Sunday, 28 April 2013

Bless This Planet

‘Bless This House’ is one of those spin-off films from a 1970s sitcom.  All the successful series from this era did it - from ‘Steptoe and Son’ to ‘Are You Being Served’ – with varying results.  Some are watchable if you’re not in the mood for anything taxing; while others are an embarrassment – British cinema’s dying gasp.  ‘Bless This House’ (1972) comes somewhere in the middle of the scale – predictable and hackneyed in places, but with a liberal enough sprinkling of laughs to keep you watching.  It’s also a feelgood factor to see so many familiar faces from your childhood viewing.  Sid James, Terry Scott, June Whitfield, Peter Butterworth  and, well, I was going to say Robin Asquith but the only other thing that I know him from is the Confessions films and I’m sure I didn’t see those as a child!

When I last watched ‘Bless This House’, I settled down with my sewing box.  Films like this, easy to follow and so very familiar, are a cosy background to another task.  Two relaxing hits in one.  Three in fact, as these two are invariably accompanied by a cup of tea and some chocolate.  ‘Bless’ means an hour and a half of bliss.  You can allow your imagination to have a wander too, and this time I was blessed with quite an interesting idea along with a realisation that things aren’t always as modern as they seem.

The film opens with Mrs Abbot (Diana Coupland) and Mrs Lewis (Patsy Rowlands) collecting what many would call junk.  It’s their intention to open an antiques stall in a specialist market place and they are busy building up stock by rummaging in jumble sales.  One person’s junk is indeed another’s treasure, as a charity shop fanatic myself, there’s no need to convince me of this.  Armed with my copy of the latest Vogue magazine in order to read up on what I should be looking for, I rattle through the rails looking for discarded sartorial treasure.  I’m proud of my eclectic wardrobe, where very few items cost me more than a tenner and many of them were made to fit well and to last.  When I tire of them, I either give them back to charity or sell them on eBay, sometimes even getting my original outlay back.  Cheap and environmentally friendly!

While watching ‘Bless This House’ I was replacing some shabby buttons on an otherwise decent linen cardigan, with a set from my extensive collection (thanks to Nan and Oxfam).  It wasn’t long before I had the idea of setting up an Etsy shop to sell on some of my old (otherwise known as vintage) sewing kit.  And following that thought came another about some things never changing.  I am by no means the only person going around second hand sales and later selling on my finds – it’s a booming business out there in cyber space.  I had lazily thought that this was something new that had been born out of our new way of life, half spent in the ether.  But having watched ‘Bless This House’ I can see that I was wrong.  Of course I was.  Didn’t I spend my teenage (pre computer-age) years riffling through the stalls on Sheffield flea market?  Doesn’t every town have its antique/second hand quarter which goes way back in its establishment?  The only difference is that now more people can afford to do it, as the overheads of this activity have been reduced to a listing fee.  We’re all digging out our junk in the hope that it’s treasure – and now that we are well into the disposable society age there is more of it in circulation.

I can’t quite decide if ‘Bless This House’ recognises the environmental connection to this junk recycling.  Sid and Diana’s daughter (Sally, played by Sally Geeson) spends much of the film protesting against environmental damage.  Had the connection between recycling and the environment been made back then?  Again, quite lazily, I had assumed not.  In fact I wouldn’t have said that there was much at all in the way of environmental awareness back then but it seems I was wrong.  Sally supports her mother’s venture. Perhaps even in 1972 some did recognise the need to re-use materials.  There was certainly a lot less waste back then, as the small dustbins that I remember from my childhood attest.  What a shame that it took so long for the need to recycle to really take off…and let’s hope that we get better at it.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Keep Soldiering On

‘The League of Gentlemen’ (1960) is a magnificent crime caper film, liberally sprinkled with familiar film faces.  Jack Hawkins, Richard Attenborough and Bryan Forbes are just three of those faces.  And of course if there’s Bryan, Nanette Newman is often found in the vicinity.  And there she is, in the bath, being cheeky.  Clearly this film has something for everyone.

The plot involves a former army top brass type (Hawkins) bringing together a motley collection of former soldiers.  Each served in World War Two and has something shady to hide from these times.  None of them have settled into a respectable post war life either.  Hawkins has researched each man carefully over a long period of time, and has allocated each of them a role in a perfectly planned bank robbery.  Both the promise of an equal share in a large sum of cash, along with the fact that they each have nothing to lose, means that they all accept the job.

Hawkins moves the men into his rambling old country house where they settle into an army-like existence as they plan, construct and rehearse.  They are all only too pleased (despite minor grumbles about potato peeling and room sharing) to return to the old life.  At last, after years of drifting, they have some form to their lives and a goal in sight.  At first glance, this barracks style set up could be for comedy effect – grown men playing at being in the army like a bunch of kids let loose in an old disused base camp.  But, there is a serious bit of social history behind this.

While watching, I got the firm impression that this structure to their lives had been a serious psychological hurdle in its absence.  They were all lost in a futile search for something that was unobtainable in peacetime.  I began to wonder if this had been a common or recognised problem in the two or three decades following the war.  It wasn’t really something that had occurred to me as both of my Grandads had returned from their war service to settle into steady jobs.  But, on giving it more thought, there will have been those whose wartime experience was so intense that a return to normality was difficult to deal with.
Three dapper post war gents.  The one with the pipe is Grandad.
A brief Google brought up a fascinating website which immediately answered all of my questions – and more. contains a section of blog entries, all concerning real ex-service personnel’s feelings on returning home.  In summary, common problems emerging from this resource include:
·        Missing being ordered about and having every day mapped out for them
·        Missing a clear sense of hierarchy and camaraderie
·        Adjusting to a life where there is no immediate danger around every corner
·        Adjusting to being back in civilisation after long periods in remote outposts
·        Feelings of depression in returning to a home where austerity, bomb sites and exhaustion are the order of the day

One entry relates the story of a man so unable to cope with life in Civvy Street that he pretended to be a wanted man in order to secure himself a spell in prison. 

That many returning soldiers faced these problems is obvious when you think about it.  But it took Mr Hawkins’ exploits to make me think about it. Film really can open your eyes to history.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Our Passport To Rations

Earlier this year I read a book entitled ‘These Wonderful Rumours’.  The book contains the fascinating wartime diaries of Derbyshire schoolteacher May Smith and has an introduction by my history heroine Juliet Gardiner.  The wartime diary is no publishing innovation – the Mass Observation diaries of Nella Last and others have already achieved a well deserved fame.  In particular I would recommend ‘Our Hidden Lives’ – a compilation of several diaries overseen by Simon Garfield. But as these were all submitting their diaries to the Mass Observation project, they were perhaps conscious of an audience and felt compelled to write about events which they would not have otherwise covered in personal jottings.  It is clear that May Smith’s diary was not intended for public consumption.  Much of it covers the everyday movements of friends, family and boyfriends; her teaching and learning experiences and shopping for clothes.  Potentially banal stuff perhaps, but when she does mention events of significance you know that these were the ones that had the biggest impact on the general public.

One of the reasons why I enjoyed it so much was its provincial, semi-rural setting.  A lot of the surviving home front coverage seems to concentrate on London and the South East – I suppose what could be termed the front line of the Home Front.  But through her diaries we find out the concerns of the majority of provincials in protected jobs.  It seems that the biggest concern for May was food and clothing.  Of course the reason why this was such a concern was rationing, introduced on 8th January 1940.  We hear of a potential suitor who sends her gifts – not of chocolate or flowers but dead poultry and eggs – which are received with near rapture!  Wedding cakes have cardboard instead of icing and May wears underwear that is made from old handkerchiefs.  In our society, which is based on over-consumption all of this is barely imaginable – although personally I think that we should start to imagine and become accustomed to the idea.  How long will it be before we have to ration fossil fuels?  Many people in the UK already self ration petrol and gas because of the spiralling cost.  As the population continues to grow and demand the lifestyle that their parents have become accustomed to in recent decades – how long can we sustain this? I wouldn’t be surprised if a more permanent rationing system is introduced before this century is done.  

If this does happen, I pity the government that has to introduce it.  When wartime rationing began in 1940, I think it fair to say that while no-one welcomed it, most accepted it as a necessity and patriotic duty.  The enemy was on the doorstep and this enemy was tangible and plainly evil.   But even though war was over in 1945, rationing continued on for several years.  Many people questioned the reasons for this as they settled into peacetime and began to grumble at the government that upheld the policies.  I imagine that now, when we are even less inclined to accept government policy than we were in the 1940s, opposition to such a scheme would be vociferous.

When post-war rationing is under consideration, there is one film that leaps out as the obvious place to go for a look at the attitudes of the day.  ‘Passport to Pimlico’, an Ealing classic, depicts exactly what happens to vital supplies when a community becomes inward looking and selfish.  After a UXB goes off and reveals a treaty detailing Pimlico’s long forgotten annexation to Burgundy, the local residents become determined to exercise their independence from British government.  After initial euphoria at rationing being no longer applicable, they find that their supplies are running dangerously low, and one accidental event leaves them with virtually nothing to eat.  It is only the charity of well-wishers that enables them to continue with their stance, as food parcels are thrown over the barbed wire by other Londoners, typically enjoying seeing a bit of subversion.  These scenes are often spoken of as being a direct reference to the Berlin Airlift which took place the year before this film was released – a pivotal Cold War event.  I think that this is meant to remind the audience that when things are not done the British way, you might as well just hand everything over to the political extremists.

Another scene in the film shows Pimlico’s main street being taken over by “black marketers” (illegal traders).  Since Pimlico has suddenly found itself out of British jurisdiction, these spivs have realised that they can openly trade here without fear of arrest.  In her diaries, May Smith mentions visiting a black marketer only once.  She vows never to do it again simply  because of the expense.  The goods that she purchased were not worth the cost.  So we are seeing another warning.  Bring back the free market now while there are still shortages and the few will prosper – charging what they like for goods that people need.  Finally, I like to think of that sudden change in weather at the very end of the film as symbolic to this theme.  When Pimlico residents officially become British again, the prevailing heatwave suddenly breaks and rain pours down.  The residents are thus reminded what it is to be British.  But the rain falls on everyone, whether rich or poor.  And they all ultimately benefit from that rain as it turns into drinking water and feeds the growing food, even if in the short term we may curse our climate.

Because of this constant theme alluding to rationing and the reasons for it, I do believe that ‘Passport to Pimlico’ was on a mission to remind the British that it was still very much needed.  The message is “stop whining and think”.  This shows that at the time of this film, there was a growth in opposition to continued rationing which some felt needed tackling. 

We continue to allow the gap between rich and poor to widen and to actively encourage uncontrolled consumption, while resources disappear.  It’s going to take a lot more than a film to persuade the people to accept the curbs on aspirations that rationing will being next time around.

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