Monday, 21 September 2015

The Usherette Takes a Trip With Matt

Welcome to the second guest blog on The History Usherette.  This time, Dr Matt Kerry tells us about a little known 1937 film called ‘Sam Small Leaves Town.’

Matt is an enthusiast of both British cinema and holidays.  He is the author of a book called ‘The Holiday and British Film’ (published by Palgrave Macmillan) and also writes a blog that can be found here:

Sam Small and Butlin’s, Skegness

'Sam Small Leaves Town' (1937) is a little-seen British film starring Stanley Holloway in the title role – although strictly speaking, Holloway actually plays a character called Richard Manning who masquerades as Sam Small in order to hide at a holiday camp for two weeks as part of a bet. The character of Sam which Holloway invented, had become popular on stage, on records, and in short films from the late 1920s. In his autobiography Holloway claims that ‘there was a time when people used to insist that Sam Small was better known than Stanley Holloway and I’m not arguing about that’ (Holloway and Richards, 1967: 83).

Perhaps it was more than a coincidence that 'Sam Small Leaves Town' was shot at Butlin’s first holiday camp at Skegness a year after it opened. Billy Butlin was firstly a showman, but one with a keen business sense. He knew the importance of good publicity and marketing, bringing stars such as Gracie Fields to pose for publicity shots at the camp (Ward and Hardy, 1986: 58).

Unlike the more raucous representation of Butlin’s at Filey in 'Holiday Camp'* (1947), Butlin’s in the Sam Small film seems much more upmarket. Customers in the film drink champagne, the women in the bar wear long evening gowns, and the dining hall (although supposedly catering for ‘2000 people’ as one character points out to Stanley Holloway) has an atmosphere more like a restaurant, than a canteen.

The holiday camp location and the surrounding countryside are exploited to the full. A musical number built around a cycling excursion is filmed in Lincolnshire’s country lanes, and there are scenes set in the camp’s ballroom and poolside. Holloway leads the campers in the song ‘Penny On The Drum’ to which everyone processes out of the bar and round the Butlin’s pool, with its distinctive fountains.

One interesting aspect of this film is its inclusion of the African American musical comedy performers Brookins and Van, who take part in the stage show in the film’s finale. The characters lend an air of relatively sophisticated American musical entertainment to the film – one plays the piano whilst the other tap dances – although, culturally, they could also arguably represent an Americanisation of holiday attractions which cultural critics of the 1930s and ‘40s found to their distaste.

'Sam Small Leaves Town' is notable for prefiguring the Holidays With Pay Act (1938) by recognising the rights of a decent holiday for the working classes, and also for its representation of a Butlin’s style which as yet was not fully formed. Holloway sings a song that includes the lyrics ‘Hi De Hi, Ho De Ho’, but the semi-sophisticated holiday camp here does not quite match the general perception of the boisterous holiday camps that later films and television programmes like 'Holiday Camp' (1947) and 'Hi De Hi' (1980 – 1988) helped to construct.

Follow us on Twitter: @agathadascoyne @DrMattKerry

Further reading:

 Butlin, Billy, 1982, The Billy Butlin Story, A Showman to the End, London: Robson Books

Holloway, Stanley and Richards, Dick, Wiv a Little Bit o’ Luck, The Life Story of Stanley Holloway, 1967, London: Leslie Frewin

Kerry, Matthew, 2012, The Holiday and British Film, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Read, Sue, 1986, Hello Campers! Celebrating 50 Years of Butlin’s, London: Bantam Press

Ward, Colin and Hardy, Dennis, 1986, Goodnight Campers! The History of the British Holiday Camp, London: Mansell Publishing Limited

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