Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Union Jackie

‘I’m Alright Jack’ (1959) is perhaps one of the Boulting Brothers’ best known films.  It features so many famous faces that it’s hard to pick out just one actor or actress to focus on.  It is one of Peter Sellers’ best known roles, but how can you single him out over Dennis Price, Ian Carmichael and Richard Attenborough?  There are also fine performances from Margaret Rutherford, Irene Handl and Liz Fraser.  It was reading Liz Fraser’s autobiography which reminded me of the film – she has such fond memories of her time on this set, the actors seem to have had fun, which shines through in their performances.
Sellers as Kite by @aitchteee

The film is of course well known for its acerbic take on industrial relations in post war Britain.  As well as industrialists being portrayed as a bunch of sly old robbers, the trade unionists are shown in a highly unflattering light.  I was particularly interested in this side of the storyline.  My old day job for an anti-poverty group brought me into contact with a lot of trade unionist types and I have spent many an hour hanging around the TUC HQ in London, and at various conferences.  In fact, I was at the TUC conference when the 9/11 attacks occurred, which put me in the highly disconcerting position of being in the same building as the Prime Minister as the country went into red alert.  I won’t forget that day in a hurry.  So this puts me in a position of being able to compare and contrast modern trade unionism with that depicted on the screen as being typical of the 1950s.  It would be obvious to say that we can conclude that there has been a significant loss of power and membership.  Also that this film, even if it is an exaggeration, shows the reasons why certain people determined to strip unions of every power.  But the aspect that I was most drawn to was the gender balance.

In ‘I’m Alright Jack’ the union is portrayed as a kind of working class gentlemens' club.  Sellers’ character as shop steward leads a gang of all male committee members/hangers on.  No women are shown as union members, and if their activity has any effect on women, it is to inconvenience them and give them opportunity to roll their eyes and indulge their menfolk.  This demographic is changing considerably.  At the beginning of the 21st century, the number of female trade union members overtook the number of males and the gap is steadily getting wider.  This is yet to be reflected in the higher echelons perhaps – there are few female General Secretaries out there among the individual unions.  But as of this year, the TUC is being led by its first female General Secretary in its long history.  Trade unions are truly moving on from their image of a fusty old male’s domain.

But aside from all this positivity, we must question why more women now feel the need to join a union.  Is it because we still feel that we need protection from unscrupulous employers and that our working conditions are not as they should be?  Is it because women do all the worst jobs? Or have we now just got more nous when it comes to standing up for ourselves than we ever had before?

‘I’m Alright Jack’ shows us that in fact, although women have muscled their way in to the workplace since 1959, there is still plenty of reasons for us to join together and call for continued progress.  Sadly, we’re not there yet.  

Friday, 12 July 2013

An Escort to the Station

‘Miss London Limited’ (1943) is a jolly Arthur Askey vehicle and wartime morale booster.  Old time rail enthusiasts will love the opening scenes.  As Waterloo Station (I wonder why it’s always Waterloo?) bustles away below her announcer’s box, Anne Shelton belts out a very catchy song called “The 8.50 Choo Choo for Waterloo Choo”.  This in itself educates as well as entertains, with its roll call of Southern railway stations that were – and still are – served by this London terminus.  You even learn where you had to change for Brockenhurst!  I’ve watched this opening song a good half a dozen times now, and not once has the sight of the song lyrics appearing on the departures board failed to raise a laugh. Come to think of it, neither has Evelyn Dall’s hat as she alights said 8.50 choo choo.  Forties fashionistas may also find much to amuse and delight in this film.

The storyline is as daring as Miss Dall’s hat too.  It involves her and Askey running an escort agency, finding young women to accompany lonely servicemen who are strangers to London.  I almost spat out my chocolate when the actual term - “escort agency” was used in this wartime film, and then again when the potential new escorts were told that “after Midnight it’s up to you.”  How on earth did that get through the censor?  Or am I looking at it with too modern a perspective?  I decided to do a little reading around the subject of wartime promiscuity and prostitution, to try and scratch out the thinking behind the film. 

I have a book entitled “Our Hidden Lives” – a collection of Mass Observation diary extracts dating from the 1940s, compiled by Simon Garfield.  One middle aged gentleman diarist wrote down some of his thoughts on promiscuity.  On 22 April 1946 (p208) he wrote:

“Everywhere one sees a positive glorification of prostitution.  I should think it must be somewhat difficult, now, for an out-and-out prostitute to make any sort of livelihood, when so many pseudo-prostitute women are about.”

He returns to the subject a little later on (p273):

“There is an interesting report, in Time and Tide, about the recent publication ‘Report of the State of the Public Health During Six Years of War’…It is interesting to read how tremendously venereal diseases increased during these six years.  The report goes on to say ‘Sexual promiscuity must have been practiced on a scale never previously attained in this country’. This confirms what I said several years ago, that, broadly speaking, every woman in the United Kingdom during the six years of war had promiscuous sexual relations…”

This is obviously an opinionated man!  But he’s not alone in this view and the report that he refers to shows that there was definitely an increase in promiscuity.

Human nature throughout history tells us that in a war, wherever there are troops in need of R&R, there are prostitutes touting for business.  Among the general upheaval, there is bound to have been a big rise in demand both for the service and the payment.  The numbers of ladies plying their trade were bound to have been swelled by amateurs, trying their luck at making a bit of extra money for whatever reason was most pressing to them.  This of course would lead to concern among the moralising classes and inevitably, an increase in finger-pointing.  There was some concern about a collapse of the country’s morals, as people grabbed at what bit of life they could.  Women, who were not exactly prostitutes but were enjoying the opportunity of regularly entertaining GIs in exchange for a few luxury items took the risk of being vilified by local busybodies.  As were lonely servicemen's wives, who might have been seen merely sharing a drink with another man.

Applying this to ‘Miss London Limited’ it makes me wonder if the screenwriters were mounting a defence of the UK’s womenfolk.  It portrays women as being hardworking, we see or hear about them working at all kinds of dayjobs.  And it portrays the newly recruited escorts as being decent girls, who are persuaded to help our poor lonely lads by providing them with a bit of friendly company – no harm in that!  And this is after a hard day’s work at the station or in the hospital – they are in fact angelic in their efforts to soothe brows.  The films seems to be inviting the audience to look at wartime relations from a different angle, and to consider just how much women’s roles were changing. Fancy Arthur Askey being involved in something that actually seems quite permissive for the time!  He deserves a bit of an “I thank you” from all the friendly girls who were out to help and who were tarnished with a brush of sweeping generalisation!

Thanks Arthur!  By @aitchteee

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The Variety Pack

‘The Good Companions’ is the earliest film that I have tackled so far.  Made in 1933, it stars John Geilgud.  To someone of my generation, the fact that he was once so young is quite astounding!  If his name had not appeared in the opening titles, I would have had no idea that it was him.

The film is based on the 1929 book of the same name by J.B. Priestley, one of my favourite 20th Century writers (anyone wanting insight into pre World War Two England should read his “English Journey”).  It is about a troupe of entertainers, initially called The Dinky Doos.  They wisely change their name to The Good Companions and proceed to wow English theatres with their variety show.  Jessie Matthews plays the singing sensation, Susie Dean, with a lot of the story revolving round her quest for fame.  Another Priestley book that I enjoyed reading is entitled “Lost Empires” and is a story based on old music hall theatres.  He clearly had a huge affection for such places and ‘The Good Companions’ as film records something of what life was like for the performers.  Because when the film was made, this kind of entertainment was still very popular.  All those involved in making the film would have been familiar with how variety theatre worked, the actors would have begun their working lives in itinerant repertory companies.  There must therefore be some authenticity in what we are seeing.

What the film shows us is that those who felt the urge to perform, who wanted to spend their working lives acting or singing, faced a long, hard climb.  ‘The Good Companions’ are shown living hand to mouth in seedy pubs as they travel from one provincial town to another.  They take the train between a Midlands manufacturing town and a northern mining town.  They lug around their own props and costumes and somehow or other have to find time to write routines or songs and rehearse them.  It is anything but a glamorous lifestyle. 
A Lost Empire
My viewing of ‘The Good Companions’ coincided with the much hyped launch of yet another series of a well known TV talent show.  The winner of the show gets to perform at the Royal Variety Show – one of the few live variety shows still going.  Now that we can flick between a comedy show or a music show at the touch of a button from our own front room, we don’t need to go out and see this sort of thing anymore.  The success of this TV programme shows that overall, tastes for entertainment have not changed, just the way that they are consumed.  But, I wonder, have things changed for the performers?  It would be glib to say that they have it easy these days, that young people now expect fame to be handed to them overnight and that they are not as good for not having worked their way up through a variety or repertory circuit.  But this isn’t strictly true.  It takes courage to go on one of these shows and face an audience of millions who are waiting eagerly for you to fail or make a complete tit of yourself.  Before mocking a contestant, members of this audience should ask themselves if they could stand on that stage.  No matter how much I would like to be an acclaimed writer, the very thought of reading something out in front of an audience of just a dozen people fills me with panic.  It’s much easier to just post things up here under the name of a film character, and then read any comments through my fingers. I’m sure I’ll never get anywhere! In addition to courage, serious contestants will still have put in the rehearsal time and made some study of their chosen field.

Having defended the modern route to fame though, I think I prefer the Priestley way.  It seems a more honest way to achieve fame somehow, I couldn’t begrudge any old variety star their fame and fortune in the same way that I begrudge pop muppets One Direction theirs.  As Mother would say, “They just don’t make ‘em like they used to.”