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…