Thursday, 28 November 2013

Getting Away With It

‘Private’s Progress’ (1956) is an interesting film in that it seems to have had a big influence over two other films from the late 1950s.  Produced by the Boulting Brothers, they must have enjoyed making the film and its success.  Much of the cast reappeared in their more famous ‘I’m Alright Jack’ three years later, cast in similar roles.  Also, there are heavy reminders of 1958’s ‘Carry on Sergeant’, with the presence of William Hartnell playing pretty much the same character in both films.
Who's the Sergeant by @aitchteee

 Ian Carmichael plays the useless Private Windrush, whose disastrous progress we follow throughout the film.  Being a posh boy he should of course have been an officer, but his total ineptitude in everything he tries leads to him being shoved in with the masses.  The film is set around 1943-ish – over halfway through the war.  Being a Boulting production there is a heavy element of satire in the story, the target of which is criminal activity.  If we take on board what the film suggests, we can only conclude that wartime crime was rife – that almost everybody was dabbling in something.  Of course we are all aware of the archetypal spiv, but the idea of so many taking part doesn’t sit easily with the idea of noble Britain fighting the good fight as if it were a game of cricket.  As ever, I turned to my wartime bible for answers – that is Juliet Gardiner’s book ‘Wartime Britain 1939 – 1945’.  There are unarguable statistics which back up ‘Private’s Progress’’ insinuation that crime was indeed rife.  By 1945, crime was up 57% on the 1939 statistics. To some extent this was because there were more crimes to commit under wartime legislation.  Circumstances also provided a lot of new opportunities – for example the blackout leading to an increase in theft, and bombing leading to a shameful explosion of looting.

Richard Attenborough’s character, Cox, has all the scams and delightfully shares them with anyone who’ll listen.  We particularly learn how to get away with making a railway journey without paying for a ticket.  It does seem to be the case that the railways did suffer greatly from the crimewave – and not just in terms of non fare paying passengers.  According to a book published by the LMS in 1946, detailing its role in World War Two, theft from the company ranged from a huge amount of petty pilfering to organised raids on warehouses.  Some gangs took full advantage of the confusion and panic caused by air raids to loot railway property while bombs fell around them.  So, railways were a good choice to focus on and allowed the film to avoid getting too heavy.  Not all petty crime was amusing, as many of Gardiner’s looting accounts attest.

‘Private’s Progress’ also points out that this increase in crime or opportunism wasn’t just taking place among the lower classes.  And it suggests that the higher you stood in society, the bigger and better the opportunity.  There is, however, not as much solid information to be had on crime among the elite.  Not surprising – the rich were always more likely to get away with their misdemeanours.  The class system is shown up as the biggest accomplice that there ever was.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Frankie Says...

‘The Lady is a Square’ (1959) is Anna Neagle’s final film, made just before she retired from the screen in favour of the stage.  Although not one of the greats, this film is certainly a pleasant way to fill 90 minutes.  Neagle is supported by a host of familiar faces including Wilfred Hyde-White, Frankie Vaughn, Janette Scott and Antony Newley.  All give a solid performance of an engaging storyline.

I found the story of particular resonance because of a book that I had just finished reading.  That is David Kynaston’s “Modernity Britain – Opening the box 1957 -1959.”  This exceptionally readable history book describes how Britain had begun to shake off austerity and lay the foundations of a country that we would recognise today.  ‘The Lady is a Square’ could also, in a much more simplistic way, tell us something about this transitional period.  Although Kynaston’s work is more rigorous and far-reaching, contemporary film is like a message in a bottle sent to us from that period of history itself.

The note inside this bottle would tell us that this is the point when talent began to take precedence over name.  Neagle plays Mrs Baring, the “old money”; she has taken over the running of her late husband’s orchestra and knows all the right names.  She and her daughter (Janette Scott) live in a fashionable townhouse and have servants.  However, it soon becomes apparent that this is a financial fa├žade.  The bills are unpaid and it transpires that the overdraft is big.  Her world is on the brink of collapse.
Anna by @aitchteee
Of course it is Frankie Vaughn who saves her, after becoming smitten with her daughter.  He is a fledgling rock singer, and when his career takes off it is his money that bails out the Barings and the orchestra.  It is only when Neagle joins in with the “kids” on the dancefloor that you know her future has been secured.  She couldn’t beat them so she joined them.

This has to be a reflection of the general feeling of the time.  Old money was out of fashion.  The rich were being taxed to oblivion (there is a direct reference to this in the film).  If they were to keep up their lifestyles then they had to join the modern world and diversify their act.  The old guard were losing influence.  People were beginning to take notice of rock stars, film stars and entrepreneurs, who were a great deal more interesting to look at and to listen to.  Cliff was in the Hit Parade and The Beatles were on their way.  This film gives us a snapshot of this actually happening.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Don’t Envy Jim

‘Lucky Jim’ (1957) is based on the novel of the same name by Kingsley Amis.  As is usual with films derived from famous novels, it presents a much abridged version of the story.  Any attempt at analysing the film as a historical resource would therefore be a shadow of what could be gleaned by analysing the book instead.  There may be some visuals that provide incidental information – car types, railway scenes or fashions for example.  But Amis meant this story to be a document of its time and it deliberately lays into the education and class systems.  This isn’t a literary criticism blog.  I had enough of that to last me a lifetime when I did A Level in English Literature.  Blimey, if I never see “The Grapes of Wrath” again it’ll be too soon. Anyway, I’m sure many intelligent people have made a much better go of analysing the literary ‘Lucky Jim’ than I have the capability or inclination to.

But, as a student of history, there was one particular scene which caught my attention.  Towards the end of the film, Jim Dixon (Ian Carmichael) drunkenly rebels against being forced to deliver a history lecture that has been prepared by his boss, Professor Welch.  The lecture is on the subject of “Merrie England”, and it paints the English Middle Ages as a golden age of music and dance.  Anyone can see that this is a heavily biased view of a period that for most people was nasty, brutish and short.  It goes completely against Jim’s principles to deliver this “bunkum” and Professor Welch is shown as being completely out of touch with modern academic study.  This caught my interest because, 60 + years on, we still struggle against an often over-romantic view of history.  But now, we are over-romanticising the period in which ‘Jim’ was written and filmed.
Ian Carmichael as Lucky Jim by @aitchteee
The current craze for vintage, which seems to centre on the 1950s – from fashion to music styles to home baking - has in no doubt been initiated by the often overwhelming pressure of modern life.  But as we hark back we are selective.  We seem to imagine the 1950s as a golden era, sandwiched between austerity and psychedelia, when everyone had a job and knew their place.  Where everything was stylishly designed and built to last.  We conveniently forget that those cosy coal fires caused deadly smogs, that those chromed up cars caused carnage on the roads, that too many people lived in slums and didn’t have access to an inside toilet never mind the latest furniture designs. Look at ‘Lucky Jim’ itself for evidence that the 1950s were not so golden.  Despite the advent of grammar schools, introduced to give the intelligent from the lower classes a hand up, the class system still exerted a toughened glass ceiling.  You were judged on your voice, on your school and on your clothes.  Womens’ roles are only supportive and their presence in academia is treated as a joke.

As the film might have been subtitled: We never learn, do we?