‘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 - http://player.bfi.org.uk/film/watch-britannia-of-billingsgate-1933/