Friday, 20 June 2014

Interlude One

Welcome to the first in an occasional series of creative interludes.

As an obsessive when it comes to old British films, this extends to wanting to know more about the actors who starred in them. I read biographies and autobiographies and revel in finding out what went on when the cameras packed up for the day.  Inspired by a piece that I wrote for ‘Pretty Nostalgic’ magazine (issue 13), where I “interviewed” my hero Margaret Rutherford, I have taken to writing some short creative sketches.  These imagine ordinary people having brushes with the stars and while doing so revealing lesser known sides to their lives.  Here’s the first one, I hope you enjoy it.  A usual type of blog post will follow in a week or two, where I will be looking at some criminal attitudes.


I first saw him at confession.  I had been away on my holidays – three weeks with my sister in Southsea – and he had apparently started using our church just after I had gone.  So he was quite settled by the time I did see him.  He was putting his gloves on near the porch – very methodical, one finger at a time.  As he concentrated on that I was struck by how familiar he seemed. I wasn’t sure if it was his face or just the way he carried himself, if you know what I mean. But I didn’t want to look too hard and embarrass us both, so I carried on and confessed and concentrated myself on this.  It was later that evening, while I was washing up my supper pots, that I started thinking about him again.  I had seen him somewhere before, I was quite convinced.  But he was too haughty-looking to work in any of the shops that I use.  Too well dressed. Perhaps he worked at the council?  Nothing came to me.

He was there again at the service on the following Sunday.  This time he sat on the row in front of me so I got the occasional sideways glance in.  There was nothing inhibited about him.  He was not new to Catholicism that’s for sure and his faith obviously solid.  You can always tell that.  I liked the look of him but could not get past the feeling that he was not a stranger to me.  He nodded his thanks to the priest and walked out of the church alone, striding off like he had some great purpose or a deed to perform. My near neighbour and friend, Peggy Anstruther, was waiting for me on the steps.  She’d been late again that morning and I had walked in to church without her.  Peggy Anstruther could represent England in the sleeping stakes. I heard her bolting in at the back as we were a good 15 minutes in and I also fancied that I heard her wheezing for some time after.  She’s getting too old for such flying about.  Well, as I mentioned, she waited for me on the steps. We always walk home together and chew things over.  Sometimes we come over all pious and discuss the service, considering our own failings in the process.  But mostly we gossip I’m afraid to admit. We share our observations on our mutual neighbours and speculate on the lives of some of the lesser known members of the congregation.  I like to call it taking an interest.  Of course, on this particular Sunday I steered the conversation in the direction of speculation.
“Who is that new man who was on the row in front of me, just to my right? He looks so familiar!” I said to Peggy, before she set off on one of her moans about the heating in the church.
With no thought to what she was saying she replied with this maddening statement: “I heard Josephine McLennan say that he was some sort of actor.  Was it extinguished she said?” 
“Why on earth would Josephine McLennan call him extinguished?  What does that mean, Peggy?”  I had to tell her she was talking nonsense again.
“Well I took it to mean that he was all done with it.  That no-one wanted to see him anymore.  They do say how cruel showbusiness is.”
“That’s very true.”  There was some logic to her witterings, I had to acknowledge.  “But we don’t have a name?”
“No, not yet.  I expect Father Michael knows it.”
“Oh, I don’t want to appear nosy.  That’s the last thing that I am.” I told Peggy.  “But, you know, that actor thing would explain it.  I’m sure I know him from somewhere so it’s possible that I have seen him act.”
“Why don’t you introduce yourself to him? Say you’re an admirer of his work.  That might open him up.”
It did seem to be the only thing to do.  But I felt that I just had to remember where I’d seen him first.  He would probably be insulted if I said that I’d seen his work but didn’t remember it.  Our new man got forgotten for a while.  Peggy and I went on to discuss Josephine McLennan and her extraordinary methods of bringing up her children. I went back to her house for tea and scones and the next thing I knew it was the middle of the afternoon. 

The information that I was seeking did however come to me at 1.00am on Monday morning.  I’m a light sleeper and Mrs Denton’s cat was at it again.  I had a sudden vision of our new man in costume. Shakespearian. Now, the only time that I’ve seen any Shakespeare was Hamlet at Buxton Opera House.  I went on holiday there with my cousin once, and she thought that some culture would do us good.  But on the whole I found it quite depressing so I never bothered with the old bard again.  I thought again and it seemed likely that this was where I’d seen him.  Yes, I was convinced that Hamlet had been played by our poor extinguished actor. Well, I always keep souvenirs from my holidays and I felt sure that I would have the programme.  I nearly got out of bed to dig it out, but the cat packed in and I nodded off again.  The next morning I got my box down from the top of the wardrobe though and had a good rummage. It was near the bottom – Buxton had been one of my first holidays – but there it was.  And there he was – an old photograph of him in his youth – but it was definitely him.  Hamlet, played by Alec Guinness. So that was his name.  I could collar him next time and tell him how much Hamlet had left an impression on me, and offer my condolences that his career had never gone beyond the provincial stage.  

Monday, 16 June 2014

Going Round in Circles

It often happens when I’m considering films for this blog.  A real life observation co-incides with a cinema-oldie in a most fortunate manner.  It happened again the other week. The film in question was ‘Once a Jolly Swagman’ (1948) starring Dirk Bogarde. If you haven’t seen this one before, it’s worth seeking it out. If only to see Thora Hird playing Dirk’s downtrodden Mum. There was only ten years between her and Dirk but through the power of hair and make-up styling – and of course the talent of a damn fine actress – she is entirely believable in her aged role.  It is also fascinating to see Bill Owen in a serious part if you’re more used to seeing him in a Carry On film or in a wheeled bathtub rolling down a hill towards Holmfirth. And on the subject of Carry on films, Sid James puts in an appearance here too.

The film’s storyline follows ten years in the life of speedway star Bill Fox (Bogarde). We first meet him as a novice, dreaming his job away in a factory and upsetting his parents. He finds success and all the trimmings that come with it – until war interrupts, that is.  I found the portrayal of this success the most fascinating aspect of the tale. Because this is where it co-incided with my real life observation. Just the day before I watched this film I had been attending to some business in Manchester.  I didn’t mind this because a train ride along the Hope Valley line is always a pleasure. Also, a spare hour or two while I was over there allowed me to visit the Peoples’ History Museum, which I had been wanting to do for some time.  I wasn’t disappointed – this is a fascinating museum and I hope to return to it sometime in the future. One of the exhibits was concerned with football, where you can watch a film of Stanley Matthews or find out a snippet of information that may be previously unknown to you.  Like the fact that it was Jimmy Hill who got the limit on how much footballers could earn removed while he was Chairman of the PFA.  This caused me some consternation – that it was in fact the be-chinned butt of our childhood jokes who is to blame for the conspicuous excess of present day footballers. What a poor decision that was, Jimmy. Where footballers’ pay is concerned, the world has gone quite mad.  Wasn’t it better when they all had to do proper jobs in the week?
Dirk by @aitchteee
Anyway, at this point in time, I thought that all the excess to be seen in those blessed with the special skill of being able to kick a ball was a modern phenomenon. Watching ‘Once a Jolly Swagman’ the following day immediately proved me wrong. The film depicts Bill Fox winning race after race, and these scenes are interspersed with images of his team manager (Sid James) handing him increasing sums of money.  It is not long before we are presented with a very changed Bill Fox. First come the designer clothes and moustache.  Then the flashy car. Then – and this bit I really loved – he gets the girlfriend.  She has a daft name, a need for fancy clothes and an obsession with throwing parties for her equally daft friends.  She’s a true wag! It all rang so many bells concerning the behaviour of modern day sporting “heroes”, yet these scenes were set in 1937!  Even if footballers were the poor relations back then, they have only caught up with the less well regulated sports rather than invented a phenomenon.  I presume that in the 1930s, speedway was would have been viewed as the new sport.  An individualistic showpiece where the participants were necessarily out only for themselves. We are shown what this led to.  Pity Jimmy Hill didn’t watch this film and have a bit of think.

Sarah's short story collection, 'Athene and Other Stories', is available to download from the Amazon Kindle store for 77p. Howard Taylor's art prints are available for purchase from his Etsy shop, TayloredArtPrints.