There were many British films of the 1950s that referenced the 1939-45 war and its aftermath. For several reasons they’ve attracted negative coverage from many film historians, scholars and critics, much of it unwarranted. One misconception is that they are all similar. This particular example is from a sub-genre dealing with the ‘returning soldier’. In this specific grouping there are some interesting films which also draw on other genres/categories, especially film noir melodramas such as Mine Own Executioner (1947) and Cage of Gold (1950). Others drew on noir crime stories like They Made Me a Fugitive (1947). The Intruder isn’t quite the crime drama its title suggests, though there are crime elements in the mix. Neither is it a melodrama, though there is a kind of surrogate father-son relationship at its centre. It is a strange mixture of drama with a couple of comic sequences – a combination that IMDb implies was a feature of the work of Guy Hamilton, best known for his war pictures and later James Bond/Harry Palmer films. This was just his second directorial venture, working on Robin Maugham’s adaptation of his own novel.
The film begins with stockbroker Wolf Merton playing golf. A wayward shot takes Merton’s ball off the course and into a scrapyard where later Hammer favourite Michael Ripper is cutting up war-time tanks. We will soon learn that Merton was a Colonel of a tank regiment. When he gets home (in Central London) he surprises a burglar (the ‘intruder’ of the title) who turns out to be one his men he hasn’t seen for seven years. Before he can reason with ‘Ginger’ Edwards (Michael Medwin), the young man runs off, taking Merton’s revolver. At this point we get the first of several flashbacks to wartime incidents and we realise that Edwards was a brave soldier who looked out for his mates. We also sense that Merton (Jack Hawkins) was a successful leader of men and that he was well aware of Edwards’ qualities. He determines to track Edwards down and find out why he has turned to crime. The film’s narrative thus becomes a succession of meetings with a group of men who were in the same unit, building up to a final showdown when Merton will again confront Edwards.
I enjoyed The Intruder. It looks good with photography by Ted Scaife and Maugham’s story ideas are strong (he later wrote the novel The Servant adapted by Harold Pinter for for Joe Losey). The ending is rather abrupt and may not satisfy everyone but that could be a budget problem. As it is, the film is a brisk 84 minutes into which a drama with plenty of action and several characters’ stories are inserted. The film was made by British Lion at Shepperton and received a circuit release in ABC cinemas. The cast is strong with Hawkins that year also leading in the biggest British film of the year The Cruel Sea. Hawkins is both the genuine star of the film and possibly an indicator of some of the problems for older audiences now. Throughout the 1950s, Hawkins’ gruff but almost avuncular authority figure inhabited similar roles in Army, Navy and Air Force officer roles as well as Police Superintendents/Commanders etc. Occasionally he could be less avuncular and much tougher as in The Cruel Sea and sometimes he could ‘go wrong’ as in The League of Gentlemen (1960). We soon know who he is in The Intruder which does diminish his impact a little – but he’s such a good actor he’s always worth watching.
We also know who everyone else is, partly because we’ve seen them in later films. So, when we see Arthur Howard as a soldier in the Pay Corps we aren’t at all surprised that in civvy street he is a dotty schoolteacher, since in 1956 he began to appear on TV in the sitcom Whack-O! as a dotty public school teacher in the Jimmy Edwards series. Similarly, a young George Cole, like Howard and Dora Bryan as an ENSA ( girl, is in a comedy sequence (ENSA put on entertainment shows for the troops) and Dennis Price is a slimy and cowardly officer who becomes an equally creepy businessman (who keeps the title ‘Captain’ much to Merton’s disgust). I’m not sure if the comedy sequences really work in the context of the drama but the George Cole routine is used to show up the class divide in the army (Cole’s character is an enlisted man who is commissioned by Merton). When we do get to find out what started the trouble for Ginger, it too has an element of social commentary. So, I think overall, The Intruder works as a worthwhile ‘war aftermath’ picture. I won’t spoil the narrative, only point out that there is no indication of whether Merton has been married or has always been single and Ginger’s story could be related to Merton’s own story if there was more narrative space to explore such ideas. But there is quite enough there already. Enjoy The Intruder on Talking Pictures TV, Network DVD or Amazon Prime.
This is a fine picture from a writer-director making her début. Jenny Lu began in the industry in 2011 and graduated from assistant/second director to make first a short and then this feature. She benefited from film festival support in developing the script and production. I’ve read some quite uninformed reviews from ‘professional’ critics and one excellent and perceptive review by IMDb ‘user’ Joe Bevan which I recommend.
The Receptionist brings together a number of familiar scenarios and references several key films (which Jenny Lu might not have seen – I’m not suggesting she borrowed ideas or that her script is not original, merely that it is recognisable). Tina (American-Taiwanese actor Teresa Daley) is an Eng Lit graduate in London searching for a job (it isn’t clear if her degree was in Taiwan or the UK). Her search becomes more urgent when her boyfriend loses his first job as an architect’s assistant. Tina must find the money to pay the rent and some to send back to Taiwan. Eventually she is forced to take a job as receptionist/dogsbody at a small brothel set up in a suburban house somewhere in London. This reminded me of the film Personal Services (UK 1987) inspired by the real-life case of Cynthia Payne in the Streatham street where I delivered the Christmas post in the 1970s. Tina’s brothel is an undertaking by ‘Lily’, a Taiwanese madam and her two workers SaSa (also Taiwanese) and Mei (Malaysian Chinese). Soon after Tina starts work, Anna (from rural China?) also starts work. What follows is part tragedy and part comedy with a mixture of brutality and humanism. Despite what some reviewers convey, not all the men who visit the house are ‘disgusting’. Some are and the violence and misogyny are there on screen. But some are sad older men who appreciate the welcome they receive. The real humanity though is expressed between the women, who despite the pressure and the squabbles over money do care for each other, despite protestations of indifference. The film’s final section deals with Tina’s eventual return to Taiwan where she becomes involved in clearing up and renewing her home town after the impact of a typhoon.
In some ways the film works as a chamber piece in the claustrophobic setting of the brothel. The claustrophobia is emphasised by the curtains and sealed up windows necessary to stop the smells and sounds of sex work reaching the neighbours. Symbolically it is represented by the worms which die in the back garden/yard – they “can’t live too long cut off from the earth” as one character puts it. (These looked to me like brandling worms which don’t live in soil but are found in compost heaps or any pile of rotting vegetation.) The function of this chamber narrative is to stimulate the women to reflect on their individual lives, their families and their ‘journeys’ which for the three younger ones are most wrapped up in migration. We don’t learn much about Lily (except that she has become pragmatic above all) and I would have liked to know more about SaSa. I think she could become the central character of another complete narrative. I wonder why Jenny Lu set her film in the UK? Her film set me thinking about several other films I’ve seen over the last few years. Farewell China (Hong Kong 1990, dir. Clara Law) is one of the earliest, following Maggie Cheung’s difficult journey to the US and her husband’s subsequent attempt to find her there. Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts (UK 2006) tells the story of the Chinese cockle-pickers who died in Morecambe Bay and A Fallible Girl (UAE-China-UK 2013) deals with Chinese migrants living a marginal life in the United Arab Emirates. I was also reminded of Lilting (UK 2013) a micro-budget British film about a Chinese diasporic character by British-Cambodian-Chinese director Hong Khaou which though a very different kind of narrative has a similar power to expose an audience to life for migrant characters.
Alongside Teresa Daley, director Lu has assembled a fascinating cast for The Receptionist. Sophie Gopsill as Lily is a Hong Kong-born singer who has appeared in many opera houses and theatres in South East Asia and in the UK where she has lived for several years. SaSa is played by Chen Shiang-Chyi an accomplished and celebrated actor who first worked in Taiwan for Edward Yang in the early 1990s and then for Tsai Ming-liang. More recently she was the lead in Exit (Taiwan 2014) in a very different role in which she was equally good. Teng Shuang who plays Anna appears to British-Chinese? She trained as a lawyer but decided to pursue her love of acting. After shorts and theatre work this is her first feature. It’s also a first feature for Amanda Fan, an experienced Taiwanese actor whose previous credits have all been in Taiwanese TV series. The Taiwanese-UK connection is carried through in the production by editor Hoping Chen, whose career began in Taiwan and who then studied at the National Film and TV School in the UK and edited another form of migrant film in Ilo, Ilo (Singapore 2013).
I hope audiences aren’t put off by the setting of The Receptionist or its ’18’ certificate. I think is a very worthwhile first feature and I hope we get to see more films exploring the migrant experience. The film is showing at the Regent Street Cinema in London on August 14 with a Q&A. Well done to Munro Film Services for getting The Receptionist into UK distribution.
This unusual film has created a fair amount of controversy and has seemingly divided audiences sharply between those who see it as representing an important issue for women and those who were flat-out bored watching it. Before the screening I had seen a Twitter conversation in which a female critic complained a) about the “white male” audience of critics she watched the film with at a press showing and b) that these men generally seemed to disregard or simply not mention the sexual abuse in the marriage depicted on screen. I also read an interview with the film’s star (and executive producer), Gemma Arterton. Here are a couple of extracts:
Already released in France, it seemed to make one journalist very angry. “You make a film about a boring wife who’s fed up,” he challenged Arterton in an interview. “She’s always sad, she whinges all the time, she doesn’t stop crying. Why are we compelled?” “I was so pleased by his reaction!” Arterton exclaims. “I think he hated the film, he was so angry and pissed off that he had to tell me, and I thought, well, that’s good. That’s great. I didn’t set out to make a film that was universally loved. It’s meant to create polarising opinions.”
The sex scenes in The Escape are strikingly unlike what we’re used to seeing in movies. The camera remains trained on Arterton’s face, so we can’t fail to see the gritted teeth and deadening disappointment her husband doesn’t even notice. Even when tears are streaming down her face, he still doesn’t get the message, and says: “I can’t tell whether you’re laughing or crying.” “But it’s not abusive,” Arterton stresses. “Because she could say no.” (from ‘Gemma Arterton: ‘Everyone in the industry knows I’m a pain’’, interview by Decca Aikenhead, the Guardian 14 July 2018
The interview above also discusses the production background to this film. Its £1 million budget was raised independently from City investors and the outline screenplay by writer-director Dominic Savage was then developed through improvisation by the central characters.
I should perhaps state at this point that I am a fan and admirer of Gemma Arterton’s work and I see her, alongside Maxine Peake, as one of the UK’s foremost actors from a working-class background. For me her career began unfortunately in blockbuster mainstream films (which I haven’t seen) which she herself now tends to disown. I have seen several of her lower budget films but The Escape is different because of her own personal involvement in its production.
Dominic Savage is best known as a writer-director in TV but I have strong memories of his previous film Love + Hate (UK 2005) which was set very carefully and precisely in Blackburn and imagined a kind of Romeo and Juliet story involving a young Asian woman and a similarly young white working-class lad. I used the film in a schools film education event and explored the representation issues in what is a form of realist narrative with sensitive casting. Savage is very interested in ‘love stories’ and The Escape shares some elements with Love + Hate, especially in its location and casting. Savage himself was born in Margate, one of the seaside towns beloved of traditional London working-class communities. Gemma Arterton was born in Gravesend, a little closer to London but still in Kent. Her co-star in The Escape, Dominic Cooper, was born in Blackheath, South-East London (on the way to Gravesend). Cooper and Arterton have been paired before in Tamara Drewe (UK 2010) but here both are playing close to their roots. Because of the peculiarities of the English education system, working-class Gemma went to a grammar school in Kent while the more middle-class Dominic went to the local comprehensive, Thomas Tallis in Kidbroke. Both ended up at drama school. I mention all of this because The Escape seems to me as much about class as about gender.
Mark (Dominic Cooper) and Tara (Gemma Arterton) live on a new estate of ‘junior executive homes’ in a London ‘satellite town’ in Kent. We don’t know what Mark does but it obviously pays well as this is a two car family and Tara doesn’t work, although she is expected to be a ‘good housewife and mother’ with a youngest child in nursery school and another in the primary school next door. But Tara is unhappy and she’s not sure why. Mark is played by Dominic Cooper as a somewhat thuggish/boorish character. The ‘sexual abuse’ referred to above describes his behaviour whereby he expects sex when he wants it and is less than considerate towards Tara, not seeing or feeling her unhappiness. Is this abuse? I suspect many men have treated wives and girlfriends like this on occasions, out of ignorance and insensitivity, but probably not as frequently or unpleasantly as Mark. In the interview above, Arterton explains:
“In Gravesend, we all know that kind of guy, and he’s not a bad guy. What he is, he’s just . . . I think he’s just out of his depth. He’s not creative. He’s not open-minded. He’s just quite traditional, and not on the same wavelength.”
I think we are meant to recognise that Tara should call him out and challenge his behaviour and that the two of them should talk it through. But it has already gone too far. Tara is depressed and has become de-sensitised. This is as much about her situation more broadly than it is about solely Mark’s behaviour in the bedroom. The film feels to me like a critique of a whole way of life. At one point the camera rises and show a vista of rooftops with, in the distance, electricity pylons and the outlines of other settlements leading towards the metropolis. The rooftops reminded me of an undeservedly long-forgotten film, Ken Loach’s Family Life (UK 1971), his film version of David Mercer’s play about a young woman with schizophrenia, aggravated by her ‘caring’ family in suburbia. Many, many people in the UK live on modern estates like this in identical houses. I don’t know how they do it. One of the major controversies about The Escape concerns Tara’s inability/refusal to ‘look after’ her children. She finds she is just not interested in them and that her relationship with them has broken down. Mark is actually better with them. As many viewers have pointed out, men can feel this way towards their children as well, but they aren’t immediately pilloried as a result. But a woman can’t admit that she doesn’t feel for her children.
Tara’s ‘escape’ begins with a trip to the South Bank in London where she buys a pair of art books from the stalls outside the NFT/BFI. Could art be her way out? When she finally cracks, she takes advantage of Kent’s transport links and hops on a Eurostar train at Ebbsfleet, heading for Paris. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative. You can probably guess some of what happens in Paris. The ending of the film is ‘open’. In fact, at the end we realise that we have returned to the sequence at the start of the film which doesn’t see Tara in the house in Kent, but somewhere quite different. Why is she there? What will happen to her marriage, her husband and her children?
This is not a ‘fun film’ but it is one which will resonate with many viewers. Gemma Arteton is excellent throughout and Dominic Cooper plays ‘ugly’ very effectively. Dominic Savage uses several strategies to suggest Tara’s internal world. Laurie Rose’s camera frequently uses shallow focus to catch Tara’s face as she twists and turns in what feel like enclosed spaces, emphasised by the blurred backgrounds. I usually find this an irritating technique, but it has a real purpose here. Compositions emphasise Tara in halls, opening doors, looking through windows and in a different scenario looking out over landscapes. Many of these techniques are evident in the trailer below and in the image above. On the soundtrack the music by Anthony John and Alexandra Harwood includes throbbing bass notes as Tara’s anxiety increases.
I need to repeat that this isn’t ‘feelgood’ cinema. Tara is not noble, she isn’t oppressed by money worries. She is beautiful and she is healthy. She has everything capitalist society is supposed to offer a young mother. She has a husband who may love her but who can’t understand her and hasn’t got the emotional intelligence to know what is going on. He lashes out at her and assumes he knows what is best. She doesn’t know what to do. I can see some audiences will dislike the main characters and will find the film slow and perhaps ‘boring’, but for me it is a devastating look at a failed consumer society that has become soulless. It’s no coincidence that in England today, support for the arts and ‘cultural opportunities for all’ is being cut and educational programmes are narrowing in scope. Tara’s ‘escape’ is a search for some kind of meaning. What divides her and Mark is that she can just about remember what education gave her but he hasn’t retained anything. The problem with those new estates is partly a lack of ‘community culture’ – and meaningful local relationships – Tara doesn’t have a female friend to talk to, only her not very sympathetic mother. Mark probably thinks he is ‘middle-class’ now because of his well-paid job, but it’s a myth. Perhaps we need to know more about what he feels? But then again, this is Tara’s story, isn’t it?
It was the Friday of the second week of Mamma Mia 2 and our local cinema had to shift the screening upstairs to its 95 seat cinema since it was opening the latest Mission Impossible movie in Screen 1. I suggested we went early to get a good seat. I was proved right as the audience arrived en masse before even the ads started. There were a handful of older men in the audience, otherwise it was entirely female ranging from around 10 years-old to 80 plus. Usually when the ads play, they are loud and audiences speak quietly to each other. On this occasion I couldn’t hear the ads at all – the chatter, shrieks and laughter in anticipation of the film drowned out all the sound from the screen. When the ‘Intermission’ sign went up after the trailers I did wonder if there would be a riot at the prospect of waiting a further 10 minutes for the film to start. But the audience just chatted on and the projectionist seemingly found a way to start the feature earlier than usual. The audience quietened immediately and behaved impeccably (laughing, groaning and cheering appropriately) from then on.
I mention all this because professional film reviewers seldom see films with audiences and it certainly affects a reading when audience participation is part of the show. I should declare my own snobbery here. If I’d remembered that Richard Curtis was involved with the storyline of the film, I might have avoided it altogether. But I forgot and therefore enjoyed the experience like everyone else.
Following on from Mamma Mia! (2008), the sequel is in many ways actually a prequel. Amanda Seyfried as Sophie is ten years into her marriage. She’s pregnant but her husband is now in New York learning more about the hotel business. She plans a re-opening of the ‘bijou’ hotel she inherited from her mother Donna and invites all the characters from the first film to the opening. But this is also a time of introspection and the first of many flashbacks introduces Lily James as Donna back in 1979 graduating from university and heading to the Greek Islands. The narrative then moves backwards and forwards in time towards a finale when all the characters are together. The distributors tease the audience with expectations that both Meryl Streep and Cher are in the film. The former has some brief moments and the latter a little bit longer and the chance to sing ‘Fernando’ with a barely recognisable (by me, anyway!) Andy Garcia.
What to make of this $75 million ‘juke-box’ musical? Well, you can’t go wrong with Adriatic sunshine (Vis, Croatia), Abba songs and some excellent troupers. There is one moment of comedy genius from Julie Walters, Cher is worth her one song and the new younger cast members have plenty of energy. I felt a bit sorry for Amanda Seyfried who I think is up-staged by Lily James (who gets the better songs/production numbers). I remember being impressed by Ms James in The Darkest Hour in a very different role. Overall, however, I don’t think the narrative holds much interest and I couldn’t detect any sub-text. It also doesn’t make much sense. If Sophie was conceived in 1979 she would have been nearly 30 when she married in 2008 and nearly 40 now – or is this film set in 2009? It is indeed a juke-box musical. You pays your money and you get the songs. I didn’t feel short-changed. As the golden age musicals had it ‘That’s Entertainment!’
I feel that this second film is a bit more bland than the first and possibly a bit slicker and more ‘Americanised’. It’s still essentially a British-Swedish production but presumably there is more American money behind it. (I note that Wikipedia calls the two films ‘American musicals’, which is a bit rich.) The second film has so far followed the first in making much more at the box-office outside North America compared to the Hollywood ‘domestic’ market. The director is Ol Parker, best-known for the ‘Marigold Hotel’ films and Catherine Johnson, the original writer of the stage musical is still involved. But what happened to the original director Phyllida Lloyd? Will the dilution of the Streep role harm the second film’s ‘legs’ at the box-office? We’ll see. I’m assuming that the first film’s audience skewed older and female.
In 1937 Jessie Matthews was one of the most popular stars in British cinema. Her musicals/romantic comedies had started to build a profile in North America where she was known as ‘The Dancing Divinity’. Stories persisted about a possible move to the US and a partnership with Fred Astaire. That possibility is one of the potential elements of this film directed by her husband Sonnie Hale. Hale had taken over directing his wife’s films from Victor Saville who had moved from Gaumont-British to work for Alexander Korda at Denham. Saville did go to Hollywood eventually.
Compared to their Hollywood equivalents, the musicals made at G-B’s Lime Grove studios in Shepherd’s Bush were low-budget affairs but didn’t lack creativity. Head Over Heels is designed by the great Alfred Junge and photographed by Glen MacWilliams, a Hollywood cinematographer who had already shot three previous Matthews movies. Head Over Heels is an adaptation of a French play, Pierre ou Jack, by Francis de Croisset whose plays Arsene Lupin and A Woman’s Face were adapted more than once and became Hollywood ‘A’ pictures.
The plot is quite simple. Jeanne Colbert (Jessie Matthews) is a nightclub entertainer in Paris and shopping in the market one day she meets Pierre (Robert Flemyng), a slightly eccentric character (who seems more English than French). Pierre is an inventor and earns a living as a sound engineer in a radio station. He falls immediately in love with Jeanne but doesn’t know how to woo her. When he visits the club where she sings and dances, he sees that she is quite taken with her partner Marcel (Louis Borell) and despairs. Marcel is a ‘cad’ who drops Jeanne when a Hollywood glamour queen Norma Langtry (Whitney Bourne) appears and invites him to America. Pierre sees his chance and eventually gets Jeanne a job in the radio studio but Marcel is destined to return and a struggle between the two men over Jeanne is inevitable.
The radio angle of the film is very interesting. During the 1930s radio was fast becoming the major medium of entertainment for the mass audience. In the UK it was a BBC monopoly and the Director-General John Reith had firm control over its broadcasting policy. Already in the 1930s many Brits turned to continental radio stations for popular music, including Radio Luxembourg which broadcast in English and featured sponsorship of programming like American radio. Pierre sells the idea of Jeanne as ‘The Woman in Blue’ to his radio bosses. She sings advertising jingles and becomes a star. The filmmakers present this in a montage of radio-related images which I found striking. Another interesting technique is the superimposition of Jeanne’s face over footage of Pierre’s hopeless trudging around the nighttime Paris streets in search of her after a break-up. Techniques like this inject some visual excitement into a film which is otherwise limited to three main locations – the nightclub, the radio studio and the dingy apartment Pierre shares with his friend Matty. The nightclub with its outdoor garden for performances is the setting for the dancing in the film, though there is less than in most musicals. There are a number of notable songs by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel, the best of which is ‘There’s That Look in Your Eyes Again’. All the songs are sung by Ms Matthews.
If you’ve never seen Jessie Matthews before, you may be surprised by her cut-glass accent which now sounds way over the top. The irony is that Jessie was a working-class girl from Berwick Street, famous for its fruit and veg market in Soho. She was the seventh of eleven children and a genuine Cockney who felt compelled to change her accent dramatically to suit the middle-class voices of 1930s British stage and cinema screen. Her forced identity shift is the mirror opposite of the middle-class young women who had to find voices to play working-class girls. Why did she do it? Possibly because she was headed for the London stage while her musical rival (as a singer only) Gracie Fields didn’t suffer from keeping her Lancashire accent.
In this film the focus is on Jessie as actor and singer and she accomplishes both well. Her Jeanne is a rounded figure, assertive and assured but also vulnerable. But she certainly isn’t prepared to put up with nonsense and her fightback in the too brief final reel is very enjoyable. Part of Jeanne’s trouble is that by breaking her contract (because of the action of Marcel) on two occasions she is barred from working in Paris for three months each time which seems a heavy penalty. All film actors were treated badly by studios and impresarios but independent women seemed to suffer more than most.
It’s a long time since I read a biography of Ms Matthews but her marriage to the comedian Sonnie Hale was difficult and at this stage of her career she began to experience stress and various problems that would affect her career. Hale pressurised her and she wasn’t convinced of his directorial qualities. Some of the ideas discussed above may have come from the experienced crew rather than Hale. I must do some more research before any other Matthews posts. Head Over Heels is on Volume 3 of The Jessie Matthews Revue DVD from Network.
In the clip below Jeanne sings “Head Over Heels’ in her act until she sees her partner Marcel betraying her with the Hollywood star.
The Silver Fleet is one of the two features produced by The Archers in the 1940s that weren’t directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (who were usually bracketed together as producer/writer/director on all The Archers films). The omission of the two names on the credits has led to this film being slightly overlooked in the general interest shown by cinephiles in The Archers’ work. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality work in the film and I found it a worthwhile addition to The Archers work in the period.
The project followed on from the success of One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), the first official Archers film. The Dutch authorities in exile in the UK were delighted by that film’s portrayal of Dutch resistance in helping a British bomber crew escape from the Netherlands after they were shot down. They requested another film showing resistance featuring Dutch sailors. Powell and Pressburger, with J. Arthur Rank’s money behind them, were keen to comply but they were already setting up the mammoth shoot of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). At this point details get a little murky as Powell’s biography and the biography of Pressburger written by his grandson Kevin Macdonald provide different details. (Powell was well-known for embroidering or simply mis-telling his stories.) The original idea for the film was based on a true story about a U-boat brought to the UK by a Dutch crew. Pressburger fashioned this into a propaganda piece and the project was assigned to the team of Vernon Sewell and Gordon Wellesley. Sewell was well-known to Powell and had worked with him on Foula making The Edge of the World in 1937. He was ‘borrowed’ from the Royal Navy (he was a captain of ‘small ships’) and Powell believed he was perfect for this job. Wellesley was an experienced writer of British films since the early 1930s. He was perhaps best known as the writer of the original stories for Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940) and the Ealing film Sailor’s Three (1940). Pressburger was the main producer on the film with Powell busy shooting Blimp on the adjacent sound stage at Denham. Macdonald suggests that he was unhappy with the finished script and felt that Sewell and Wellesley produced a film that toned down the viciousness of the occupation forces. Macdonald himself argues that the film was “exactly the type of polite, anodyne war film which Emeric had been reacting against”. I think I can understand Pressburger’s reaction but I’m not sure I agree with Macdonald.
The film is set in a fictitious Dutch coastal town where Jaan van Leyden is the owner of a small shipbuilding yard which at the time when the Nazis invade is in the process of building two submarines for the Dutch Navy. The occupation authorities soon summon him and give him an ultimatum. He must complete the building programme and hand over the submarines. His workforce will be forced to carry on (effectively starved into work through food controls). Before he accepts his fate van Leyden goes to collect his son from primary school and through the classroom window he hears the teacher (Kathleen Byron) telling the children the story of Piet Hein, the Dutch admiral who captured the Spanish silver/treasure fleet in the Caribbean in 1628, thus contributing greatly to the war effort of the Dutch in their fight against Spanish hegemony in the Low Countries. Van Leyden decides he must follow Piet Hein’s example. He adopts the name of the hero and having agreed to the German demand, secretly begins to plan a resistance struggle. He tells no one (not even his wife Helene played by Googie Withers) about his new identity and communicates with resistance fighters in his workforce through messages from ‘P.H.’. One consequence of this is that he and his wife and son are branded ‘quislings’ (after the Norwegian collaborator and puppet-state leader for the Nazis).
I think there are three main reasons to rate this film. First the performance by Ralph Richardson and in the smaller roles by Googie Withers, Kathleen Byron and others are very good. I don’t know Richardson’s film work as well as I should. He handles this difficult part with great aplomb, moving from engineer to action man and then into the masquerade of collaborator with ease. Googie Withers is arguably under-used after her success in One of Our Aircraft Is Missing. (Ms Withers’ mother was Dutch-German.) The rest of the cast included some familiar names such as Valentine Dyall as the chief Nazi and also some Dutch Navy personnel and other non-professionals. The performance by Esmond Knight is one of the talking points in the film. Knight, a good friend of Powell’s, had been blinded while serving on HMS Prince of Wales in the sea battle with the Bismark. In The Silver Fleet he plays the local Gestapo chief as an uncouth, callous but also arguably comical character. His visual impairment (he later got back the use of one eye) perhaps explains some of his ‘over’-acting. It didn’t really work for me and I’m usually a fan of his work.
The second important feature of the film is the use of location shooting and carefully constructed studio sets. The creative trio of Erwin Hillier, Alfred Junge and Allan Gray worked together on this film for the first time and would later become the mainstays of The Archers productions in the mid-1940s. Junge had worked extensively in British film production since the 1920s, including work for Hitchcock as well as Powell, but the other two were both more recent recruits. Hillier and Junge were both born in Germany and Gray was born in Austria-Hungary. The locations included docks in Dundee and Cammell Laird’s in Birkenhead and street scenes in King’s Lynn (also used, I think, in One of Our Aircraft is Missing) as the part of the UK most like the Netherlands.
The third interesting feature is the narrative structure. The film begins with an unusual scene on board a submerged submarine with men seemingly comatose. This cuts to Helene reading her husband’s secret diary and we eventually realise that the rest of the film is then one long flashback, starting with van Leyden’s summons to meet his new masters. One of the heavy criticisms of the film is that there is relatively little ‘action’ for a war movie and that the final section, when the audience knows what is going to happen, goes on too long. This wasn’t how I felt watching the narrative unfold. I didn’t mind the lack of action as such, just as I don’t think it matters too much that the Nazi actions against the local population are not as severe as they are in other Dutch resistance narratives. This narrative is all about van Leyden’s actions and the price he pays in order to play the Piet Hein role. The narrative tries to be a stirring propaganda picture and also a presentation of the pain and terror of resistance acts and how they must be faced down – with a stiff upper lip and a display of bonhomie and charm. In this sense, the long final section of the narrative works because Richardson’s performance is so beautifully judged. Richardson is credited as ‘Associate Producer’ on the film and he was, at the same time, working on a short (45 mins) propaganda film for The Archers, The Volunteer (1944), but this time written and directed by Powell and Pressburger.
The Silver Fleet was another screening on Talking Pictures TV.
I do remember John Curry’s Olympic Gold medal at Innsbruck in 1976 but I don’t think I took much notice at that time. I didn’t follow his career as a professional skater who then took skating into theatres and opera houses as well as arenas. I was therefore surprised and intrigued to discover Curry’s story in this documentary directed by James Erskine, a prolific director of film and TV documentaries and fictions, many with a sports background. The film was released in February this year in the UK just as the Olympics in Pyeongchang were ending. It also coincided with the UK release of the American film I, Tonya (US 2017) based on the experiences of another, rather different, Olympic skater Tonya Harding. The Ice King opened on 5 screens, I Tonya Harding opened on 338 screens. The Ice King struggled to find audiences in cinemas despite excellent reviews, mainly because Dogwoof only placed it in only a handful of cinemas. Their strategy is to use the release profile to promote it on other platforms. It screened in the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ documentary slot this week and is currently available on iPlayer in the UK as well as online and on DVD from Dogwoof.
The Ice King is a conventional sports ‘biodoc’ that benefits from some excellent film archive research and the use of material which on-screen titles suggest is “the only known record” of the various ice dance performances by John Curry and his company of dancers. Some of this archive material is presented inside a form of masking that signifies its status – and preserves its aspect ratio – the mask allows the jagged edges of the film frame to show, suggesting it is running through a projector. Most of the TV material appears to have been cropped to fit the 16:9 ratio, but there might be some slightly squashed images. Overall, I didn’t find this a problem.
Research also finds home movie footage and clips from Curry’s appearances on well-known TV programmes of the time (i.e. in the 1970s) on the children’s programme Blue Peter and The Michael Parkinson Show (chat show). Looking at these clips now, of John Curry outside of his performance arenas, I recognise him as a gay man and simply a very beautiful and charming interviewee. I didn’t see those clips at the time and it’s difficult to think back and try to re-discover the attitudes of a time of transition when, in the UK, consensual sex between men (over 21) was no longer illegal but being forced ‘out’ was still a major issue, especially for athletes and sports personalities. It was also the period just before AIDS terrified populations in the early 1980s. The documentary leads us into this story by showing a clip of the British TV series Man Alive and American film from the 1960s when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK. The American clip is simply terrifying when a large audience of children is warned (especially the boys) that same sex relationships are dangerous and that they could ruin lives forever (“1 in 3 of you could turn queer and the rest of your life will be a living hell.”. This clip reminded me of those propaganda films warning of nuclear attacks and instructing small children how to behave when the sirens go off.
In John Curry’s case his problems began with his father who refused to allow him to train as a ballet dancer but accepted skating because its athleticism could be seen as more ‘manly’. Curry was able to train as a skater from an early age but he found that the skating competition authorities were also prejudicial in how they constructed and judged performances. The sport was dominated by Cold War antics and the film suggests that it was a Czech judge who broke ranks and voted for Curry that helped him become a champion. Curry would become a pioneer of an expressive dance style which gradually moved ice skating from purely ‘figure skating’ exercises towards the idea of the ice dance. When in 1976 he won Olympic Gold to go with his European and World titles, he retired from the sport and moved into professional presentations of ice shows in which he hired well-known classical and contemporary dance choreographers and was able to pursue his love of ballet. The second, and longer, section of the documentary deals with the highs and lows of his career as dancer, choreographer and promoter. I was unaware of this career and it was a revelation to watch the beautiful and imaginative performances that he and his dancers produced in the most unlikely places (the Albert Hall in London, the Metropolitan Opera House in New York) and to marvel at how ice rinks were constructed on an opera stage. The film suggests that Curry accidentally ‘outed’ himself in an interview with an American journalist and was then subject to tabloid coverage in the UK. Since he left ‘sport’ as such and became a dance ‘performer’ he didn’t suffer the UK media pressure that had a more damaging impact on the footballer Justin Fashanu when he confirmed he was a gay man in 1990.
Although the documentary is generally conventional in format, it does begin with John as a competitive dancer who is lucky to find a family of skaters in New York in 1971 who provide a room and friendship for a lonely young man. Later he finds an American millionaire who becomes his sponsor and helps him with expenses. Flashbacks to his childhood then fill in the background. There seems to be a conscious decision at this point to avoid further discussion of his father’s negative feelings and his death when John was only 16. There is no mention either of his schooldays. His father was an engineer who owned his own small factory and John was sent to independent schools, boarding for a period. This must have had an impact on a lonely teenager, whose only outlet seems to have been competitive skating. There must be a reason for this omission but since a large part of the film is John Curry’s struggle with his own demons and his sometimes difficult relationships it seems odd. His ‘inner thoughts’ are expressed in the film through passages from his personal letters which are read by Freddie Fox and appear on screen as hand-written text.
In her Sight and Sound review Hannah McGill suggests that the title ‘The Ice King’ refers to both Curry’s prowess on the ice and to his emotional state. I can see this but several of the interviewees suggest that once you got to know him, this ‘iciness’, proved to be false. Loneliness and the memory of his father’s rejection (his mother later became his biggest supporter) that created insecurity seem to have been the main drivers of his perfectionism. The Ice King is based on a book Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry by Bill Jones (Bloomsbury 2014) which offers more revelations than some of the earlier accounts of Curry’s life. He died of an AIDS related illness in 1994. McGill suggests that director Erskine tried to make a film like Asif Kapadia’s Senna (2010) or Amy (2015) but seems to leave too many gaps in the story. She suggests that Curry was never the kind of global star that Ayrton Senna became, nor was there the social media material about Curry’s life so there perhaps wasn’t enough ‘extant material’ to tell the story in the Kapadia way, i.e. without a commentary or explanatory talking heads. These are good points and it is perhaps significant that the film is relatively short – 83 mins on TV. Still, I think Erskine succeeds in thrilling us with the material he has found and perhaps performing a service by suggesting that John Curry did have friends he loved as well as enjoying the gay scene in the late 1970s/early 80s before AIDS struck. I’ll certainly remember him now and I recommend The Ice King.
My Brother Jonathan was a major commercial success for ABPC, the only meaningful rival for the Rank Organisation as a vertically integrated British film studio in the late 1940s. Its stars Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray later became a fixture on the British stage and one of the best-loved husband and wife teams in UK films and TV. Denison returned from war service in 1946, but Gray had continued to enjoy a film career with several major films since 1944. It isn’t difficult to see why the film was a success. It was adapted from a popular novel by Francis Brett Young (1884-1954) who had become a successful writer after being invalided out of military service in 1918. Young had been a doctor from a family of doctors in the West Midlands and he wrote about what he knew. My Brother Jonathan tells the selfless story of loyalty and courage shown by a young doctor in 1914 and the years following. It is particularly effective in presenting the class divide in medical care in the early 20th century, especially in the great industrial towns. The film adaptation was released a few weeks before the National Health Service was officially launched in the UK.
The film was another of the treats on Talking Pictures TV and the print used is in very good condition. Experienced director Harold French and DoP Derek Williams (with only a few, but prestigious, credits) are supported by some excellent set design and use of locations in depicting the contrasting worlds of the Shropshire/Worcestershire countryside, the industrial Black Country and society London. The narrative has a familiar structure. It begins at the end of the war in 1945 when Tony, a young RAF doctor played by Pete Murray (later known as a radio/TV DJ), returns home to find his father Dr. Jonathan Dakers (Michael Denison) in pensive mood. When Tony tells his father that he is thinking of leaving the medical profession, Jonathan begins to tell him about the story of his family. The main part of the narrative is then presented in flashback. The film’s title is slightly confusing in that it suggests that it is told by Jonathan’s younger brother Hal (Harold) played by Ronald Howard), but he disappears as a narrator part way through the narrative. In outline, the film starts with the two young Daker boys from a lower middle-class family in a rural town in the 1900s who wander into a cricket match at the ‘big house’ where Hal will display his cricketing prowess and Jonathan will become smitten by the beautiful young daughter of the house, Edie (Beatrice Campbell). Several years later, Jonathan is training to be a surgeon at the ‘North Bromwich Hospital’ (novelist Young’s version of Birmingham) when a family crisis forces him to give up his ambitions to be a London surgeon and instead join an ailing general practice in industrial ‘Wednesford’. He has also to support his younger brother at Cambridge and his struggle to win Edie gets tougher. It’s a story with elements that readers and film audiences would recognise in 1948 from A. J. Cronin’s The Citadel in 1937/8. I won’t spoil any more of the plot, though you will notice Dulcie Gray hasn’t appeared yet!
I wasn’t sure about the film for the first 10-20 minutes, but it grew on me and I ended up thoroughly enjoying it. I think a great deal depends on Michael Denison’s performance. He has to age dramatically from a young man in his early 20s to a father in his late 50s (a little overdone, I think so that some reviewers refer to him as ‘elderly’). Denison was then 32 and he appears very ‘polished’, bright, alert, slim and full of vitality. He’d been at Harrow and Magdalen College, Oxford and his confidence shines through. Many of the British films and their male stars of the late 1940s were dark and brooding. It’s not difficult to see Denison as appealing to a significant segment of the female audience. Denison as Jonathan is perhaps too noble in the early part of his role in the industrial community, but he comes into his own at a public meeting of the hospital board where his charisma and eloquence is displayed very effectively. This scene (reminiscent of Henry Fonda in a John Ford courtroom) also works because of the calibre of the supporting players such as Stephen Murray as the corrupt Doctor Craig and Finlay Currie as Doctor Hammond the older doctor whose new partner is Jonathan Dakers (Dulcie Gray plays Hammond’s daughter, Rachel). Bit players include Wilfred Hyde White on the hospital board, James Robertson-Justice as Jonathan’s father and Thora Hird, inevitably, as a servant.
Two connections to other films suggest something about the way in which British film culture worked in the late 1940s. Dulcie Gray played the youngest of three sisters in They Were Sisters (1945) abused by James Mason’s character. They Were Sisters was also adapted from a popular novel and has a similar time structure with a prologue in the years just after the First World War and then a story played out up to the late 1930s. It also has some unusual ‘family arrangements’. It too was very successful as a film and like My Brother Jonathan became one of the top British films of the year. The theme of families re-uniting during and after wartime was, not surprisingly, important for audiences. Another similar film was The Weaker Sex (1948). A second kind of connection comes through the original author Francis Brett Young who had gone to school at Epsom College and who in later life became a close friend of Hugh Walpole, living close to him in the Lake District. Walpole wrote the novel on which Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill (1948) was based and used Epsom College, where he taught, as a model for the school in the film. I think this kind of connection tells us something about what has been called ‘middlebrow culture’ in the UK in the 20th century. My Brother Jonathan is a good example of that culture. It is available on DVD from Network in the UK.