Tag Archives: Films

A well-remembered film about a forgotten campaign

 

The World War One commemoration reached its apex last year , but perhaps there is time for a few thoughts about a film about one of the neglected campaigns of the war. Whose main character, was, ironically, one of the most well-known military individuals from that war. The campaign was the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, and the character was former archaeologist T.E.Lawrence.

Lawrence of Arabia, directed by David Lean, has always been a popular and celebrated film. Winner of seven Oscars when first released in 1962, and one of the most financially successful of its year.  Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, each popular and acclaimed directors over many years, have publicly spoken about how much they admire the film and its director, and it still enjoys a high status among ordinary fans, on the IMDB list of best movies ever.

I must confess that when got my first belated look at the film on television about ten years ago, I was unmoved. It ran too long, there were too many men in uniform and no women, there was too much focus on scenery and its narrative about that part of World War One was not for me clearly told. I was already tending towards a view that the best films of Lean’s career were the shorter earlier ones, and Lawrence of Arabia seemed to provide further evidence.

I certainly gained more from my recent second viewing, both due to having since visited Palestine and reading about Lawrence in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s 2011 book Jerusalem. The narrative became clearer, and, also, I was struck by the film’s use of biblical motifs and in the way it deals with Lawrence’s sexuality.

In a video for the American Film Institute, Martin Scorsese marvelled that Lawrence of Arabia is a heroic cinematic epic which is centred not on a saint or a figure from the Bible but on a “difficult” character who shows and feels “self-destruction and self-loathing”. Yet it was made during the last great era of Hollywood big-budget bible epics like The Ten Commandments and King of Kings, and Lean deployed many of the tropes of cinematography from that genre. Lawrence strides and flounces around in flowing white robes, always markedly different to those around him but especially noticeable when he visits the British HQ in Cairo. He strides on top of railway carriages, outlined against the sun, to the loud cheers of his Arab followers and Maurice Jarre’s Oscar-winning music. Arabs riding on camels, especially the famous arrival of Omar Sharif’s character Sherif Ali out of the shimmering horizon, recall the arrival of the Magi. Everywhere there are large crowds of people. The scene of Lawrence’s capture by the Turkish forces in Deraa and his being stripped, prodded and beaten directly evokes Jesus Christ before Pontius Pilate and his subsequent scourging.

 

Jerusalem. Lawrence described it as “a squalid town” of “characterless” people.

 

The real Lawrence’s sexuality was “mysterious”, says Sebag Montefiore. He “was not a misogynist” but certainly fairly indifferent towards women. His friend Ronald Storrs, on whom the character of the diplomat Dryden in the film is probably based, is quoted as saying, dryly, “He’d have kept his composure if he’d suddenly been informed he’d never see a woman again.”

Lawrence of Arabia was made when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK and Lean used some familiar cinematic devices to suggest homoeroticism. The camera focusses continually on Peter O’Toole’s strong body shape, bleached hair and blue eyes. Lawrence is shown to be very emotionally attached to two young men who become his servants.

“Vanity competed with masochism” in Lawrence, says Sebag Montefiore. His first appearance in the film shows him placing his finger in a match flame, saying to his fascinated observers, “The trick…is not minding that it hurts”. The viewer is reminded of this later when we see Lawrence apparently unintimidated by the beating from his Turkish captors. “The slaughter and grit of war both horrified and excited him”, says Sebag Montefiore, and Lean includes scenes which show him revolted by killing and attracted to it.

The scene with the match flame which introduces the viewer, variously, to Lawrence’s interest in the Middle East, his eccentricity and his fondness for attention as well as his tolerance of pain is the only one which makes reference to the British fighting another horrible war elsewhere in the world.

“This is a nasty dark little room,” says Lawrence, to which his junior colleague replies, “It’s better than a nasty dark little trench”.

 

Reference :  Sebag Montefiore, Simon (2012)   Jerusalem    London: Phoenix

 

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Their many finest hours

 

As dozens of new films appear on television, DVD and streaming sites every year, yet the chance to see the work of the great directors of the past becomes more restricted. People such as Robert Bresson or Federico Fellini or Robert Altman or Derek Jarman. Happily, though, we have had a decent chance in recent times to see on British television the distinctive films of Powell and Pressburger.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger wrote, produced and directed about 20 films together, usually under the banner of their production company The Archers, in Britain during the 1940s and 1950s.

Seen now, these films do resemble others of that long ago period. Actors speak and dress in the same old-fashioned way. The pace and tone of the narratives seem similar. Some technical features do stand out, notably the rich colours, although occasionally also the camera work.

The scripts also make the films individual – in a number of ways. They often seek to connect the present day to the historic past; they often blend film genres within a single work. Then there is the attention they give to women and people from countries other than Britain, and the characterisations which are in general more subtle and full than in other films of the time.

Two early films, 49th Parallel and One of our Aircraft is Missing, are clearly propaganda productions to encourage the war effort and to build an international anti-Nazi alliance. However, the former, set in Canada, has as its protagonists a German U-boat crew who are not all stereotypical Nazis and who are opposed by a motley army of fur trappers, Eskimos, Hutterite farmers, mounted police, rural adventurers and railway officers. The latter has a 15 minutes-long depiction of a bombing raid with a backing track of aircraft engines rather than soaring orchestral music which must surely have seemed as grimly realistic to the original war-time audiences as the opening of Saving Private Ryan 50 years later, plus a Dutch setting and vivid civilian characters who include two female resistance leaders.

 

Banff, Alberta. One of the German U-boat fugitives is captured here in “49th Parallel”.

 

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, their first truly idiosyncratic film, has a long and rather rambling narrative about a British officer and his friendship with a German over forty years, but is brilliant in the sections set during World War One  and especially the contemporary World War Two. Deborah Kerr plays three different characters in the film but she is especially striking as the perky modern young military driver.

Colonel Blimp has a brief use of two US soldiers in one scene, and A Canterbury Tale employs another US soldier as one of the stars in a story about the tensions between army and civilians living cheek by jowl in Kent and of three modern pilgrims going to Canterbury on their own modern quests. Sheila Sim is the leading female character, a “land girl ” who helps two soldiers investigate a local crime.

 

Canterbury Cathedral. At the end of “A Canterbury Tale”, each of the three leading characters receive different kinds of blessings at or near here.

 

The cinematography of A Matter of Life and Death is the team’s most striking in its mix of colour and black and white to reflect heaven and earth in the fantasy story of the airman who miraculously escapes death after his Lancaster bomber is hit. June, the American girlfriend of the airman, played by Kim Hunter, is another distinctive female character.

I Know Where I’m Going is filmed in black and white, but it has other considerable virtues of a female-centred story, influenced by the Hollywood screwball comedies, about an independent modern woman who falls in love with a Scottish laird who believes strongly in both community values and Celtic legends, and which romantically compares Pamela Brown’s flamboyant Highland Catriona with Wendy Hiller’s ambitious metropolitan Joan.

 

Duart Castle, Mull. It becomes Sorne Castle, visited by Joan, in “I Know Where I’m Going”.

 

Black Narcissus has another female-centred narrative, which pits sensuality and romance against religious devotion and duty, within a convent of nuns in the Himalayas. Deborah Kerr’s self-controlled Sister Superior is contrasted dramatically with Kathleen Byron’s intense, disturbed Sister Ruth.

The Red Shoes, featuring ballet dancer Moira Shearer, could be seen as an apotheosis of the Archers production style of full-colour theatricality and romance with a female-centred narrative which is actually set in the world of performing arts and includes the performance of a ballet.

Gone to Earth has many of the familiar features of brilliant colour, a female-centred narrative and human behaviour influenced by landscape, although the usual Powell and Pressburger subtleties were somewhat coarsened within the commercial Hollywood partnership with David Selznick.

Famously, the 1940s was the decade in Britain which saw the highest ever numbers of visits to the cinema, and Powell and Pressburger films enjoyed their share of popularity. But their qualities came to be appreciated still more in later decades.

Emeric Pressburger might be the model for the Hungarian émigré producer Gabriel Baker in Their Finest, the recent film about the wartime British film industry – whose title is rather less witty and suitable than the source novel’s Their Finest Hour and a Half! The Dunkirk film which is being made by its characters has Archers-like colour visuals.

In one scene of Their Finest, Baker promises the Ministry of Information that he will give the government “a picture to win the war” with its “authenticity and optimism”. I’m not sure how many cinema-goers during the 1940s realised that Powell and Pressburger were filming many of the finest hours of British cinema – but it’s surely vividly clear to us all now.

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Seeing the whale before it dives

 

The credits of the film Venus Peter, directed by Ian Sellar in 1989, say that it was based on Christopher Rush’s book A Twelvemonth and a Day, which was published in 1985. I haven’t read that book, but it must be heavily drawn from Rush’s own experience, because his memoir Hellfire and Herring, published in 2007, bears many similarities to the events and characters of the film of eighteen years earlier. However, whereas the tone of the film is gentle, lyrical, dream-like, much of the memoir has a mood of exorcism, reliving pain and unhappiness in order to assuage it.

Venus Peter depicts episodes in the childhood of a boy named Peter in an unidentified fishing village in Scotland at some time during the 1950s or 1960s. Its credits say that it was “shot entirely on location on the Orkney Islands” and that many of its extras are the adults and children of Stromness. In fact Rush actually grew up in St Monans in Fife. One of the film’s key settings is a church which is situated beside the sea and which has a large sailing ship hanging from its nave and I believe this location is not in Orkney but is the medieval parish church of St Monans.

 

The exterior and interior of the parish church of St Monans, photographed in 1992.

 

The narrative surrounds Peter with many colourful characters, and Rush’s memoir allows you to identify their real-life equivalents. Epp, the forbidding grandmother figure, was actually his mother’s great-aunt and their landlady. Leebie seems like an aunt, but, as Rush writes in his book, “nobody had ever worked out who exactly Leebie was (and even) Leebie herself didn’t know, or pretended not to.” His young mother, Christina, was certainly close in age to her sisters Jenny and Georgina but Uncle Billy was actually still at school rather than a young adult sailing on the fishing boat Venus.

Scenes of sadism by teachers and parents are often de rigeur in films of childhood as adults expel their long-ago nightmares. Hellfire and Herring does spend a number of pages on the middle-aged and fiendish teacher Miss Sangster and a few about the beautiful and lovable Miss Balsilbie. Sellar’s film gives more prominence to Miss Balsilbie, and places her as a later consolation in Peter’s schooldays rather than in her real-life earlier place. This presents the two teachers as uncannily similar to Roald Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey in the film of Matilda – even though this is a total coincidence, since Dahl only published his novel in the late 1980s and Danny De Vito’s film was made nearly ten years after that. But Miss Balsilbie’s similarity in looks and manner to Jean Brodie in Ronald Neame’s film is probably a direct borrow.

The St Monans of his childhood was “like growing up in a Bosch boneyard, ” says Rush, because, partly due to decades of inbreeding, it was full of people whose looks and behaviour were strange and frightening. Bowfter Sandy went around on all fours trying to bite people’s legs and Kate the Kist visited the boat-builders’ every day to ask to be measured for a coffin. Three others are included in the film. The Blind Man is a classic child’s fear figure out of Treasure Island or Kidnapped, especially as he reacted aggressively to the boys’ teasing. The sailor Gowans who recited meaningless rhyming phrases is made much younger. The genteel but lost Honeybunch, who made outlines of ships with stones on the beach and who had to be washed by the sexton on his workbench because she never bothered to wash herself, becomes Princess Paloma.

Rush’s real-life father was a young Royal Navy sailor from Middlesborough who was briefly posted to Fife during the war, met and married Christina and then returned two years later in 1945, to meet his infant son Christopher. Rush’s memoir recalls him as drunk, disturbed, violent and cruel, and he feels it necessary to describe several horrible scenes, even as he is brave enough to recount how he came to understand his father later when an adult. In Venus Peter, the father is not horrific but certainly flawed, who left his home town to go to sea because he was fearful of responsibility and whose attempts to make amends later are seen as insincere and materialistic.

The fisherman grandfather, master of the Venus, is the prominent adult in the film. In the book he is a little more mysterious, hidden within the larger cast of characters, but in both he is kind, protective, physically impressive and wise.

Religion is presented as an oppressive and threatening and reactionary force in both film and book. St Monans and the adjacent towns in the East Neuk of Fife were called “The Holy City”, says Rush, because of their diverse groups of Catholics, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Brethren, Pilgrims, Baptists and Evangelists. The Presbyterian church stands for all religion in the film, and the one authority figure who is more intimidating in the film than in the book is the Reverend Kinnear, although David Hayman is allowed to show him as also sympathetic and supportive.

Nevertheless, religious faith is part of the grandfather’s allegory of creation which ends both book and film. As is the sea. In Venus Peter, Peter says, “the sea is everything”. In Hellfire and Herring, Rush says the sea “(was) my first language, my first university, my alma mater”. Grandfather’s maritime story goes like this: once there was a whale which gave birth to the ship which was the earth…and the whale swam up to heaven…leaving us all alone on the ship. And sometimes, when you look carefully, you can still see the whale… there, before it dives.

 

Reference :   Rush, Christopher (2007)   Hellfire and Herring: a Childhood Remembered   London:Profile

 

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The difference between Jane Austen and Tracy Austin

 

The Open University is marking its 50th anniversary, so no surprise that the BBC screened a programme in celebration. Rather disappointing, though, that the programme made no mention of that popular play and film which was such a great advertisement for the OU, ie Educating Rita.

I first saw Willy Russell’s play during its first run in 1980 and on my first ever visit to London. Russell’s name meant little to me: what attracted me to Educating Rita was that it starred Julie Walters who I had liked in her first couple of TV plays by Victoria Wood . It was staged in the Warehouse, which was then the smaller of two London theatres run by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Since 1992, it has been the ever-more starry and successful Donmar Warehouse.

I remember that in general I enjoyed Educating Rita, and its story of working-class Open University student Rita and middle-class middle-aged alcohol-soaked academic Frank. Clearly, many others shared my opinion because the play transferred to the West End and later toured the UK. In its original cast, Julie Walters was, at least to me, better known than the actor who played Frank, one Mark Kingston. In fact Kingston, although not a star, was an established theatre and TV name, and it’s perfectly possible that he was chosen to reduce the pressure on the new play and the younger actress. On other occasions, though, the person who played Frank was usually better-known than the one who played Rita. When I saw the play in Glasgow during its tour in 1982, Frank was played by Tom Baker, well-known from Doctor Who on television, while Kate Fitzgerald was Rita. And of course, in the film directed by Lewis Gilbert in 1983, although Julie Walter’s stock was rising fast enough that she was chosen to reprise her stage role, she had a far lower status than did Michael Caine. That practice has continued when the play has been revived in recent years.

The film was rated highly enough at the time of its release to earn three Oscar nominations. It certainly seemed to reinvigorate Michael Caine’s career into some more varied roles and eventually into two Oscars. The original play with its two characters and one set was “opened out”, to use the popular term, with additional characters and additional scenes.

One of Willy Russell’s jokes which I didn’t grasp the first time was where Frank asks Rita, “Do you know Yeats?” and she responds in puzzlement, “You mean the wine lodge?” At that time that chain of pubs was not known in Scotland. So my artistic appreciation was definitely enhanced a day or two later when, exploring further the centre of London, I saw a sign for – Yates Wine Lodge. Nevertheless I was surprised that the joke remained in the film script:  would other audiences outside England not have been equally mystified? Especially when the film chose not to use what I feel is a better word-play joke with a wider reach – “an educated woman is the sort of woman who can tell the difference between Jane Austen and Tracy Austin”. Austin’s tennis playing career continued for ten more years after the film’s release, and she still appears on TV as a commentator and pundit.

There is one place where the film is immeasurably better than the play. Rita is a hairdresser, and the play ends with a scene of comic innuendo where she takes off her jacket as she says suggestively to Frank, “I’m going to take years off you!” – before revealing she plans only to cut his hair. In the film, this scene is the second last and the final one shows the neatly coiffured Frank revealing Rita’s successful examination results. A much more suitable conclusion to a drama about personal progress and empowerment through education.

 

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What Carry On carried on from

 

In recent times I have acquired a greater tolerance towards the Carry On films. Whereas, once, like many people who thought of themselves as modern/intelligent/liberal/progressive, I believed they represented everything old-fashioned, unsophisticated, crass and unpleasant in British culture!

One reason for my change of heart has been an increased appreciation of the link between the Carry On series, all directed by Gerald Thomas between 1958 and 1978, and earlier British cinema.

Many of the regular actors in the  series – Hattie Jacques, Charles Hawtrey, Joan Sims, Bernard Bresslaw, Terry Scott – had begun their careers in the 1950s or even in the 1940s and had appeared in these other, better regarded, films. The most diverse career perhaps belonged to Kenneth Williams (performing with Maggie Smith, in Peter Brook’s The Beggar’s Opera with Laurence Olivier, directing plays by Joe Orton) –  but another of note was definitely that of Sidney James.

James’ early film career was varied and productive. He features in The Small Back Room, one of the films made by the great writing/directing partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the J.B. Priestley-scripted Last Holiday, two of the most fondly remembered Ealing comedies The Lavender Hill Mob and The Titfield Thunderbolt,  another famous comedy The Belles of St Trinian’s,  Carol Reed’s circus drama Trapeze, Basil Dearden’s boxing drama The Square Ring, the gangster Shakespeare Joe MacBeth. A later return to his native South Africa for the drama Tokoloshe suggests a continuing appetite to expand his range.

In these films he appears with stars like Alec Guinness, Alistair Sim, Burt Lancaster, Kenneth More, Laurence Harvey and Peter Sellers.

Alongside James’ film work was his fame as Tony Hancock’s regular co-star on Hancock’s Half-Hour, on both radio and television. In fact it was widely rumoured that James was removed from the programme at the star’s request because of his popularity.

The first Carry On film in 1958 was Carry On Sergeant. Those first few films bear closer resemblance to other British comedies of the 1950s like Doctor in the House or Folly to be Wise or Brothers in Law or Love in Pawn or The Galloping Major  in their tone and casting and observations of post-war British life than to the series’ broader, farcical later titles. James’ own first appearance in the fourth film Carry On Constable has him not yet typecast, playing a long-suffering but even-tempered police sergeant. Later he was invariably the manipulative, lecherous and cackling centre of his social group, whether in Tudor England, the Wild West, the Indian Raj or the contemporary Britain of either local government or the “permissive society”.

An interview with James’ daughter on Talking Pictures TV raises the point that, if James had lived longer – he died in 1976 – he might have benefitted from the new fashion of encouraging veteran comic actors into dramatic parts. Contemporaries of James who did benefit included Max Wall and Charlie Drake each in Samuel Beckett and Charles Dickens and Jimmy Jewell in Trevor GriffithsComedians. Later on, Robbie Coltrane, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Lenny Henry would all be able to combine careers in TV comedy and perhaps more challenging dramatic work. Certainly James seemed to have a reputation for being well-prepared and hard-working, and many stereotyped actors have flourished through a good script, co-operative fellow performers and an imaginative director.

Perhaps we see signs of what might have been in the few surviving episodes of his post-Hancock TV series Citizen James where the scripts present him with the opportunity to develop a character more fully. However, the stronger, richer version of his character is definitely the one created by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson in the first series, who is a disresputable Soho gambler and shirker of responsibility, in contrast to the more suburban and respectable man which he became later as written by Sid Green and Dick Hills. That makes Citizen James rather similar to his Carry On characters, so maybe that does clinch the argument that in the second half of his career James had moved into a productive routine which it might have been difficult to deviate from. But at least he seemed to enjoy and appreciate his career, which, by all accounts and tragically, his co-star Kenneth Williams did not.

 

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The influence of Katherine

 

The name of James Hilton is rather forgotten now, his having died in 1954, but novels like Lost Horizon and Random Harvest were popular enough to be transferred quickly by Hollywood into films which were regularly on TV screens during my youth. The Hilton novel which has held its reputation longer than others is possibly Goodbye Mr Chips. Its 1939 film version, directed by Sam Wood, earned six Oscar nominations and a Best Actor prize for Robert Donat. Stuart Orme’s British television version, first screened in 2002, is still regularly shown, at least partly due to the continuing popularity of its lead actor, Martin Clunes.

Hilton’s novel tells the story of the 60-year long career of a schoolteacher named Chipping at a boys’ boarding school called Brookfield. This is another one of those narratives through which the events of World War One cast a long shadow. A startling scene towards the end has Brookfield attacked by enemy aircraft and describes Chipping’s courage and humour in the face of this. It is sobering to realise that, just a few months after the first screening of Sam Wood’s film, and even before Robert Donat had received his Oscar statuette, its audience was facing, in real life, a second war.

More significant even than the 1914-18 war for the lead character is the period of two years during the 1890s. During this time, Chipping, by now in his mid-40s, meets on holiday a young woman called Katherine Bridges. They marry and enjoy a life together which is happy but tragically short.

While Chipping, or Chips, the nickname given by Katherine, is present throughout the whole narrative, Katherine’s own presence is brief. The allegorical significance of her surname is never openly commented on, but it seems likely that Hilton wants the reader to see Katherine as the force which directs and guides the middle-aged Chips to the second, more rewarding, part of his life.

In the novel Chips is trying to save Katherine from a mountain ledge but he hurts himself in the process: “Thus he found himself the rescued instead the rescuer”. In the 1939 film director Sam Wood shrouds Chips in mists on the mountain and it is Katherine’s voice which guides him to a safe place.

 

A scene from the Lake District photographed in 1996. Chips meets Katherine while on holiday there. “He went up… with Rowden, a colleague; they walked and climbed for a week, until Rowden had to leave suddenly on some family business. Chips stayed alone at Wasdale Head, where he boarded in a small farmhouse. One day, climbing on Great Gable, he noticed a girl … ”

 

Chips has always been shy of women, and Katherine is more intimidating than most. She is an example of “that monstrous creature… the New Woman of the nineties”. She is a political radical who believes women should have the vote, an admirer of Shaw and Ibsen and William Morris, who enjoys cycling and is unafraid to visit a single older man alone in his lodgings. However she also believes that teaching is a noble and important profession and is attracted to Chips’ gentle manner and to his opinions which, although old-fashioned, are held honestly. To the modern reader it still seems an unlikely match. The 2002 TV version felt it necessary to add a scene where she leaves Chips a book by Shaw as a farewell gift, which encourages him to cycle after her in a classically bold romantic gesture. Her fatherly group leader cautions, “I hope you are not going to forget yourself, my dear”, to which she calmly replies “I believe I already have”.

Married and at Brookfield, Katherine is popular with other teachers and all the pupils. Hilton says she is also popular with other teachers’ wives – but both TV and film versions felt it too complicated to introduce such characters. The novel mentions the school concerts and the prize-giving garden party, the TV version shows afternoon tea and picnics. She organises a football match between Brookfield and a mission school in working-class Poplar in east London, which is remembered years later by one of the Poplar boys when an adult. (The TV producers perhaps felt there had been enough scenes of sport already when it was decided to change the latter social inclusion initiative into a dance with a nearby girls’ school).

Hilton says that Katherine often asks Chips to be lenient in dealing with pupil misbehavior – because she understands that the boys had often been sent to boarding school against their will and that living together with others was “an unnatural arrangement” – but she is described as shrewd enough to realise that leniency is not appropriate in every situation. The TV version shows her use the Aesop’s fable of the sun and the north wind in her argument against “uncivilized” bullying to the shocked Brookfield headmaster, which the latter recalls when he compliments her later at the mixed gender dance.

Katherine’s death in childbirth is dealt with briskly by Hilton and in both adaptations. Chips refuses to take any time off after the tragedy and returns immediately to his class. Because it is 1 April, the pupils have already organized an April Fool’s joke which he tolerates. Hilton adds that Chips “nearly” says “ ‘you can go to blazes for all I care. My wife is dead and my child is dead and I wish I were dead myself’ ” –  but he is held back by social formality and professional dedication.

The story is still only half-way through, and Hilton makes clear that Chips’ continuing popularity and status and success within the school is due to the influence of the deceased Katherine. So although one theme of the story could be said to be tradition or service or the English class system, another could certainly be the positive influence which one person can exercise in unlikely circumstances when will and effort are applied.

For me, Hilton’s most insightful description is that Katherine’s “radical-socialist… idealism” has combined with Chips’ more conservative “maturity” to produce “an amalgam gentle and wise”. With the new century, despite the pain of his bereavement, Chips gains “a mellowness (and) harmony” and becomes “supremely and confidently himself”.

 

Reference:  Hilton, James (1980)   Goodbye Mr Chips    London: Coronet

 

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Supporting film history

 

My most valuable new cultural resource in the past year has definitely been the television channel Talking Pictures TV.

Free throughout the UK, it has been an unceasing supplier at all times of the day of fascinating and rewarding films and television programmes from the past.

Some of its schedule are celebrated films which I have known about and would have sought out at any time. For instance, Joseph Losey’s The Servant with its still transgressive story and cinematography of the manipulative manservant and his supposed sister, or Seven Days to Noon, an early nuclear terror drama with an authentic newsreel tone, or Chance of a Lifetime with its attractive political narrative, in keeping with the mood of the times, about how the workers of an agricultural machinery firm take over its management, or The Swimmer, the simultaneously bizarre but convincing allegory of 1960s US middle-class society.

Many more are titles which I knew slightly or had never heard of.

Almost all, even during a few minutes’ viewing, provide wonderful insight into the customs, behaviour, fashions and landscapes of previous generations, plus the earlier performances of dozens of actors you know from later films and TV.
As well as conventional movies from the 1930s to the 1970s, the channel provides short informational films of the type which would have once been a regular part of cinema programmes, plus TV drama from both Britain and the USA.

The channel was launched by Noel Cronin who runs it with his daughter Sarah. An interview with Cronin with BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme gave rather too little information for an aficionado like me about how you might go about setting up such a TV channel – although I did work out it was helped by libraries of old films which could be bought cheaply because they were deemed to have no commercial value and also by available television bandwidth.

“Thank you for supporting film history by watching Talking Pictures TV”, is its regular on-screen announcement. I’m not sure how much practical support I am actually providing, Noel and Sarah, but “appreciating”? Certainly yes.

 

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Simple but effective

 

Although feminism has been a continuing powerful cultural theme in the 21st century, Hollywood’s earlier treatments of its ideas and values are often seen to be dated, and therefore nowadays rarely seen. Films such as those from the late 1970s and early 1980s such as An Unmarried Woman, Julia, The Turning Point, Norma Rae, Coalminer’s Daughter, Gloria, Places in the Heart, Country. Although Nine to Five is still popular…

One of those neglected films is The Rose, set in the world of rock music. The lead character – a confident and assertive woman on and off stage, a white performer of black R&B influenced music, vulnerable to drink and drugs – was already something of a stereotype at the time of its release in 1979. However, she would probably still be a recognised type today, in the light of the death of Amy Winehouse. She was always presumed to be based specifically on Janis Joplin, who died in 1970.

The lead role was one of the first for singer Bette Midler. In some ways, she was an unusual choice for the character as her own music experience had been at the jazz/cabaret/Broadway end of the spectrum, such as with covers of  “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” and “The Big Noise from Winnetka”.

The most enduring part of the film is certainly its theme song. Written by someone who was and has remained relatively obscure, Amanda McBroom, it is in many ways a mainstream romantic ballad, played on piano and using familiar lyrical imagery. However, for me, it does its job with particular force and with a significant simplicity.

The first stanza offers four metaphors of love. Three of these suggest pain and difficulty and hardship: deep water, a sharp razor blade, the lack of food. The fourth, of a flower, offers potential and growth.

The second stanza is still using abstract nouns but is also clearly addressing individuals, and how people are often too shy and cautious and unambitious, and so will never exploit their full potential. Lack of effort and lack of courage, it bluntly states, will lead to failure.

The third and final stanza begins with more metaphors of physical suffering and difficulty – the long journey, the lonely night, the winter snow – to summarise life’s challenges, but then becomes more sympathetic and more encouraging that these difficulties can be overcome. It ends by repeating the first stanza’s metaphor of hope and potential, a flower, and now makes it more particular, a rose.

As the song progresses, the piano is supplemented , inevitably if not really necessarily, by other instruments and other voices. But it is a strong melody and in the last couplet it is again allowed to be on its own with solo piano and quieter vocals.

The song was a big hit in the USA but not at all in Britain, and my acquaintance and fondness for it was built solely on my then regular listens to the US Charts programme on BBC Radio 1 presented by Paul Gambaccini.

The song has been covered by many artistes, and I can well imagine some performances may have used primary colours rather than subtlety. Its lyrical ideas are not entirely radical or adventurous, but I found (and still find) the song powerful because of how the writer applies those ideas sparingly and simply and clearly. About happiness gained, preferably through intimate and compassionate partnership, but certainly through individual effort, resilience and courage. Many more famous songwriters have done less well.

 

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Some causes and consequences of gambling

 

D.H. Lawrence’s The Rocking-Horse Winner, first published in 1925, is an intriguing short story, not least because it has elements of form and content which might not be expected from the celebrated analyst of social class and sexual and emotional intimacy.

For instance, Lawrence used several of the tropes of fairy-tale, or perhaps parable, in his narrative. He opens with, “There was a woman who was beautiful” and continues “there was a boy and two little girls”. The boy appears to have magical, or supernatural powers, which allow him to gain great financial riches, albeit not through classic devices of physical combat or exploration, but through the more prosaic 20th century practice of betting on the results of horse races. The family lives in a house which itself seems to be alive, frequently whispering to all its residents for more money. More personal details about his characters are revealed only slowly.

A story by D.H. Lawrence seems an unlikely source for a horror film, but Anthony Pelissier’s 1949 film version does bear similarities with a couple of classics from the genre of that period. First, with the Ealing Studios compendium Dead of Night, where one story features rooms in a family home which are haunted by a dead child, another where a malevolent mirror transfers the evils of its previous home to its new modern sophisticated owner, and, more peripherally, two others have sports backgrounds! Second, with Victor Fleming’s version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, where some of its rather Freudian scenes representing Hyde’s animal appetites seem to have influenced Pelissier in his depictions of Paul’s adolescent physical efforts to bring to mind the name of a money-winning horse.

Lawrence is critical of the materialism of Paul’s middle-class parents and, in general, of people living beyond their means. This couple “lived in style” but “there was never enough money”. The desire for wealth and possessions and status saturates the home – so that “the children could hear it all the time though nobody said it aloud”. The mother’s greed psychologically damages her young son who is determined to gain money (through luck, not work) in order to help his parents.

Paul makes an astonishing amount of money by predicting successfully the winners of horse races. Half-way through the story Lawrence mentions winnings of £10,000, the equivalent of half a million pounds in today’s money. Where does Paul’s success come from? Perhaps he has inherited it: his Uncle Oscar is clearly very interested in horse racing and bets frequently, his mother says hers was “a gambling family” which suggests the habit goes back at least to her own father. Paul says only that God has told him he is lucky.

So Lawrence seems to hint that Paul’s success in gambling is some kind of spiritual gift. Possibly to underline how the selfish materialism of parents like his leads them to fail to notice or understand their children’s qualities and interests and talents. Religious imagery is frequently used. When Paul’s ally, the young gardener Bassett, talks about the boy’s betting practice, he “was serious as a church…as if he were speaking of religious matters” and explains that Paul gets his betting tips “as if he had it from heaven”. When Paul dies prematurely, Uncle Oscar seems to acknowledge he has gifts from God which have been abused: “a poor devil… (who’s) best gone out of a life where he rides his rocking-horse to find a winner.”

Paul introduces the idea of money and luck to his mother “vaguely” and “timidly”, but his behaviour in putting his vision into practice is, in contrast, intense and driven and disturbing. He is described as “in agony” when trying to identify the winner of the Lincoln Handicap, presumably akin to Christ’s agony in Gethsemane. He rides his wooden rocking-horse “madly” and “wildly” and in “a frenzy”; his eyes show a “strange glare” as he slashes at it with a whip, a gesture which hints at capacity for violence and an incipient sexual energy. His mother observes the incongruity anxiously: “You’re not a very little boy any longer, you know”.

Other sexual undertones could be interpreted in a description like “his sturdy long legs straddling apart” or in Paul’s statement “I got there…where I wanted to go”. Pelissier’s film certainly follows this line, through close ups, sweeping camera, low angle shots, dark shadows, staring eyes and clashing music. In Paul’s final night-time encounter with the rocking-horse which helps him identify the winner of the Derby, his hair is damp against his forehead, his pyjama jacket is open and his chest is bare.

Pelissier characterises Uncle Oscar, as played by Ronald Squire, as pleasant and supportive but roguish, and inherently as selfish as his sister and brother-in-law. Lawrence’s minor character of Bassett is aged and expanded in the film to exploit the casting of John Mills. Mills usually played characters of integrity and he does so here, as a disabled working-class war veteran who looks after Paul’s winnings and is never tempted to steal any. However, at the end, he shares guilt and regret for Paul’s death. Paul’s mother wants Bassett to burn the banknotes which she sees as “blood money” but Bassett determines to take it to the family solicitor so that the money which “cost (a life) …might (now) be able to save a few lives”.

Although Lawrence’s narrative method is spare, he does include some period domestic details. The father’s workplace is described dismissively as “some office” (probably the character’s view of his work rather than Lawrence’s). The mother does show enterprise and initiative on occasions, such as her venture as a commercial artist. Each parent earns or has inherited some money “but not nearly enough for the social position which they had to keep up”, which is perhaps why the employment of servants has to be “discreet”, since they might have to be dismissed prematurely. The film adds some additional scenes: a debt collector visits unexpectedly so Paul’s mother has to rush off to a pawn broker in a shabby part of the nearest town to raise some money by selling her things.

The film’s closing image of the “funeral pyre” of the burning rocking horse seems to want to leave the audience with the idea that the toy has been the primary cause of the disruption in the family, rather like the haunted mirror in Dead of Night. Lawrence’s story makes clear that “the shining modern rocking-horse” is just one of “the expensive and splendid toys” which has absorbed the parents’ money and distracted them from their obligation to care properly for their children. It has been a device to ignite energy and ideas which were already building just below the surface in Paul’s personality. He is aware of the flaws in his parents’ marriage and therefore in the instability of his family life; he is reaching out to make things better and find his mother’s love through her aloof selfish materialism.

Most online analyses of Lawrence’s story seem to concentrate on the mother’s greed and its consequences for her son. Both the story and Pelissier’s film could also be seen as highly relevant to our present-day concern about the reasons for gambling and the psychological damage it can cause.

 

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Ensemble reading

 

It’s hard to be sure whether the fashion of book/reading groups has passed. Some evidence that it has: it was 15 years ago that the Glasgow-set comedy series The Book Group screened on Channel 4 and then for only a year, the much-publicised book strands of the TV programmes of each of Oprah Winfrey and Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan have long gone and BBC Radio 2 has just ended the book club element of Simon Mayo’s programme. On the other hand, the Richard and Judy Book Club continues as a commercial website, the BBC Radio 4 monthly programme Bookclub presented by James Naughtie is still broadcasting after 20 years, and the Reading Agency charity feels that it is a strategy which is still worth supporting.

I too was once part of the book group phenomenon, for eight years between 2003 and 2010, based at my local library. My initial motivation was that it would give me the opportunity to become acquainted with some less known contemporary writers. In the event, I found myself reading only a small minority of the group’s choices, although I was never disappointed by the monthly discussions.

Book groups were sometimes ridiculed because the novels which were read were perceived to fit a stereotype. Their choices were often set in the past, not too literary in style, perhaps linked to a distinct social/political theme, certainly not too long – all of these features thus providing a sense of the books being educational as well as entertaining. My own experience was that there was some truth to this stereotype.

In addition, certain titles seemed to be recurringly popular, such as Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian; books by Ian McEwan, Tracy Chevalier, Nick Hornby, Margaret Atwood. Publishers sometimes included book group questions in their editions, appearing to see ensemble discussion as more important than individual discovery.

In addition to the enjoyable social interactions, did I gain any literary satisfaction? Well, our group’s very first read was one of my most memorable: Under the Skin by Michel Faber about the extra-terrestrial visitor to Scotland was much more chilling and engrossing than the subsequent film. The other best one was Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, set in a hillbilly poor community in the USA – the meatiness of the dialogue recalled that the same person had written the source novel for Ang Lee’s film Ride with the Devil.

A few other memories? The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón successfully wove its romantic spell partly because I had recently visited Barcelona; The Road Home by Rose Tremain gave a convincing picture of a refugee experience in modern London and Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room an equally believable one of a Glasgow demi-monde; Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama provided more insight about the newly-arrived global cultural superstar. A more established book was Guiseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard whose complexities about 19th century Italian society I would definitely like to explore again one day.

One professional author visited us: Jonathan Falla, after we had read his Blue Poppies, set in Tibet. He talked engagingly about his work in progress, which drew on his experiences with the charity sector working in Africa, and which became Poor Mercy.

Popular books have been adapted into films since the early days of Hollywood. But it is noticeable how many book group favourites go on to be filmed, such as, from our group’s list, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger, Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, Brick Lane by Monica Ali, I’m Not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishigiro, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, Suite Française by Irene Nemirovsky, The Ghost by Robert Harris, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Anne Barrows. (And there have even been films about fictional reading groups such as The Jane Austen Book Club and the current Book Club!) Are those aforementioned book club characteristics (set in the past, not too literary etc) especially alluring to movie producers? Or are these films just the latest examples of a long tradition?

Of course, with willing participants, interest groups of any sort will thrive. The book group in the aforementioned TV comedy included several members who were not native Scots. By coincidence, the Gramnet research network into migration, asylum and refugees, based at Glasgow University, has a book group which regularly reads and discusses relevant novels on their areas of interest.

 

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