Thursday, 24 May 2018

Spotlight on George Formby's Get Cracking 7

More Musings

During the course of ‘Get Cracking’ we get other glimpses of wartime initiatives. While introducing his new tank to the people of Minor Wallop, George gets back into the sulking Mary’s good books by using it to help her to sell saving stamps. The government encouraged people to use their national savings scheme in order to fund the war. Stamps could be purchased for various amounts and stuck onto a card. Full cards could then be exchanged for a bond which attracted a good interest rate. This use of a tank to help publicise them reflected real life, where communities might be encouraged to buy enough stamps to meet the cost of a Spitfire.

 Strangest wartime glimpse of them all in this film is the young girl evacuee that is billeted at George’s house.  For the purposes of the film it appears that they live together alone, something that is highly incongruous to modern eyes. Perhaps another example of Formby trying, but being no longer able to pass himself off as a youngster. Having said that, there is one scene where a housekeeper figures appears to be hovering in the background, waiting to take the young girl inside.  But still, would a single little girl have been billeted with a single man? I’m torn between finding this hard to believe and that knowledge that evacuees were often difficult to place – and perhaps some were put into unsuitable houses just to get them off the billeting officer’s hands. Or is it all artistic licence?

My new collection of short stories is available for download now. Three of the five stories are set in wartime Skipton, Yorkshire. Each one was inspired by a Yorkshire Post newspaper article about something connected with the Belle Vue Mill, home of the Sylko cotton reel.

Click here for an Amazon Kindle download

click here for a pdf download from Etsy

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Spotlight on George Formby's Get Cracking 6

Tank Top

After George’s disgrace over failing to secure the spare gun for Minor Wallop Home Guard, he must redeem himself. This is what George Formby films are all about, after all. And this redemption stays on the theme of weaponry by George constructing himself a tank. That’s right lads and lasses, a tank.  In civilian life, George is a mechanic, running his own garage that currently boasts no petrol and no spares. So, he is able to spend his days converting his work truck with corrugated iron pinched from a chicken coop. Back in the platoon’s good books, George and his tank (christened Mary Mk 1) are commissioned to represent Minor Wallop in manoeuvres against Major Wallop. Being on the receiving end of Ronald Shiner’s dirty tricks, George gets properly shot at by the real army while he is in the process of invading the neighbouring village.  But of course, George rolls into Major Wallop triumphant and gets a promotion to boot.  Finally, the two platoons are told that they are to merge – which they agree to do quite happily – and they begin making plans to trounce another neighbouring settlement’s platoon. After all at the bottom of it, they are all one against Jerry.

Formby sang about Frank on his Tank being a Swank - then built his own!
Along the way, there is a reminder of a more sinister aspect of the Home Guard’s manoeuvres – that is, what they have been formed to do. George has difficulty in getting his tank going because he is missing a rotor arm for the truck’s engine.  We learn during the process that rotor arms had been removed from the engines of vehicles in case of invasion – an early immobiliser. The invasion that was so anticipated in the early 1940s never took place, so we don’t fully know what tactics the Home Guard would have used to hold enemy forces back…but this little part of the storyline gives us one clue and it is momentarily sobering – invasion really could have happened, and how many of these parochial soldiers that we now laugh at every week in ‘Dad’s Army’ and in this film would have given up their lives?

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Spotlight on George Formby's Get Cracking 5

Home Guard Games

The story within the film ‘Get Cracking’ is all rather like an extended episode of ‘Dad’s Army’ and one wonders how well Croft and Perry knew this film. George Formby plays a member (occasional Corporal) of the Home Guard in the village of Minor Wallop. The story begins, after the initial scene setting, when it is discovered that a gun has been left at the local railway station goods depot without a label. A porter telephones to see if it belongs to their platoon, or to the one at Major Wallop. George is immediately despatched on his motor bike to go and claim it before the Major Wallopers hear about it. But the Home Guard office is situated in the back room of the pub, and little do they know, but the barmaid is a fifth columnist. She fancies Ronald Shiner’s character, who is part of Major Wallop’s platoon. The barmaid telephones Shiner and delivers the information on the gun in the hope of a back row liaison at the flicks in return. Shiner’s character sets out for the gun too, and the usual trademark Formby chaos ensues as they collide, then fight to get there first. George loses the gun and to add insult to injury he is accused of giving the game away. He is stripped of his stripe and is in disgrace. So, what with the local Home Guard rivalry between platoons and the acute lack of proper weapons there is more than a touch of Dad’s Army here.

You can have a gun and no uniform, or you can have a uniform and no gun, but you can't have both.

 Of course, I’m not accusing Croft and Perry of plagiarism – the point is that they both reflect the Home Guard as it was, each corroborating the other’s evidence.  It is known that the lack of available uniform and weaponry beset the Local Defence volunteers from the beginning. But I think that it also shows what we all suspect about men of a certain age. Get them together in a unit that has to compete with another one, then they will try their best to outdo each other at all costs as if they were back in the playground!

Mention must also be made at this point of the welcome appearance of E V H Emmett’s voice as the film opens. The famous tones of the Gaumont News narrator (well known to Carry on fans as the voiceover in ‘Carry On Cleo’) is used to commentate on the initial formation of the Home Guard in Major and Minor Wallop, describing how one got weapons while the other got uniform. He really gets the film going with a smile and sets the scene brilliantly.

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Thursday, 10 May 2018

Spotlight on George Formby's Get Cracking 4

Dinah Might

George’s potential squeeze in ‘Get Cracking’ is Dinah Sheridan, aged 23 and at the start of her career. Dinah will always be best known to me (and probably much of my generation) as the mother in the 1970s film of ‘The Railway Children’ and to see her so early on in her life is a happy curiosity. But she does seem to be rather an odd choice for the role of Mary Pemberton. Both George and the actor who plays Mary’s father (Lancashire born Frank Pettingell) sound as northern and as common as can be, while she talks like she has half a pound of plums in her gob and it’s just too noticeable and incongruous. I have to really try hard to believe that snooty Mary fancies dippy George. Lovely as she is, I can’t think why they chose her. I wonder if it was an attempt to appeal to the officers as well as the privates in the Home Guard audience?

"I can't tell a word you're saying"
A much better bit of casting is the glorious appearance from one of my favourite bit-part actresses, Irene Handl. She ramps up the dizzy, wandering in and out of the Home Guard office wittering on about “our Ben”, a mythical character who is always elsewhere. My favourite part is where she comes in seeking the teapot, and finds that their Ben, the tidy soul, has put it in the filing cabinet (under T of course). She adds a great bit of down-to-earth fun to the film and it would be much duller without her. Here we see on screen the forerunner of those Carry On characters that Irene was to so memorably play over a decade later on.

Her role also serves to re-inforce the message that these Local Defence Volunteers were ordinary men with other lives running parallel. Much is made at the beginning of the film of the trouble of fitting guard duties around social lives – you can’t put so and so down for Tuesday because that’s his night at the flicks and so on. The Home Guard had jobs, meetings to attend, courting to do and dippy sisters chasing round after them. It puts the British in a good light – that men were doing this job out of choice, and not because it had been dictated to them.

Have you seen my books? They're filed under F for fun.

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Friday, 27 April 2018

Spotlight on George Formby's Get Cracking 3

George v Ronald

‘Get Cracking’ was released in May 1943 – that same month George Formby turned 39 years of age.  His film career was drawing to a close, only 4 more would follow, with ‘Civvy Street’ being his final release three years later. At this point in time, his work in entertaining the troops for ENSA was as well-known as his on-screen entertainments. Perhaps you could say that ‘Get Cracking’ was an extension of this, as he entertained the Home Guard by having a laugh with them at their under-equipped exploits. But after the war ended, George’s career in film stalled. Instead, he had to capitalise on his touring success and he took his act to Africa and Australia. His next big thing in his home country would be his appearance on the West End stage in the play ‘Zip Goes a Million’ in 1951.

There are two good reasons why George’s film career came to a close. Firstly, he had typecast himself as the innocent Lancashire lad, who got himself into daft scrapes but always got the girl. By the time he turned 40, this was getting a bit tired, perhaps also slightly weird.  As he started to look his age, the unworldly-wise act didn’t wash quite so well. His love interest in ‘Get Cracking’ is Dinah Sheridan, who turned 23 in 1943, making George very nearly old enough to be her father.

But also, the war had changed audiences. Compare George’s continuing happy-go-lucky output with the films that Powell and Pressburger were turning out as the war drew to a close. Ours was a nation that was now bereaved, thoughtful and ready for change. George represented pre-war days of seaside trips, motorbike racing and cheeky innocence and perhaps everyone was now just a bit tired of all that.

It is interesting to compare the post war careers of George with his ‘Get Cracking’ nemesis Ronald Shiner. Shiner had been in several of George’s previous films and from memory I seem to think that he usually portrayed the petty villain in some way. I personally always see Shiner as being a wrong-un, which is probably unfair to the actor behind the roles, who may well have been the salt of the earth.  But where George faded, Ronald prospered. He went on to work with the likes of Arthur Askey and Margaret Rutherford and in 1952 he was voted the most popular male film star. After working with George one last time in ‘Civvy Street’ he went on to appear in more than 20 other films. The more cynical kind of character that he was good at – the spiv, the petty crook, the streetwise chum – were in demand.  The film world at least had tipped in favour of Ronald’s type.

Ronald retired in the early 60s to run a pub before his death in 1966 while George’s life ended with some acrimony and scandal. Funny how the roles seem reversed at the end.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Spotlight on George Formby's Get Cracking 2

Geography with George

The action in ‘Get Cracking’ takes place around the villages of Major Wallop and Minor Wallop. The idea for these names of course comes from the actual Wallop villages in Hampshire (Over Wallop, Middle Wallop and Nether Wallop, south west of Andover).  Such is the delightful nonsense of the name Wallop that Will Hay also put it to use – the action in ‘Where’s That Fire’ takes place in Bishop’s Wallop. A name I am so fond of that I stole it for my novella ‘Temporary Accommodation’.  Has anyone named a craft beer Bishop’s Wallop yet? If not, they ought to.

Will Hay films are a great source of made up place names. I also love the setting for his ‘Ask a Policeman’ – Turnbotham Round.  If you are reading this blog post in another part of the world, you might need to be told that Turnbotham is pronounced “Turnbottom” before you get the humour. That’s another thing that we are good at in this country – place names that are not pronounced how they are spelled.  One of George’s co-stars in ‘Get Cracking’, Edward Rigby, also features in a film called ‘Don’t Take it to Heart’ (1944).  In this chucklefest of a film, we are introduced to the fictional village of Chaunduyt, but we soon learn that it is pronounced “Condit”.   It’s a great send up of those pockets of rural Britain where there hasn’t been an injection of fresh bloodstock for far too long.

Rigby and Formby
There are hours of fun to be gleaned from English placenames. People are always compiling lists of double-entendre geography and the area around the real Wallop villages (Hampshire, Dorset and Wiltshire) is particularly blessed. What with names that have the River Piddle as their source and places that sound like a retired Victorian Colonel with a big moustache and ruddy cheeks (Glanvilles Wooton, Compton Chamberlayne, Brown Candover).  We have our rich and chequered history of language and settlers to thank for this and of course our early film industry was going to mine this comedic seam.

As for places that sound different to how they are spelled – every county has places like this. The town where I live is almost always pronounced wrong if we ever get a mention on national television (usually thanks to our famous MP). Bolsover is pronounced “Bolzovva” by residents, but southern TV types usually give it a soft s and a full English pronunciation of the “over” bit. This is how they know when strangers are in town and know when to light the torches and sharpen the pitchforks. I tease, I am from the big city…although me and my children marvel sometimes at how we are the only family here not related to everyone else.  In ‘Don’t Take it to Heart’, Chaunduyt is portrayed as a place stuck in the past, where strangers are frowned upon as foreigners or socialists – perhaps place pronunciation is a quick method of identification of friend or foe, dating back to when these things really were important.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Spotlight on George Formby's Get Cracking 1

A Peach of a Playwright

I’m going to start my Spotlight on George Formby’s “Get Cracking” by looking at one of the screenwriters. The 1943 Home Guard themed film was based on a play originally written by L du Garde Peach – famous for writing the Ladybird Adventure from History books.  Peach also contributed to the screenplay along with Edward Dryhurst and Michael Vaughan. So, you could say that Peach has a significant role at the root of this film. How close the film runs to the original play (called “According to Plan”) I’m not sure, as I have not seen a copy of the script. However, Peach recorded in his book “25 Years of Play Producing” that he thought that his original play was unrecognisable on the screen and that he was glad of this fact.

Although he is now only remembered for his Ladybird books, this is just one small part of the career of my fellow Sheffield-born Lawrence du Garde Peach. After studying English at universities in Manchester and Germany, he was then caught up in World War One. Presumably due to his fluency in the German language, he was given a role in intelligence after a spell in the Manchester regiment.  He survived the conflict and began contributing articles to Punch magazine while lecturing in English at Exeter University. His articles in Punch were popular and this led to him being offered work on the radio. He was an acknowledged pioneer of plays for the radio and by 1937 over 100 of his works had been heard in parlours throughout the land.  During this period he also established the ‘Little Theatre’ in Great Hucklow, near Buxton in Derbyshire. This was where he settled when he was able to earn his living purely through writing – he knew it from spending childhood summers there at a religious holiday home with his father, who was a minister. The Great Hucklow players achieved some fame between the wars and attracted audiences from far afield.

His radio play success had led to several screenwriting roles in the 1930s; and then when World War Two arrived, L du G became a Major in the Home Guard. This role, it seems, was a mine of inspiration for his wartime work.  And so we arrive at “Get Cracking”. This was his final credit in films, but by no means the end of his writing career. Much of his radio career involved writing small plays for Children’s Hour on historical subjects, which in the 1950s led to his Ladybird Adventures From History.

I’m spending 2018 researching the life and work of L du G and you can keep up with what I find out through this Twitter account @LduGardePeach