Once more to itvX to catch an important film in the history of British cinema that for too long has only been available on TV in a ‘pan and scan’ version. Flame in the Streets was made in CinemaScope as a Rank film (one of just four – Rank initially went with VistaVision) and the cinema print would have been in a 1:2.35 ratio. I measured the image on my TV as approx. 1.2.31 which means we are getting virtually the full image on ITV’s streamer. The film is important as a major production dealing with the overt racism in British cities which had become a major issue following the 1958 street violence in Notting Hill when armed white youths attacked West Indians. Black youths armed themselves and defended their territory. The altercations lasted for several days at the end of August/beginning of September. Police arrested over 100 youths, a majority of whome were white. Tension was exacerbated by the activities of extreme right-wing political groups.
Soon after these events, a stage play by Ted Willis, Hot Summer Night previewed in Bournemouth before opening in the West End in November 1958. It ran for just over 50 performances but was quickly adapted as a TV play, directed by Ted Kotcheff for his fellow Canadian Sydney Newman who was putting together Armchair Theatre for ITV on Sunday evenings. Ted Willis then ‘opened out’ the play for a feature film adaptation. This then became Flame in the Streets which opened at the Odeon Leicester Square in June 1961. The original play had been a primarily ‘domestic drama’ in the household of a trade unionist, Jacko Palmer who is shop steward in a factory in Wapping. Considering himself a ‘liberal’, Palmer fights for the black workers in the factory but is presented with the news that his daughter Kathie intends to marry a West Indian. His wife Nell dotes on her daughter, while resenting Jacko’s overwhelming commitment to his work. She reveals her prejudice in trying to stop the marriage.
The film shifts the location to North Kensington (though it was mostly filmed in Camden and Kentish Town) and develops the story through both the workplace and the home lives of not just the Palmers but also that of Gabriel and Judy Gomez. Gomez (Earl Cameron) is a West Indian working in a furniture factory who has been temporarily acting as a shop foreman. Jacko Palmer (John Mills) is preparing to support Gomez in his bid to be made a permanent foreman – but there are rumblings about resistance from other workers not prepared to take orders from a West Indian. The regular monthly union meeting takes place on November 5th, ‘Bonfire Night’ when a large bonfire has been constructed on a piece of waste ground close to the factory and the homes of both the Palmers and the tenement building where Gabriel and Judy Gomez (Ann Lynn) live. I’ve used the description ‘West Indian’ here to match the language of the period. Both of the major Black characters in the film are also spoken about as Jamaican – but Earl Cameron was from Bermuda and Johnny Sekka was born in Senegal. He had a Gambian father and eventually arrived in the UK to join the RAF before training at RADA after prompting from his friend Earl Cameron. In fact I think the dominant presence in Ladbroke Grove was originally from Trinidad and Guyana?
Appearing nearly three years after the Notting Hill riots, Flame in the Streets was actually the second film to deal directly with racism in London, being preceded by Sapphire in 1959. Sapphire also featured Earl Cameron, the most high profile Black actor in the UK industry during the 1950s. In the earlier film he played a doctor whose sister has been murdered. She had ‘passed’ for white and the film is in genre terms a crime mystery as the police attempt to find the killer. In Sapphire, the milieu is different. Sapphire had been a music student and it is the community of African students as well as West Indian migrants that is investigated. The Notting Hill/North Kensington area of London is featured as part of the police investigation. Oddly, however, the overtly racist character is again a woman and again the trigger, in this case for murder, is the prospect of ‘miscegenation’. It’s also perhaps worth mentioning two other films which share a similar setting. In 1962 The L-Shaped Room (from the Lynne Reid Banks novel of a few years earlier) is focused on a young Frenchwoman who seeks a room in a lodging house in West London while she prepares to have her baby. The Black character is less central to the plot but offers a sympathetic neighbour. The American actor Brock Peters plays a gay musician and along with the prostitute in the basement flat, represents the kind of ‘outcast’ community associated with this particular part of London. In 1970 the rarely seen John Boorman film Leo the Last features Marcello Mastroianni as an Italian aristocrat in London who decides to support a young Black couple in their struggle against their exploiters. It’s a Marxist parable in which Leo discovers that he’s a slum landlord himself without realising what his staff have been doing. Calvin Lockhart is the Bahamian-American actor playing the central Black character in the story.
Each of the films described above references the area of Notting Hill and North Kensington even if the actual locations used are in other parts of London. These two areas are contiguous parts of what is now the ‘Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’ the most unequal London borough with the richest and poorest communities in the capital. They meet around Ladbrooke Grove, one of the parts of London to which new migrants from the Caribbean generally headed in the 1950s. The area was known for its poor housing stock and rapacious private landlords. It became notorious not only because of the Notting Hill riots but also the activities of Peter Rachman, one of the most prominent of these landlords whose name began to be used to describe this kind of exploitation of tenants. Rachman died in 1962 but his activities became part of the story of the Profumo Affair which ultimately brought down Harold Macmillan’s government in 1963. Rachman’s agents included a couple of West Indians who played significant roles in his organisation. One similar character appears in Flame in the Streets. Recently, the events of the late 1950s/early 1960s in the same area have been covered in two of the films in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe project from 2020. The Notting Hill riots of 1958 were one of the incidents which eventually led to the development of the famous Notting Hill Carnival as a celebration of Caribbean culture, first held in 1966. When the Richard Curtis ‘romcom’ Notting Hill was released in 1999 it was a huge hit but it did receive criticism as a film which celebrated Notting Hill’s ‘gentrification’, managing to avoid depicting Black Londoners. In 2017 a new scandal exploded around the Grenfell Tower disaster – a fire in a North Kensington tower block housing mainly poorer tenants killed more than 70 residents and injured over 200. The local council was implicated in the disaster, having formally vested management of the block in a separate agency. A ‘Grenfell Next of Kin Group’ suggested that: “Systemic racism goes deep to the heart of the problem that caused the catastrophe”. The enquiry into the disaster has not yet reached a final conclusion but Steve McQueen has now produced an art installation film, the 24 minute silent film, Grenfell which became available in April 2023.
All these references suggest that Ted Willis and director Roy Ward Baker were dealing with real issues in 1961 that are still ongoing today. The critics at the time tended to be ‘down’ on what were often termed ‘(social) problem pictures’, viewing them as ‘melodramatic and suggesting in the words of the Monthly Film Bulletin (July 1961) reviewer that they “used methods that belonged more to the writer’s study than to life”. There is a good analysis of the context of this and similar ‘problem pictures’ in John Hill’s Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1956-63 (BFI 1986). He quotes further critics including an Isobel Quigley review from The Spectator, which confirms the sense that many middle-class and right-wing critics had little idea themselves what was happening in areas like Ladbroke Grove. Willis was a working-class writer and by the 1950s a Labour supporter who would become a prolific writer of TV drama. Hill in his analysis of Flame in the Streets argues that these kinds of ‘liberal’ films weren’t in themselves ‘radical’ at the time. The melodrama and the emotional family conflict in the end prevent us as spectators from recognising the systemic racism institutionalised in the workplace and the housing policies experienced by the characters. But Hill also recognises that the development of Black characters in the narrative who are forced to ask themselves questions ( do we keep our heads down or fight on the streets?) was a step forward. It would take another fifteen years or so before the first Black British film, Horace Ové’s Pressure (1976), once again set around Ladbroke Grove, began a more effective presentation of racism in London. It’s worth noting, however, that the social problem picture itself became more radicalised as it moved into broadcast television in the 1960s, both in soaps (Coronation Street began in 1960) and in TV plays such as those of Ken Loach and Tony Garnett (e.g. Cathy Come Home in 1966).
The key point in the narrative of Flame in the Streets is the Bonfire Night meeting at which Jacko Palmer must persuade his members to back Gabriel Gomez’s promotion to foreman. After the meeting he must then deal with his own emotions when his distraught wife tells him his daughter wants to marry Peter Lincoln (Johnny Sekka), her fellow teacher at the primary school where she works. It is then that the violence on the streets takes over instigated by what the reviewers at the time refer to as ‘Teddy Boys’. As Hill points out the teds offer a convenient ‘folk-devil’ to end the drama without exploring the underlying issue of the racism (apart from raising the question of what the significant Black characters in the drama will do). ‘Teddy Boys’ were a phenomenon of 1950s UK working-class youth styles, initially named after the Edwardian-inspired suits they wore. They became a self-fulfilling ‘menace’ whipped up by newspaper coverage – young men with money and energy to expend. There were indeed reports that large numbers of Teddy Boys had been involved in the Notting Hill riots. But in the film the youths from the factory who cause the trouble ride motorbikes, looking forward to the transformation of the Teddy Boy into the 1960s ‘rocker’ in leathers.
Local newspaper reviews and comments by audiences at the time suggest that the film was viewed as important and worthwhile despite the establishment critics. Where many similar ‘problem pictures’ of the period were relatively low budget black and white films, this production was picked up by Rank and overseen by Earl St John as a prestige release. The cast is very strong with good performances all round. Ann Lynn and Sylvia Sims are particularly effective as the young women caught up in the centre of the conflict simply because they have West Indian partners. It’s photographed by Christopher Challis and has a score by Philip Green which includes an attempt to incorporate a calypso rhythm. I couldn’t find a decent trailer but here’s the key scene in which Jacko addresses the union meeting. John Mills was still a major star in 1961 and his performance must have had a resonance for many in the audience:
A very thorough discussion by Roy. I saw the film decades ago and it has been frustrating that it was not available in its proper aspect ratio. I do not remember ITV actually screening it on television rather than streaming?
I do not think it is melodrama proper though it has melodramatic moments. Ted Willis, and this is one of his best film scripts, tended more towards some form of social realism. The melodrama is much more apparent in ‘Sapphire’ One oddity for me is that ‘Sapphire’ seems to have received much more attention that this film, which is definitely superior as cinema and as social drama.