Monday, 28 July 2014

Interlude Two

This interlude was inspired by Joyce Grenfell’s war diaries.

Dear Miss Grenfell

I hope you don’t mind me writing to you like this after all this time.  It’s a good few years since we met, but we had such a good talk then that I felt sure you’d remember me.  What with that and my injuries.  I wasn’t easy on the eye.  I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror for months after I got blasted.

Just to remind you – it was 1944 in Italy.  You came to the hospital to sing for us.  I was so excited to see you because I knew of your work before the war.  Just to know that you were coming was such a tonic.  I expect a lot of the men told you that, but it is true. A real lady from dear old London, with a beautifully clear voice coming to sing just for us.  We were like boys waiting for our birthday to come.  You didn’t let us down either, Miss Grenfell. A lovely mix of songs - some to remind us of home and some to make us smile.  The chap in the bed next to me couldn’t smile so he had to make do with shedding a couple of tears instead. He assured me in his funny way afterwards that these were tears of joy, and I believe him.  When you had finished singing, you came around and chatted to us and spent a great deal of time on this.  Some of those Ensa types flew in and flew straight back out again with barely a word for us.  But you gave us all of your attention that evening.  Then you saw me and settled down next to my bed for a good few minutes.  I can’t tell you how much that perked me up.  Not just that I got special attention from you, but also because you didn’t show any disgust at how I looked.  If the singing job ever packs up, nursing is the job for you, dear Miss G!  We had a very intimate chat, and I just couldn’t help but pour my worries out to you.  I told you that I was worried about how my wife would take to me when she finally saw me again.  I had night terrors where she abandoned me for someone who hadn’t had half his face blown off.  You didn’t fob me off, tell me that I didn’t look that bad like one or two of the younger nurses did.  But you told me truth that I was grateful for.  You told me that if my wife was a decent woman who truly loved me then my injuries would make no difference.  Otherwise, you said, perhaps I would do well to find another wife anyway!  Common sense of course, but I hadn’t got much of that left and I am so grateful to you for showing me the way to go.

Well, now I’m all demobbed and the hospitals have done what they can. Thanks to a couple of decent surgeons things don’t look too bad.  But I wanted to share with you the joy I did find back home.  My Doris has been the angel that I hoped she would be and we managed to pick up where we left off, just about.  Not only that, we have a baby.  I hoped and hoped for a little girl so we could name her Joyce.  This time it was a boy though and we have called him Norman.  But I won’t stop until there is a girl!  I’ll let you know when little Joyce arrives.

Thank you.

Your servant,

Robert Davis.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Reverence for the Future

Boulting Brothers’ films always have something to say about contemporary society.  The trick for us now, over half a century later, is to work out what it is they are saying to their intended audience.  I have often sat and wondered exactly where their political allegiances lay, if indeed they had any.  Sometimes they appear to be mocking socialism and the Labour movement.  But then something happens to make you think that they are simply despairing at the way the ideology is being implemented, and that people are just not taking into account basic human nature.  Take, for example, ‘I’m Alright, Jack’, where they take a shot at trade unions.  Are they against trade unionism as a concept, or just exasperated at the people running them?  No doubt many people will have a point of view about this and either side could form a convincing argument.

‘Heavens Above’ (1963) presents a further thought provocation.  Taking the film at face value, it is an often hilarious showcase for some of Britain’s finest comic actors.  Peter Sellers heads the cast as a prison chaplain, who is accidentally given the parish of Orbiston Parva.  This is a fantastic piece of acting from Sellers, who plays the vicar as a gentle Brummie, willing to think the best of everyone. He takes in the dodgy Smith family, who are in the process of being evicted from a patch of waste ground which has been earmarked for an extension of the local factory.  The Smiths are delightfully played by Eric Sykes, Irene Handl, Miriam Karlin, Roy Kinnear and assorted children, each one bringing their own little highlight to the film. I must also put a little word in for Joan Hickson in her role as “Housewife” – a series of three or four little vignettes which never failed to elicit a laugh out loud moment for me.

At the beginning of the film, I sensed that there was going to be an attack on the Americanisation of Britain.  An American voice-over takes us on a tour of Orbiston Parva, showing us a town that has eschewed godliness for Westerns on the telly and Charlton Heston at the cinema.  An old building advertises that it is to be demolished in favour of a shiny new Woolworths store. But this turned out to be something of a red herring. Instead of being criticised for embracing the material pleasures in life, local residents are shown as just following human instinct – which is essentially selfish. It is the men of God who come in for the criticism.  They are out of touch, they cause nothing but confusion and they fail to grasp basic human instinct from the lofty heights of their moral high ground.  The vicar’s idea of redistribution of wealth causes at first delight, then total collapse of the local society.   His socialist attitude to his work is a disaster.  What is not so clear is whether this is a round condemnation of the church as a bunch of soppy incompetent lefties, or just a call for fresh, modern thinking.  I would personally go for the latter option, given that after state intervention, the vicar is made Bishop of Outer Space.  I think it is a call for the church to look at where modern Britain seemed to be heading at that time and to use imagination to take on the new challenges it would bring. Its survival depended on it.

The film was made in 1963.  This was an important year for societal change – if you take notice of Philip Larkin and his poem “Annus Mirabilis”.  If this poem is a true document of that year, this is when the balance finally tipped.  No longer was church-led tradition the lifestyle choice for the majority – it was time for godless self-fulfilment to be the goal and the pursuit of pleasure to hold sway.   ‘Heavens Above’ supports this point.  It comes out in support of a future where people are allowed to follow and not suppress their instincts.  It shows us as we are now, just in our infancy.

The Kind Hearted Man Killer by Sarah Miller Walters is available as an Amazon Kindle download for 77p. For a taster visit:

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

A Long View of the Law

When I grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the policemen depicted on screen all seemed to follow a certain type.  The Professionals, Starsky & Hutch, The Sweeney – they all drove fast cars, had notable hair, dressed in the casual fashion of the time and I don’t remember ever seeing them in a domestic setting.  Not that I studied too closely, these things were usually on after my bedtime.  I have no doubt that most of the boys in my class at school wanted to be one of the characters in the above mentioned series.  They were meant to, that’s how BBC and ITV fought the battle for viewing figures.

When I watched ‘The Long Arm’ (1956) I reflected that just 25 years earlier things were very different in terms of how the police were represented on screen.  The hero of the film, Supt. Halliday, is played by the fine and upstanding Jack Hawkins.  We are obviously meant to hold Halliday in high esteem, just as ‘80s boys were meant to hero worship Bodie and Doyle.  But the difference between these lead characters shows just how much and how quickly society changed after the 1950s.  Hawkins was aged 45 when he played this role – quite aged in comparison to those later leading men.  He is depicted as being an ultra-decent suburban family man living in Bromley, with a young son who wants to follow in his footsteps and help to crack the cases.  I get the feeling that this would have been classed as too boring for telly 20 years on. His wife puts up with the late nights and ruined suppers in a stoic way that a newly liberated woman might not do.  If a TV copper had been married in the 1980s, you can bet that there would have been massive domestic rows to add to the drama.

What was really interesting was the fact that Supt. Halliday was not once seen behind the wheel of a car (only being carried on the bonnet of one, like any brave hero would).  Where the latter day policemen sped around in fast cars that became extensions of their characters, Halliday went by steam train.  One that had a ten minute stopover in Birmingham, so that people could get out and use a telephone box to make contact with the outside world.  It is the criminals who are driving the cars in ‘The Long Arm’.  To own a flashy car back then was a sign of a shady character – even the posh lady driver turns out to be in on the plot.  When a murder takes place, it is the car that is the murder weapon.  They are shown as a means of breaking the law rather than enforcing it, showing this to be a time before a job as a policeman was attractive in that you got to routinely break the speed limit.

Hawkins by @aitchteee
So in the immediate post war period it was the train travelling  family man that was the one to be hero worshipped.  Then the 1960s came and with it the new idols of fast living and fast cars.  The film ‘Crooks in Cloisters’ (1964) is not shy about revealing its inspiration.   As the opening credits roll, a carbon copy of the Great Train Robbery plays out in the background.  This is a caper about a gang of crooks who, after bodging the above crime, escape to an island monastery.  It’s pretty bog standard fare for the time, with several familiar faces and predictable laughs.  But yet, it can also serve as a window on the social attitudes towards some crimes in the early 1960s.

‘Crooks in Cloisters’ is the natural follow up to ‘The Long Arm’ in a crime chronology. Something seemed to happen to the British public around the time of the Great Train Robbery in 1963.  Whether the robbery was the catalyst or a symptom of the change I’m not sure. But whatever the case, the outcome was that Ronnie Biggs et al were given hero status.  Their crime seemed to be viewed as victimless because nobody was murdered and the money stolen wasn’t exactly personal property.  That the train driver received serious head injuries was glossed over. The crime gained a “great” prefix – this says much about public opinion.  There seems to have been a desire among many sections of the public for the gang to get away with it.  ‘Crooks in Cloisters’ can elaborate on this curious phenomenon.  The film gang are portrayed as loveable rogues despite being hardened criminals.  Those portraying the thieves include Bernard Cribbins, Barbara Windsor and Melvyn Hayes – people that we are clearly meant to smile at and sympathise with. We are given no option but to like these people. The film uses soft words such as pilfering rather than stealing. We never see any victims of their work – did they also cosh the train driver during their own train robbery? Did anyone get hurt in the diamond robbery?  It’s feasible, but we are not to worry ourselves about that.

Meanwhile, the policeman chasing after them is portrayed as arrogant and personally unlikeable.  He might have had a few successes but he is destined to never pick up our gang.  What a change from Hawkins as hero just eight years earlier.  This is the time when we had left austerity behind.  We were learning how to stick two fingers up at authority; irreverence and youth began to be worshipped.  1963 was the era of ‘That Was the Week That Was’ and The Beatles. Consumerist culture was on the rise.  All of this seems to contribute to this phenomenon. The British had decided that they’d had enough of doing what they were told all the time – they always ended up losing out somehow. This translated into the championing of those who had the audacity to stop Royal Mail trains and pinch the contents.  This attitude carried on for some years, I think.  In the 1980s, a film was made about one of the gang (Buster) which turned his life into a romantic bit of fluff.  Meanwhile the tabloids followed Biggs’ exploits like he was a pop star. The Krays too, those ‘60s mobsters, also got some of his treatment. Those programmes that I remember from my childhood depicted policeman that had perhaps a bad streak, something exciting about them was needed to hold the public attention.

To most of us now, all this was indeed a strange phenomena that we finally seem to be getting over.  Several police shows now have settled back down to gentile respectability such as Midsomer Murders. There was some backlash over the coverage of Biggs’ death and people did question why he was given any obituary.  But we must acknowledge that this odd moment in our history existed, with ‘Crooks in Cloisters’ as the evidence that will forever shine a light on it.

Sarah Miller Walters books can be purchased as Amazon Kindle downloads.

Howard Taylor's artwork can be purchased from his Etsy shop TayloredArtPrints