Friday, 12 December 2014

Wisdom at Work

Norman Wisdom. Those two words could divide a nation.  Some can’t get enough of his simple-man slapstick humour.  Others find that his antics get right on their nerves.  Personally, I can go either way. It depends what sort of a mood I’m in and how irritated I feel with the world in general.  If I’m having a good day then I will laugh indulgently at his unusual approach to life.  If, however, the nerves are a bit frayed then eye-rolling and cheek puffing may set in after a bit. 

‘Trouble in Store’ (1953) is one of his earliest and better ones, made into a must-watch film by the presence of Margaret Rutherford.  She plays a kleptomaniac shoplifter, tottering around a department store and filling her suitcase with whatever takes her fancy. It’s not a big role for her but as usual she tackles it with relish and she is a total joy.  Wisdom plays a lowly stock room worker at the store, where he is repeatedly sacked and re-hired by the new boss.  His antics don’t get too annoying in this film – it’s well before all that daft Mr Grimsdale palaver and there are some genuinely very funny moments (the revolving door and the ice cream flick stand out for me). He does sing his “Don’t Laugh at Me” song (yawn) but at least this is interspersed with scenes of Esma Cannon heaping sugar into her tea, which makes the ordeal worthwhile.

Wisdom, by @aitchteee
There is a feeling of nostalgia in many of Wisdom’s films. For example, there’s the one where he’s a horse drawn milkman, fighting against the big conglomerate dairy company with their fancy electric floats (themselves now the object of nostalgia to us!). ‘Trouble in Store’ seemed to me to hark back to the good old days of retail.  The department store where he works, Burridges, is a very paternalistic company.  You get the impression that a job with them is a job for life, if you want it to be. In return for loyalty to the firm staff are given various small perks, such as a place to park their bikes and recreational facilities and events. The leader is visible and approachable – not some faceless suit in an office somewhere else.  Jobs like these have been dying out slowly over the past few decades.

I reflected as I watched  how attractive this workplace probably looks to those working in retail today. I recently spoke to an old acquaintance who works in a supermarket, one which prides itself on being cheaper than all the others.  Her actual hours are full time (or even more than full time as I see it) yet she is only on the books as part time, probably so she doesn’t get all of the working conditions associated with full time work – and so that they can drop her hours at a moment’s notice if they want to. She feels insecure and would leave if there was anywhere else to go. This is how they make their goods so cheap - on the backs of their staff.

A friend spoke to someone who works for a major department store.  They are not replacing staff who leave and this means that on Sunday mornings she now unhappily works alone on her floor.  Margaret Rutherford’s character would be very interested in that piece of information!  Zero hours contracts too are becoming more common, offering only insecurity to thousands of families.  These days, employers seem to take the attitude that you are lucky to find work of any kind.  There is some truth in that, but why use this as an excuse to treat your workers like another piece of stock?  These are probably the same employers that complain about the under educated workforce, not having heard the old adage about paying peanuts and getting monkeys. Where is the incentive to do better?

We may laugh at Norman’s original 1950s audience – weren’t we a simple people back then?  How unsophisticated we were to make this a box office hit. To think that this is what made us laugh then!  But if we were to go back in time and meet our grandparents 60 years ago; and tell them how we aspire to find a job in a place as good as Burridges, where your job was safe and your wellbeing taken care of, what would they think? When we told them about our Dickensian jobs, who would be the ones laughing then?

Friday, 28 November 2014

Frightful Frying

In my previous blog post I wrote about the British horror film, made popular by the Hammer Studios’ output from the 1950s onwards. There are two points which indicate just how popular they became.  Firstly, the sheer number of them that were turned out – Hammer made over 50 features in this genre.  But the second major indicator is the spoof tribute film, ‘Carry On Screaming’ (1966).  If the Carry On crew were prepared to give it a good send-up, then that is all the evidence you need for something being an established part of British culture.

‘Screaming’ is one of my favourites – Kenneth Williams is perfectly cast in the role of a mad Victorian doctor; with Fenella Fielding vamping it up admirably as his sister.  They are sending out werewolf – like creatures to abduct women and this is investigated by Harry H Corbett’s policeman. The underrated Peter Butterworth plays his assistant, providing many of the comedy highlights.  There are always many references to contemporary British culture in the Carry On films.  Even those set in a historical period make a point of sneaking in snide comments about modern Britain. My favourite example is in ‘Carry on up the Khyber’.  When Princess Jelhi reacts with horror to the news that the Khasi has decreed a “death by a thousand cuts”; he retorts “Nonsense!  The British are used to cuts!” A clear reference to contemporary government policies.
Dr Watt by @aitchteee

 ‘Screaming’ was recently shown again on the television and I caught the final chunk of it with my eldest daughter.  She asked me what was so funny about Kenneth Williams’ catchphrase – and also, what did it mean? “Frying tonight” is the phrase in question, called out gleefully as the kidnapped women are dunked in the bubbling vats in his lab.  I explained to her that this is how chip shops used to alert people to the fact that they were open and frying fish and chips that evening. She looked rather confused, and I realised that I was getting old. Of course we now live in a culture where fast food is always available at any time of the day or night. Macdonalds or KFC have no need to advertise that they are cooking – they just always are.  No wonder we’ve all got so fat; fast food is no longer a treat and it is viewed almost as a necessity.  The very idea that chip shops would advertise in this way now seems quaint.  So, it just goes to show, even in a film as far removed from reality as ‘Carry On Screaming’, it is possible to pick up a tiny gem of our lost culture, viewed from a world that most of the cast would no longer recognise. 

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Monday, 17 November 2014

Down on the Tube Station at Midnight

I’ve been writing this blog for over three years now, and lately I have pondered over the cinema genres that I may have neglected to cover.  Here in Britain we hosted the Hammer Studios, which in the latter half of the twentieth century turned out a string of well known horror films.  These films are held in high esteem by a great number of people – so why have I never got around to writing about one?  It’s perhaps because few of these films are grounded in any kind of reality.  When I think Hammer, I think of Christopher Lee in a Transylvanian castle; or improbable monsters in misty forests. Not a lot for the History Usherette to get at there, unfortunately.

If you were to ask me which was my favourite horror film, it would not be one produced by Hammer.  It bears some of the hallmarks of one of their productions – 1970s technicolour goriness which doesn’t spare the blood.  Christopher Lee is even in it, albeit briefly in a pointless cameo role. I might have at one point assumed that it was one of theirs.  The film that I’m referring to is called ‘Death Line’ (1972).  It stars Donald Pleasance as a rather odd policeman who is investigating a series of mysterious happenings at Russell Square tube station in central London. A high profile man disappears; then a multiple murder is discovered and meanwhile an American student and his girlfriend become embroiled in the case, culminating in her disappearance.  We find out that the culprit is the descendant of some Victorian workers who were trapped in a tunnel collapse and then abandoned to their fate by an unscrupulous construction company. They survived by eating human flesh –their own people at first – but the final remaining descendant is now on the prowl for fresh meat.  Anyone who has ever seen the film will be nodding and smiling at my description– once seen it is never forgotten. This is mainly because the underground creature can only say one phrase of English – “Mind the doors” – and his use of it is both uproariously funny and deeply disturbing.  I’m not sure that it was meant to be so funny; but there are many people who have watched this in a state of intoxication and then spent the rest of the night shouting out the chilling catchphrase while chuckling gleefully.

The premise behind the film is, I suppose, not impossible yet not at all likely. This potentially makes a good horror film – something horrible that could happen but never has happened and never will. That element of potential reality makes the horror more piquant.  Also, its setting in a tube station really adds to this potential reality. Not only does it utilise a setting that is familiar to thousands of commuters, it plays on an iconic imagery which is familiar to millions.  A lot of people love the idea of the London Underground (probably mainly those who don’t have to use it every morning). The red and blue roundels are all over the lucrative tourist industry – I have a keyring and a fridge magnet myself. Mind you, I have those because they tell me to ‘Mind the Gap’ which reminds me of ‘Death Line’ and makes me smile. So part of the draw of the film is seeing how stations looked back in 1972 when they retained more of their original features than they do today. The tiling, the dark and winding corridors and the criss-cross metal doors are atmospheric. Russell Square station (although it was actually the now disused Aldwych that was used for filming) is almost another character in the film.  Best of all, one of the abandoned stations is depicted.  People are fascinated by these sealed up tombs of underground history – books have been written and photographs shared all over the place which pick over the obsolete parts of the network. The mock up of a closed Museum station is eerie in itself, without our cannibal traipsing through it howling in despair.

 At time of writing, it seems that there will also soon be another historical element to the film.  Much of the action takes place after the last tube train has gone through for the night and the station is closing.  Plans are afoot to bring in 24 hour working on the underground.  Perhaps we will soon look back on this wistfully, remembering when we had to run to catch the last train.  Remembering a time when things actually stopped for a bit and people got some rest.

I get the feeling that the writer and director of ‘Death Line’ really knew what they were doing. They produced a horror classic which is low-key enough to make you think that you have really made a discovery when you watch it.  But, I wonder, is Pleasance the star – or is it Russell Square station?

Matinee Musings by the History Usherette

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Following on from the popular blog The History Usherette, this is a collection of five extended essays on cinematic and historical themes. None of this material has been previously published on the blog. 
1. A Favourite Pastime looks at how the popular British leisure pursuit of gambling on the horses is reflected in British cinema. From George Formby in 'Come on George' to Sid James in 'Carry on at Your Convenience' there was enormous change to be tracked by the filmakers. 
2. Carry on NHS looks the three Carry On films - one from each decade from the 1950s to the 1970s to find out how our perceptions of our favourite bit of the welfare state changed. 
3. Tunnel of Time looks at railways on film from 'Oh! Mr Porter' in the 1930s to 'Carry on Loving' in 1970. 
4. Let George Win It muses on how George Formby shows us how the psychology of the British was affected by World War Two. 
5. Films With Spirit looks at three post-war films and how they reflect our changing attitudes to the spirit world.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Interlude Four

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Blackpool Rock

I was a glamour puss when I was young.  I grew up in Blackpool and there were always handsome boys passing through with money in their pockets.  That was all we thought about, all of my teenage summers.  I’d hang around the pier with my friends every Saturday afternoon, eyeing up the new intake of holiday makers, seeking out the boys who didn’t have a girl with them.  I spent days on end sat on the beach in my shorts and bathing costume, rubbing oil onto my legs, trying to look like that Coco Chanel.  I saved up for Woolworths make up and jewellery to finish the look off.  Sometimes I even got bits bought for me if I’d managed to pick up a really generous boy.  It’s amazing what a couple of hours under the pier after dark got you the next day.  Those were the best days.

It was while I was inbetween boys that I had my little encounter with fame. All the faces came up for the summer season, you’d see them wandering along the prom sometimes but you hardly ever got near them – they all had their hangers on. George Formby was a regular of course, and he always had his missus with him.  She was a rum ‘un that Beryl Formby.  Nobody ever dared cross her, least of all George himself.  I think she was born before her time, she would have made a good Dynasty type – all shoulder pads and ball breaking or whatever it is.  Joan Collins, you know what I mean.

Well one day I was laid out on a rock at the far end of the beach, just soaking up the last drops of the sun.  I heard somebody shuffle past me and I looked up to see a bloke in a jacket and hat sitting himself down on a boulder nearby.  I could tell by the way that his shoulders were hunched that he was feeling fed up so I called out to him, asking if he was alright.  He turned round and bless me if it wasn’t George himself.  I invited him to come and sit by me and tell me his troubles – and he did!  He was ever so fed up of Beryl, she’d been laying down the law at him and not letting him alone and he’d run away from her.  Just for half an hour, he said, just to show her what was what.  Then we had a bit of a canoodle behind his boulder.  I promised not to tell but I suppose it’s alright now.  They’re both long gone.  He left me a little souvenir but I won’t say what that was.

George by @aitchteee

Monday, 20 October 2014

Naked Exploitation

‘The Naked Truth’ (1957) is one of those films which is absolutely peppered with familiar film faces.  It stars Terry-Thomas, Peter Sellers, Dennis Price, Peggy Mount, Joan Sims and Shirley Eaton.  Miles Malleson is there too, doing his inevitable absent-minded clergyman.  I had never seen it before so was glad to be directed to the You Tube link on Twitter (thanks @trevor_hancock).  I found it an absolute joy to watch – particularly the double act of Mount and Sims as mother and daughter, who made the most of some terrific farcical material.

Joanie by @aitchteee

The storyline of the film revolves around blackmail and attempted murder – all handled in the typically British whimsical style of the period. Price plays Nigel Dennis, a blackmailing journalist doing the rounds of London’s powerful and famous with his new publication.  This magazine, titled after the film, threatens to expose the unsavoury deeds of those that he visits, unless they cough up £10,000, on receipt of which he will withdraw publication. As the film opens, the first recipient of a visit from Dennis shoots himself, while an MP has a heart attack in the Commons following his confrontation.  But then we move on to the stars of the film – who are obviously not going to top themselves just after the opening credits.  Having said that, Peggy Mount, playing novelist Flora Ransom, makes a comically failed attempt to throw herself out of the window.  Shirley Eaton, playing model Melissa Right also attempts to gas herself in the oven.  However, after messing about finding a shilling for the meter, her boyfriend turns up and stops her.  His lighting of a cigarette almost wipes them both out, but they survive the blast. Dennis also visits dodgy peer Lord Mayley (Thomas) and entertainer Sonny MacGregor (Sellers) who both decide to put up a fight rather than take the easy way out.

Of course, what we all want to know is what exactly the characters have been up to.  We want the salacious details, but we don’t always get them. I tried to read something into this about the times that the film was born of.  Model Melissa’s wrong –doings are not revealed at all, we are left guessing.  There is also some coyness around the Lord’s antics, although we are given heavy clues – especially with Thomas’ hilarious line “Ten thousand pounds for 15 minutes in Regent’s Park?!”  Meanwhile Mount’s novelist makes a semi confession to her daughter that she got up to something naughty while out in the Far East.  This was possibly drug related, but it is not exactly spelled out.  However, we do see Dennis making a direct accusation to MacGregor.  His wrong-doing is not a criminal act, it is one of acute hypocrisy.  While his stage act is cheered and loved by the working classes (it is perhaps best described as music hall transferred to early television), he spends his spare time walking all over them as a rogue landlord.  We are told that he owns property in a rough area of London – the location borough is fictional but we can easily picture the east end slums or Notting Hill before gentrification. It is the worst kind of housing and MacGregor is squeezing out extortionate rent money without investing any of it back into repairs or improvements.  The state of his properties are brought home again as he comes face to face with a resident while on live television – who proceeds to describe how much he hates living there.

Sellers by @aitchteee

The peer and the novelist are portrayed as having had dalliances which are ultimately harmless to anyone not directly involved – although there may be some issues around legality if the peer was using prostitutes or the novelist taking drugs. What MacGregor does is legal – but plainly wrong. I wondered if the writer (Michael Pertwee) was using the film to make a point about a social problem of the late 1950s.  Housing was obviously still a major issue just 12 years after the end of the war.  The post war government had done their best to get building, but resources were limited and the sheer scale of the bomb damage made it a mammoth task.  The slum clearances were only just beginning.  My home city of Sheffield’s flagship slum clearance scheme at Park Hill actually began in 1957, but had been in development since the end of the war.  Things moved very slowly.  So this meant that there were still many houses which were unfit for habitation – but there was enormous demand for them.  This is underlined by Dennis’ residence on a Thames barge which has been condemned.  People would live in anything and the owners of this property could charge and do what they wanted.  With some research, it appears that my gut feeling that this was a growing issue around this time seems to have some founding.  According to a paper published on line by Phil Child of Exeter University, the Labour Party were particularly concerned about this as their traditional supporter base made up a good proportion of those living in slum accommodation.  The party called for curbs on what was termed “Landlordism” and published research and papers on the matter in the second half of the 1950s.  Does this film contain a subliminal attempt to get people to find out who their landlord was, to question them, report them?

Six years after this film, Britain became gripped in two major scandals whose names resonate now – Profumo and Rachmanism (the intimidation and exploitation of people in poverty housing).  Corrupt politicians, prostitution and rogue landlords combined to make the headlines.  Is ‘The Naked Truth’ a taste of what was brewing?  It seems likely – showing us once again that historical events usually have a long timeline leading up to their explosion into mainstream public consciousness.

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Thursday, 2 October 2014

Withernsea and Wives

‘The Constant Husband’ (1955) stars Rex Harrison as a man who loses his memory in a car accident.  As it gradually returns to him, he realises that he is a serial bigamist who has been leading several lives all at once. It’s a charming film with an excellent cast, and will bring a smile to any wet afternoon.

I found it compelling because this is the film on which Rex Harrison met Kay Kendall.  I’ve had an interest in Kay since I visited her home town of Withernsea last year. The lighthouse there has been converted into a museum, including a large section devoted to Kay’s life and work. One exhibit, the dress that she wore when she married Harrison, leads to a moment of poignancy.  It is a simple cream day dress, now age stained and draped over a mannequin.  It becomes especially sad when you know the story behind the wedding – detailed in her biography “The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall”. Kay embarked on an affair with the married Harrison after this film was made. As the months went by she became more prone to bouts of illness, and was eventually diagnosed with Leukaemia.  This diagnosis was kept from Kay – only Harrison was initially told and he agreed a ‘temporary’ divorce with his wife so that he could marry and take care of Kay until she died.  She passed away in 1959 aged 32.  But as her biography title suggests, she packed a lot into her life and it was interesting to see where it all started – just a few doors down from that lighthouse.

External and internal views of the lighthouse

If you’re ever in East Yorkshire, I’d recommend a visit to Withernsea for this museum alone.  The beach is quite nice – good for combing – but the town itself is a bit depressing and decrepit. It is a fine example of a “Seaside town that they forgot to close down” as Morrissey would put it. It is now mainly amusement arcades and pound shops with the occasional greasy spoon caff thrown in. The one thing that did get properly closed down in Withernsea was the railway line which went to Hull – it fell under the Beeching axe. This probably adds to the sense of isolation that you can feel there, out on a limb next to the North Sea. The top of Withernsea lighthouse is an excellent vantage point for tracing the line of that railway.  You can still make out where the line was in places. That’s how much there is to do there. 

I prefer to do my railway archaeology from my settee while watching a film – where the old system was used as a prop unaware of its future as a historical signpost.   ‘The Constant Husband’ has such an example of what you can find out and the alleys it can lead you down.  It delivered a little railway gem in the form of a left luggage office.  These offices are the plotter’s paradise in Victorian murder mystery stories and they are in fact the scenes of at least two real life body disposals. Both Charing Cross and Brighton left luggage offices were host to murdered womens’ bodies, which were deposited in increasingly malodorous trunks.  The offices’ potential role as an easy method of aiding criminals in their activities is shown in the film.  Harrison’s amnesiac bigamist discovers a ticket in one of his suit pockets for a trunk which has been left at a station.  He has no idea what could be in it, and immediately goes to claim it hoping that it will give some clues to his life before the accident.  After claiming it and taking it to a cheap hotel he opens it to find a series of fake uniforms and links to yet more wives. This character has a series of fake lives, easily tucked away in a left luggage office ready to be revived on the production of a ticket. This film shows how easily the facility was put to illegal use – I wonder just how many suspect trunks and cases sat in our railway stations undetected. No wonder they fell out of favour.

But they haven’t disappeared altogether – some major stations do still have the facility.  However, deposits do now have to go through rigorous checks – mainly instigated by the IRA bombing campaigns of the later 20th century. Apparently too the charges are unsurprisingly extortionate (isn’t everything on the railway these days?).  As with much of the modern system, the romance and mystery has gone, never to return.  Thankfully we have ‘The Constant Husband’ and Kay Kendall to keep our imaginations alive.


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Wednesday, 17 September 2014

When Dirk Dared

Tucked away in the early morning TV schedules, I came across a film called ‘Victim’. I looked it up, not having heard of it before, and discovered a fascinating piece of history. ‘Victim’ was made in 1961 and stars Dirk Bogarde.  Apparently his taking this part was a big risk, which in itself tells us something about the climate of the day and encapsulates the film’s theme.  Basically, this is a film about homosexuality among men, and the reasons why it should be decriminalised and accepted as part of society.  This film was made at a time when love between two men was still a crime punishable by prison in a legal sense and ostracism and hate in general.  Things were slowly beginning to change, obviously the arguments were in full force before final decriminalisation in 1967. Acts such as this one have a tendency to rumble on for a few years before going through parliament.  Also, I think that the fact that Bogarde took the part shows that he thought that there was some possibility that his career and livelihood wouldn’t be totally destroyed.  Did he detect a thaw in the air?

Defiant Dirk drawn by @aitchteee

 I realise that things are still not perfect for gay men out there.  Coincidentally, on the same day that I watched ‘Victim’ I was browsing on Twitter and I saw a post from the Reverend Richard Coles. He put up a photograph of a letter that he had received. This letter was from a person who firmly believes that there is far too much of this sort of thing and soon everyone will be gay and there will be no more babies being born.  Or something.  They were of the school of thought that being gay is catching. Anyway it just shows that there are still people out there with distinctly old fashioned attitudes.  And they might be in a position to discriminate in any number of ways.  As a female I can understand that there will be the occasional meetings with people whose outlook is stuck in a chauvinistic time warp. But at least now we all have the law on our side, and discrimination and victimisation can be fought.  It is alright to speak out when we are affected by these issues. To watch ‘Victim’ is to see how far we have moved on, and to view historical documentation showing how homosexuality as a criminal offence impacted society.

The story begins with a handsome young lad called Boy Barrett who is in a panic and on the run from the police. He tries repeatedly to contact eminent barrister Farr (Bogarde) who continually brushes him off. It transpires that the two men have had a fleeting lovelorn relationship and that they were photographed in Farr’s car. This photograph was deliberately taken by a blackmailer and has been used to coerce Boy into stealing money from his workplace.  The police have now been called in and he is keen to keep the man he loves' name out of it.  He is picked up and taken to the station where he is interviewed by a liberal minded detective and his puritan assistant.  The detective has an idea why Boy has stolen the money and tries to coax the truth out of him. He refuses to speak, and when he is sent back to his cell he hangs himself.

When Farr finds out about the death of Boy he is filled with remorse – he thought that he wanted to blackmail him when he only wanted to protect his good name.  He sets out to find the blackmailers and tracks down others who are also being targeted. These men include a hairdresser; old and tired after four stints in prison because of his sexual “misdemeanours”.  Dennis Price plays an actor reminiscent of Noel Coward who is very keen to protect his image and must live life in the closet.  Farr himself is married and has battled against his true feelings. In this way we are presented with a whole string of victims. A young man dies, as does the older hairdresser, both having been denied the chance to live a full life. Men battle their perceived demons and one of them takes a wife in an attempt to look respectable to society. This also wrecks her chances of a happy life.  The film presents to us the sheer waste of life that this law and the attitudes behind it are responsible for.   It is a waste of public resources too, as an otherwise law abiding man has spent months of his life in prison, while police spend hours chasing blackmailers who thrive on this law. ‘Victim’ presents the pragmatic arguments for abolishing the law as well as showing sympathy for those caught out by it.  It demonstrates to us how life was before and why it needed to change – a fascinating peep into the transition phase of Britain from an uptight conservative society to the more liberal one that we know today.

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Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Interlude Three

Here’s the next installment in my mini series of short stories inspired by the lives of my favourite film stars:


I think it was the year after we were married. We took our holiday on the Riviera that year.  The English Riviera that is, we don’t like abroad, Harold and I.  It all seems like so much fuss and when you get there it’s all dicky tummies and sunstroke.  And besides, it wasn’t so common to venture abroad back then.  Most people in our circles had two weeks on the south coast and we were no different.  We stayed in a rather nice hotel on the cliff top, a little bit away from everyone else.  I do wish that I could remember its name.  There was a gravel drive and the place was screened from the road with rhododendron bushes and fir trees. Harold and I had the feeling that we were joining a very select group of people by staying there. 

The hotel had its own swimming pool, an outdoor one.  They had planted a line of trees to act as a windbreak so it was sheltered from the sea breezes.  Quite a little suntrap – perfectly planned.  Residents had full use of it within daylight hours and I intended to make the most of it.  I had always been a swimmer, as a girl I had won one or two cups.  But after marriage and then the children…the annual holiday became the only opportunity I ever got to get in the water. But even when the children were young I had to supervise them at the same time.  I had no chance of getting any serious swimming under my belt. Harold you see is quite the opposite from me in this respect.  He isn’t exactly scared of water (or so he assures me) but he never learned to swim as a child and he has spent the rest of his life avoiding large expanses of the stuff.  Even now that we are older and the children grown up he is the one with the big hat and the book, sat as far up the beach as possible, while I thrash about in the waves.

So when we settled into this hotel, I made it my mission to seek out the pool and see if it lived up to my expectations.  It wasn’t big, but there was enough of it to get some momentum into a length.  I resolved to do some serious swimming every morning while Harold lazed around in bed with his ever-present novel.  The very next morning, the first full day of our holiday, I was at the pool for 8.00am.  As I had hoped, I was the first one there.  I dived in, the water was shockingly cold but I kicked off and moved my limbs so that the newly worked muscles sent heat to the rest of my body.  By my third length I was warm, I could positively feel the blood pumping around my system.  It was wonderful to feel that again. After a while I paused at the deep end and pushed myself downwards in a luxurious stretch.  It was at that moment that a pair of legs walked across my line of vision.  I felt so disappointed that I was about to share my morning swim.  The legs were old, quite flabby around the thigh and though I tried not to stare I noticed a paunched belly hanging over them, clad in a garish swimsuit. My disappointment deepened.  My new swimming companion looked like one of those who doggy paddles her way across the width of the pool.  There’s always one when you’re on holiday, continually thwarting those of us who wish to do some real exercise.   She lowered herself in, made some sort of exclamation about the cold and launched herself off.

I began to make my way back down the length of the pool, rather determined to show this newcomer what was what. But to my delight I found that I had misjudged her.  That was the moment when I learned my lesson about books and their covers and all that.  We crossed in the middle of the pool and if it weren’t for that garish outfit I would have thought that someone else had sneaked into the water without me noticing.  She had soon overtaken me without so much as a splash.  I thought then that she was mermaid like, which turned out to be quite a coincidence.  After a few more lengths I paused again for another stretch at the deep end.  In fact the cold water had given me a little cramp.  Until that point the mermaid and I had been swimming in a companionable silence, but now she joined me and began to chat.  As soon as she uttered her first word to me I recognised who she was. Harold likes his films as well as his books and I have seen so many of her efforts on the screen.  She told me that I looked familiar to her, and wondered if I frequented the Hampstead Ladies pool.  I told her that I had never been there, that I lived in Letchworth so it was just a little too far to go.  We concluded that I must just look like one of her fellow Hampstead swimmers and she went on to describe the merits of her favourite pool.  That was all that we talked about – the swimming.  I was perhaps a little star-struck and I didn’t acknowledge that I knew who she was.  But as she turned and continued with her lengths I said to myself ‘I simply cannot wait to see the look on Harold’s face when I tell him that Margaret Rutherford is in the hotel and likes to take a swim every morning.’ I contemplated saying to her that she and Glynis Johns should have swapped roles in that mermaid film, Miranda.  But I didn’t.   I expect they say that to her all the time at Hampstead.  

Harold was indeed dumfounded by my news and he nearly took up swimming on the spot!  Eventually, he decided that a better plan would be to seat himself in a wicker chair near to the pool entrance with his reading matter.  Being a little bit bolder than I am, he managed to persuade her to autograph his book.  So that is why we can never part with this battered old Len Deighton novel. Harold always regrets that he wasn’t reading an Agatha Christie at the time.  That would have been better, wouldn’t it?

Friday, 29 August 2014

Bomb Sights Part 2: The Revenge

A few months ago I published a blog post about the Ealing classic ‘Hue and Cry’.  I observed how this film is an excellent way to grasp the scale of the damage done to London by the Blitz.   Read it again here

More recently I watched the 1954 film ‘8 O’Clock Walk’; a fantastic drama starring the sadly recently departed Richard Attenborough as a man accused of murdering a child.  The plot of the film is linked into a blitz bomb site in north London.  Attenborough’s character is the last person to be seen with the murdered girl, while leading her onto the bomb site to look for a lost doll.  We therefore get a clear view of what a bomb site looks like after a good decade of neglect, and learn other snippets of information as the film goes on.  For example it is clear to see how quickly nature has reclaimed the land, and as the accused’s clothes are tested for pollen, we are given a list of the plants that were usually found on these sites e.g. Rosebay Willowherb.  We are also given an overview of how the sites became integrated into the local geography.  This one has become a short cut for shoppers and a playground for children. It is clear that bomb sites were not held in reverence as a marker of the war or of those who died there.  They seem to have been simply accepted as a new piece of open space. You might think that tales of ghosts would abound, but no-one seems frightened to use the area at all.

1950s Attenborough by @aitchteee

 While gleaning this information, I began to consider how bomb sites became a part of our culture for a while.  As I discussed in my ‘Hue and Cry’ post, it took a long time for them all to be redeveloped – decades in fact.  During that time they sometimes became important aspects of film plots – such as in ‘Hue and Cry’ (as a playground/meeting place) and ‘8 O’ Clock Walk’ (as a murder scene).  Perhaps one of the first films to utilise these places was the 1944 film ‘A Canterbury Tale’, where Powell and Pressburger use an image of a bombed out Canterbury with a defiant cathedral rising out of the rubble. This is highly symbolic as each of the main characters arrive in Canterbury to find that despite the war creating huge upheaval in their lives, the things that they held most dear have survived. Another film to make a more direct use of a bombsite is ‘the 1949 Ealing film ‘Passport to Pimlico’, where a blast from an unexploded bomb reveals long lost Burgundian treasure.  I’m sure that there must be other films from the 1940s and 1950s which use these areas of waste ground either for plot or atmosphere.   Their influence went on through the ensuing decades too.  John Boorman’s ‘Hope and Glory’ (1987) reflects back to a childhood growing up on bombsites.  I also recently read an excellent novel entitled ‘A Commonplace Killing’ (Sian Busby, 2013) where a body is found among the 1940s rubble by playing children.  I too have a long term writing project on the go which involves a redeveloped piece of blitzed land.

It’s perhaps rather ghoulish but these places have captured our imagination – from playing children to filmmakers. I wonder how long their legends will live on there, now that they have at last disappeared from sight.

My new book  - ‘The History Usherette’s Second Seat Third Row’ is available to download from Amazon now. This is based in a south London cinema which succumbs to a doodlebug attack in August 1944.  Its final showing is ‘A Canterbury Tale’ and a series of tales examines how the film affects those watching.  Here’s an extract:
“Come and get under the counter!” the old man yelled out as he ducked himself underneath the cash register.  Bob joined him among the cobwebs and piles of unsaleable books.  He knocked a mouldy pile of Shakespeares to the floor as the impact was felt, perhaps a mile or so away.
“That was a near one.” The old man eased his joints into a standing position and began to assess the ceiling and the shelves for any damage. Bob restacked the Shakespeares and brushed a cobweb off his uniform.
“Thanks for the shelter.  That kind of thing must be setting your nerves on edge.  Don’t you get any kind of warning siren?”
“Usually yes, but sometimes one gets through before they can do anything about it. We’re all starting to listen out for them all the time now, without even thinking about it. Anyway, no sign of any damage this time.  We live to read another day.”

“Well, good luck.” Bob touched his cap and left the bookshop.  A thought occurred to him that people may be in need of help where the rocket had landed.  Perhaps he ought to go and see what he could do. He followed the sound of the ringing bells and walked towards the column of smoke the continued to rise up, funnelling debris down onto the top of his cap. London seemed determined to send him back to the base covered in filth.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The History Usherette's Second Seat Third Row

Now available as an Amazon Kindle book - The History Usherette's Second Seat, Third Row:

August 1944. Filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger send their new film out to entertain British audiences. ‘A Canterbury Tale’ is a balm for the temples of the war weary. A land girl and a pair of soldiers – one British, one American – wrestle a pastoral mystery in the ripe fields of Kent. History is laid out to show that all this death and destruction is temporary and that our land’s wounds will heal. 

Of course, every member of the audience will react differently. People will choose the scene from the tapestry before them that speaks loudest to them and they will focus on this. Meanwhile outside, the doodlebugs rain down on a tired and dusty land. 

The Second Seat, Third Row at the Regal Cinema, South London, plays host to a handful of the film’s audience. What does the film mean to them? Their stories are drawn out: 

  • The Teacher’s Tale – Miriam rails against Americans 
  • The GI’s Tale – Bob finds out what war means for the British first hand 
  • The Usherette’s Tale – Kay uncovers the seedy side of life 
  • The Manager’s Tale – William escapes his unsatisfactory existence 
  • The Porter’s Tale – Dora considers the future 
  • The Corporal’s Tale – Albert is searching for his past 
Read these 1940s tales here.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Separated Submariner

‘We Dive at Dawn’ (1943) is a naval war film in the same vein as ‘In Which We Serve’.  Again, it stars John Mills, although this time he is the Captain rather than the Cockney tar, which does show that the great Sir John did have a good range.  But it does at times seem that he single handedly won World War Two for us.

Mills’ co-star in this flick is Eric Portman, whom I am quite fond of.  There’s something a bit unusual about him that I can’t quite fathom out.  His northern accent sometimes seems forced, despite his being a Halifax boy. But he was undoubtedly a good actor and I enjoy watching him.  He is the hero of ‘We Dive at Dawn’, his fluency in the German language saving his submarine and all the men aboard.  He plays Germans well, as demonstrated in Powell and Pressburger’s ‘The 49th Parallel’.  This is something that adds to his unusual allure. To regularly play Germans and show a fluency in the language during the war years must have taken guts. I feel sure that he must have taken some flack for it – we all know that there are people out there who confuse what they see on the screen with reality.  And this would have been even more pronounced in the war years, a less media savvy age full of fear and suspicion.  I really wish I knew more about Portman’s life off screen in these times.

The hero that Portman portrays is flawed.  He is human.  His relationships with others are difficult and he has marital problems.  When he has some shore leave, he returns home to find that his wife and son have gone to live with another man at the chip shop. Rather than maintain the standard British stiff upper lip he gets hopelessly drunk and confronts his wife – badly.  He is not the only member of the crew to have difficulties in this area of life.  One colleague is relieved to have his wedding cancelled and struggles to commit, while John Mills’ Captain is obviously stringing along an oblivious group of women.  This just demonstrates the well known facts about what war and the associated long term separations did to couples, as proven by the peaking of divorce rates during the demob period. But the ending of ‘We Dive at Dawn’ threw up an interesting historical question.  The submarine has been feared missing and its crew perished.  So when they finally return to port there is an emotional welcome home from those that had previously forsaken their husband/fiancĂ©.  They have been given a second chance at life, and are given a second go at their relationships too.   I wondered how much this happy ending was poetic licence/morale boosting and how much it reflected reality? How many divorces didn’t happen because a near death experience resulted in changed hearts? There will be no statistics to help us with this one.  Perhaps there were as many reunions of this sort as there were divorces – some permanent, some temporary.  Like seeking the real Mr Portman, we can only watch the screen and surmise. 

Hello Sailor. Portman by @aitchteee

Coming Soon:

I will be publishing a new book shortly.  This will be called 'The History Usherette's Second Seat Third Row.' It is set in London in 1944 and takes a look at an imaginary audience for another Portman film 'A Canterbury Tale'.

Keep watching my Twitter feed @agathadascoyne and watch out for it on Amazon Kindle.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Powell & Press Button A

‘I Know Where I’m Going’ (1945) is classic Powell and Pressburger.  I have seen it many times before but when it last had an airing on television I sat down with the deliberate intention of finding a new post for this blog.  It didn’t come easily.  As I tweeted at the time in frustration, Powell and Pressburger are so otherworldly that the history of the everyday is elusive in their hands.  I put it to the back of my mind, admitting defeat at the hands of the masters, feeling disappointed at not being able to voice my appreciation of the film.  Then I saw a documentary about telephone boxes and it clicked.  I thought back to the scene in the film where Roger Livesey and Wendy Hiller’s characters (Torquil and Joan) attempt to use a telephone box that has been unfortunately placed next to a waterfall.  This scene seems almost inconsequential, just a small part of the plot.  Yet I remembered it clearly.  I wondered if it had more to say than met the eye.

Wendy Hillier by @aitchteee

Powell and Pressburger are not shy of metaphor, and I began to think that this scene had a deeper point.   Joan is on a journey.  She is desperate to move forwards to a wonderful future that is almost within her grasp.  Like the express train that she has travelled on to Scotland, she aims straight and fast with the minimum of stops. Nothing will stand in her way – she will not listen to others or stop to take on board those who do not have a part to play.  The unfortunately placed telephone box emphasises the point by holding up her journey.  All that she hears is the gushing of money coming her way. We see that it will ultimately run through her fingers and wash away any trace of herself, and it destroys her ability to hear the information that she needs to give sustenance to her being.   

Telephone boxes are in danger of disappearing from our landscape – hence the documentary.  It is a shame that these iconic pieces of mini architecture must go.  I wondered how Joan would be portrayed in a modern day film and concluded that she would be a businesswoman, trying to get to an island to meet a recluse and close a deal with them.  She would be continually clamped to a mobile phone and lap top and this time the scene would be her trying in vain to find a signal – except near the waterfall.  Powell and Pressburger might take a shot at the over-communication that exists in our society.  I often think that in some ways it was better when we had to put more effort into communication.  We had to walk to the (thoughtfully placed) telephone box or handwrite a letter, buy a stamp and put it in the post box.  We had to squeeze everything onto a sheet of paper or get our message across before the pips went.  More thought went into it. True communication is about putting an effort into what you say and how you say it.

It is a measure of Powell and Pressburger’s genius that their films still provoke such thoughts 70 years on.

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