Saturday, 25 May 2013

Letsby Avenue

Regular readers will know that I have a soft spot for George Formby.  I find him a tad frustrating at times, but his cheeky songs and gormless ways are rather endearing.  And as a historical resource his films are really quite useful.  I recently watched ‘Come on George’ (1939) as part of some research that I have been carrying out into horse race betting on film.  I didn’t find a huge amount of gambling information here – although the betting mad policeman was an interesting character.  However, George’s lodgings in the film did lead me down another little path.

After getting a job in a stables, George needs to find a room to stay in locally.  A loveable young tyke of a lad who hangs around the stables and seems to be operating very much on the same wavelength as our hero offers a solution.  He lives with his grandfather, who happens to have a room going spare for lodgers.  The deal is sealed when the boy tells of his pretty older sister. What the boy omits to tell George is that his grandad is the village bobby and that his potential room is the police cell.  George is taken to a substantial looking house with a large, lush garden, maintained by the under-employed Sergeant.  The boy’s sister quickly turns the cell into a guest bedroom by utilising skilfully placed pictures and fabrics.  George accepts the room and the Sergeant and his grandchildren get a bit of extra spending money from his rent.

This is a little window onto how police forces used to be organised, before being rationalised into the set-up that we are familiar with now.  Once, most substantially enough sized villages did have its own police house, where the local bobby was permanently stationed.  Residents knew where to find the policeman as and when he was needed and in the days before telephones they could pop down and physically fetch him out.  This lack of a telephone is the key as to why this expensive method of policing was in force - that and the rarity of cars.  The bicycle is as far advanced transport-wise as the police got in the shires during the 1930s!

Constabularies did have to ensure the provision of a house as necessary, and I presume that this led to counties having uniform types of houses being built.  I know that here in north Derbyshire, I can instantly recognise the village police house in a town or village, even where it is no longer in use as police property.  Plain and utilitarian and with a broad-armed presence, they all have that same look about them.  I rather like to see them, there’s something comforting about them. 
A typical ex-police house in north Derbyshire
But the type of policing as shown in ‘Come On George’ is long gone.  His landlord/sergeant can let out the cell because he rarely has any crime to deal with.  Back then, everyone in these sorts of villages knew everyone else and their business so well that you might as well not bother committing a crime.  People would likely know what you’d done before you even did it.  Society has changed now.  There’s more to pinch, more distractions, more isolation and fast cars to get away in.  So the police have had to change too, to bigger and more centralised stations with fleets of fast cars and a helicopter to get around in.  Watch ‘Come On George’ and mourn the loss of the village bobby that everyone knew.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

A Bunch of Tea Leaves

The 1941 film ‘Love on the Dole’ was adapted from Walter Greenwood’s play of the same name.  Although set in the worst of the depression in the early 1930s, there is obviously a wartime propaganda element to the film, as it was made in the darkest days of World War Two.  Permission to make the film – withheld for the 1930s, was granted as it showed a nation that will always fight back, no matter how low circumstances take us.

Opinion on how realistic the play and film is seems to be divided.  Some saw it as a marvellous depiction of the working classes while others found it mawkish and the characters too one-dimensional.  I think there are relevant arguments on both sides, and would summarise the film as an early, naïve attempt at one of those kitchen-sink dramas which were to reach their zenith twenty years later.

Whether the scenario is a wholly accurate representation of life in Salford in the 1930s or not, I found one aspect which I am sure the film does depict quite faithfully.  That is the scenes where a group of women gather together in one of their houses to dabble in occult activities.  If there is one thing that history shows us about human nature, it is our tendency to retreat into superstition when times get tough.  From making offerings to fertility deities to make the crops grow, to believing in a heaven which is a reward for battling through this mortal hell, it is human nature to retreat into some kind of fantasy to give ourselves reason to carry on.  This group of neighbours in ‘Love on the Dole’ are looking for a light at the end of their pawn shop and hunger-riddled tunnel.  They need a reason for their lives and more importantly, a reason to continue living it.  Rationally, the only certainties they have are poverty, sickness and death.

And so, the women read the tea-leaves, which hint at that old chestnut – a dark stranger on the horizon.  Well, wouldn’t it make it easier to get out of bed in a morning if someone had told you that one of these days something different and exciting will happen?  They hold a séance and have a chat with their loved ones – the people that they miss, and find comfort in both the fantasy of an afterlife where they will see them again; as well as a humanisation of that which they least understand. ‘Love on the Dole’ showcases the activities that went on in order to “read the future”.  It also shows that those women who were considered to hold the talents necessary to do this had kudos.  The ringleader in this activity is shown to have a higher standing in her small society.  Cultivation of these talents – presumably passed down from mother to daughter – could be a profitable activity.  Perhaps this also might have been used as an explanation for a personal problem or ailment that lack of access to medical treatment rendered a mystery. 

My great-great-grandmother has gone down in family history as being our own witch.  All we know is that she had the “sight”.  And that she also had a lot of headaches.  As her direct descendant down the female line I should probably be cultivating this “sight” myself! Rationally, she probably got migranes and saw strange things during the course of them – as some people do.  I would imagine, if she was an attention seeking drama queen (a bit like me and definitely like my youngest daughter) then she would play on this – even make a shilling on the side and if she could milk it enough then why not?  Times were hard and entertainments few.  It would be easy for us to mock those women from the viewpoint of our rational and so called sophisticated society.  But would I have done the same?  Definitely. 

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Murder Most Old-Fashioned

I’m not a one for detective fiction or whodunits. The plethora of detective/police/mystery fodder on television these days leaves me bored and bewildered.  I quite like the Poirot series with David Suchet, but this is because of the glimpses of my favourite Art Deco style.  Quite often I’ll be so enamoured of a building that he’s visiting that I miss a vital piece of plot and get lost.  But I don’t really care, I’ll just look at the scenery.  Similarly, with the Miss Marple films of the 1960s, everything else is second fiddle to the leading lady.  Margaret Rutherford IS Miss Marple.  Others may disagree, but to me, her casting in this role is both Rutherford and Marple’s finest hour.  The plot of the film is almost irrelevant.  The jowl-wobbling, cape-tossing, murder enthusiast spinster is everything.   Especially sat on the train at the beginning of ‘Murder She Said’ (1961); being in turn haughty, playful and incredulous.

It is during this scene that Miss Marple witnesses the murder, around which this first film in the series pivots.  An express train is in the process of overtaking the slower stopping train on which she is travelling.  One compartment which draws alongside hers on the adjacent track has the privacy blinds drawn.  Suddenly, one shoots up to reveal a woman who is being strangled and in the final death throes.  On my most recent viewing of this film I found myself musing that this simply could not happen anymore.  The days of private compartments in which you could carry out a pre-meditated murder are long gone.  I’ve always quite hankered after the old train compartment, which I vaguely remember from my 1970s childhood – particularly travelling to Cornwall in one on a Golden Rail holiday circa 1979.  A compartment with just room for around 8 people seems a bit cosier and more civilised than our completely open carriages of today, where you are continually subject to 80-odd peoples’ conversations and opinions.  And if you are unlucky enough to have to take an aisle seat there is the constant by-pass of large-hipped people and their myriad forms of baggage.

However, viewers of ‘Murder She Said’ are reminded that this old sort of carriage seating had its dangers.  Originally, compartments didn’t even have a connecting corridor, which did lead to attacks.  The first railway murder, described in the fascinating book “Mr Briggs’ Hat” by Kate Colquhoun, shows how the closed compartment style of travel sealed the poor Mr Briggs’ fate.  Even with a connecting corridor, blinds could be drawn by those seeking privacy.  Very unsafe indeed.

The 1963 follow up film ‘Murder at the Gallop’ showcased another obsolete form of pre-meditated murder.  That is, poisoning by town gas.  A disembodied hand attempts to finish off Miss Marple herself (noooo!) by turning on the unlit gas supply to her bedroom heater as she naps.  Given a long enough exposure in a poorly ventilated room, this would have been a killer, much more so than today with our natural North Sea gas.  Town (or coal) gas was produced as a by-product of burning coal, and contained a hefty dose of carbon monoxide.  Suicide by placing the head in a gas oven was extremely common before the mass change over to natural gas in the 1960s and 70s.  Of course, Miss Marple woke up while in the midst of being gassed.  Many wouldn’t have and would have found themselves efficiently and cleanly murdered, with little evidence to go on to track down the perpetrator.
It is interesting to see how changes to the way that we live our lives has also resulted in a change to the way that murderers could plan their crimes.  It’s just as difficult to envisage a modern-day Marple…as it is to envisage her as anyone other than magnificent Margaret.