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

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