Monday, 21 October 2013

Gravy Trains

Two Way Stretch’ (1960) should be listed among British cinema classics.  It stars Peter Sellers – a man whose work is much picked over and discussed.  Personally, I really like to see this film because of Bernard Cribbins, perfectly cast in the role of Lenny the Dip.  I particularly like the scene when his screen mother, played by Irene Handl, visits him in the prison where much of the film is set.  Having caused raised eyebrows when her shopping bag breaks to release a torrent of tools (“Ain’t you ever seen a home perm kit before, Officer?”) she then goes on to berate her son for bringing shame on the family by not attempting to escape.  Lenny’s sister is played by Liz Fraser in one of her best film roles.  I always think it a shame that Irene and Liz’s turns as a crooked mother and daughter were never reprised in a further film.  They are a brilliant double act, but I presume that, being female, they were not thought able to carry a feature on their own merits.  Another sterling turn is delivered by Wilfred Hyde-White as Soapy Stevens, a part that was surely written with him in mind.
Hyde White by @aitchteee
An added cast attraction for me is seeing “Our Thorley” (as we always refer to him) in action.  Thorley Walters is one of those bit-part actors that appeared in a lot of films in the 1950s and 60s. I often wonder if we have a common ancestor, as he was from Devon and my Walters roots are firmly in Devon and Somerset.  It would be rather wonderful to have a classic British film connection in the family tree.

A perfect cast then, and some very funny lines as part of a nail-biting storyline.  ‘Two Way Stretch’ is a shining example of how well we used to make films.  However, on my recent viewing, I found something rather melancholy about the final scenes of the film.  A sense that we really are losing our way in some respects.  It begins when the newly released prisoners arrive at the railway station – possibly Paddington although I’m not completely sure.  But as a comparison with a modern mainline station it certainly comes off best.  The station looks grander, neater, less cluttered with signs and advertisements.   There are advertising posters, but these are the classic artistic depictions of Western Region destinations, tastefully situated.  When I stand on my local station, all I can see are adverts – every available space filled in with in-your-face clever-clever selling.  Of course every bit of the railway is going to be given over to commercialism now that they are privately run, and the sole purpose is to make money rather than run an efficient transport system.

Once the gang are on the train – with a sackful of stolen diamonds, they are able to have a quiet compartment to themselves.  A much more civilised way of travel over the crammed cattle-class carriages of today.  Fearing that they have been rumbled, Lenny is sent up onto the train roof with the diamonds.  Inevitably, the sack of loot ends up being collected on one of those lineside nets that used to collect sacks of mail.  There again is a reminder of something else lost to the modern world.  Mail trains are already a thing of the past, and now the Royal Mail itself is being sold off to greedy people who already owned it.  This isn’t just nostalgia that the film brought out in me, but sadness that we now live in a society where everything is a commodity and nothing is a service.  A service that, if it was run properly by far-sighted people, could really do something positive for the economy.  

How very apt that those thoughts were brought to me by a film about thieves. 

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Strictly Off The Record

Most of us are familiar with the World War Two information poster.  Indeed only those that have been in a coma for the past couple of years could have failed to miss the ubiquitous “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster.  This seems to have become the most famous, though ironically it was not used at the time.  Several other well known wartime posters were produced with the purpose of persuading the country to watch what it was saying:
·        Careless Talk Costs Lives
·        Walls Have Ears
·        Be Like Dad, Keep Mum
are still familiar phrases to us today.  But do we ever give any thought to what lies behind those exhortions to watch your mouth?

I recently watched a film which was made to be a feature length moving Careless Talk Costs Lives poster.  ‘Next of Kin’ was released by Ealing Studios in 1942, after originally being commissioned for troop information. It sets out in detail how enemy spying worked, the kind of information that spies were after and how this information is easily given away.  The cost of this careless talk – telegrams to the next of kin – is spelt out starkly.  It is not just a series of instructions – it is an involving story peopled by sympathetic characters and acted out by familiar actors.  The storyline is compelling and I’m sure would have held the interest of the contemporary viewer (especially the bits with the striptease and the topless model – included to retain troop interest I’ll wager). 

It would certainly have made people stop and think about what they said and where they said it.  And for the first time it made me stop and think about the story behind the posters.  I had seen them so often in my social history books that I had never actually given a great deal of thought to why it was such an important message.   But through this film I now understand why all troop movements had to be kept secret.  I also see exactly why not another soul could be trusted to keep information to themselves, even if they betrayed by accident.  The overall message is to never trust a soul, not even those that you are closest to.  This must have been so difficult, in time of war people must have been crying out to talk to someone about their worries and their work. It reminds me of the sad story of the man whose Father was convinced that he was a coward and was shirking a “proper” wartime role. He died thinking that his son had brought him shame.  But that son was an important cog in the code breaking works at Bletchley Park and was unable to give anyone any indication of his role.  It must have taken a huge amount of stoicism and bravery to honour his vow of silence in this situation.

I highly recommend ‘Next of Kin’ to anyone who would like to know the story behind the enforced silence.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Intermission Part 3

Just published on Amazon Kindle….Matinee Musings by The History Usherette!
This book contains five extended essays on themes beloved of this blog, along with illustrations of its stars by @aitchteee.

1.    A Favourite Pastime
This looks at how film has tracked the changes to one of our favourite leisure pursuits – betting on the horses.  Between Formby in ‘Come on George’ to Sid James in ‘Carry on at Your Convenience’ there was a revolution in how betting was carried out and perceived. 
“But this shows how legalisation of off-course betting changed the demographic of those taking part.  From being something that seemingly everyone indulged in and followed, the betting shops banned children and created an atmosphere that often excluded women.  Even when I was working there, as a woman walking into some of the more down at heel branches I did at times feel daunted and under scrutiny.”

2.    Carry on NHS
This takes three of the medical Carry on films and looks at how our favourite bit of the welfare state changed during its first three decades.
“The respect for the NHS and medical profession is considerably less than in ’Carry On Nurse’.  Frankie Howerd’s character, Mr Biggar, is highly vocal in his criticism:
Nurse: “No bleeding.  Good.”
Mr Biggar: “Just like the service.” “

3.    Tunnel of Time
The British love railways, even when they don’t do what we want them to.  This looks at how our rail services have been portrayed on film, from ‘Oh! Mr Porter’ to ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’.
“Even that most famous of 1940s railway films, ‘Brief Encounter’, gives no indication of shortages or the poor condition of the engines and coaching stock that were in general use at the time.  But perhaps the omission of this information is instructive in its own way.  Even when the war had been won, there was still a need to keep morale up. “

4.    Let George Win it!
George Formby made films throughout World War Two.  He was a man of the people, so what do his films tell us about how the people fared in the war?
“If Formby’s entertainments were a gentle morale boosting contribution to the war effort, his war themed films made up for any subtlety.   Indeed, subtlety is cast aside like a grenade.  First among these is ‘Let George Do It’ (1940).  It all starts off quite normally, with a mix up on a railway station and a healthy dose of innuendo.  But George soon accidentally finds himself in Norway, as only George can do.”

5.    Films With Spirit
Spiritualism was in the air after World War Two…how was this handled by film?  This one looks at three of my favourite post war films- ‘Blithe Spirit’, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and ‘The Ghosts of Berkeley Square’.

“Powell and Pressburger depict an afterlife which has all the trappings of the traditional idea of the place, including a misty position among the stars.  One of the features of this otherworld is its unswerving bureaucracy.  Peter’s time is up.  That is an end to it and he must be called in.  A Conductor is despatched to collect him.  This, I think, is a reflection of a fatalism that must have been rife at that point in time. “