he loved his holidays here.  The tank engine on the branch line and the fishermen outside the old inn – it could momentarily be ‘Trebetherick’ on film.  But the train of thought that the view of Calstock Viaduct launched encouraged me to explore my own feelings about Cornwall.

My Grandad was a Cornishman, descended from a long line of sailors and farm labourers.  When World War Two broke out he joined the army as a sapper and had one or two near misses with dynamite in Italy.  On his return, farming appeared to be a dead loss and so he sought his fortune in the Sheffield steelworks (after meeting a rather nice young lady at a dance in the Cutlers Hall).  He took his young lady and their family back home for their holidays each summer, and eventually his daughter returned her part of the family to his homeland.  I too then spent every summer holiday there as a child, as the extended family drifted back together for a fortnight in a local resort.  Sometimes there would be 15 of us taking over a corner of a beach or half of a seafront pub.  As an only child, this contact with extended family was wonderful, and perhaps it has made me idealise these resorts.
Little me on the Torpoint Ferry, on my way into Cornwall.
But now, I have developed a fear of returning.  Because it seems to me that over the past decade or so, the place has been overrun with undesirables.  I mean the upper middle classes.  Look at some of the businesses in St Ives now – arty jewellers, art galleries, boutiques, even Cath Kidston.  In 1986 I had a fantastic holiday there.  The shops were selling teddy bears made out of shells, giant pencils, fudge and the Lilliput Lane ceramics that were all the rage back then.  There were definitely no floral wellies or silk pashminas. 

I can just hear the modern Cornish beach now. 
“Jocasta!  Come and get your hand churned lemon sorbet before it melts!”
“Hubert darling!  It’s exactly 35 minutes since your last application of Factor 50 you simply must reapply immediately!”
Even the current Tory Prime Minister holidays there now.  Surely Tory Prime Ministers are meant to holiday on islands belonging to investment bankers or multi-media magnates?

No, I don’t believe that it’s there anymore.  Grandad has gone.  Aunties have gone.  And if I were to seek out the holidays of my youth, I would fail to find them and leave bitterly disappointed.  So instead, I choose to take my children to the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts where we seem to have found something like the seaside that I knew.  For some time, I’ve felt a bit cross about this shift – my ancestral homeland being taken over by people who give their children ridiculous names.  But to go back to ‘Miranda’, my recent return to it has given me perspective.  The doctor on his fishing trip is obviously a handsomely paid medic.  He has staff.  As did John Betjeman.  He is the 1940s version of a potential Jocasta and Hubert- maker.  Being so much out on a limb, Cornwall was of course back then only the haunt of the comfortably off.  All the workers went on Wakes Weeks trips to Skegness, Blackpool and Bridlington.  My visits there, during the 1980s, came at a time when all the moneyed people had started going abroad for their holidays.  Families like ours, with two working parents started going further afield too – which often meant Devon and Cornwall.  We have been part of a cycle.  So why has the cycle turned another 90 degrees?  I think that it’s the trend to be more environmentally friendly.  Rich people like to make themselves look pious by staying in the UK more, and feel pious by trotting off to the Farmer’s Market to buy locally grown broccoli and locally fished pilchards.  Especially if they should be seen to be “setting an example.”  Unfortunately they don’t seem to factor in their second homes and the 4x4 they insist on using to get to it.

I wonder if the cycle will turn again in my lifetime and that the county will be born again as something else.  I shall watch with interest from behind my (Yorkshire) cream tea.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

On Why I'm a Grump at the Pump

Town on Trial (1957) had an airing on Film4 in December.  I was in the wonderful position of having seen the film before – yet having forgotten all about it.  I like it when that happens with both films and books, it brings the comfort of the familiar but still holds surprises.

The film stars John Mills as a rather jaded policeman who is brought into a close knit southern dormitory town to investigate a murder.  The town appears to be teeming with obnoxious narrow-minded snobbish types, brim full of their own entitlement.  We are presented with a range of potential murderers and are sympathetically drawn in to Mills’ investigations.  The location scenes of the film were shot in Weybridge and I really enjoyed seeing the snapshots of 1950s affluence.  I expect contemporary residents of the town can watch and marvel at the quiet streets and not quite so built up suburbs.  One scene which caught my eye was when the doctor gets caught with a body in the boot of his car, while paying a visit to the petrol station.  The old fashioned row of pumps and the attendant appealed to me straight away.  Why oh why don’t we have petrol attendants anymore?  I hate putting petrol into my car and I always seem to manage to get it all over my hands.  I live in fear of combusting over the bank card machine.  What if I put my PIN number in too quick?  The friction might give me third degree burns.  No wonder unemployment is so high, we have to do everything ourselves these days. 

I think that the petrol station particularly caught my imagination after the listing of two particularly fine old examples earlier in 2012. Canopies at Markham Moor (Nottinghamshire) and Red Hill (Leicestershire) both appeared in the 1960s and show how the new age of car ownership caught the imagination of designers and architects once upon a time.  Now that we’re over the excitement of it all, motoring infrastructure has become pedestrian.  But once, it was all cutting edge stuff.  Such is the wealth of furniture worth a study, an academic book has been published:  “Carscapes: The Motor Car, Architecture and Landscape in England” by Morrison and Minnis.  I’ve lingered over this book but have not quite taken the plunge due to the price.  I find the architectural exuberance of meeting new societal demands fascinating.  I’m the same with tube stations.  What a shame all petrol stations all look the same now.  And what a shame you have to get out of the car to get the petrol!

Little glimpses like these in old films can set you off down a road of discovery and rumination.  Throw in an engaging cast and story like that of ‘Town on Trial’, and you’ve got yourself a little cinematic gem.