Friday, 25 September 2015

A Matter of Blithe Spirits

Visit my Wordpress site to read my new serial story "A Matter of Blithe Spirits".  Here's the introduction:

Last year, I published a book called The History Usherette’s Second Seat, Third Row.  The starting point for this book was one of my favourite films, ‘A Canterbury Tale’.  This film was released in 1944, towards the end of the Second World War, a time that I am deeply fascinated with.  I wondered about the contemporary audience; how the film affected them and made them feel.  Putting this thought together with the Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and a book that I had read about the life of a painting…’Second Seat, Third Row’ began to take shape.  The title refers to a seat in a fictitious cinema somewhere near Waterloo Station.  The book takes a group of people who all sit in this seat and see ‘A Canterbury Tale’ when it is first released, and it tells their stories.  I thoroughly enjoyed writing it.

This has been my most well received book to date, and combined with the fun I had writing it…of course I had to repeat the exercise with another film.  This time I have taken two films, both dealing with another fascinating piece of 1940s history.  ‘Blithe Spirit’ and ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ were both in cinemas in the immediate post war period. Both deal with human spirits and the afterlife. There were other films that looked at this subject, and it is no coincidence.  As 6 years of death and destruction came to an end, of course those that survived were moved to consider what had happened to their loved ones.  Films and stories so often reflect popular thought and ideas and are a fascinating window into their time.

So, here is my new story, ‘A Matter of Blithe Spirits’. I will be publishing it in 4 instalments – a kind of introduction and then 3 mini stories spinning off from it. I have not published this as a book because it is fairly short, and anyway it is for quite a niche audience!  If you have never seen either of these two films, then you will not understand this story.  Go and watch them immediately!  Your life will be much richer for it.   I suspect that most of the readers of ‘Second Seat…’ will “get” this story – and this is a little thank you to all of you for buying my book.  If you haven’t read ‘Second Seat…’ then I hope that this will move you into a purchase!  A link will be given at the bottom of the page.  

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

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. 


Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Carry On Stars At War

I recently wrote a guest blog for the lovely Carry on Blogging! blogspot.  This was all about the Carry on stars and their wartime exploits - you can read it here: