Friday, 29 August 2014

Bomb Sights Part 2: The Revenge

A few months ago I published a blog post about the Ealing classic ‘Hue and Cry’.  I observed how this film is an excellent way to grasp the scale of the damage done to London by the Blitz.   Read it again here

More recently I watched the 1954 film ‘8 O’Clock Walk’; a fantastic drama starring the sadly recently departed Richard Attenborough as a man accused of murdering a child.  The plot of the film is linked into a blitz bomb site in north London.  Attenborough’s character is the last person to be seen with the murdered girl, while leading her onto the bomb site to look for a lost doll.  We therefore get a clear view of what a bomb site looks like after a good decade of neglect, and learn other snippets of information as the film goes on.  For example it is clear to see how quickly nature has reclaimed the land, and as the accused’s clothes are tested for pollen, we are given a list of the plants that were usually found on these sites e.g. Rosebay Willowherb.  We are also given an overview of how the sites became integrated into the local geography.  This one has become a short cut for shoppers and a playground for children. It is clear that bomb sites were not held in reverence as a marker of the war or of those who died there.  They seem to have been simply accepted as a new piece of open space. You might think that tales of ghosts would abound, but no-one seems frightened to use the area at all.

1950s Attenborough by @aitchteee

 While gleaning this information, I began to consider how bomb sites became a part of our culture for a while.  As I discussed in my ‘Hue and Cry’ post, it took a long time for them all to be redeveloped – decades in fact.  During that time they sometimes became important aspects of film plots – such as in ‘Hue and Cry’ (as a playground/meeting place) and ‘8 O’ Clock Walk’ (as a murder scene).  Perhaps one of the first films to utilise these places was the 1944 film ‘A Canterbury Tale’, where Powell and Pressburger use an image of a bombed out Canterbury with a defiant cathedral rising out of the rubble. This is highly symbolic as each of the main characters arrive in Canterbury to find that despite the war creating huge upheaval in their lives, the things that they held most dear have survived. Another film to make a more direct use of a bombsite is ‘the 1949 Ealing film ‘Passport to Pimlico’, where a blast from an unexploded bomb reveals long lost Burgundian treasure.  I’m sure that there must be other films from the 1940s and 1950s which use these areas of waste ground either for plot or atmosphere.   Their influence went on through the ensuing decades too.  John Boorman’s ‘Hope and Glory’ (1987) reflects back to a childhood growing up on bombsites.  I also recently read an excellent novel entitled ‘A Commonplace Killing’ (Sian Busby, 2013) where a body is found among the 1940s rubble by playing children.  I too have a long term writing project on the go which involves a redeveloped piece of blitzed land.

It’s perhaps rather ghoulish but these places have captured our imagination – from playing children to filmmakers. I wonder how long their legends will live on there, now that they have at last disappeared from sight.

My new book  - ‘The History Usherette’s Second Seat Third Row’ is available to download from Amazon now. This is based in a south London cinema which succumbs to a doodlebug attack in August 1944.  Its final showing is ‘A Canterbury Tale’ and a series of tales examines how the film affects those watching.  Here’s an extract:
“Come and get under the counter!” the old man yelled out as he ducked himself underneath the cash register.  Bob joined him among the cobwebs and piles of unsaleable books.  He knocked a mouldy pile of Shakespeares to the floor as the impact was felt, perhaps a mile or so away.
“That was a near one.” The old man eased his joints into a standing position and began to assess the ceiling and the shelves for any damage. Bob restacked the Shakespeares and brushed a cobweb off his uniform.
“Thanks for the shelter.  That kind of thing must be setting your nerves on edge.  Don’t you get any kind of warning siren?”
“Usually yes, but sometimes one gets through before they can do anything about it. We’re all starting to listen out for them all the time now, without even thinking about it. Anyway, no sign of any damage this time.  We live to read another day.”

“Well, good luck.” Bob touched his cap and left the bookshop.  A thought occurred to him that people may be in need of help where the rocket had landed.  Perhaps he ought to go and see what he could do. He followed the sound of the ringing bells and walked towards the column of smoke the continued to rise up, funnelling debris down onto the top of his cap. London seemed determined to send him back to the base covered in filth.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The History Usherette's Second Seat Third Row

Now available as an Amazon Kindle book - The History Usherette's Second Seat, Third Row:

August 1944. Filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger send their new film out to entertain British audiences. ‘A Canterbury Tale’ is a balm for the temples of the war weary. A land girl and a pair of soldiers – one British, one American – wrestle a pastoral mystery in the ripe fields of Kent. History is laid out to show that all this death and destruction is temporary and that our land’s wounds will heal. 

Of course, every member of the audience will react differently. People will choose the scene from the tapestry before them that speaks loudest to them and they will focus on this. Meanwhile outside, the doodlebugs rain down on a tired and dusty land. 

The Second Seat, Third Row at the Regal Cinema, South London, plays host to a handful of the film’s audience. What does the film mean to them? Their stories are drawn out: 

  • The Teacher’s Tale – Miriam rails against Americans 
  • The GI’s Tale – Bob finds out what war means for the British first hand 
  • The Usherette’s Tale – Kay uncovers the seedy side of life 
  • The Manager’s Tale – William escapes his unsatisfactory existence 
  • The Porter’s Tale – Dora considers the future 
  • The Corporal’s Tale – Albert is searching for his past 
Read these 1940s tales here.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Separated Submariner

‘We Dive at Dawn’ (1943) is a naval war film in the same vein as ‘In Which We Serve’.  Again, it stars John Mills, although this time he is the Captain rather than the Cockney tar, which does show that the great Sir John did have a good range.  But it does at times seem that he single handedly won World War Two for us.

Mills’ co-star in this flick is Eric Portman, whom I am quite fond of.  There’s something a bit unusual about him that I can’t quite fathom out.  His northern accent sometimes seems forced, despite his being a Halifax boy. But he was undoubtedly a good actor and I enjoy watching him.  He is the hero of ‘We Dive at Dawn’, his fluency in the German language saving his submarine and all the men aboard.  He plays Germans well, as demonstrated in Powell and Pressburger’s ‘The 49th Parallel’.  This is something that adds to his unusual allure. To regularly play Germans and show a fluency in the language during the war years must have taken guts. I feel sure that he must have taken some flack for it – we all know that there are people out there who confuse what they see on the screen with reality.  And this would have been even more pronounced in the war years, a less media savvy age full of fear and suspicion.  I really wish I knew more about Portman’s life off screen in these times.

The hero that Portman portrays is flawed.  He is human.  His relationships with others are difficult and he has marital problems.  When he has some shore leave, he returns home to find that his wife and son have gone to live with another man at the chip shop. Rather than maintain the standard British stiff upper lip he gets hopelessly drunk and confronts his wife – badly.  He is not the only member of the crew to have difficulties in this area of life.  One colleague is relieved to have his wedding cancelled and struggles to commit, while John Mills’ Captain is obviously stringing along an oblivious group of women.  This just demonstrates the well known facts about what war and the associated long term separations did to couples, as proven by the peaking of divorce rates during the demob period. But the ending of ‘We Dive at Dawn’ threw up an interesting historical question.  The submarine has been feared missing and its crew perished.  So when they finally return to port there is an emotional welcome home from those that had previously forsaken their husband/fiancĂ©.  They have been given a second chance at life, and are given a second go at their relationships too.   I wondered how much this happy ending was poetic licence/morale boosting and how much it reflected reality? How many divorces didn’t happen because a near death experience resulted in changed hearts? There will be no statistics to help us with this one.  Perhaps there were as many reunions of this sort as there were divorces – some permanent, some temporary.  Like seeking the real Mr Portman, we can only watch the screen and surmise. 

Hello Sailor. Portman by @aitchteee

Coming Soon:

I will be publishing a new book shortly.  This will be called 'The History Usherette's Second Seat Third Row.' It is set in London in 1944 and takes a look at an imaginary audience for another Portman film 'A Canterbury Tale'.

Keep watching my Twitter feed @agathadascoyne and watch out for it on Amazon Kindle.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Powell & Press Button A

‘I Know Where I’m Going’ (1945) is classic Powell and Pressburger.  I have seen it many times before but when it last had an airing on television I sat down with the deliberate intention of finding a new post for this blog.  It didn’t come easily.  As I tweeted at the time in frustration, Powell and Pressburger are so otherworldly that the history of the everyday is elusive in their hands.  I put it to the back of my mind, admitting defeat at the hands of the masters, feeling disappointed at not being able to voice my appreciation of the film.  Then I saw a documentary about telephone boxes and it clicked.  I thought back to the scene in the film where Roger Livesey and Wendy Hiller’s characters (Torquil and Joan) attempt to use a telephone box that has been unfortunately placed next to a waterfall.  This scene seems almost inconsequential, just a small part of the plot.  Yet I remembered it clearly.  I wondered if it had more to say than met the eye.

Wendy Hillier by @aitchteee

Powell and Pressburger are not shy of metaphor, and I began to think that this scene had a deeper point.   Joan is on a journey.  She is desperate to move forwards to a wonderful future that is almost within her grasp.  Like the express train that she has travelled on to Scotland, she aims straight and fast with the minimum of stops. Nothing will stand in her way – she will not listen to others or stop to take on board those who do not have a part to play.  The unfortunately placed telephone box emphasises the point by holding up her journey.  All that she hears is the gushing of money coming her way. We see that it will ultimately run through her fingers and wash away any trace of herself, and it destroys her ability to hear the information that she needs to give sustenance to her being.   

Telephone boxes are in danger of disappearing from our landscape – hence the documentary.  It is a shame that these iconic pieces of mini architecture must go.  I wondered how Joan would be portrayed in a modern day film and concluded that she would be a businesswoman, trying to get to an island to meet a recluse and close a deal with them.  She would be continually clamped to a mobile phone and lap top and this time the scene would be her trying in vain to find a signal – except near the waterfall.  Powell and Pressburger might take a shot at the over-communication that exists in our society.  I often think that in some ways it was better when we had to put more effort into communication.  We had to walk to the (thoughtfully placed) telephone box or handwrite a letter, buy a stamp and put it in the post box.  We had to squeeze everything onto a sheet of paper or get our message across before the pips went.  More thought went into it. True communication is about putting an effort into what you say and how you say it.

It is a measure of Powell and Pressburger’s genius that their films still provoke such thoughts 70 years on.

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