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!   

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