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.