Monday, 20 October 2014

Naked Exploitation

‘The Naked Truth’ (1957) is one of those films which is absolutely peppered with familiar film faces.  It stars Terry-Thomas, Peter Sellers, Dennis Price, Peggy Mount, Joan Sims and Shirley Eaton.  Miles Malleson is there too, doing his inevitable absent-minded clergyman.  I had never seen it before so was glad to be directed to the You Tube link on Twitter (thanks @trevor_hancock).  I found it an absolute joy to watch – particularly the double act of Mount and Sims as mother and daughter, who made the most of some terrific farcical material.

Joanie by @aitchteee

The storyline of the film revolves around blackmail and attempted murder – all handled in the typically British whimsical style of the period. Price plays Nigel Dennis, a blackmailing journalist doing the rounds of London’s powerful and famous with his new publication.  This magazine, titled after the film, threatens to expose the unsavoury deeds of those that he visits, unless they cough up £10,000, on receipt of which he will withdraw publication. As the film opens, the first recipient of a visit from Dennis shoots himself, while an MP has a heart attack in the Commons following his confrontation.  But then we move on to the stars of the film – who are obviously not going to top themselves just after the opening credits.  Having said that, Peggy Mount, playing novelist Flora Ransom, makes a comically failed attempt to throw herself out of the window.  Shirley Eaton, playing model Melissa Right also attempts to gas herself in the oven.  However, after messing about finding a shilling for the meter, her boyfriend turns up and stops her.  His lighting of a cigarette almost wipes them both out, but they survive the blast. Dennis also visits dodgy peer Lord Mayley (Thomas) and entertainer Sonny MacGregor (Sellers) who both decide to put up a fight rather than take the easy way out.

Of course, what we all want to know is what exactly the characters have been up to.  We want the salacious details, but we don’t always get them. I tried to read something into this about the times that the film was born of.  Model Melissa’s wrong –doings are not revealed at all, we are left guessing.  There is also some coyness around the Lord’s antics, although we are given heavy clues – especially with Thomas’ hilarious line “Ten thousand pounds for 15 minutes in Regent’s Park?!”  Meanwhile Mount’s novelist makes a semi confession to her daughter that she got up to something naughty while out in the Far East.  This was possibly drug related, but it is not exactly spelled out.  However, we do see Dennis making a direct accusation to MacGregor.  His wrong-doing is not a criminal act, it is one of acute hypocrisy.  While his stage act is cheered and loved by the working classes (it is perhaps best described as music hall transferred to early television), he spends his spare time walking all over them as a rogue landlord.  We are told that he owns property in a rough area of London – the location borough is fictional but we can easily picture the east end slums or Notting Hill before gentrification. It is the worst kind of housing and MacGregor is squeezing out extortionate rent money without investing any of it back into repairs or improvements.  The state of his properties are brought home again as he comes face to face with a resident while on live television – who proceeds to describe how much he hates living there.

Sellers by @aitchteee

The peer and the novelist are portrayed as having had dalliances which are ultimately harmless to anyone not directly involved – although there may be some issues around legality if the peer was using prostitutes or the novelist taking drugs. What MacGregor does is legal – but plainly wrong. I wondered if the writer (Michael Pertwee) was using the film to make a point about a social problem of the late 1950s.  Housing was obviously still a major issue just 12 years after the end of the war.  The post war government had done their best to get building, but resources were limited and the sheer scale of the bomb damage made it a mammoth task.  The slum clearances were only just beginning.  My home city of Sheffield’s flagship slum clearance scheme at Park Hill actually began in 1957, but had been in development since the end of the war.  Things moved very slowly.  So this meant that there were still many houses which were unfit for habitation – but there was enormous demand for them.  This is underlined by Dennis’ residence on a Thames barge which has been condemned.  People would live in anything and the owners of this property could charge and do what they wanted.  With some research, it appears that my gut feeling that this was a growing issue around this time seems to have some founding.  According to a paper published on line by Phil Child of Exeter University, the Labour Party were particularly concerned about this as their traditional supporter base made up a good proportion of those living in slum accommodation.  The party called for curbs on what was termed “Landlordism” and published research and papers on the matter in the second half of the 1950s.  Does this film contain a subliminal attempt to get people to find out who their landlord was, to question them, report them?

Six years after this film, Britain became gripped in two major scandals whose names resonate now – Profumo and Rachmanism (the intimidation and exploitation of people in poverty housing).  Corrupt politicians, prostitution and rogue landlords combined to make the headlines.  Is ‘The Naked Truth’ a taste of what was brewing?  It seems likely – showing us once again that historical events usually have a long timeline leading up to their explosion into mainstream public consciousness.

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Thursday, 2 October 2014

Withernsea and Wives

‘The Constant Husband’ (1955) stars Rex Harrison as a man who loses his memory in a car accident.  As it gradually returns to him, he realises that he is a serial bigamist who has been leading several lives all at once. It’s a charming film with an excellent cast, and will bring a smile to any wet afternoon.

I found it compelling because this is the film on which Rex Harrison met Kay Kendall.  I’ve had an interest in Kay since I visited her home town of Withernsea last year. The lighthouse there has been converted into a museum, including a large section devoted to Kay’s life and work. One exhibit, the dress that she wore when she married Harrison, leads to a moment of poignancy.  It is a simple cream day dress, now age stained and draped over a mannequin.  It becomes especially sad when you know the story behind the wedding – detailed in her biography “The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall”. Kay embarked on an affair with the married Harrison after this film was made. As the months went by she became more prone to bouts of illness, and was eventually diagnosed with Leukaemia.  This diagnosis was kept from Kay – only Harrison was initially told and he agreed a ‘temporary’ divorce with his wife so that he could marry and take care of Kay until she died.  She passed away in 1959 aged 32.  But as her biography title suggests, she packed a lot into her life and it was interesting to see where it all started – just a few doors down from that lighthouse.

External and internal views of the lighthouse

If you’re ever in East Yorkshire, I’d recommend a visit to Withernsea for this museum alone.  The beach is quite nice – good for combing – but the town itself is a bit depressing and decrepit. It is a fine example of a “Seaside town that they forgot to close down” as Morrissey would put it. It is now mainly amusement arcades and pound shops with the occasional greasy spoon caff thrown in. The one thing that did get properly closed down in Withernsea was the railway line which went to Hull – it fell under the Beeching axe. This probably adds to the sense of isolation that you can feel there, out on a limb next to the North Sea. The top of Withernsea lighthouse is an excellent vantage point for tracing the line of that railway.  You can still make out where the line was in places. That’s how much there is to do there. 

I prefer to do my railway archaeology from my settee while watching a film – where the old system was used as a prop unaware of its future as a historical signpost.   ‘The Constant Husband’ has such an example of what you can find out and the alleys it can lead you down.  It delivered a little railway gem in the form of a left luggage office.  These offices are the plotter’s paradise in Victorian murder mystery stories and they are in fact the scenes of at least two real life body disposals. Both Charing Cross and Brighton left luggage offices were host to murdered womens’ bodies, which were deposited in increasingly malodorous trunks.  The offices’ potential role as an easy method of aiding criminals in their activities is shown in the film.  Harrison’s amnesiac bigamist discovers a ticket in one of his suit pockets for a trunk which has been left at a station.  He has no idea what could be in it, and immediately goes to claim it hoping that it will give some clues to his life before the accident.  After claiming it and taking it to a cheap hotel he opens it to find a series of fake uniforms and links to yet more wives. This character has a series of fake lives, easily tucked away in a left luggage office ready to be revived on the production of a ticket. This film shows how easily the facility was put to illegal use – I wonder just how many suspect trunks and cases sat in our railway stations undetected. No wonder they fell out of favour.

But they haven’t disappeared altogether – some major stations do still have the facility.  However, deposits do now have to go through rigorous checks – mainly instigated by the IRA bombing campaigns of the later 20th century. Apparently too the charges are unsurprisingly extortionate (isn’t everything on the railway these days?).  As with much of the modern system, the romance and mystery has gone, never to return.  Thankfully we have ‘The Constant Husband’ and Kay Kendall to keep our imaginations alive.


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