Starter for 10 is a notable film for several reasons. I avoided it when it first appeared in 2006, but watching on TV now I found it silly but enjoyable and it raised several questions. Why is it notable? Partly because it offers a cast containing a number of young British actors who would go on to bigger and better films later on. In this respect it’s something like the Brat Pack movies of 1980s Hollywood. It’s also a UK-US co-production financed by BBC films and HBO. I’m not sure what HBO hoped for with the film but a couple of the US reviews I’ve seen suggest that what might be the key element of the film, social class in the UK, isn’t really understood in the US. On the other hand, a central aspect of the narrative is based around the TV quiz show University Challenge, a version of the original US show College Bowl.
The novelist David Nicholls wrote his first novel, Starter for 10 partly drawing on his own university experience in Bristol in 1985-6. It was published in 2003 and Nicholls, already a successful writer for TV, adapted his own work for the film version. The narrative is a form of ‘coming of age’ story, romantic comedy and social comedy structured around the central character’s appearance on University Challenge. Brian Jackson (James McAvoy) is a working-class boy, obsessed with University Challenge from his childhood. It is something that has stayed with him since he watched the programme as a small boy with his father, who later died before Brian got to university. The romance narrative comes from Brian’s attempts to develop relationships with two contrasting young women, Alice (Alice Eve, daughter of Trevor Eve who ironically found fame on TV as ‘Eddie Shoestring’ a radio broadcaster turned detective based in Bristol) and Rebecca Hall (daughter of the great stage director, Peter Hall). Alice is an ambitious blonde from a wealthy background and Rebecca is a political activist. This is one aspect of the social class conflict.
Nicholls (or the producers) decided to keep the setting as 1985, a decision which allowed the film to make use of a range of New Wave music from the 1980s (though some of the songs were actually released after 1985) and to set student life in the context of the second term of Margaret Thatcher’s controversial Tory government. On the other hand, this decision did raise some problems re University Challenge, which by 2006 had shifted from ITV to BBC (though still made by Granada/ITV) with a new quizmaster. It also placed the film in an odd position re 1980s nostalgia, something that was present in UK films of the 1990s/2000s but which was perhaps more common in Hollywood?
The social class conflict is that the University of Bristol, was around the time of the film’s release, renowned as the university favoured by students from private schools and was deemed part of an elite group of universities with a predominantly middle-class intake (alongside Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and St. Andrews). Brian isn’t just a “working-class boy from a coastal resort” as one US review puts it but a boy from Essex and specifically from Clacton-on-Sea (though I think it’s meant to be Southend). Essex boys (and especially girls) were much mocked in the UK media in the early 2000s.
The social comedy is a great British institution and James McAvoy, whose career really took off in 2006 was a good choice for Brian, even though he was 26 when filming began. A Glasgow boy with a passion for creating opportunities for working-class actors he encapsulates the traditional British comedy hero figure (it helps that he is short and a terrific actor). Starter for 10 is, however, a multi-genre picture. It plays with familiar typing and it is indeed predictable – although the ending is perhaps not what is expected (and doesn’t actually work in one respect). Genre films are by definition conventional but the mix in this film is difficult to carry off for director Tom Vaughan. This was his first cinema feature after he started in TV production and after four further cinema features, none particularly distinguished he has since mostly worked back in TV. I think the tone of Starter for 10 is a problem. It is a difficult task to meld the the serious elements of the story with the romance and the social class comedy. For me, the biggest problem in the film is Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Patrick, the pompous Tory captain of the quiz team (which depends on Brian and an Asian-American student, Lucy (Elaine Tan)). Alice is the fourth member. The opposing team in the quiz show comprises a heavily typed set of public schoolboys, who struck me as a take on the characters from Lindsay Anderson’s if . . . . (1968). The more serious element in the narrative concerns Brian’s home life with his mum Julie (Catherine Tate) and her new boyfriend Des (John Renshaw) plus Brian’s two friends he leaves behind in Clacton. James Corden (Tone) and Dominic Cooper (Spencer) had been together in the play The History Boys which saw a film adaptation released later in 2006. History Boys was written by Alan Bennett, drawing on his own experiences of being a grammar school boy encouraged to apply to Oxbridge colleges. UK and some American audiences for Starter for 10 may well have been aware of Corden and Cooper’s roles in The History Boys.
Since the revival of University Challenge on the BBC in 1994 (it ended on ITV in 1987), the show gradually developed with a new quizmaster, Jeremy Paxman and by now is in some ways very different, though the basic idea remains the same. The quizmaster in 1986 was Bamber Gascoigne, a much loved figure who died earlier this year. He had started with the programme itself in 1962. He was a unique figure who is impersonated in a skilled technical performance by Mark Gatiss. He’s very good but, close as he gets, he isn’t Bamber Gascoigne. I do wonder if the whole thing would work better if the show was fictitious with a different presenter altogether.
Overall, Starter for 10 is decent entertainment but could have been better with more focus on a consistent tonal mix of the genre elements. The film is available on BBC iPlayer in the UK for several months and on most of the major streamers or digital rental platforms in the US.
Adrian Dunbar, one of the stars of the BBC hit police anti-corruption series Line of Duty, has got his own show on ITV in the UK. It has been pre-sold to the US and other territories so it’s worth noting some of the points about the show and how it has been received. First it’s worth pointing out that Dunbar, now in his early sixties, has had a long and distinguished career as an actor with significant appearances in several well-known British and Irish films as well as a long list of television drama credits. His first major film success was Hear My Song (UK 1991) which he co-wrote with director Peter Chelsom and starred in as the young man who tries to bring the legendary Irish tenor Josef Locke back to perform in the UK (and who himself sings in his own club). I mention this background because many TV viewers seem surprised that Dunbar can sing (well) as he does in this new series.
Ridley is written by Paul Thompson and it is similar in terms of setting to the long running series Vera (UK 2011-2022) which Thompson has worked on as a writer for several episodes. Alex Ridley is a retired detective who is brought back to act as a consultant on a new murder case. Apparently this has been an innovation in UK policing since cuts in funding have stretched resources. Ridley in his first case is soon aware that there may be a link between this current case and one of his earlier investigations some 14 years ago. Where Vera is set in Northumberland, Ridley is set in Pennine Lancashire with filming in the first episode taking place in Rossendale and somewhere on the Irish Sea coast. The actual location is not named (fictitious towns are named instead) and confusingly there is a reference at one point to an earlier case being dealt with by ‘West Riding Police’. The West Riding of Yorkshire disappeared after the 1974 Local Government Act, though perhaps this is meant to be a nod towards the boundary changes that moved some parts of the Western Pennines from Yorkshire to Lancashire and vice versa. It this region and its landscapes that prompted me to watch the series.
Each episode of Ridley is meant to focus on a single case, but the set-up has one continuing feature in that Ridley has retired after his wife and teenage daughter were killed in a house fire which he believed to be arson. He suffered a breakdown and now lives on his own in an isolated house overlooking a lake or reservoir on the moors. This first episode divided audiences with Dunbar’s fans happy to see him heading a series and others seeing this new show as clichéd and predictable. It’s a crime genre series, a police procedural. It’s difficult to be completely original in the writing and like most similar series, the ‘difference’ in the show is in the characterisation of the central characters. Ridley ‘sees’ his dead wife and daughter and he has working relationships with both the DI who is responsible for calling him in and with another ex-colleague who seems to have some baggage from her time in CID. In addition, Ridley is the co-owner of a pub music venue with an old friend of his wife. Yes, he drinks too much, hasn’t unpacked for his new home and can be curmudgeonly but this goes with the location – this episode is filmed in winter and the locals can be a little dour – too close to Yorkshire perhaps? The real challenge for Dunbar is whether he can command the narrative in the same kind of show as Brenda Blethyn in Vera or Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley (set not too far away in the Calder Valley and back for a third series soon). It’s a big ask.
The negative responses are either because the narrative is thought to be ‘too slow’ or ‘too predictable’. I’m not sure it is either but I can see why the complaint is made. The setting is for me the most important element and it does affect what kinds of narrative are possible. There are aren’t going to be car chases along busy streets or crowds in shopping centres. Instead there are isolated houses, windswept moors and small communities. The second episode sees a body found on the moor in the mist by a small wind farm. I’m not sure the second episode worked as well as the first but there is a secondary narrative developing around the home situation of DI Carol Farman (Bronagh Waugh) and I’m hopeful that the series will ‘bed in’ with the final two episodes. I think if the characters ‘fit’ the setting I will enjoy the rest of the series. I’m reminded of the earlier crime fiction filmed in East Lancashire (but mainly in the towns), the rather different Hetty Wainthrop Investigates, in which the 60 year-old Hetty (Patricia Routledge) is an amateur sleuth. This was played as comedy drama and proved popular, arguably because of Routledge and the other regular characters. The series ran for four seasons (1996-8) and was exported to the US and shown on PBS (which has also taken Ridley). It was a 75 minute show on BBC without ads. Ridley is listed as 120 minutes on ITV, but is actually not much more than 90 minutes without ads. The Bay, a real ITV success, has worked over three seasons of six episodes of around 45 minutes. It is set in Morecambe, North Lancashire, with a more urban edge and certainly feels pacier. The opening episode of Ridley did actually attract a bigger audience than the BBC competition, The Capture, starting a second season with Holliday Grainger as a DCI in London in a ‘crime mystery’ with international characters. I don’t know what happened to Ridley‘s audience in Week 2 but ITV does seem wedded to its 2 hour Sunday night slots. I think that the shows could be tightened up if the programming was re-organised. I will watch the final two episodes of Ridley and I’m intrigued to see whether it gets a second series.
There are several ‘marriage’ films, i.e. films about living together for a long time, but this latest narrative is ‘long-form’ in the shape of four 55-57 minute episodes broadcast over a couple of weeks in primetime slots on BBC1 in the UK. The serial is written and directed by Stefan Golaszewski who had previously written two critically-praised comedy series, Him & Her (2010-2013) and Mum (2016-19), both long-running but with shorter episodes of 28-30 minutes. The new serial was given a huge build-up by BBC1 with emphasis on the two lead actors, Sean Bean and Nicola Walker, and on the complete authorial control of Golaszewkski. I haven’t seen the earlier two series so I’ll comment here only on what is in this serial, but recognising that for some viewers expectations were in place because of the earlier works.
The marriage of the title is between Emma (Nicola Walker) and Ian (Sean Bean) and appears to have lasted 27 years so far. Episode 1 sees the couple waiting to fly back to the UK from a holiday in Spain. Emma is looking forward to new challenges in her job but Ian has been made redundant and has also recently lost his mother. The enigma is whether the couple will be able to carry on as before with Ian at home and Emma at work. We will meet a limited number of other characters including Emma’s elderly father Gerry (James Bolam) and the couple’s adopted daughter Jessica (Chantelle Alle). Emma works for a problematic younger boss Jamie (Henry Lloyd-Hughes). Both Jessica and Jamie have their own separate sub-narratives as well as being part of Emma and Ian’s story. The attempt to present an ‘authentic’ study of a marriage is based on dialogue comprising ‘real’ speech patterns, often accompanied by long pauses and sometimes mute responses. Emma and Ian’s family don’t communicate directly and rarely ‘speak as they feel’. The script also focuses on quotidian moments such as emptying the dishwasher and in the opening episode a long argument between Emma and Ian about a jacket potato which Ian wanted but the Spanish café probably doesn’t serve any way. As the first dialogue in the narrative, the discussion about the potato got a lot of attention from reviewers and audiences alike. A little later when the couple are sat on the plane, we realise that Ian is a nervous flyer so the argument may have been a cover for his distress about the flight to come. The other feature of the serial is the use of a snatch of ‘modern classical’ choral singing which is played at the beginning and end of each episode. This has proved to be divisive for audiences with many negative responses. (I am included in those annoyed by the music.)
The negative reactions from many viewers includes the complaint that ‘nothing happens’ and ‘there is no plot’. This is nonsense of course although it is true that the ‘narrative content’ is less in terms of events than might be expected in a drama lasting nearly four hours. But the investigation of the marriage and the concerns about family members are important aspects of the plot. There is a major incident from the earlier part of the marriage which may never have been fully worked through and this prompts reflection and emotional response in the present. On the other hand there is a potentially shocking sub-narrative which marginally involves Emma but it is not followed through. The narration is unconventional for this kind of drama format which tends to be used for genre narratives such as melodramas or crime fictions. It is the unconventional narration which has confused some audiences I think.
A couple of reviewers/commentators suggest that the style or ‘feel’ of the drama is reminiscent of Mike Leigh’s films and TV plays. I too thought of Leigh at a couple of points. I’m not a fan of Mike Leigh, feeling that he appears to mock his characters and I find his dramas cruel at times and sometimes excruciating to watch. I also found Marriage excruciating on several occasions. In fact I skipped some scenes and then went back to watch them later on iPlayer. I don’t think Golaszewski is following Leigh and I didn’t feel that his treatment of the characters was cruel but the Leigh reference does prompt me to query the comic possibilities of Marriage. This in turn raises questions about performance, especially of Walker and Bean. It also possibly links to the way that Golaszewski writes and links together scenes. I did feel that these were sometimes reminiscent of sitcoms. I wondered if some scenes were meant to be funny rather than cringe-making?
Viewers will know Walker and Bean. Nicola Walker is now approaching ‘National Treasure’ status in the UK as an actor, primarily in TV drama but also on the stage, radio and film. Aspects of some of her roles have included comedy but mainly she appears in dramas. Bean first became famous in the Sharpe TV series (1993-2008) about the adventures of a soldier during the Napoleonic Wars. Later he appeared in ‘tough guy’ roles in several feature films, including historical dramas such as Game of Thrones. Critics praised his performance in the TV series Broken (2017), written by Jimmy McGovern in which he played the lead as a parish priest. I’m more familiar with Walker than Bean but I struggled with both the depictions of both characters. Emma swears a lot. She’s struggling with her father but seemingly doing well in her job at a small legal services company, though it isn’t totally clear what her role is. Ian appears on the verge of a breakdown. We are not sure what his job was or why he was made redundant. His attempts to find another job seem doomed and he is awkward in any form of social interaction. He implies that he had a previous position with some responsibility. I’ve read accounts which suggest that Emma works for Jamie who has inherited his father’s solicitor’s practice. It seems like a very unlikely solicitor’s office to me, up the stairs in a run-down block. I’m no expert on legal firms these days but haven’t they mostly been taken over by larger partnerships? I can’t imagine trusting Jamie to do anything for me.
I guess I’m just expressing my sense of dislocation with this serial, partly because it seems to be filmed in various different locations in different parts of the country. Nicola Walker is quoted as saying that she doesn’t like having a back story and that Golaszewski likes to write just the scene, rather than providing context. Unfortunately I’m the opposite. I like to know who the characters are and where the story is set. I watched this serial almost as a duty and I wanted to see it all to try to understand how it was supposed to work and what the fuss was about. Apart from a couple of scenes, I can’t say I enjoyed the experience. I think it’s inevitable that faced with Emma and Ian, most audiences will wonder what has happened in this marriage over the past 27 years. There is one incident we do learn about. Otherwise, all we know is that a once working-class couple have managed to bring up an adopted daughter and earned enough to buy a semi in a suburban street, running two cars. There are a couple of examples of the couple’s lack of pretension and fondness for curling up on the sofa but those are the only clues to their social mobility, I think. And what of the acting? These are professionals and they are very good at performing for a relatively inexperienced director. They have also developed their own acting persona which audiences will negotiate in what are less familiar roles. They enable Golaszewski to show aspects of a long-term relationship on screen that are not often presented. But for me the overall narrative structure doesn’t work. I don’t feel emotionally involved with the characters or invested in their story. The camerawork is by Ali Asid. He uses long shots well to locate characters in the specific locations, such as when Emma and Jamie arrive separately at the conference they are attending. Apart from the frustration of feeling that I never know geographically where I am, the camerawork does help the narrative present meaning visually. That’s just as well when the dialogue is so fractured.
Marriage will be available for 11 months on BBC iPlayer in the UK. The serial is being sold globally through All3 Media International. Two other things about the four episodes you should know: on the positive side, there are no annoying ‘what happened last time’/’what will happen next time’ sequences at the beginning and end of each episode. But, not so good, the sound levels and clarity are dreadful. I watched most of a couple of episodes with the subtitles on.
This strange film turned up on Talking Pictures TV a couple of days ago. It is ‘strange’ not because of its theme or genre categorisation, which are relatively familiar, but for its production details and aspects of representations of racism in a very specific context. The outline plot is straightforward. In India in 1944 a group of military bases are shared by British and American units. One night an American officer enters the sleeping quarters of other ranks and shoots a British NCO in cold blood, firing several times in front of witnesses. The murder is very damaging for US-British co-operation in the preparations for an offensive against the Japanese. The US general in charge summons an officer to defend the shooter in a court martial which everyone agrees will end with the convicted man being hung. Even so, a proper defence case must be made so that both the British and Americans are satisfied (nobody mentions what the Indians might think). This is essentially a courtroom drama with the sub-text that it is the American military institution which is under scrutiny, even when there is a war to be won.
The production was an American package made by three independent production companies for Twentieth Century Fox – a CinemaScope film in black and white made at the Associated British studios at Elstree. The leading cast members and the producers were American but the crew and other cast members were British (Trevor Howard is listed as a ‘guest star’). There was some second-unit work in India but primarily this is a British production as part of Hollywood’s move to overseas shoots in the this period. Perhaps the most significant credit was that for the writers. The film is adapted from a novel by Howard Fast, the American author perhaps best-known for his novel Spartacus (1951), adapted as a film in 1960. Fast was extremely productive of novels and short stories. He was a prominent communist party supporter until the occupation of Hungary in 1956 and had worked for the US Office of War Information during the Second World War. I find it odd that the adaptation of Fast’s novel The Winston Affair (1959) was commissioned from the British writing partnership of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall. Both Willis and Hall had experienced military service in the post-war period and Willis had written The Long and the Short and the Tall as a play which was then adapted as a film in 1961 (about British troops in Malaya in 1942). Alongside this, Hall and Waterhouse had a very productive partnership but their main genre was comedy and neither had much experience of the American military as far as I can discern.
The film narrative works reasonably well as a courtroom drama. The central figure of the defence counsel is played by Robert Mitchum as Lt-Colonel Barney Adams who has experience of Army regulations and had acted before as counsel in a court martial. He arrives straight from military hospital, walking with a stick. His Silver Star and Purple Heart give him extra authority. Bizarrely, the Mitchum character is supposed to be the son of a West Point alumni of the local commander General Kempton (Barry Sullivan). Sullivan was just five years older than Mitchum. Mitchum is the film’s star and he plays to his star image but in a relatively restrained manner. The only really false note in the narrative structure is the relationship Adams has with a nurse played by the French-Chinese actor France Nuyen who was second-billed on the film posters. The nurse does have a functional role in providing a crucial document and in challenging Adams over his conduct of the case but the ‘romance’ is mostly irrelevant. However, Nuyen’s mixed race heritage is an indicator of a major issue in the film – racial difference and how it is handled in the American and British military administrations in India.
As far as I am aware, US military regulations in 1944 still maintained segregated roles and living/social arrangements for black personnel.There have been a number of novels and films that deal with incidents in which black GIs are discriminated against by white officers and men during their time in the UK during the Second World War, for example in the film Yanks (1979) and in the Nevil Shute novel The Chequer Board (1947). In both narratives, the locals tend to support the black GIs (something corroborated by various newspaper reports from the period). The American authorities did not send black servicemen to all overseas postings, but they were sent to the Asian theatre as well as to the UK. I have only very limited knowledge of the American presence in India in 1944, but India was still a British colonial territory and forms of a ‘colour bar’ did operate in India, especially in social clubs. My feeling about the film is that although the second unit footage offers a realist presentation, mainly in long shot, of various Indian townscapes etc., the internal scenes do not feel in any way authentic. Rather they seem typical of many Hollywood films. In Man in the Middle, we are presented with an American officers’ club which some British officers attend. There appear to be Indian servants but I don’t remember any African-Americans. However, when Adams arrives at the base he is assigned a black driver (played by Trinidadian actor Errol John). When he visits his client, Lt. Winston (Keenan Wynn) in prison, the guards are mostly black. I wondered if this was meant to be realist or perhaps instead was meant to ‘speak’ to the Civil Rights supporters in the US in 1964?
When Adams manages to get some responses from Winston in terms of why he shot S/Sgt Quinn that night, the main issue appears to be Winston’s racist views. Quinn was white but appeared to Winston to be friendly towards ‘the blacks up country’. It’s difficult for audiences now, I think, to understand whether Winston’s racism is an issue as such since Adams’ only possible strategy is to present Winston as clinically insane. Does the US Army care either way as long as he is found guilty and can be sentenced? I won’t spoil any more of the plot.
Guy Hamilton directed the film as his tenth feature (he made Godlfinger in the same year and would go onto direct four Bond films). It was photographed by Wilkie Cooper, already a distinguished veteran of British cinema productions with music by John Barry. It’s perhaps not surprising that Trevor Howard steals the film when he roars into a scene towards the end of the film. He was very much ‘at home’ on the set and had worked with director Hamilton many times before. In this film he plays a Medical Officer, Major Kensington, posted ‘up country’ who just happens to have been a psychiatrist before the war. Interestingly, Adams, a career soldier, seems to get on with Kensington whereas he loathes having to deal with the two lawyers assigned as his assistants because they are enlisted men.
There is a long history in post-war British cinema of UK-US productions, either Hollywood studios coming to the UK to make films or British companies importing American stars (usually second division players but still stars to a UK audience). Sometimes such films work very well but there is often something which just seems ‘off’ in terms of British culture, especially if the films are made with an American audience in mind. The line that got me in the whole film was when Major Kensington visits the US Officer’s Club bar and Adams asks him what he is doing in an American bar. He replies that the beer is never cold enough in an English bar. I think Waterhouse and Hall must have felt they needed to include this line, which became a cliché as proclaimed by every American GI who went into a British pub in a wartime film. Perhaps it was a sly joke? The irony is that one of the most famous forms of bottled beer in England is IPA, a beer developed specifically in the 18th century for export to India with extra alcohol and hop content to ensure it remained palatable in the heat. ‘IPA’ is now also a popular ‘craft beer’ in the US.
In its review (June 1964) Monthly Film Bulletin makes the observation that the film struggles to present American officers after they were satirised so expertly by Kubrick in Dr Strangelove (UK 1964), which was released in the UK a few months earlier. Watching the courtroom scenes, they did remind me of Kubrick’s earlier Paths of Glory (US 1957) in which a French military leadership attempts to convict a soldier at a court martial during the First World War, but selects the wrong counsel for defence.
This is an important film for several reasons but it has suffered distribution problems and has perhaps not been as celebrated as it deserves. Its first claim to significance is that it was the production that launched the partnership of Betty Box as producer and Ralph Thomas as director – a partnership that lasted into the 1970s and which proved to be the most consistently profitable for the Rank Organisation, especially during the period of the ‘Doctor’ series of comedies in the 1950s. Betty Box had begun her career in wartime training films and then joined her brother Sydney Box at Gainsborough Studios where she ran the small production base in Islington. After a number of successful popular films, including the Huggett family comedies, Rank decided to ‘consolidate’ its empire, closing Gainsborough and re-focusing solely on Pinewood as its production base. The plans to make The Clouded Yellow were caught up in the closure procedure. Having already committed to The Clouded Yellow as a project when it was passed to her by her brother, Box decided to go ahead with the production using her own money to ensure the film was completed. The film was then released by Rank through General Film Distributors, but appears to have been picked up by Columbia in the US. It was scheduled as an Eagle-Lion release in the US but Rank wound up that company before the American release date in November 1951. A DVD did finally appear in 2008 but only in a cut version. Finally in 2010 a full 91 minute DVD became available in the UK. With PAL speed up that does equate roughly to the original 95 minute running time. Even so, there did seem to be a few frames missing in the version I watched.
The second key feature of the production is the script by Janet Green, her first for a film production. She had been a stage actor and had written a play in 1945. Her work was distinctive and as well as thrillers her scripts often picked up on social issues such as racism in Sapphire (1959) and persecution of ‘homosexual’ men in Victim (1961). There are flaws in the script of The Clouded Yellow but it still convinces as a tightly-plotted work with some original features for a British film in 1950. Betty Box in her memoir tells us that Eric Ambler worked on the script when Green was unavailable. As well as Green as a writer, Betty Box also had Geoffrey Unsworth, one of the most distinguished cinematographers of all time as her DoP. She also had a stellar cast, headed by Trevor Howard at the peak of his early fame as a leading man and Jean Simmons (British actress of the year in 1949) in her last British picture before her move to Hollywood. There were several notable players in the supporting cast, including Kenneth More and others like Geoffrey Keen who would become well-known in 1950s and 1960s cinema.
David Somers (Trevor Howard) arrives back in the UK from a foreign trip, passing through customs at the airport without a passport. He’s a British agent now seemingly disgraced because of his failure on a mission. His boss suggests he should ‘retire’ and find a quiet job. Somers eventually takes up a temporary job cataloguing a collection of butterfly specimens for Nicholas Fenton (Barry Jones) a collector in Hampshire. The ‘Clouded Yellow’ is a ‘migratory European butterfly’ often seen in Southern England and less commonly across the whole of the UK. Jess Fenton (Sonia Dresdel) seems very concerned about the mental state of her niece Sophie Malraux (Jean Simmons) who had lost her parents when she was a young child. Somers befriends Sophie and when she is suspected of murder, he attempts to smuggle her out of the country (something he presumably did as part of his time as a British secret service agent). The chase that ensues involves scenes in London, Newcastle, the Lake District and finally Liverpool.
The film is structured partly by the choice of location which in turn influences the use of genre conventions. The opening of the film and the beginnings of the chase are set in London and mainly in the West End/Whitehall area familiar from many films. The country house in Hampshire offers a very different environment and this section of the film does suggest the gothic romance of something like Jane Eyre or its Val Lewton conception, I Walked With a Zombie (1943). Somers is sent from a London office London and eventually finds himself in a large house where a young woman is seemingly kept under close scrutiny and may be under some form of ‘control’ by her guardians. Although the house is ‘light and airy’, there is still a sense of ‘disturbance’ and one fateful night the young woman goes walking in the grounds.
The sequence in Newcastle includes a chase at night and this may be the basis for the suggestion that this is a film noir, such is the depiction of the city. It is also in Newcastle that we get a sense of Somers’ network of contacts, but also that he is under close surveillance by his former service colleague Willie (Kenneth More) who has been assigned to find him (to protect the prestige of the service). The Lake District footage involves a different aesthetic, reminiscent of some American crime stories in which scores of police in cars, on motorbikes and even with the aid of a helicopter (unusual for 1950) scour the hills around Ullswater. The framings become characterised by very long shots of the police on hillsides and big close-ups, especially of Jean Simmons fearing capture.
The film’s denouement in Liverpool includes two distinctive elements. Somers’ contacts involve members of Liverpool’s Chinese community, the oldest in Europe and located close to extensive docklands in 1950. The docklands themselves and the warehouses and railway network necessary to move the huge tonnage of goods provides the spectacular setting for the finale. The entire chase sequence from London via Newcastle and then the Lakes has prompted many reviewers to cite Hitchcock’s 1935 romance-thriller The 39 Steps as an important influence. That film was made by Gainsborough as were other Hitchcocks such as The Young and Innocent (1937) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). Along with Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940), these titles were used in promoting the film. Placing The Clouded Yellow alongside Hitchcock is justifiable but there is a difference in the sense that any romance between Somers and Sophie is only hinted at rather than exploited as potentially erotic. Jean Simmons plays Sophie as young and Howard is her protector. She was actually 21 while he was 36.
Somers’ motivation is presented by the script as the ‘freeing’ of a young woman from a trap. Depending on your point of view, the script is either clever in the way it weaves the symbol of ‘entrapment’ through the narrative or possibly ‘over the top’ if you don’t like melodrama. Sophie is known in the press reports as ‘the Butterfly Girl’. We’ve already noted that the Clouded Yellow butterfly is a migrant, just like the contacts Somers has in Newcastle. In another strand, Somers reacts very strongly to the odd-job man at the Hampshire house (played by Maxwell Reed) who traps rabbits to sell. C. A . Lejeune in The Sketch magazine (December 1950) described the film as “Lively, extravagant melodrama and don’t bother your head about the symbols”. The Monthly Film Bulletin‘s reviewer in November 1950 thought it “not excitingly enough made to compensate for its improbabilities and clichés”. But these rather silly statements by esteemed critics didn’t stop the film being successful and pleasing many audiences. It repaid Box’s faith in her decision to back it with her own money and established her partnership with Thomas at Pinewood.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching The Clouded Yellow for the second time with a better print than on my first viewing and I think I appreciated it more. As well as the performances by Howard and Simmons and the photography by Unsworth, what distinguishes the film is the location footage for the chase sequences. Although more films were being shot on location at this time, few made such extensive use of authentic locations with Howard and Simmons expected to traverse real streams and climb on real hills. There is a nice press release from mid-1950 pointing out that Jean Simmons survived her scenes in the Lakes but twisted her ankle on the set at Pinewood. If you are a train or bus enthusiast I recommend the film highly. But we could do with a Blu-ray, please!
Here’s a short extract from the noir sequence in Newcastle:
(All the images in this post are by Jane Bown and ©Jane Bown Estate or the Guardian/Observer)
Currently streaming on MUBI, this is a documentary about the legendary photographer who spent most of her working life at the Observer Sunday newspaper. MUBI has ‘programmed’ it in a strand entitled ‘Portrait of an Artist’. This places Jane Bown in the company of some much more flamboyant artists such as David Lynch, whereas she was seemingly a shy and mysterious figure, though also dogged in her quest for the best portrait she could produce of celebrities profiled in the Observer. The documentary-makers Michael Whyte and Luke Dodd present Looking for Light in a simple format of interviews conducted at points towards the end of Bown’s life (she died aged 89 in December 2014) and witness statements by ex-colleagues and public figures who have been photographed by Bown. Interspersed and against a black background, Bown’s photographs are presented ‘full screen’ (mostly portrait-shaped in a standard 1.85:1 frame). Bown nearly always worked in black and white, using only available light to produce very strong images. The images are presented without sound and must have looked even more impressive on a cinema screen.
Jane Bown had a ‘difficult’ childhood. She never knew her father who died when she was five. Her mother was a private nurse and Jane was brought up by various aunts – or ‘aunts’, one of whom was her mother. This family background is explored by Jane and her son Hugo in the documentary. However, her family life during her career at the Observer is kept mostly under wraps. She had a long marriage to the influential retail fashion executive Martin Moss and at home she was known as ‘Mrs Moss’. At the Observer she was always ‘Jane Bown’. Her childhood is discussed partly because it might explain aspects of her unique work practices. For instance, as a teenager she would often attach herself to other families or groups, enjoying being in the background. When she attended the only Photography course available after she was demobbed from the WRNS in 1946 her shyness might have resulted in failure to succeed but she did produce a few outstanding photographs which eventually led to her first work for the Observer in 1949 – the daunting task of producing a portrait of the philosopher Bertrand Russell, then one of the best known figures in the UK.
The interviews tend to focus on Bown’s shyness and her very distinctive approach to her work. She became part of the ‘family’ culture under the editor David Astor (whose family formerly owned the paper but placed it in the hands of Trustees). This connection does perhaps suggest a kind of ‘cosy’ upper middle-class conservatism and Jane Bown was at least economically and socially ‘comfortable’. But she also developed her photographic practice and honed it to perfection. It involved little preparation about the subject, but attention to detail with her search for available light and the opportunity to ‘catch’ her subject in a natural pose. She generally took a roll or two of 35mm film images in less than half an hour and often just 10 to 20 minutes. I don’t want to discuss the practice in detail here but there are various web sources that do this and these are recommended: Luke Dodd wrote an obituary, you can see many of the photos on the Guardian gallery and this entry on PhotogpediA is very useful, with further links. (See also this entry on Anatomy Films.)
Doing further research on webpages like the above, I discovered that Bown’s early photography that did not become well-known until an exhibition and an accompanying book entitled Unknown Bown 1947-67 appeared in 2007. Some of the images from the exhibition appear in the 2014 film. When she started on her photographic career, Bown was not interested in famous people as subjects, instead she was pre-occupied by ‘space and texture’. This resulted in images that sometimes show unnamed people in slightly odd situations, some at work. The best seem to me to be almost Bert Hardy-like and to be valuable documentary images of British society. I would like to have known a little more about this time of Bown’s life as some of these images are terrific.
I read the Observer during the 1970s and 1980s so many of the portraits seem familiar and certainly the style. I knew the name Jane Bown and I think I appreciated the work at the time. Now many of the photographs seem very rich in meaning. Germaine Greer, who introduced the Unknown Bown in 2007, linked Bown to the approach of Cartier-Bresson in finding the ‘decisive moment’ when she went off on her travels to find interesting subjects – often children. Bown at that time worked with a Rolleiflex, the camera of choice for art photographs.
Watching the 2014 film now with its stretch back over 70 years of creating images, I wonder if the world of photography and image-making has changed fundamentally again in the last eight years? What would a young woman interested in becoming a photographer in 2022 make of Jane Bown’s career and her portfolio? Apart from the technological changes in photography, it must be difficult to appreciate the changes in the concept of ‘celebrity’ and the circulation of images produced by citizen journalism. The other issue is the extent to which Jane Bown was ‘unrecognised’ during her career, because she was a woman? I’m not sure about this. I suppose the highest profile figure as a female photographer for me in the 1970s/80s was Annie Leibovitz as chief photographer on Rolling Stone magazine. Later on in the 1990s I remember working on aspects of an exhibition by Nancy Honey in Bradford. I think that there were successful women in photography but they were ‘exceptional’ and not necessarily particularly ‘sisterly’ towards other women. There is a sequence in the film where Bown refers to Diane Arbus as a photographer she didn’t like and Martha Gelhorn, the famous war correspondent as a woman who didn’t like the portrait that Bown produced. But she photographed many famous women and produced stunning images. One of the best ‘statements’ in the film comes from Edna O’Brien who was certainly very responsive as a sitter and understood was Bown was doing.
I liked this film very much and went back to re-watch several sequences. I appreciate the measured pace and the moments of silence. I’m not sure what younger audiences make of the film. The celebrities are all named briefly by a subtitle, but even I struggled on a couple of them I didn’t recognise. My only criticism really is that I wasn’t always sure who was interviewing Jane Bown, but that’s a minor point. If you are interested in photography or artistic practice or if you enjoy finding out about women’s lives over a long career you might enjoy this film very much.