Monday, 7 April 2014

Some Point Duty

I had a bit of a rummage around over the Christmas holidays.  I turned up a box of old postcards and photographs, including a transport themed collection which I had put together for a student project.  This included a photograph of me, aged 4, sat on the bonnet of my Dad’s Mark 1 Ford Escort; a photo of my Grandad on his motorbike and one of my Mum as a baby with her parents, stood in front of a 1950s car.  A nostalgia trip ensued as I imagined days when the roads were empty and vehicles were well made and didn’t look like clones of each other. That emptiness was the one thing that I really noticed in these photographs.  Grandad is riding his bike along a road in one of Sheffield’s busiest areas – Crookes. Today this road is a bus route and is plagued by parked cars (and students). In my photograph, there is not another vehicle in sight. My Dad’s car is parked outside his parents’ house on one of the city’s big post-war housing estates. These houses were built with no concept of future tenants owning multiple cars and many are without driveways.  This again is a maze of parked cars today – but in 1976 our car is practically the only one there.
Birley, Sheffield, 1976.  If I'd scratched that bonnet my life wouldn't have been worth living.

 Infused with these thoughts I settled down to watch ‘The Fast Lady’ (1962).  This wonderful piece of oily escapism will probably be familiar to everyone of my age and above, as I’m sure that it was a regular on BBC2’s Saturday Matinee in the 1970s and 80s.  If I were to list every well known name that appears in the film we’d be here all day.  The cast elicits regular gasps of familiarity and “Ooooh that’s him!” from the viewer.  But the main players are Stanley Baxter, Leslie Phillips, James Robertson Justice, Julie Christie and Kathleen Harrison. Baxter plays a hapless cyclist who eschews the bike for an iffy old sports car in order to win the heart of Christie, leading to 90 minutes of road based slapstick and farce.  This is a fine opportunity to view early 1960s Home Counties roads, which is very satisfying from a nostalgia point of view.  There are black and white striped sign posts, petrol stations, old traffic lights, policemen on point duty…not to mention Esma Cannon crossing the road, which is always worth a look. The depiction of a few bottle necks and snarl ups also shows that the imagined golden age of empty roads is not entirely correct.

But there were also other, less superficial, points of motoring history to be gleaned from the film.  At one point, following a series of mishaps, Baxter’s character (Murdoch) is arrested and he is suspected of being drunk.  This film was made before the days of the breathalyser and so it was interesting to see how drunkenness used to be confirmed.   Murdoch is taken to the station and a doctor is sent in.  Delightfully, the medic is played by Deryk Guyler, better known to all Sykes fans as Corky the policeman. The doctor sets Murdoch a test including mathematical sums and asking him what day and time it is.  I’m sure that this is not a wholly reliable method of finding out if someone is over the limit and breaking the law.  It also becomes apparent that the doctor has had a few, highlighting the fallibility of a test delivered by a human being rather than a machine.

There is a sort of follow up film to ‘The Fast Lady’, the 1963 offering called ‘Father Came Too.’  Again, Stanley Baxter stars, with James Robertson Justice as his new father in law.  Leslie Phillips also appears, this time as an estate agent with thespian tendencies.  Again, I remember this film so well from BBC2 Saturday afternoon matinees when I was growing up – it seemed to have a very regular airing.  Especially memorable are the team of builders that Baxter’s character (Munro) employs to renovate the ramshackle old cottage that he has bought from Phillips’ estate agent.  Led by Ronnie Barker and featuring Kenneth Cope, they portray the traditional British builder at his best, all tea breaks and teeth sucking.

But I bring this film up in the same blog as ‘The Fast Lady’ because there is also another interesting reference to roads which caught my attention.  When Munro and his new wife first view their cottage, they are told that a motorway is about to be built very close by – and this is a selling point. At the end of the film when the cottage burns down, its ok because the land is to be compulsory purchased at a good profit for the motorway to be driven right through the garden.  There is also another cottage for sale just around the corner. Everyone is happy with this outcome.  How different a view has been adopted since the 1980s, with every new road proposal being met with opposition from at least one group.  To have a motorway placed near to your home would also send its value spiralling downwards. And watch an episode of the BBC2 afternoon fodder ‘Escape to the Country’ and watch the aspirational househunters turn their noses up if even a hint of a motorway is detected in the vicinity (yet they always want to be within an hour of London, it makes me despair, it really does).

‘Father Came Too’ shows clearly how our attitudes to roads have changed. In those more innocent times, motorways were an exciting new concept.  They showed that we had joined the modern age, we were speeding forward down a fast super highway to a bright, modern future.  To have close access to this pulsing artery that would give life to the economy was to be “with it”. Those town centre traffic jams wouldn’t happen here.  A couple of decades down the line, the flow ground to a slow crawl and we had time to question and decide that we didn’t like them so much after all. All we are left with now is nostalgia for those times when it was all so new, when we were still working out what the car would mean to us all. Unfortunately, as ‘The Fast Lady’ shows, this was a time of drink driving and traffic jams too, so perhaps the nostalgia is a little misplaced.
On a bus route in Crookes, Sheffield in the 1950s...look no parked cars!

 As a postscript, I must pay tribute to the role of Pinewood Green in mid-century British cinema.  I recognised it instantly, as any ‘Carry On’ fan would, when it appears as the location of Baxter and Phillips’ lodgings in ‘The Fast Lady’. It was used in several Carry On films, in particular ‘Carry on Camping’. This must be one of the most filmed streets in British cinema.  Make it a national heritage site I say!

For more cinema based scribblings, please search Amazon for Sarah Miller Walters.

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