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...