Thursday, 29 May 2014

History Teachers

‘The Happiest Days of your Life’ (1950) is a total joy to watch.  This is because it showcases three of my all time favourite film stars – Margaret Rutherford, Alastair Sim and Joyce Grenfell.  Launder and Gilliat’s action of taking these three and putting them in a school setting was rather genius.  According to Margaret Rutherford’s biographer Andy Merriman (“Dreadnought with Good Manners”) putting Rutherford and Sim in a film together was a cracking move.  The relationship between the two became a competitive one, and the pair began to try and wrestle each shared scene from the clutches of the other. The beneficiary of this tussle is the viewer, who is presented with a festival of comic timing and expressive gestures. Grenfell meanwhile delivers comic pathos in lacrosse-net loads as Miss Gossage, imploring Richard Wattis to “call me Sossage” in her search for affection in a world seemingly devoid of it.  She doesn’t succeed, poor old thing.
Alastair Sim by @aitchteee
The story is set in World War Two and involves a girls’ school being mistakenly evacuated to the all-boy Nutbourne College. From the distance of 64 years, it is easy to assume that this story is entirely contrived for our entertainment. But we shouldn’t be so sure. As part of the mass evacuation of children from inner cities in the war years, public schools were also compelled to make arrangements for the safety of their pupils. Some schools were turfed out of their premises as they were required for official use. One such school was Penrhos College from north Wales, whose pupils were moved to Chatsworth House by the Ministry. It seems that this new use for the country house was common. Castle Howard, Longleat and Blenheim Palace all served time as schools during the 1940s.  Some schools also shared premises – Malvern moved in with Harrow for example.  These are just the big names that have been written about in the mainstream history books. What ‘The Happiest Days…’ reminds us of is that there were hundreds of small independent schools serving the wealthy middle classes that couldn’t quite afford Eton or Harrow.  How they were affected by World War Two has not received a lot of coverage.  But I think that this film holds clues to the trials that some of them must have faced.  

In the grand scheme of things, their problems probably didn’t add up to much, but it is interesting all the same to consider what their problems were. It is ably demonstrated that to the head of each school, their domain was their entire existence.  The interference of war and the Ministry of Education must have been disruptive to a way of life that had been held sacred over many years.  If some of the more famous schools had to move in together then it is fair to assume that it happened among the lower echelons too – quite possibly more so as their pupil numbers would have been smaller. This must have required a great amount of effort on the staff of the hosts and visitors and also must have led to many a petty squabble and domain building. It is also evident that the Ministry was not held in high esteem, as they are the butt of so many jokes and are portrayed as being utterly useless. I get the feeling that someone derived immense satisfaction from this portrayal.

Another problem indicated by the film was staffing. It must have been very difficult to retain and employ teachers at this time.  Domestic staff also felt able to walk out without any worry of not finding another job.  Schools ended up with teachers of retirement age and beyond, along with those unable to fight due to medical reasons and those invalided out. This doesn’t sound like a recipe for success in handling a hundred boisterous boys. And even with all these problems to overcome, they still had the fee paying parents to answer to, who still insisted that war or no war, their little darlings should receive a good education.  I realise now that to have been the headteacher of such a school during these times must have been one of the most stressful civilian jobs going. 

At the end of the film, due to yet another cock-up by the Ministry (and an indication of their infuriating methods) a rabble of lower class children descend on Nutbourne – a sneaky indicator of war levelling the classes. Sim and Rutherford realise that the game is up and that there is no longer any point in pursuing a life that they once held sacred. War encroached on every corner and backwater of Britain and secure livelihoods were turned upside down.  I can’t imagine anyone better than this crew to teach us that.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Where There’s a Will

I recently watched two old films that coincidentally had something in common.  The first was an old favourite of mine – ‘What a Carve Up’ (1961) starring Kenneth Connor and Sid James.  The second was a hitherto unknown Margaret Rutherford film called ‘Aunt Clara’ (1954).  Both films concern themselves with rather improbable wills of rich old men.  In ‘Carve Up’ potential beneficiaries are summoned to a comedy house of horrors.  Meanwhile in ‘Aunt Clara’ an innocent old spinster inherits a chain of shady businesses. Films featuring wills are undoubtedly popular, especially in the murder mystery genre.  Margaret went on to wrangle a few more in the Miss Marple films of the 1960s.  The consequences of being on the receiving end of a will – or failing to benefit – are a safe storyline.  This is because we are all interested in the concept of attaining wealth without having to earn it.   These films show that it was just as true then as it is now.
Margaret Rutherford by @aitchteee

 The idea of obtaining easy money is something that is explored further in ‘Aunt Clara’.  The businesses that she inherits an interest in are all concerned with turning effortless profits.  Gambling features heavily.  Her benefactor leaves her interests in a crooked greyhound racing kennel, where disguising one dog as another is common practice.  The effect of risk when betting is thus removed.   Another interest is in a fairground lottery game, easily fixed so that hardly anyone wins. Then there is the ownership of a busy pub – no need to take any part in the hard work of running it – just put in a manager and take the profits.  These are all a small insight into the seeds of what we have grown into 60 years on.  Race and sports betting fixing is very much in the headlines, albeit in a more sophisticated way. We have become a nation obsessed with lotteries – people play religiously and often gamble their last bit of money, even though they are aware that the chances of winning anything are virtually nil.  Meanwhile, private landlords go around snapping up properties for no other reason than personal gain, taking no interest in what it is like to live or work in their buildings.  I write as one who works for a charity which is housed in a privately owned building.  We have no idea who the landlord is, our electric sockets are held on to the wall by tape, we have no heating and the occasional mouse infestation.  We daren’t complain – the rent is all we can afford and at the first sign of trouble we know we will be turned out.  I’m sure it’s not just us that work like this.  We could do with an Aunt Clara to sort us out.

As a charity worker, I was also interested in the film scene where the lottery machine was put to good use. It was wheeled out when a fundraising concert had failed to produce enough donations. Suddenly, the audience couldn’t dig deep enough into their pockets and handbags. Things have not got much more sophisticated in the charity world. Charity remains the perfect excuse and method for getting people to gamble, and fundraising drives like this take place in community centres across the land.  The only difference now is that you can do it online as well.  We feel better about something for nothing if a charity benefits.  Those of us with consciences, anyway.

Aunt Clara does her best to make things fairer, but she soon dies and the businesses will be placed in the hands of the younger generation.  A rather downbeat end to the film in more ways than one. 

Sarah Miller Walters' novella, 'Dear Mr Betjeman' is now available as a printed book as well as a kindle download:

Howard Taylor's sketches are available to purchase from his Etsy shop -