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.

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