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. 

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