Friday, 28 November 2014

Frightful Frying

In my previous blog post I wrote about the British horror film, made popular by the Hammer Studios’ output from the 1950s onwards. There are two points which indicate just how popular they became.  Firstly, the sheer number of them that were turned out – Hammer made over 50 features in this genre.  But the second major indicator is the spoof tribute film, ‘Carry On Screaming’ (1966).  If the Carry On crew were prepared to give it a good send-up, then that is all the evidence you need for something being an established part of British culture.

‘Screaming’ is one of my favourites – Kenneth Williams is perfectly cast in the role of a mad Victorian doctor; with Fenella Fielding vamping it up admirably as his sister.  They are sending out werewolf – like creatures to abduct women and this is investigated by Harry H Corbett’s policeman. The underrated Peter Butterworth plays his assistant, providing many of the comedy highlights.  There are always many references to contemporary British culture in the Carry On films.  Even those set in a historical period make a point of sneaking in snide comments about modern Britain. My favourite example is in ‘Carry on up the Khyber’.  When Princess Jelhi reacts with horror to the news that the Khasi has decreed a “death by a thousand cuts”; he retorts “Nonsense!  The British are used to cuts!” A clear reference to contemporary government policies.
Dr Watt by @aitchteee

 ‘Screaming’ was recently shown again on the television and I caught the final chunk of it with my eldest daughter.  She asked me what was so funny about Kenneth Williams’ catchphrase – and also, what did it mean? “Frying tonight” is the phrase in question, called out gleefully as the kidnapped women are dunked in the bubbling vats in his lab.  I explained to her that this is how chip shops used to alert people to the fact that they were open and frying fish and chips that evening. She looked rather confused, and I realised that I was getting old. Of course we now live in a culture where fast food is always available at any time of the day or night. Macdonalds or KFC have no need to advertise that they are cooking – they just always are.  No wonder we’ve all got so fat; fast food is no longer a treat and it is viewed almost as a necessity.  The very idea that chip shops would advertise in this way now seems quaint.  So, it just goes to show, even in a film as far removed from reality as ‘Carry On Screaming’, it is possible to pick up a tiny gem of our lost culture, viewed from a world that most of the cast would no longer recognise. 

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Monday, 17 November 2014

Down on the Tube Station at Midnight

I’ve been writing this blog for over three years now, and lately I have pondered over the cinema genres that I may have neglected to cover.  Here in Britain we hosted the Hammer Studios, which in the latter half of the twentieth century turned out a string of well known horror films.  These films are held in high esteem by a great number of people – so why have I never got around to writing about one?  It’s perhaps because few of these films are grounded in any kind of reality.  When I think Hammer, I think of Christopher Lee in a Transylvanian castle; or improbable monsters in misty forests. Not a lot for the History Usherette to get at there, unfortunately.

If you were to ask me which was my favourite horror film, it would not be one produced by Hammer.  It bears some of the hallmarks of one of their productions – 1970s technicolour goriness which doesn’t spare the blood.  Christopher Lee is even in it, albeit briefly in a pointless cameo role. I might have at one point assumed that it was one of theirs.  The film that I’m referring to is called ‘Death Line’ (1972).  It stars Donald Pleasance as a rather odd policeman who is investigating a series of mysterious happenings at Russell Square tube station in central London. A high profile man disappears; then a multiple murder is discovered and meanwhile an American student and his girlfriend become embroiled in the case, culminating in her disappearance.  We find out that the culprit is the descendant of some Victorian workers who were trapped in a tunnel collapse and then abandoned to their fate by an unscrupulous construction company. They survived by eating human flesh –their own people at first – but the final remaining descendant is now on the prowl for fresh meat.  Anyone who has ever seen the film will be nodding and smiling at my description– once seen it is never forgotten. This is mainly because the underground creature can only say one phrase of English – “Mind the doors” – and his use of it is both uproariously funny and deeply disturbing.  I’m not sure that it was meant to be so funny; but there are many people who have watched this in a state of intoxication and then spent the rest of the night shouting out the chilling catchphrase while chuckling gleefully.

The premise behind the film is, I suppose, not impossible yet not at all likely. This potentially makes a good horror film – something horrible that could happen but never has happened and never will. That element of potential reality makes the horror more piquant.  Also, its setting in a tube station really adds to this potential reality. Not only does it utilise a setting that is familiar to thousands of commuters, it plays on an iconic imagery which is familiar to millions.  A lot of people love the idea of the London Underground (probably mainly those who don’t have to use it every morning). The red and blue roundels are all over the lucrative tourist industry – I have a keyring and a fridge magnet myself. Mind you, I have those because they tell me to ‘Mind the Gap’ which reminds me of ‘Death Line’ and makes me smile. So part of the draw of the film is seeing how stations looked back in 1972 when they retained more of their original features than they do today. The tiling, the dark and winding corridors and the criss-cross metal doors are atmospheric. Russell Square station (although it was actually the now disused Aldwych that was used for filming) is almost another character in the film.  Best of all, one of the abandoned stations is depicted.  People are fascinated by these sealed up tombs of underground history – books have been written and photographs shared all over the place which pick over the obsolete parts of the network. The mock up of a closed Museum station is eerie in itself, without our cannibal traipsing through it howling in despair.

 At time of writing, it seems that there will also soon be another historical element to the film.  Much of the action takes place after the last tube train has gone through for the night and the station is closing.  Plans are afoot to bring in 24 hour working on the underground.  Perhaps we will soon look back on this wistfully, remembering when we had to run to catch the last train.  Remembering a time when things actually stopped for a bit and people got some rest.

I get the feeling that the writer and director of ‘Death Line’ really knew what they were doing. They produced a horror classic which is low-key enough to make you think that you have really made a discovery when you watch it.  But, I wonder, is Pleasance the star – or is it Russell Square station?

Matinee Musings by the History Usherette

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Following on from the popular blog The History Usherette, this is a collection of five extended essays on cinematic and historical themes. None of this material has been previously published on the blog. 
1. A Favourite Pastime looks at how the popular British leisure pursuit of gambling on the horses is reflected in British cinema. From George Formby in 'Come on George' to Sid James in 'Carry on at Your Convenience' there was enormous change to be tracked by the filmakers. 
2. Carry on NHS looks the three Carry On films - one from each decade from the 1950s to the 1970s to find out how our perceptions of our favourite bit of the welfare state changed. 
3. Tunnel of Time looks at railways on film from 'Oh! Mr Porter' in the 1930s to 'Carry on Loving' in 1970. 
4. Let George Win It muses on how George Formby shows us how the psychology of the British was affected by World War Two. 
5. Films With Spirit looks at three post-war films and how they reflect our changing attitudes to the spirit world.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Interlude Four

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Blackpool Rock

I was a glamour puss when I was young.  I grew up in Blackpool and there were always handsome boys passing through with money in their pockets.  That was all we thought about, all of my teenage summers.  I’d hang around the pier with my friends every Saturday afternoon, eyeing up the new intake of holiday makers, seeking out the boys who didn’t have a girl with them.  I spent days on end sat on the beach in my shorts and bathing costume, rubbing oil onto my legs, trying to look like that Coco Chanel.  I saved up for Woolworths make up and jewellery to finish the look off.  Sometimes I even got bits bought for me if I’d managed to pick up a really generous boy.  It’s amazing what a couple of hours under the pier after dark got you the next day.  Those were the best days.

It was while I was inbetween boys that I had my little encounter with fame. All the faces came up for the summer season, you’d see them wandering along the prom sometimes but you hardly ever got near them – they all had their hangers on. George Formby was a regular of course, and he always had his missus with him.  She was a rum ‘un that Beryl Formby.  Nobody ever dared cross her, least of all George himself.  I think she was born before her time, she would have made a good Dynasty type – all shoulder pads and ball breaking or whatever it is.  Joan Collins, you know what I mean.

Well one day I was laid out on a rock at the far end of the beach, just soaking up the last drops of the sun.  I heard somebody shuffle past me and I looked up to see a bloke in a jacket and hat sitting himself down on a boulder nearby.  I could tell by the way that his shoulders were hunched that he was feeling fed up so I called out to him, asking if he was alright.  He turned round and bless me if it wasn’t George himself.  I invited him to come and sit by me and tell me his troubles – and he did!  He was ever so fed up of Beryl, she’d been laying down the law at him and not letting him alone and he’d run away from her.  Just for half an hour, he said, just to show her what was what.  Then we had a bit of a canoodle behind his boulder.  I promised not to tell but I suppose it’s alright now.  They’re both long gone.  He left me a little souvenir but I won’t say what that was.

George by @aitchteee