Monday, 27 April 2015

The Extraordinary Holiday

A couple of blog posts back I wrote about the post war film ‘Holiday Camp’.  I noted how regimented holidays appeared to be back then, seeing it as an indication of how war conditions still had an extraordinary influence on British lives post 1945.

Not long after publishing that post, I revisited a classic cinematic view of life on the home front during the early 1940s.  I hadn’t seen ‘Millions Like Us’ (1943) for possibly a couple of decades and I had decided that it was high time I saw it again.  That it stars a certain Eric Portman, acting all masterful on the factory floor might have had a little something to do with it…

Mr Portman by @aitchteee
Anyway, snapping out of my reverie, this film is a renowned depiction of life for women who were conscripted into the munitions factories.  But the story begins before the outbreak of war; as an old man (Mr Crowson played by Moore Marriott) and his grown up daughters, son-in-law and grandchildren take a holiday in Eastgate. Considering this trip’s relevance to the basic purpose of the film, a lot of time is devoted to it.  It makes me wonder if it is more relevant than you might think at first glance.  We are introduced to the Crowson family during their holiday – and particular attention is paid to the two youngest sisters – Celia and Phyllis. Their home life is evidently not easy – both work and they have no mother.  Celia (Patricia Roc) seems to bear the brunt of the housework and caring for their father.  But while on holiday in Eastgate the girls are allowed to become the youngsters that they really are.  Phyllis goes right out to find a boyfriend while Celia tags along for the dancing, allowing her obviously vivid romantic imagination to loosen its stays. They have access to more freedom than is available in their everyday lives and this is the essence of their holiday.

War is declared – we are shown trainloads of soldiers leaving via what were once holiday routes. Phyllis joins the ATS immediately, ignoring her father’s wishes, then takes up with a string of men in uniform.  She is determined that the war will be the time of her life.  Celia meanwhile is left at home, the Cinderella of the family; working in a shop, doing the ironing, watching her nephews and making her father’s evening meal. But as a young and single woman she eventually receives her call up papers.  Despite dreaming of the WAAF, poor old Celia ends up being sent to a munitions factory.

First, she catches a train, then she gets on a charabanc with a load of other young women.  This takes her to a hostel, which is quite different to how anyone imagined it would be.  The building is new and built for purpose, the rooms are clean and bright, the matron friendly and a canteen and social events are provided.  These scenes in the hostel are startlingly reminiscent of those in ‘Holiday Camp’.  I’m also reminded of the Youth Hostelling Association, a relatively new phenomenon back then.

A dance is held at the hostel and some men are invited from the local RAF base.  Celia dances with one of the squadron (Gordon Jackson) and after a short courtship, they marry.  Celia has her honeymoon in Eastgate, in the same guesthouse where the Crowsons took their annual holiday.  This is now a billet for soldiers, who make room for the newlyweds with many a saucy seaside postcard style wink.  Celia moves out of the hostel and into a bedsit – her first marital home.  The landlady is played by Irene Handl in a manner highly evocative of a comedy seaside version of her ilk. But Celia’s marriage is inevitably short, as was only to be expected when marrying into the RAF.  When the war ends, Celia will return to her pre-war situation.  The film ends with a singsong in the works canteen – the song being another reminiscent of pre-war leisure - “My Wife Won’t Let Me”. 

This continual comparison of wartime with holiday time captured my thoughts.  The new freedoms that were the preserve of brief holidays (and those who could afford them) before wartime to travel and to meet new people and learn something new took people away from an often dreary existence. The first love affairs, sometimes ill-matched and sometimes fated or acknowledged to be only for the duration take on the look of a holiday romance.  The grasping of fun and entertainment wherever it could be found – was often en masse like a brief bank holiday.  And when it was all over, didn’t we aim to change the lives of ordinary people with a whole new outlook - just as we often return from our holidays determined to change the things we don’t like about our own lives – a new job maybe, or a house move.

World War Two was a break away from the humdrum of the 1930s.  ‘Holiday Camp’ wasn’t such a strange film after all in its wartime hangover.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Hug a Huggett

‘Here come the Huggetts’ (1948) is the second of four films featuring this ordinary London family. We first met them in ‘Holiday Camp’, where they proved popular, and the three eponymous follow ups soon appeared.  They also got their own radio show. When I explain the plot, it will sound pretty run of the mill.  But this is a hugely funny film and I would urge anyone to seek it out and have a good old belly laugh at the Huggetts’ antics.

Although the cast is led by Jack Warner, and it features other male acting luminaries such as David Tomlinson, this film belongs to the women.  Kathleen Harrison delivers comedy platinum as Ma Huggett – her conversation over the garden fence with her neighbour is funny enough to make you cry – and it just puts you in the best of moods for the rest of the film. Diana Dors shows a lesser known comedic talent as the flighty niece and an angelic teenage Petula Clark plays the cheery younger daughter.

Kathleen Harrison by @aitchteee

I would summarise the plot as follows: the Huggetts have a telephone installed; the flighty niece turns up and causes trouble at Pa Huggett’s workplace; some of the family go and watch the royal wedding procession then the eldest daughter gets married. Hardly nail-biting stuff, but it tells us a fair bit about British society at the time. It looks to me like it was a forerunner to the television soap operas that we have today and so it inevitably uses contemporary concerns to attract an audience.

The war is not long finished and it is by no means forgotten – rationing and food shortages are alluded to. This is possibly the one thing that still affected everybody so it would have seemed strange to ignore it.  But the other themes thread a solid seam of optimism through the film. This comes from both official and personal actions.  For example, the Huggetts having a telephone installed shows that some people were now beginning to benefit from a growing affluence which would develop more fully in the 1950s as the shortage of materials was eased.  At an official level, the powers that be rolled out a royal wedding to cheer everyone up and oil the wheels of industry.  The film shows how the marriage of the future Queen Elizabeth became a topic of conversation; perhaps now and again taking the place of a conversation about housing or queues. It also gives us a record of what it might have been like to be present in London on the wedding day, including the sleeping on pavements and the cardboard periscopes.  It captures an excitement that might only ever be found in London. This storyline neatly dovetails with that of the eldest Huggett daughter, herself a jittery bride-to-be. Her eventual capitulation to the institution of marriage leads to confirmation that it is time to begin to move away from troubles and doubts, and to take a step forward into a new beginning.

But what of these doubts about the future?  The invasion of the flighty niece represents the modern world of fast cars and loose morals. This may have been a worry to family-orientated types at the time.  This is an early sign of the conflicts that will come along with the new affluence in the next decade.  It shows that there were worries about the divorce rates and the collapse of the family unit in the post war period.  But the errant girl gets her commuppance alright and she singularly fails to undermine the foundations of the Huggett’s marriage. By having unshakable faith in each other, this trouble is combated.    It shows viewers how to conduct themselves in order to share in the optimism delivered in the other storylines.

‘Here Come The Huggetts’ is a wonderful and cosy view of a shaky nation finding its feet.  It is a call for hope.