Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Not Afraid of the Darkness Outside

‘A Taste of Honey’ (1961) is always worth dipping into, not least because of Dora Bryan in one of her best roles.  She manages to pull off tragic with hilariously funny at the same time, mostly because of the so recognisable language and turn of phrase.  Of course we have Shelagh Delaney to thank for the dialogue, but Dora’s delivery is top notch.  I’m sure I’m not alone in hearing echoes of my own family’s conversations in her lines.

The other major star of the film is the Greater Manchester location.  It is easy to see how this might have been utterly compelling viewing to contemporary audiences.  Most locations in other films that I have looked at on this blog are around London and the Home Counties – quite naturally as this is where the studios were.  To see the grim industrial north depicted so vividly without any fake romanticism is refreshing.  It is also now a window on England’s lost industrial past. All the factories have gone (or have become luxury apartments).  The canals are filled with pleasure craft.  A lot of the houses have been torn down.  I expect that for residents of the areas filmed (Salford, Stockport and Manchester) it’s a fascinating spot-the-landmark opportunity.

Myself, I find interest in the film as a documentary on the leisure habits of mid- 20th century industrial inhabitants.  This may be ironic given that the film is, on the whole, a tale of misery.  But though the lives depicted were nasty and brutish, the result was that any opportunity for fun, for a taste of honey, was grabbed by the throat.  We therefore, quite rightly for the film, have images of people drinking up entertainment with an enthusiasm that perhaps we have lost today, when we are entertained sedentarily by all manner of devices within our homes.  I spotted several ways in which the characters took part in activities that were once a common way of letting off steam.  Dora Bryan’s character (Helen) spends quite a lot of time out dancing, once the place to go for social contact.  Yes, we still have our nightclubs, but the kind of event that Helen attends attracts a much wider cross section of the population.  As Helen shows us, these are the places where many marriages were once agreed.

Helen’s new fiancĂ©e (Peter) arranges a day out in Blackpool, a day of complete hedonism by the seaside.  This part is the most up to date leisure activity showing yet again that our days by the beach have changed little for decades. The difference here from previous films showing similar scenes is that the party arrive by car.  Up to that point in time, most trippers would have arrived by train.  But flashy Peter in his motor is at the forefront of a trend.  One that would see Blackpool’s Central Station replaced by a car park in 1964.  Helen’s daughter Jo (Rita Tushingham) spoils the day out by being unco-operative and sulky.  She is sent home alone by bus – another example of the motor replacing rail.  Later, she takes a bus again for leisure purposes when she and her friend Geoffrey go to Castleton.  Castleton in Derbyshire is famed for its caves and the Blue John mineral and it has long been a destination for tourists.  It is Kinder Scout country, where the mass trespass in 1932 resulted in an opening up of much more of this area to the workers from Sheffield and Manchester, who were looking to stretch their weary limbs in the fresh air.  That two poor kids from Salford could hop on a bus and access such scenery – and do so as part of a story of this genre- shows what a vital lung the Peak District became in these times.

Sometimes people escaped by staying on their own doorstep.  The Greek Chorus in miniature of the local kids who play on the streets show how freedom of movement and imagination are sometimes all you need to gain respite from your situation.  The children know the area and where to find Jo.  This kind of knowledge is denied the modern child.  Scenes of a street festival and a fun fair also seem to be depicting an old fashioned way of having fun, drawing the whole community out of their houses in a way unknown today.

One glaring omission is a trip to the cinema to watch one of the latest releases!  But an interesting insight into the days before we all started staying in to watch an increasingly smaller screen.

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Friday, 15 March 2013

Fame, Fame, Fatal Fame

Last year, I bought an Ealing film collection on dvd, mainly because it contained an old favourite of mine.  I’ve been slowly working my way through the rest of the features, some of which I had never heard of before.  One of these hitherto unknowns was ‘The Love Lottery’ (1954) starring David Niven.  The film’s title and its star led me to believe that I was letting myself in for 90 minutes of fluff.  Which I didn’t really mind at that point.  Sometimes when you’ve had the stuffing knocked out of you, a bit of fluff fits the bill nicely.  Although on the whole I must say, I don’t go in for soppy.

But the presence of Herbert Lom in the cast list raised my interest levels, and turned out to be an indicator of a little more depth than I was expecting.  Rather than being just another love story, this is also a wry – and still very pertinent – commentary on fame.  Niven plays a heart-throb film star (pushing the boundaries of believability if you ask me – he looks about 50 and has a receding hairline) who is followed everywhere by swarms of swooning teenage girls.  He gets very tired of this attention and flees his Hollywood studio for Europe.  He ends up in the Italian town where Lom’s character runs a lottery company.  Lom immediately sets Niven up with a huge gambling debt during a night in his casino.  In order to pay the debt off, Niven agrees to be the prize in a worldwide love lottery – he will marry the holder of the winning ticket. 

The character that I found the most interesting was that of the holder of the winning ticket.  She is depicted as the typical fan; young and totally obsessed.  Her little single bed is surrounded by pictures of him.  She has a boyfriend who wishes to marry her - a lovely turn by a youthfully handsome Gordon Jackson. Personally given the choice between Niven and Jackson I’d pick Gordon – I wonder if that’s a deliberate ploy?  But instead of concentrating on what he has to say to her, she is too busy dragging him off to the flicks and mooning after figures on the screen. Then going home and crying into her pillow.  How her life is adversely affected by her obsession with fame is nothing to her real experience of it later on when she goes to meet her prize.  Her dreams are shown up for the fantasy that they are.  Dogged at every step, she has her first evening with Niven ruined.  In the middle of a teenage scrum, she has her ballgown torn – an obvious but fitting metaphor for the destruction of her fame dream.

Ultimately, this film shows that those who seek fame are fools.  Fame destroys the lives of those who achieve it, to the point where they become the puppets of others. Nothing has or ever will change in this respect.  Those who seek fame, or use it as a benchmark for achievement or the subject of prolonged fantasy fritter precious life away.  Both aspects place us firmly in the hands of those who only wish to make money from our folly.

We would do well to press this still very relevant message home again.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Bride Beware

‘Sailor Beware’ (1956) is a showcase for the reasons why Peggy Mount is rarely referred to without the preface “redoubtable” or “formidable”.  She plays the stereotypical “monster-in-law” with brass knobs on, terrorising everyone in a five mile radius with her dragonesque proclamations.  To say that she was born for that role is a subtle understatement.  A concept that her character, Emma Hornett, would have no grasp of at all.

‘Sailor Beware’ is a very humorous film.  It doesn’t take itself seriously and is aware that its characters are drawn simply and in one dimension.  It takes one aspect of a character and seizes upon it with comic gusto.  I don’t think that there is anything wrong in this as a light-hearted entertainment.  In fact I laughed myself silly, especially at the neighbour Mrs Lack, played by Thora Hird.  I would have liked to have seen her role extended.

This is a truly old fashioned film.  It’s unlikely that a modern screenplay would get away with such stock characters.  In particular, the nagging wife/mother-in-law and unfulfilled spinster sister (Esma Cannon) would now have to be shown as something other than one-dimensional if the film were to be taken seriously.  The ever delightful Esma’s character type is unknown these days.  Jilted at the altar, she never recovered and has spent the rest of her days living in her brother’s house, being bossed about by her sister-in-law.  Her deference to Emma’s superior status as a married woman is Austen-esque.  Thankfully, women’s status is no longer tied into marriage, rendering this type of character obsolete.

I would like to be able to say that the entire storyline, which centres around Emma’s daughter’s wedding, is also obsolete.  But unfortunately, for a reason I personally am unable to fathom, some women are still refusing to let go of the idea of a white wedding and a happy-ever-after.  People are still spending thousands of pounds (which they either don’t have, or would be better spent elsewhere) on an old custom, much like eating pudding at Christmas.  At the risk of offending some readers, I would say that the whole big wedding thing is a cry for attention from the insecure, and that the length of a marriage is often in direct proportion to the amount of money spent on it – the more money the shorter the lifespan. 

After all, it is only a hangover from a time when women were mere chattels going through a ceremony where she was transferred from her father’s possession into that of her husband.  Why perpetuate this when we are no longer bound to be defined by who we belong to?  Surely we are now sophisticated enough not to be defined by a Miss/Mrs title.  And why oh why do women still put themselves through the hassle of changing their surname?  Changing your address when you move house is bad enough. Why suddenly re-arrange your whole identity for the sake of tradition?  I just don’t get it.  Call me a bitter old spinster if you like, but I feel neither bitter nor spinsterish, I believe that I have the best of everything in being able to have children, have a career and keep my name, my identity, the one that I grew up with. 

These are the opportunities that we have – so why are some elements of the ‘Sailor Beware’ wedding so familiar to a 21st Century audience?  The panic about the arrangements, the arrival of the cake, the silly white dress, the bride’s late arrival at the church to be “given away” by her father.  Still it goes on.  In some areas of life, I’d be all for keeping up old traditions, but there are some that we must resign to history.  Public hangings, for example.  We will never achieve true equality while we perpetuate this wedding language of “giving away” a woman to another family (as a breeding machine).  There are also stereotypes perpetuated by magazines and television about brides as controlling bridezillas determined to trap their passive man, which frankly I find offensive.  These stereotypes and language, like public hangings, must now be consigned to history.  We are all individuals.  Everyone should stop for a moment and think about this, then just get on with their lives as they are.  I would say to anyone contemplating marriage to watch ‘Sailor Beware’ and use it as a lesson on how laughably ridiculous the whole thing is.