Friday, 21 June 2013

Guinness is Good For You

The partnership of Ealing Studios and Alec Guinness is enough to make any vintage film fan come over all unnecessary.  Top of the tree has to be ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’, closely followed by ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ – both deserving of that overused tag “classic”.  In third place is the rather less well known ‘The Man in the White Suit’ (1951).  But it is no less a film, despite being in the shadow of the other two.  The casting, led by Guinness and Joan Greenwood, is sublime and the storyline is, as always with Ealing, slightly subversive.  That’s what I like about these films, underneath the gentle fun a certain something ripples along.  You can ignore it if you wish and take the film at face value and not have your enjoyment in any way diminished.   Or you can pick up on it and spend a pleasurable half hour trying to fathom out what it is telling us about post-war Britain.

The thing that I find fascinating about ‘The Man in the White Suit’ is that it was released in 1951.  This is the same year that that now almost mythical event, the Festival of Britain, took place.  I must confess to getting myself a bit caught up in the romance that was and has been spun about this event.  From this distance it all looks marvellous – futuristic (even now), colourful, positive in outlook.  The antithesis of us today in our retro doom and gloom mood.  I love the designs associated with the Festival, from the famous Skylon to the official angular logo.  I’m not alone in viewing it all with a huge feeling of fondness either.  More than sixty years on it remains in our collective consciousness.  Which must mean that at the time, the Festival was big news.  Events were scheduled around the country to celebrate and transport was laid on to the South Bank site.  Think of the hype that surrounded the 2012 Olympics.  It must have been like that, with mentions, discussions and advertisements in every available media. Look on eBay and you will find a collector’s paradise of stamps, postcards and commemorative coins which were produced at the time.

This is why I think that, despite there being no actual mention of it, the Festival influenced the story behind ‘The Man in the White Suit.’  It’s too much of a coincidence that this film examines scientific discovery, while just a bit further down the Thames people were being invited to explore the “discovery dome.”  And so, I spent that pleasant half hour fathoming out that the storyline plays Devil’s Advocate.

The Festival was a Government initiative, planned with the hope of giving the post war recovery and the country as a whole a boost up.  It aimed to celebrate all that was good about Britain – its natural resources, illustrious history and the achievements of its people.  This included scientific achievement, the programme guide noting that “…we have done much to found and develop the sciences of chemistry and physics…the basis for most, if not all of the great material achievements of the modern world.”  It would appear that Britain was a place where scientists were understood, encouraged and appreciated, but ‘The Man in the White Suit’ tells a different story.  One of a chemist and his thwarted ambitions.  Guinness’ character, Sidney, is anything but understood, encouraged or appreciated.  He has to beg, steal and borrow to do his experiments, and when he finally discovers a formula for a cloth which repels dirt and will last forever, he is hounded around the streets of Lancashire.  There are two groups of people doing this chasing – the textile mill owners who wish to suppress the discovery in order to preserve their profits, and the trade unionist workers, who want to protect their jobs.  At one poignant moment, his old landlady pulls him up.  She is a slight, kindly little old woman (played by Edie Martin) and she makes a heartfelt plea: “What about my bit of washing?”  She fears a future where she will have no means of supplementing her meagre income.  This endless chase demonstrates how they have all gone into a blind panic.  Take a step back and you realise that this fabric is not as threatening as they all seem to think.
Guinness by Howard Taylor @aitchteee

Firstly, the no need to wash is quite ridiculous, even if the fabric does repel dirt.  Would you wear clothes that had never been washed?  I wouldn’t, especially undergarments!  This goes completely against human nature. Secondly, the trade unionists’ assumption that only one batch would ever be needed is also very blinkered.  The population grows continually.  People grow- even adults with that middle-age spread that we’re all prone to.  And then there is fashion, and our desire for a change of wardrobe now and again.  Who on earth would wear the same set of clothes their entire life?  Perhaps there would be some drop in demand.  This is what worries the mill owners who are trying to buy Sidney off.  But to succeed in business you need to go with the tide and not swim against it.  Ideally, they should be thinking about how to use the situation as a springboard to diversification.

By portraying this relationship between science and the employers and workforce, I think that ‘The Man in the White Suit’ is telling us that we should take the Festival hype with a pinch of salt.  That it’s all very well celebrating science when our business leaders and workforce refuse to move forward with it.  Science also needs imagination, and in many quarters this was lacking. History confirms that the Ealing subversives were not just weaving fiction.  Talk of a “brain drain” appears soon after the end of the war.  A document found online (UK Data Archive Study Number 6099) discusses a “Brain Drain Debate in the UK c.1950 – 1970”.  It tells us:

“Civil servants and scientific advisers within Whitehall had been aware of scientific migration as a potential problem since at least the early 1950s.”

The term “brain drain” was not adopted until the 1960s, at a time when

 “…individual scientists invoked the brain drain in their campaigns for better conditions in the UK…”  

This little exploration has confirmed what I always knew – that Ealing Studios are one of the best resources going for gauging post-war attitudes in Britain.  They should bring them back to tell 21st Century Britain where it’s going wrong!

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Saturday, 15 June 2013

Millionaires About the House

The early 1970s saw a substantial amount of the British film industry being dedicated to sitcom spin-offs.  I’ve covered many of these in this blog from ‘On the Buses’ to ‘Steptoe and Son’.  Perhaps a slightly less well known series to be given the spin-off treatment is ‘Man About The House’.  The scenario for the series and film is of a three way flat-share between two women (Paula Wilcox and Sally Thomsett) and a man (Richard O’Sullevan).  The flat forms the upper floors of a house owned by an older couple (Yootha Joyce and Brian Murphy) who later went on to have their own sitcom and film entitled ‘George and Mildred’.

As with most 1970s sitcom spin-offs, one shouldn’t tune in expecting anything akin to Olivier doing Shakespeare.  But for a late night Saturday laugh with a good dose of nostalgia, they often hit the mark.  I quite like the ‘Man About The House’ film. Primarily for Yootha as Mildred, whom, as I approach her age like a runaway rollercoaster, I find myself adopting as a role model.  Battling on in the face of adversity with a perfect coiffure and an acerbic one-liner disguising a platinum heart, she is an inspiration.  However it’s also an excellent film with which to play at “spot the seventies star bingo.” Cast members from ‘Dad’s Army’, ‘On The Buses’ and ‘It Aint Half Hot, Mum’ have walk-on parts, and there is a rather odd cameo from Spike Milligan.

Another reason to watch ‘Man About The House’ is for the street scenes of the North West London district.   Both the street signs and the appearance of Maida Vale tube station give clues to the general location of filming.  If you know this area well, no doubt it is a fascinating window on the area just prior to the re-gentrification that took place in the later 20th Century.  The house that is occupied by the main characters is one of those north London residences that have had three lives.  Originally constructed in a neo-Georgian style at the turn of the twentieth century, these town houses were spread over three or four floors, and were occupied by well-heeled middle class families and their servants.  By the mid 20th Century, many of the wealthier types had moved out of central London, presumably for leafy Metroland and the rural idyll – especially easy with Marylebone station being just down the road.  These houses became run down and separated into flats – as shown in this film.  As the storyline shows us, many did not survive this loss of status and were swallowed up by developers, hungry for office block foundation space.  But those who did survive had a considerable change in fortune, when their value as a sturdily built and spacious home in an envious location was recognised.

The street sign near the Roper household says Myddleton Terrace NW8.  Several websites, including tells us that the townhouse row is in reality Alma Square in Maida Vale.  Another search for properties for sale in Alma Square confirms that today, these are very desirable residences indeed.  At the beginning of April 2013 I found two properties for sale here.  One – a four-bedroomed house – had just been sold at £3.5 million.  A two-bedroomed flat here was on the market for £1.5 million.  I doubt that it’s the film location pushing up the prices!  Modern day streetviews show Mercedes parked where George and Mildred’s Morris Minor once stood.  Fans of theirs will know that for their own spin-off film, they had swapped Maida Vale for a suburban new-build.  What a mistake!

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Bus Shelter

The 1970s television series ‘On The Buses’ spawned a total of three films, showing how hugely popular this programme must have been.  For television to be popular it must have some kind of relevance to viewers, and I think that ‘On The Buses’’ popularity stemmed from its ability to tap into the concerns of working people and their families.  And as the daughter of a bus conductor/driver who began work in the 1970s, I have been assured that many of Stan and Jack’s situations are quite accurate for the time!

I have already covered the original ‘On the Buses’ film and ‘Holiday on the Buses’ (see links below), where I was reminded of pieces of everyday life which have now been swallowed up by modern day commercialism.  But when I watched the second film in the series – ‘Mutiny on the Buses’, I realised that there is one way in which our modern life has failed, and that we are now backtracking to the lifestyle depicted in the film.

A thread running through this film is Stan’s engagement to Suzy the Clippie.  She tells him that she wishes to marry him as soon as possible – and as she is holding back certain benefits until their wedding night – Stan too is keen to exchange vows.  However the sticking point is their inability to find somewhere to live.  Stan attempts to save the money for a deposit on a flat – with Suzy’s chosen flat secured, he is as good as married.  However, when his brother-in-law (Arthur) loses his job, he finds himself being forced into contributing more into the family household pot.  Because Stan’s current living arrangement is sharing the family home with his mother, sister, brother-in-law and nephew.  Suzy is given the option of joining them all as a new member of the family. However, she is positive that this will never happen and as the flat becomes further out of reach of Stan’s pocket, the engagement is called off.

To the modern viewer, this household set up is unusual.  We now expect to have our own home and to live apart from our extended family.  In the latter decades of the 20th Century this idea of universal home ownership was aggressively pushed to us all.  But this is a relatively new phenomenon.  Throughout history, housing has been at such a premium that two or three generations have routinely lived in the same house.  Young couples couldn’t afford to pay out rent on their own place and neither could outside care of the elderly be afforded.  When my parents first married and until I was around two years old, the three of us lived with my Mum’s parents.  As I was born in the same year that ‘Mutiny on the Buses’ was made, this shows that Stan’s home really wasn’t out of the ordinary –as I said at the beginning, this is what made the show popular – it was familiar to viewers.  My parents moved out of my grandparents’ home when they got to the top of the waiting list for a council flat.  Good council housing gave many families the chance to make their own way and have a home of their own.  But then we were all pushed into buying houses, it was what we were all told to aspire to.  Prices have now reached such a point through the high demand that I think we are facing a return to the multigenerational home. 

4 Generations of my family, 1973

I think that many of the problems relating to housing today can be traced back to the selling of these council houses.  The first step on the family home ladder has been rendered considerably more difficult to get a toehold on, leaving families chasing a deposit that they will struggle to manage while they line the pockets of greedy opportunist private landlords.  Stan’s fiancĂ©e gives us a clue to when this change was beginning.  Young, impressionable people were already reaching out for property that they really could not afford to take on.  One feels that Suzy would never have been satisfied to make do on a busman’s wages and would always be wanting to go one better.  He really was better off without all that.