Sunday, 21 June 2015

Mild Mannered and Mean

Peter Sellers was a more talented actor than many people realise.  Say his name these days, and a large majority of people would smile and begin to ape his most famous film character, Inspector Clouseau.  The ‘Pink Panther’ films were US productions, made when the flame of the British film industry had finally guttered out.  These films were OK, but not a patch on some of his earlier work.  I have already discussed ‘I’m Alright Jack’ and ‘Heavens Above!’ in the course of this blog, both of which were good British films and starred Sellers as strong leading characters.  Of course, he was also an excellent support character in one of my top five favourite films ‘The Ladykillers’.  However, the true test of an actor is to be able to successfully bring a lifeless character onto the screen. By lifeless, I mean one that is boring, one that has no charisma and not a great deal to say. In ‘The Battle of the Sexes’ (1959), Sellers does just this job with the role of Mr Martin. Mr Martin is a Chief Clerk in an old family tweed firm called the House of MacPherson.  Their working practices are Dickensian.  He is quiet, mild mannered and he indulges in no vices.  He has given his life to the MacPhersons and he requires no recognition or reward – only for his life to continue on in the same vein.  I think that it is fair to say that Mr Martin is the polar opposite of Mr Sellers.  In real life, he was known to have been a very charismatic man.  Liz Fraser writes about him in her autobiography (“Liz Fraser…and Other Characters”).  She says that he was a man of passions – the latest technology, cars, cameras and women were acquired relentlessly and never lasted long. But her telling line, when discussing his womanising is “Peter being Peter, you just forgave him.” To be able to put all of that strength of personality to one side and to play Mr Martin so convincingly shows how talented he was.  To share the screen with such a larger than life co-star as Robert Morley – and be the one that all eyes are on – it is a deft feat.
Sellers by @aitchteee

 So it is with regret that I have to admit that ‘The Battle of the Sexes’ is an appalling film.  Despite Sellers’ highly watchable performance, the storyline is mean spirited.  When old man MacPherson dies, his son (Morley) travels home to Edinburgh to take over the business. While on the Sleeper train down from London, he meets an American business consultant called Angela Barrows (Constance Cummings).  He takes her on at the House of MacPherson in order to modernise and rationalise the business. Her ideas and methods distress Martin, who sees no need for change and considers Barrows’ methods to go against everything his beloved old Mr MacPherson stood for. While things are initially going her way, Angela Barrows is confident, clever and articulate.  However, when Martin begins to quietly sabotage her work she plays the “I’m just a woman” card in a painfully sexist turn of events.  This is a blatant attack on women’s attempts to forge careers – and quite possibly an attack on Americans and their fancy new methods too.

After the end of World War Two, women were shoved back into the home and told to give up their jobs to men returning from the forces. Films, magazines and advertising gave propaganda support to this idea, the most virtuous women depicted as housewives and mothers.  But of course another compartment of the Pandora’s Box of women’s liberation had been opened by the war.  Progress continued to be made by trailblazing women in a range of jobs. This film appears to be a rallying call to clerks everywhere to help put a stop to it. I don’t believe that Angela Barrows’ nationality is a coincidence either.  In the 1950s, Britain was dependent on US aid to get the country back on its feet.  Their money and their culture began to infiltrate our culture, slowly starting the globalisation that we are subject to today.  Already the loss of the old ways was beginning to be mourned. 

Sadly, I don’t think that the subject matter is as historic as I would like it to be.  Globalisation has won hands down and there are still some businessmen with archaic attitudes to women. We continually hear about the need for more women in business and those that are successful face many more pressures than their male counterparts.  But we have won a few battles on the way and taken a few steps forward.

‘The Battle of the Sexes’ reminds me of the time at school, when the class bully singles someone out with a comment that is so cruelly witty that you can’t help but laugh along despite yourself.  But really, should this film be on television until the war of the sexes is finally over, and we can view this impartially as a historic record of what once was?


Friday, 12 June 2015

Intermission No 5


In 1946, Harriet Clavering's husband, John, is de-mobbed from the navy, and he returns home to the English midlands town of Torchester. That night, he goes out to the pub...and he never returns home. Almost 40 years later, Harriet is a respected local Labour councillor and a CND activist. She continues to wonder about what happened to her husband and how different her life might have been if he had not disappeared. She encourages her grandaughter Caroline, who is also showing a keen interest in politics and the CND movement. 

Meanwhile, Harriet's son, Charlie, is at a loss for something to do. He is a carpenter, keen on DIY and is only happy when he is building. When Caroline jokingly suggests that he build them a nuclear bunker in the garden, he takes her up on the idea and begins to dig a large hole. Work stops however, when he discovers human remains. 
Who is the body in the garden? Where did John Clavering go to? Is Harriet about to be arrested? 

This light hearted novella skips between events in 1946 and 1985 - from Siren Suits to Doc Marten boots.


They settled down to read a set of meeting minutes. Charlie sauntered back in the room, hands in pockets.  He lifted the cream net curtain and stared out into the garden.  He let out a deep sigh, retrieved a handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose.  Then he lifted the net curtain again and repeated the sigh.
“Dad, you sound like you’ve got a puncture.  Will you please sit down?  Here.”  She handed him The Observer.  “Have a look at that for a bit.”
Charlie thrust his hands back into his pockets. “No, I’m not bothered, thank you.”  He sat down in the armchair and began to stare at the wooden fire surround.
Harriet took off her glasses and pointed them at him. “You know, you could always go and see if Margaret would like a hand in the kitchen.  Surely you can do more than just slice the meat.”
He continued to stare at the fire surround, engrossed in the scrollwork.  It looked good, but he often wondered aloud if he could have done it better.
“Dad needs a project, Gran.  Can’t you think of anything at your house?  Please?  We’re all going mental.”
“No, I can’t think of anything.  He’s done everything.  I can’t move in that kitchen for cabinets.”
Caroline thought, seeking out something for him to do.  There was so much friction about the house when he was bored.  She glanced down at the CND papers, then nudged Harriet.  “Dad?  What about building us a nuclear bunker in the garden?”
Harriet began to suck on the arm of her glasses.  The left hand corner of her mouth gave a small twitch.
“A what?” Charlie jumped out of his fire surround reverie.
“A bunker.  For when the bomb drops. Mind you, I’m not sure I want to survive it.  But it might come in handy.  Dig a big trench, stick a couple of bunks in it and a storeroom full of tinned food.  Cover it all over and make a door.”
“I’m not sure that would work.  Would it work?”  He was considering the idea carefully.  


Dora entered the back door of the Duke of Wellington looking like a corpse in a peroxide wig. This cold had overtaken her body rapidly, making her nose glisten and her throat rasp.
“Blimey Dora!  Are you sure about this?”
The landlord studied her whitened face as he emerged from the cellar. At once he was pleased at his barmaid’s dedication and concerned for his own health.  He worried about the health of his customers come to that, didn’t want them staying in bed of an evening.
“Yes, yes I’ll be alright.  Rather be here then sat inside looking at them awful curtains.  Anyway all the fag smoke might do me good, help me get it off my chest.” She sniffed deeply, making the Landlord wrinkle his own nose in return.
“Here, have a tot of whiskey on me, perk you up.”
“Ta.” She knocked the contents of the tumbler that he offered her in one gulp, then blew her nose.
“You got a good supply of hankies? I can lend you a couple if need be.”
“I brought half a dozen.  Mind you, that one’s down already.”  She looked into her handkerchief and grimaced.  “At least it’s on the move.”
Dora applied lipstick to her dried out lips and went to open the doors for the drinkers already queuing outside. The customers were mainly sympathetic to Dora’s ill health.  That is except for Mrs Sim, who declared loudly that she remembered the flu at the end of the last war and her fervent hope that Dora wasn’t spreading certain death.  Dora was stood two more tots of whiskey.  One of these came from a man that she hadn’t met before.  As the stranger expressed such concern, she felt obliged to ask him about himself, although she really couldn’t care if he was the Grim Reaper himself.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Facing Their Waterloo

(Published Simultaneously on my festivalofbritain1951 blogspot)

‘The Happy Family’ (1952) stars Stanley Holloway and Kathleen Harrison; with fabulous supporting roles for Dandy Nichols and George Cole. And a rabbit called Winston.  It is a film about the Festival of Britain, which took place in 1951. It offers an angle on the much-loved-in-retrospect  festival that I am not so familiar with – this being the argument against why it should not have taken place.  It was something of a disappointment to find some of my favourite actors working for the anti-festival side – but having finally seen the film I can forgive them.  This is because it is very funny with some absolutely corking scenes and hilarious exchanges.  My particular favourite goes something like this:
Married daughter:  “We’re expecting your first grandchild.”
Mother, repeating an oft used phrase: “Oooh I never did!”
Teenage daughter: “Oh Mum, yes you did.”

Stanley and Kathleen play Mr and Mrs Lord.  They live on the south bank of the Thames near Waterloo Station.  Mr Lord is in the process of retiring from his job as an engine driver while Mrs Lord runs their corner shop, humorously called “The House of Lords.”  Despite having lost a son in the war, they are contented with their lot.  However, the film is set in March 1951 and the opening of the festival is just 6 weeks away. Planners at the festival’s South Bank site, just across the road, realise that they have made an error in the measurements.  A road leading into the site, which was supposed to run past the Lords’ house and shop, will actually need to go straight through it.  The Lords are told that they must leave immediately, and they are offered compensation and a new abode in Harrow.  As you might imagine, Mr and Mrs Lord are having none of it.

Stanley Holloway by @aitchteee
In scenes that are sometimes reminiscent of ‘Passport to Pimlico’; when the authorities are so inept that they can’t do anything to help the Lords appeal, they revolt.  They barricade themselves in and refuse to budge when officials and police come to evict the family.  Both Harrison and Holloway are given rousing monologues about their lives and their plight, they identify themselves as the underdog, knowing that the British love it when the underdog bites back.

But what this film boils down to is an emotional complaint about the Festival of Britain in relation to the contemporary housing problem. It shows the course that opponents to the event took – they drew attention to the spending taking place in relation to that needed to build homes to replace those lost in the Blitz.  The Festival official who first visits the Lords to break the news (Mr Filch, played by Naunton Wayne) re-iterates that £6 million is being spent – and this is money that will be written off, there is no chance of recouping most of it.   The Lords’ eldest daughter actually states at this point that this money could have been used to build many homes. From this point onwards, we know where we stand and where this is going.  We are being shown that the Lords’ home represents several thousand homes that were not built because of the festival – that people were being denied their own castles because of this frippery.  Winston Churchill was famously against the Festival, overseeing its complete dismantling on his return to power later in 1951.  That Mr Lord has named his beloved pet rabbit Winston is perhaps another indication of where the loyalties lie in this film.

In the end, the Lords win their battle and their house is left as an island in the new road scheme. I can’t help thinking that they would come to regret their new situation.  But it was interesting to see that there was some rebellion against this glorious opportunity for Britain to enjoy itself after many dark years. Well, we like to have a moan, we British, don’t we?  And this is one big moan, delivered through the medium of film.  And I have to say, I love it!