Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Read All About It!

‘Miss Robin Hood’ (1952) was made for the Margaret Rutherford fan. She’s as dotty as anything and it’s an utter delight. She is wonderfully supported by Sid James as her taxi driving chauffeur with a penchant for knitting. And I must also mention Dora Bryan as the barmaid, who isn’t in it nearly enough. I always seem to say this about Dora (with ‘A Taste of Honey’ as the exception) – she always leaves us wanting more of her.

The co-star of the film though is Richard Hearne, who I was hitherto unfamiliar with, but apparently he was famous at the time for a character called Mr Pastry. He is well casted, and frankly he is the only believable element of this film. It is fantasy, but a delicious one that you want to repeatedly get lost in. Hearne plays Mr Wrigley, a writer and editor of a childrens’ newspaper. He is most famous for his series of stories about ‘Miss Robin Hood’ – a thieving schoolgirl who is carrying out her own version of justice.  Meanwhile, Miss Honey (Rutherford) wishes to secure a secret drink recipe from James Robertson Justice, whose Great Grandfather stole it from hers. Being a child-like creature, she railroads Wrigley into assisting her in this, believing that the creator of Miss Robin Hood must be a crime expert.  As you can imagine, all sorts of incidents follow on and Wrigley ends up resigning from his post.

But there is a happy ending, of course. And as Wrigley is persuaded to take his job back he is reminded that Conan-Doyle will always be remembered for his series of stories in a newspaper. This is where our history comes in. Think too, of Charles Dickens, whose stories were also serialised before becoming novels. And then there is the wartime film ‘Mrs Miniver’ – a fictional newspaper column by Jan Struther brought to life on screen.

That kind of opening for writers seems to have been killed off. But what better way to sell the product of an ailing industry but to publish gripping serial stories in them? And what an opening for aspiring authors too. Newspaper editors! What have you done? I don’t want soap star gossip! I want a good old fashioned yarn. Just like ‘Miss Robin Hood.’

That's all from me for now. Thanks to all the contributors and supporters of The History Usherette.It's been grand.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Damned if You Don't

‘Child in the House’ (1956) has a fine cast. The child star of the title is Mandy Miller, who so memorably played a deaf child in the film that shared her name. Meanwhile, she is supported by Stanley Baker, Eric Portman, Dora Bryan and Phyllis Calvert. There are also tiny roles for Alfie Bass and Joan Hickson. This roll call alone is enough to send me running to see this film.

Young Elizabeth (Mandy) is sent to live with her aunt and uncle (Phyllis and Eric) when her mother is taken into hospital. Meanwhile, her father (Stanley) is on the run from the law for being a wrong ‘un where money is concerned. It’s all heart-wrenching stuff, only lightened by the presence of the huge-hearted maid (Dora).

What I found most interesting about this film was Phyllis’ role as the aunt. The story opens with her going to collect Elizabeth from Victoria station and we are treated to an excruciating first meeting between the pair. It is obvious from the outset that the aunt has no experience of children and is quite nervous at the prospect of taking care of her niece. It is one of those scenes that is tense to watch and although you want to give her a bit of a talking-to, you can find sympathy for her at being thrust into this unexpected situation.

They arrive home, and luckily for Elizabeth, it turns out that her uncle is a thoroughly nice chap who does know that you can carry on being yourself when a youngster is present, and not have to put on a tense smile the whole time. As the film progresses, you can see them build a rapport. But the aunt’s attitude to Elizabeth spirals downwards, as she is unable to understand the child and therefore handle her. She resorts to shouting and sanctioning. Finally, at a high point of tension, the uncle turns on the aunt, accusing her of marrying him for his prospects while secretly being in love with Elizabeth’s feckless father. It emerges that she has forced him to live in a “loveless home”. The implication here is that she cares only for status and refused to give her husband any children. She is a cold, hard-hearted cow. Just to round off the portrayal of a monster, she breaks the child’s beloved musical handbag.

Clearly, Phyllis’ character is a monster simply because she has no children. Her state is unnatural and she deserves to be vilified. That is the message that I took from this film role. What’s worse, we are forced into feeling sympathy for the criminal father because he is a father and he loves his child. So that’s alright then; basically he is a sound human being even if he is a thief and confidence trickster. Unlike her, the barren-wombed harpie.

What we are seeing here is a society that placed huge importance on parenthood. After World War Two, the government wanted women to desert the freedom of the workplace and become mothers, thus opening jobs up to returning servicemen and pushing up population numbers, decimated over two generations by bombs and guns. To not produce children meant that you were either a sad lost cause or a nasty piece of work. Because of this, the film gets away with this one-dimensioned portrayal of a woman. It is never explained why she remained childless, we are merely invited to condemn. Being a woman in the 1950s was really not all it’s cracked up to be. It is still an issue that has not been satisfactorily resolved.

I reflected how relatively quickly some things can change. There is a growing movement that is calling for action on population. If global population numbers do not slow down or reverse, one day soon we are all going to be in trouble in terms of resources available. Wouldn’t it be interesting if society and culture began to actively frown upon families with more than one child? One hundred years on from the date of this film, maybe Phyllis’ character and real women like her will be seen as saints...

Friday, 28 October 2016

The History Usherette Presents: The Beginner's Guide to British Cinema

I’ve just released a new book which sums up all I have explored while writing this blog.  Here’s the blurb:

The History Usherette's popular blog looks at what British Cinema can tell us about our social history. This is a summary of how trends in cinema from the 1930s to the 1970s show us what was happening to the British people, and what they wanted to see on screen. It is a starting point for the student of 20th Century British Social History who would like to use cinema as a resource - or a reminder of the Saturday afternoon matinee for those of a certain age...
The chapters are separated out as follows:
1. 1930s - the early talkies and the music hall hangover
2. Wartime - propaganda and escapism
3. Post war- the heyday of our films and screen stars
4. Permissive society - the rise of the 'kitchen sink drama'
5. Television on film- the last desperate gasp
Each of the first four chapters is followed by a spotlight feature on a particular aspect of that period.
A bibliography and a calendar of births, deaths and releases finishes the book off, while pencil portraits of the stars enhance the text.

And here’s a couple of extracts:

(Signs of the Times) Part 1 – Leisure

In the 1930s, leisure time became an important issue for workers.  They were tired out – and World War One had woken people up to the fact that life was all too short.  In 1933, the Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout in Derbyshire highlighted the desperate need for industrial city dwellers to get out into the fresh air.  Throughout the decade, trade unions lobbied for holidays with pay, leading to a government act in 1938.  How people spent leisure time varied according to taste – but of course films reflected popular pastimes of the age.  Mention must be made first of the documentary “Spare Time” (1939) made by Humphrey Jennings, which deliberately shows working people at their rest. This is a must-see if your intention is to explore this subject further. But there is also plenty to be gleaned as incidental parts of the plot in entertainments.  A trip to the seaside resort is of course the main reason why people wanted holidays with pay.  Gracie Fields’ ‘Sing As We Go’ (1934) provides us with a good opportunity to see the resort of Blackpool at the height of its popularity. Meanwhile, in ‘No Limit’ (1935) we take an excursion to the Isle of Man with George Formby. The sea crossing, B&B hotels and seaside entertainments take their place alongside the TT races.


Ealing Studios soon became rather good at delivering a more subtle commentary on the times too. Gentle satire on those in power can be picked out of many of the films. For example, ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ (1949) ties in well with the social levelling policies of the post war government, as Dennis Price’s character single-handedly strikes off members of an aristocratic family. ‘The Man in the White Suit’ (1951) shows a foolish commerce industry triumphing over science, coinciding with a brain drain as the best British brains were being forced overseas to find work.

‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’ (1953) meanwhile appears in retrospect to give an uncanny prediction of the future. Mass closure of branch railway lines was a decade away, but this depicts the closure of one village’s line – and it being started up again by volunteers.  Community transport services run by volunteers has become a reality in many places.

With illustrations by the usherette’s artist in residence, Howard Taylor, why not take a quick trip into the projector room with us…

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Working Lives

‘The Lamp Still Burns’ (1943) is a wartime nursing drama, based on a book by Monica Dickens. It stars Rosamund John and Stewart Granger – although I particularly enjoyed seeing John Laurie and Joyce Grenfell in smaller roles.

The whole point of the film is to show how the nursing profession was in need of an overhaul at that point in time. Back then, becoming a nurse was a lifetime commitment – almost akin to becoming a nun. Discipline and order were demanded and there was no time for life outside the hospital. Marriage and children were seen as impossible for a working nurse. Hospitals therefore struggled to recruit and retain nursing staff. As we now know, change did eventually take place.  Some might argue that we have gone too far the other way and we should re-introduce matrons and their disciplinarian ways. The matron in this film (Cathleen Nesbitt) was shown in rather a good light – I wouldn’t argue with her (or Hattie Jacques’ matron!) being in charge of a hospital. So perhaps there is something in this argument, but not being a medical professional I cannot comment further.

The other location in ‘The Lamp Still Burns’ is a factory, which is being run by Stewart Granger’s character. Our heroine trainee nurse (John) starts the film as an architect, who argues with Granger about the need for a larger medical room at the workplace. The factory is indeed the site of first one accident (which John attends at the beginning of her studies) then later on an explosion, when Granger is severely injured. This chimes in with something that I recently learned from talking to someone who was employed at the railway works in Derby during the 1950s and 1960s. He told me that it was such a dangerous place to work that there were doctors and nurses permanently on site – and a works ambulance. Granger’s medical room also got a lot of use. This film didn’t comment on that aspect – where employers fully expected workers to get injured or sick at work and quite often because of it.

We still have much to complain about – but at least we now have health and safety at work legislation to protect us from being killed or maimed at our jobs. For now, anyway...

Coming soon! The History Usherette Presents ‘The Beginner’s Guide to British Cinema’…watch this space…

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Burning Issue

In recent times I’ve been trying to trace the life of Thorley Walters. I started by tracking his family tree to see if we are related. He was born in Devon and my Walters ancestors are all from Somerset and Devon; so I thought there may be a chance that I shared some DNA with someone who had worked at the Old Vic under Lilian Baylis, appeared in St Trinian’s films AND was a Hammer regular. Alas I found nothing definite, although it turned out that his grandparents had been married in the next village along from where my bunch were living…so I cling to this in the hope that it shows that there MUST be a diluted connection somewhere. Surely there weren’t that many Walters families living in Somerset at this point.

Youthful Thorley
Anyway, then I moved onto Thorley’s career and discovered that after his spell at the Old Vic in the early1930s, he moved into film roles – though only in a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-him” way. His very first film was the 1935 quota quickie ‘The Love Test’. I was interested to see this because for one thing it co-starred my fave Googie Withers; and it was directed by William Powell before his partnership with Emeric Pressburger. Finally, someone shared this film onto You Tube and I was able to see it. 

Thorley has a role as a chemist who is working away in the background and I only got a definite sighting of him in the very final scene.  The story involves these chemists seeking a formula to prevent celluloid from bursting into flames (with a bit of romantic shenanigans thrown in). This is an interesting piece of history – and one that relates to cinema itself. Celluloid was a widely used material – in the film they are carrying out tests on dolls made from the substance – a hideous and astonishing thought that children’s health was put at risk in this way. However, in 1929, just six years before this film was made, 70 children were killed at a cinema in Paisley. The cause of the disaster was celluloid film, which has begun smoking in the projection room after being placed on top of a battery. The combination of fumes and crush led to the horrible tragedy. But many ordinary household and personal items were also made from it – including jewellery and cutlery handles. And what with the prevalence of open fires back then it must have been the cause of several accidents in the home.

The search for a non-combustable material to replace celluloid must have kept many chemists busy. This is something that we have forgotten now…but I don’t think we should. So many of us collect old artefacts from the 1920s and 30s – we perhaps need to bear this danger in mind before putting our prized collections on display in our homes, or wearing the jewellery.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Living in Sin

‘When the Bough Breaks’ (1947) stars Patricia Roc and Bill Owen. A strange combination at a cursory glance – especially as they end up married – but it works!  I thought that this was the best new-to-me film that I had seen in a long time. I don’t know if this is because it just caught me in the right mood, or if it is a half-forgotten treasure. It is an all-out weepy and I felt much better for getting into the spirit of the thing.

The storyline can be roughly sketched out as follows. Patricia’s character (Lily) has a baby and immediately discovers that her husband is a bigamist. She tries to bring her baby up alone but she struggles – as you would in those days. A posh lady at the nursery takes a shine to her son and at a particularly low point, Lily allows her to informally adopt him. Fast forward a few years and Lily has a good job in a department store. She goes on holiday to Butlin’s and meets the adoring and persistent Bill (Bill Owen). I was gratified to see that they met in the typical 1940s matchmaking dance, also used to good advantage in ‘Millions Like Us’. All the women form a circle, all the men form a circle facing them, and they do a big opposite directions ring-a-ring-a-roses until the music stops (‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush’). A quaint way of meeting new people that I regret the loss of. Also gratifying is the presence of Leslie Dwyer at the holiday camp – he went on to become the grumpy Punch and Judy man in ‘Hi-di-Hi’.

Lily says that she can’t marry Bill but won’t tell him why (Oh the melodrama! I lapped this up!). Eventually, he prises her past out of her, and being a thoroughly good egg he still wants to marry her and at last she becomes chatelaine of his corner shop in Streatham. Settled – but with no babies forthcoming from Bill – she seeks out her son, now eight years old. She gets him back – but it is no good, she and her son are strangers. She hands him back to his adoptive parents.

Perhaps one of the reasons why I identified so much with this film is because I identified with Lily’s struggles with her new born baby. Being alone in the world and refusing to receive any support from her bigamist husband meant that she had to go to work. After a period of standing at a perfume counter all day and pacing up and down with a crying baby all night, she finally collapses. This is rather melodramatic to our eyes perhaps – but to be a working mother was much more unusual and therefore open to interpretation in the late 1940s. Women were expected to give up jobs to returning servicemen and dedicate their existences to delivering the baby boom. Yet even in wartime, mothers of young children were not conscripted into jobs.

I found myself going back to work too soon after the birth of my first child. Financial need dictated this. I had a traumatic caesarean in October and was back at work after Christmas, my daughter going to a day nursery. She was a difficult baby – I called her Lucifer because she screamed all night and slept all day and it seemed that nothing would persuade her to review her hours of business. I have a vivid memory of sitting at the top of the stairs weeping in utter misery because she’d cried all night and I had to be at work in three hours. Yet the nursery staff thought she was a delight – just like in the film. I fantasised about running away…and I sometimes worry that if I did not have support from others then I might have done something regrettable.

What is identified as being suitable melodrama material here is now normal everyday life for most of us. My story is not unusual, there are thousands of others out there with similar experiences. But I wonder, do we choose to live like this or has it been forced upon us? Mothers of babies are now expected to work, both by society and the government.  The cost of living is such that one wage per household is not enough – recent statistics showed that a large proportion of households claiming Housing Benefit do have a member in employment. To have to live on one wage leads to reliance on expensive credit and potentially damages the life chances of the children. Some mothers enjoy working though and are glad to keep an identity other than ‘Mummy’. Some hate and it and resent how it exhausts them and means that they cannot be there when their babies are learning to walk and talk.  Personally I felt a mixture of both. And as I said above, not even Winston Churchill expected young mothers to go to work in Britain’s darkest hour. What a conundrum this is.

But at least we are not in fear of being morally judged when we have been left in the lurch by the fathers of our babies (not to say that people don’t judge – but we are more able to ignore it). For this reason alone, perhaps we have made some progress. It just doesn’t feel like it at times.


Monday, 1 August 2016

Joyce to the World

My new book, ‘Joyce to the World’ – a collection of short stories inspired by the work of Joyce Grenfell, is now available on Amazon. Here’s the introduction and a taste of the stories:

Cover artwork by Howard Taylor - @aitchteee on Twitter - commissions taken!

Joyce Grenfell died in 1979, just before she was due to become Dame Joyce Grenfell. But she is by no means forgotten, indeed she is thought of fondly by many of us who are too young to have been aware of her during her lifetime. It is interesting to think about the reasons for this, when many of her contemporaries are becoming more obscure as time passes.

The two roles that she is most fondly remembered for are Policewoman Ruby Gates in the St Trinian’s films; and the harassed nursery school teacher as portrayed in her monologues.  Mention Joyce’s name to a lot of people and they will smile and reply “George, don’t do that!” These characters have similarities – at first glance they are failures. Ruby fails to secure marriage with her long-term fiancé Sammy and she is hopeless at controlling the school girls while masquerading as a games mistress. The nursery school teacher loves children but it is not returned in the fashion that she probably envisaged. But, we British love an underdog, especially one that perseveres to the point of insanity. Of course it helps when they have a hilarious turn of phrase too. We adore Joyce as a character that has been lost to progress, to dumbing down and mass boorishness. She represents an England that we feel we have left behind.

But Joyce herself was half American and she was no underdog. The world that she represents to many of us did not exist in the pure form that we sometimes imagine either.

In my blog, The History Usherette, I look at nostalgic films and try to pick out pieces of real history. This history is often not as rose-tinted as we would like it to be. I have applied this thought to this collection of short stories. Each is inspired by a piece of Joyce’s work, they run in chronological order from the 1930s to the 1970s. I hope – and I think that Joyce might approve of this – that this might encourage the reader to appreciate some the progress that we have made in more recent decades. It is fun to look back and think that maybe things were better. But they weren’t. Not always.

Natures Gifts:
The original speaker of ‘Useful and Acceptable Gifts’, first performed by Joyce in revue in the 1930s, is horrified to see herself being parodied on stage.
Many women remained single into middle and old age at this point in time due to the mass slaughter of young men in World War One.  Yet to be married and a mother was still looked upon as a woman’s only natural calling. Those that tried to make themselves useful in other ways were sometimes turned into figures of fun.

The Demi-Angel:
Upper class teenager Julia volunteers to help care for wounded soldiers in 1943, going against her mother’s wishes. She is inspired after watching Joyce in the film ‘The Demi Paradise’.
A rigid class system and narrow constraints for women was to some extent broken down by World War Two. This is a look at how it took death and injury on a mass scale to liberate those trapped at home as well as those in the occupied territories.

Dear Miss Grenfell:
Old soldier Robert writes to Joyce to thank her for cheering him up while she was touring with ENSA.
Like so many household names, it was this wartime work that really helped to shape Joyce into the performer we so loved. It took war to allow talent to shine through, and to introduce people to different forms of culture.

Red Letter Day:
Old bachelor Jim is haunted by Joyce’s song ‘I’m Going to See You Today.’
These 1940s lyrics paint a picture of a nation being reunited again with loved ones. It might refer to short leaves from the fighting, or to the post war homecoming. But the war took a huge toll on British relationships. Divorce rates were hitherto unheard of, and this is only the official picture. Some promised marriages didn’t happen; while some unhappy marriages limped on to save face.

Oh Ruby!:
Billy’s mother discusses his decision to join the police force.
We all love St Trinian’s, although I think it does colour our perception of all-girl schools. Do we let what we see on screen influence our lives too much? Are we losing the capability to make decisions for ourselves?

New husband Bob struggles to reconcile his views of marriage with a society where women are newly liberated. He tries to take back control, implementing a hare-brained scheme inspired by Joyce’s ‘forgetful woman in church’ monologue.
The laws are in place, but male attitudes are too often trailing behind. Even now, I wonder if we’ll ever get true equality.

Some Ladies Have to Dance Together:
A woman reflects on how she first hated, then loved Joyce’s song ‘Stately as a Galleon.’
Another look at how girls are at the mercy of men’s expectations, often rooted in their own base desires.

Retirement Time:
Joyce’s nursery teacher dedicated her life to her job (although she often thought about a change of career, she could never quite break away). But when she reaches a certain age she is forced to retire with no other life to fill her days.

Extract from ‘Red Letter Day’:
He heard the song performed again about a year later. He had listened to Bob Turner whistle it continually as he pinned photographs of his trio of girlfriends onto the wall above his bunk. And then it had played on the radio while he drunk his first beer on English soil. So, from boarding the train to London on that day he remembered too well, the song had been bumping around in his brain. The rhythm altered itself to fit the dominant noise of the moment, whether it was the sound of the train wheels, or the creaking of the carriage body as it pulled away from a platform. He caught a tube train from Kings Cross to Waterloo. He thought he could hear the tune in the wind as it rushed through the tunnels. She would be waiting for him at Waterloo, under the clock, of course. He had told her every time that they had met that this would be the place where it would all begin for them.
“We’ll put our name down for a prefab, then get the marriage licence. When we’ve had our cup of tea and rock cake in the buffet. First thing’s first.”

This refreshment had become their ritual – at the beginning and end of each wartime liaison; a talisman. If they didn’t have it, then perhaps one of them wouldn’t return for next time. It was silly, they knew. But once the suggestion had been made it was difficult to let the idea go. He had smiled about it as he climbed the stairs up from the tube station onto the main concourse at Waterloo. This would be the last time. Now he was home, it would be all house hunting and picnics by the Serpentine.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Something Fishy

‘Britannia of Billingsgate’ (1933) was a lot more fun than I thought it was going to be.  I have felt in the past that the earlier films of the 1930s are a bit too naïve and clunky for my taste, but this one proved me wrong.  This is a very knowing look at the early film industry itself, and I think that it is rather ahead of its time.

It features music hall star Violet Loraine as Bessie Bolton; while Bessie’s husband and children are played by the now better known names of Gordon Harker, John Mills and Kay Hammond.  Bessie runs a fried fish shop while her husband Bert works at nearby Billingsgate Market. Her teenage son and daughter are both top-drawer dreamers.  One wants to be a speedway star and the other wants to marry a heartthrob actor.  When an Italian film director is filming a new picture nearby, he accidentally stumbles across Bessie and her fabulous singing voice. Spurred on by Bert and the pound signs popping out of his eyeballs, Bessie reluctantly agrees to make a picture and the family are suddenly elevated to a new position in life.

Bessie’s character would appear to be based wholly on Gracie Fields – the part could have been written for her (and the surname Bolton adds to my suspicions here, what with the Lancashire connection…) In fact, I would say that the film rather pokes fun at a perhaps already hackneyed concept of the ordinary woman turned into an overnight star. Because, for Bessie, this isn’t a case of dreams coming true. She is fair sick of it all very quickly – and the whole situation shows her husband up as a very silly man. He is easily swayed by money and fame but he is unable to handle himself. Bessie’s daughter’s actions are the most telling. With access to money and the right people, she starts stalking her heartthrob. She gets to meet him, finds out where he lives and sneaks into his bedroom one evening to wait for him.  This results in the very memorable scene of Bessie giving her daughter a thoroughly and deservedly smacked bottom. The filmstar heartthrob himself is aloof and disgusted…and very probably gay.

This is a film which looks at its own industry and seems to declare it as a load of old bunkum. Already the trappings of fame that we associate with modern life are being held up to ridicule.  What with all this and the Hammersmith Odeon and telephone booths complete with underground posters, it is certainly worth a look. It is available free to view on the BFI website here -


Monday, 27 June 2016

The Level Playing Field

I have started a new Twitter account dedicated to the life and sayings of Joyce Grenfell (@callmesossidge). This is partly to give me some inspiration as I write my next book of short stories, all of which will be inspired by Joyce's work.

One quote that I recently posted went as follows:
"Things will never, can never, musn't ever be the same as they were before the war."

Joyce wrote this in a letter to her mother during the early years of World War Two, as part of an observation about the British class system. She was not far off being a member of the aristocracy herself.  Her aunt was Nancy Astor, MP and chatelaine of Cliveden and therefore a mover in the highest of circles. At the time that she wrote the letter, Joyce lived in a cottage on the Cliveden estate and often partook of her aunt’s hospitality.  She had also been a debutante and name-dropped a lot of titled and high rolling people in her letters and diaries.  So, for her to say this, tells me that there was widespread recognition of a need for change among those with the power as well as those experiencing it for the first time as part of the wartime social levelling.

Coincidentally, a couple of weeks after I had posted and mused about this quote of hers, I watched ‘The Guinea Pig’ – a film which tackles the notion at the very root.

This is a Boulting Brothers film, which was released in 1948 and is based on a 1946 play.  It stars a twenty-something Richard Attenborough as a teenage school boy.  He plays an East End lad who is sent on a scholarship to a private boarding school as part of a wider experiment. We follow his uncomfortable transplantation from one environment to another very different one – and we feel very sorry for him as he endures the snobbery, feudal customs and loneliness. There is a scene where he tries to run away, then pours his heart out to a sympathetic master.  This is deeply heart-wrenching and it is testament (not that one is needed) to Attenborough’s talent.

With the stoicism that you would expect of a 1940s EastEnder, the lad sticks it out and eventually begins to make those who doubted the scheme to see the point of it. A conversation between one of the old fashioned masters and the boy’s father tells us all that we need to know. That this film is about the need for the classes to mix and understand each other. We had so recently triumphed over a common enemy…wasn’t it now time to give ourselves a common goal – to do the best by our children. To not shut them away in compartments.

Attenborough by @aitchteee

I enjoy slipping back into what was a very idealistic period of our history. I also relish finding out what the Boultings made of it all. They took this one more seriously than many other of the subjects that they tackled. Unfortunately, our society remains as class-ridden as ever....shame on us.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

A Foreign Country

‘A French Mistress’ is a Boulting film dating from 1960.  It is not one of their better known ones, yet it is full of familiarity. Cecil Parker, James Robertson Justice, Irene Handl and Thorley Walters fill the screen with their usual personas. The scene is a private boys’ school – and on the subject of familiar names and faces Michael Crawford is listed as being one of the pupils. I have to say that I didn’t actually notice him while I was watching.

Thorley Walters when he was little more than a school boy, thanks to Richard Hope-Hawkins from my Facebook page In Search of Thorley Walters

In some respects, this is a fun film with a fair bit to recommend it – not least Irene as the stressed school cook.  But it is also desperately old fashioned and, in my view, this overrides any sense of nostalgia.  The French Mistress of the title is a 20-something Mademoiselle who takes up the vacant position of French teacher at the school.  The previous incumbents of the post have all been sent galloping back home due to Irene’s cooking, and Mlle Lafarge is consequently the only applicant for a job that has become notorious. This causes all kinds of hoo-ha at the bastion of chauvenism that is the 1950s/60s boys school.  There are only four female characters in total, and I thought that these served to illustrate the four ages of woman as seen by the patriarchy at this time.
1)   Totty. (Agnes Laurent as Mlle Lafarge) The French mistress is 22 years old, is good to look at and responds positively to romantic overtures.
2)   Matron. (Edith Sharpe as just Matron. She doesn’t even get the dignity of a name) The school matron is caring, efficient and good in a domestic crisis. She no longer regards her looks as important and concedes that she is not as good as category 1) anymore.
3)   Widow. (Irene Handl as Sgt Hodges) The cook is a widow who needs to work but finds the whole thing a bit too much at ‘her time of life’.
4)   Bitter old hag. (Athene Seyler as Miss Peake) She has never married and is dependent on her brother.  This makes her interfering and small minded.

Four good reasons to be glad you weren’t around in 1960.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Mooning About

If you are ever in need of a cinematic example of how the British have a tendency to not take themselves seriously, then ‘Man in the Moon’ is for you. This 1960 film stars Kenneth More and Michael Hordern, among several others whose faces may be more familiar than their names. The landscape too is one that you will recognise, much of it being filmed in the Buckinghamshire villages around Pinewood.  It is gently humorous - all in all very comforting stuff.  Well, to us British, at any rate.  I suspect a native of any other country would be bemused and bewildered by the whole thing.

The premise is that Britain needs an astronaut to enable us to win the space race.  The men from the ministry are on the look-out for a suitable victim to launch up to the moon. Kenneth More turns out to be their perfect man. He has been earning a living selling his body to medical research because he is seemingly incapable of developing a disease. They (and we) first discover him at the common cold research establishment, being all bouncy and chipper while all those around him wallow in mucus-induced misery. He boasts that he survived everything that the School of Tropical Medicine threw at him.  He is lured to the space centre, where he barely notices being thrust into extremes of temperature and G-force.

More’s character is the epitome of the British hero, as viewed from the first half of the 20th Century.  He all but stands with legs wide apart, pipe sticking out from his jutting chin and his thumbs in his tailored tweed suit. This in itself is probably a bit of gentle mockery of how we used to be.  But then of course it all goes wrong.  When they finally launch him off to the moon, he ends up landing within a short distance from the Australian launch pad.  More goes back to the cold research establishment, where the scientists continue to be generally baffled.  The British, this film yells out, are clever but rubbish at a lot of stuff.

Of course, we know that the main two contenders in the space race were the USA and the USSR.  Two countries that take themselves and their space very seriously indeed.  I suspect that if this film had been made and released in either of those countries, there would have been an enquiry. Let’s face it, if a Russian had so much as even thought up a storyline that mocked their comrades in this way, Siberia would have beckoned. Would there have been demonstrations outside the cinemas of small town America?  Maybe.  But not only did we make the film, we sat and chuckled at it over our Kia-Oras and bars of fruit and nut.

I’m glad. Who wants space hardware when you can have Kenneth More being thrown off an ejector seat at full tilt.  Marvellous.


Monday, 4 April 2016

Rock On 1940s Style

In terms of its storyline, ‘Interrupted Journey’ (1949) is possibly the worst film I have ever seen. I can’t bring myself to describe it to you, it’s so laborious. It starts off right enough, but towards the end, it really does go to pot.  The film stars Valerie Hobson and Richard Todd.  Valerie is stunningly beautiful throughout, but I’m afraid that this doesn’t rescue the utter shambles.

The one bright moment is an appearance by Dora Bryan. She never puts in a bad performance and I always like to see her. She plays a waitress in the Paddington Station buffet, where she flogs Richard and his mistress a coffee and a rock cake each. This was the end of Dora’s delightfully distracted cameo, and so there was no more to do than to fall into a rock cake reverie. I began to wonder why the rock cake is so ubiquitous in 1940s culture. Were there a plate of them on offer in Joyce Carey’s ‘Brief Encounter’ buffet? I feel sure there must have been.  They certainly appear in my favourite book ‘One Fine Day’ by Mollie Panter-Downes (1947).  Here they are referred to as “rock keeks” by the snooty bakery assistant – and this is how I always pronounce them to myself after reading that (using Joyce Carey’s 1940s voice).

I followed up my viewing of ‘Interrupted Journey’ with a baking session – having found a rock keek recipe in my old 1950s Good Housekeeping cookbook. The recipe was simple:
7 oz Self Raising Flour
3 oz Butter or Marg
3oz Sugar
3oz Dried Mixed Fruit
Small egg
Drop of milk
Sprinkle of nutmeg/mixed spice
Just mix it all up, stick a few splats on a flat baking tray and shove them in a hot oven for 15 minutes.

Bit too much milk, should be a bit rockier shaped, but you get the idea
The verdict was a good one.  My notoriously picky children, who drive me to distraction with their weird food attitudes (I’ve got one that doesn’t like custard and ice cream, for pity’s sake), shovelled them down like there was no tomorrow. I was able to take one to work for my morning snack for a few days after they were baked. They were so easy to make and they were plain but filling. So I suppose that the answer to the question of why the rock cake was a rationing era stalwart is as follows:
·        Quick and easy to do, no matter how long you’ve been awake fire-watching and queueing for dried eggs you won’t go wrong.
·        Low on ingredients – nothing fancy.  These things are mostly flour and you can probably get away with dried egg and water in them with enough flavouring
·        They can be shoved in the oven with something else and then last for quite a few days afterwards (I made another batch that was still fine 3 days later)

I will be baking more rock keeks. They are very suitable for our new modern day frugality.

Now that we've done baking I'd just like to carry on with the domestic goddess in a headscarf and curlers attitude.  I've done a new book all about sewing with those iconic Sylko bobbins. You can buy it now on Amazon.  Some very nice things have been said about it:

Click here to go to my Amazon page

Saturday, 19 March 2016

When the Archers Missed a Target

‘The Small Back Room’ (1949) is a Powell and Pressburger film, made in association with Alexander Korda’s London Films. It has a marvellous pedigree – following on from such Archers’ classics as ‘A Canterbury Tale’ and ‘Black Narcissus’, the latter sharing Kathleen Byron and David Farrar in lead roles.  There is a good solid supporting cast too, including Cyril Cusack, Sid James and Jack Hawkins. A noir atmosphere comfortably envelopes the viewer, the film wraps itself around you like a heavy blanket.  Then there is the Powell and Pressburger attention to detail, the highlighting of sights, sounds or figures of speech that really make their films come to life.  My favourite thing in this film is towards the end, when Farrar’s character has to go and diffuse a bomb on Chesil Bank.  The crunching of pebbles and Farrar’s struggle to walk over them, coupled with the wheeling cries of the gulls.  This is a moment of bliss, this juxtaposition of the mundane and the tension of a bomb that could blow at any second. This is one fantastic film – so why isn’t it up there with ‘A Canterbury Tale’ or ‘…Colonel Blimp’?

Although ‘The Small Back Room’ was critically well received at the time, and the internet is full of appreciative reviews, contemporary audiences didn’t take to it and it flopped at the box office. The reason for this can only be that the subject matter put people off from going to see it. Although filmed in 1949, the story is set in 1943, and the back room in the title references so called “back room boys.”  It looks at the scientists involved in the study and development of weaponry. One sub plot covers the discussions around a new gun, while the main story involves Farrar’s character (Rice) tackling a new, unknown bomb that has been appearing at various locations. The serious tone is enhanced further by Rice suffering with his prosthetic foot and battling with the only thing that really helps him to handle the pain – Whisky. It seems that it is this that put people off – guns, bombs, bravery and personal misery. When you’re only just getting over suffering the same thing yourself, the last thing you want to see at the cinema is more of the same.

It perhaps shows us an anomalous period in cinema. These days we can’t get enough of the 1940s.  We will take any opportunity to commemorate events from this period, and films and books from or covering this era remain popular.  When the war itself raged, many films boosted morale by showing the British at their fighting best, whether this be ‘In Which We Serve’  at sea or ‘Millions Like Us’ in the factories. I think that if ‘The Small Back Room’ had actually been released in 1943 it may well have fared a lot better as a dramatic look at how our brave scientists were cleverer than the Nazi ones. But instead, it was released when the wartime adrenaline had stopped pumping, and we were left with piles of rubble and worse rationing than ever. If film was to reference any of this, it had better be aimed at cheering people up. Another 1949 film was ‘Passport to Pimlico’, a story about rationing that delivered a humorous look at why we should continue to put up with it – focusing on the end result.  It was just time to look forward and not back for a while.

Due to bad timing alone, ‘The Small Back Room’ is a forgotten classic. Please revisit it and give it a little love.


Visit my new History Usherette Spin off blog...looking at the acting profession in the 1940s and 1950s including a fictional account entitled "When Britannia Poked Her Trident."

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Stop Press

‘Vote for Huggett’ (1949) picks up where ‘Here Come The Huggetts’ left off. Britain’s favourite post war family are continuing to live happily in their suburban semi.  Mr Huggett (Jack Warner) has a good job.  Mrs Huggett (Kathleen Harrison) continues to muddle her way cheerily through life, taking care and pride in her family. The eldest daughter and the flighty niece (Diana Dors) are married off.  The second daughter is gainfully employed and the baby of the family is still Petula Clark, thank goodness.

Before I go any further, I must say how much I adore Kathleen Harrison in this film. As in ‘Here Come the Huggetts’ I believe that it is her talent rather than Jack’s that carries the film. She is side-splitting, and as with any actress of her calibre it is all done in a deceptively easy looking way. Just an expression at the right moment is enough to set you off.  Just watch the scene with the knickers near the beginning.
Jack by @aitchteee

Kathleen by @aitchteee

‘Vote for Huggett’ charts Mr Huggett’s foray into local politics. The adventure begins with a simple letter. Mr H decides that he wishes to share his opinion that their home town needs a lido (which they all pronounce “lee-doh” throughout – is this an old way of pronounciation or have I been saying it wrong? I always thought it was “lie-doh”) so he writes a letter to the local newspaper. They publish it, and it all kicks off.  The whole town sees it and comments on it – to each member of the family. People are in agreement, and the next thing you know, Mr H is being cajoled to stand for councillor.

If you are into politics, there is probably quite a lot of historical stuff that you could get out of this.  But the stand out thing for me was the power of a letter to the local newspaper, and the numbers of people who see it. Local papers are dying now.  We have seen them lose their grip in this generation. I used to buy them – but I no longer see them as something worth spending so much money on.  Prices have rocketed up and content has shrunk – and we already know much of it anyway through various internet portals. I even baulk at accessing the websites of our local papers – they are so weighed down with the advertising that they need to cover their costs that the pages take about a month to load and then jump all over the place. Local papers are obviously fighting for life- and who would see a letter that was printed in one these days?

In this respect, this film is a hark back to slower times, when information trickled out into the community rather than vomited a technicolour-headache- inducing mix of rumours, gossip and incident.  There is no going back, except in a Huggett induced reverie.