Thursday, 10 September 2015

Jerry Built George

‘Feather your Nest’ (1937) is an early George Formby film.  As is usual there are a couple of musical interludes in the story.  The main interlude, one that is repeated through the film, is the enduringly famous “Leaning on a Lampost”.  George also sings “When we Feather our Nest” which is an incredibly cheeky song for the time – I can’t quite believe that he got away with those lyrics!

Much of the film is set in a gramophone record factory.  This is a fascinating window on the early popular music industry, showing us how songs were recorded and transferred to a disk for the mass market.  Viewed from the digital age, it’s quite staggering to see how primitive it all used to be.  It appears that this was such a fragile medium too.  The recordings were initially put onto a wax disk.  Like the shellac records that these were then transferred onto, one clumsy slip and the recording was lost forever.  The equipment too was easily broken.  I don’t know if this is just me, but this seems to be the opposite of the modern problem, when it seems virtually impossible to lose a piece of music that you have purchased.

George plays a very clumsy factory dogsbody – every time the factory hooter goes off he drops whatever he happens to be holding (sounds hackneyed but is actually very funny in George’s professional hands). His butterfingers are disastrous for him, as he is in the process of buying and furnishing his first home with fiancée Polly Ward.

Cheeky Formby by @aitchteee
Their new home, which they call The Nest, is the sort of house that I’ve always fancied living in.  It’s one of those 1930s suburban semi-detached semi-timbered jobs with the stained glass sunrise over the front door. Unfortunately, I live with a new house fanatic and since giving up my own little Victorian terrace I have been railroaded into living in new builds.  He says that they are easier to maintain. I despair of the fact that I never have any storage or a decent sized garden.  Modern houses are not built to be actually lived in, I find.  They are built to fill the smallest possible plot and bring in maximum returns for the minimum outlay. Everything fails to work after a while.  We once had a house where it was impossible to clean the bedroom window.  I have nowhere to store my sewing collection and projects – it all lies around on the floor in baskets.  In our current house, we have had to convert the integral garage into a big cupboard, so that there is somewhere to keep the hoover, the wellies and the fruit and veg.  My two-up-two-down terrace was better than that.  I had a lovely walk-in pantry under the stairs and floor-to-ceiling cupboards next to the chimney breasts.  I always thought that one of those 1930s semis would also have been built with more care for those that lived in them.  That shoddy homes were yet another sign of our modern gradual slide back into Medieval living standards. Surely if 1930s builders thought enough to add stained glass and nice arched porches, then the insides would be good too.  

However, one of my favourite twentieth century architecture fans loathed these types of houses. John Betjeman was scathing of these developments and this has always puzzled and saddened me.  Why didn’t he like them? In his 1937 “Town Tours” which he recorded for the BBC he calls them:
Ill-shaped brick horrors
A potential slum that will cost them more in repairs than it ever did in instalments
He despaired of how they were dumped into the landscape with little thought to the surrounding area.  I just thought that maybe he would have been more kind to them if he saw what was to come at the end of the century.

‘Feather your Nest’ supports some of Betjeman’s views however.  George and his fiancée’s new home has been thrown up by a speculator and it does look to be on the verge of falling down again. The front door knob falls off and bedroom window falls out before they’ve even moved in. All kinds of things go wrong. The builder is depicted as a shady character, concerned only with money and not with building a decent home.  As I have said before, the comedy in these scenes must reflect reality as the audience will laugh at what is familiar to them.  So Betjeman was right.  These houses were often badly built with little concern for anything but profit.  Both mine and George’s illusions were shattered.

Still.  I would like to try living in one, just to see for myself.  Maybe one day I will get my own little Tudorbethan paradise. 


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