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The Class Fuelled British Cinema of the Forties

Brief Encounter


The Class Fuelled British Cinema of the Forties

The Class Fuelled British Cinema of the Forties

The thing about British films in the Forties was that you knew where you were with people. If the rich man was in his castle, the poor man always stayed obediently at the gate. Heroes were upper class, or at least upper-middle class (though admittedly the aristocratic cad was not entirely unknown), while the lower orders were reserved for comic relief – behaving with amazing decency and loyalty to their betters in a tight corner, or panicking below-decks and having to be brought to book with a crisp word of command delivered in the proper public-school accent.

The British cinema, like the British theatre, has always been open to accusations of being class-bound, if not class-obsessed. In the first excitement of the ‘New Cinema’, which followed the New Drama’ in the Fifties. and the thrill of having Albert Finney as a working- class hero in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, people tended to forget Gracie Fields, George Formby and the whole school of working-class comedy that had existed in the Thirties. But if the class accusation was not immaculately founded, it was at least pretty fairly descriptive of most of what was going on during the Forties.

In Noel Coward’s life-aboard-warship drama In Which We Serve (1942), for example. the heroics are all performed by Coward himself. as the ship’s captain, and Celia Johnson as his wife, both frightfully stiff-upper-lipped and understated. The junior officers take life (and death) in the proper devil-may-care spirit. The men in the other ranks are mostly decent sorts, likely to be drily comical or, simply, nobly bereaved. And then, since every barrel has a rotten apple, there is Richard Attenborough as the working-class coward of the bunch, getting hysterical and needing to be brought sternly to heel.

Noel Coward’s flag waving In Which We Serve, with John Mills centre.

A warship, of course, provided a ready-made cross-section of society. But usually audiences could sit for hours in the cinema without ever really seeing a working man on the screen. The odd servant, waiter, char or taxi-driver might be momentarily admitted, but that such people could be the centre of a drama was almost inconceivable. Michael Wilding might appear, in Spring in Park Lane (1948) for example, to be the new footman in Anna Neagle’s grandiose Mayfair home, but if you believed for a moment that he was any less than a lord in disguise you were a lot sillier than the film-makers took you for. During World War II it was never certain who might be thrown together with whom in basic training for the Forces, but once that was over the old order inevitably reasserted itself, and all the old dramatic class priorities returned to stage and screen.

It followed, therefore, that with strictly class-stereotyped roles in films, the actors would tend to be just as rigidly classified. Characters played by Celia Johnson and Anna Neagle were never going to be working class: you knew from the outset of any film that they were ladies. Margaret Lockwood and Jean Kent, on the other hand, were never going to be totally grand: they were likely, even after the Gainsborough costume tushery of The Man in Grey (1945) and Fanny by Gaslight (1944) had been swept out of fashion, to be aspiring above their proper station in life, maybe even villainesses and therefore bound to come to a bad end. The men were sometimes a little harder to define. James Mason, even if picturesquely sadistic, was always obviously a gentleman: with Stewart Granger you could never be quite sure since there was always something a little rough and vulgar about him.

By the mid to late Forties, however, most of the stars had gone through the inevitable process of refinement which had ironed out, more or less successfully, regional and class differences of speech in order to approximate to the standard upper-middle-class norm. If they had not, they were unlikely ever to become stars. Kathleen Harrison and Stanley Holloway were all very well in their place – manning a tea-urn or propping up a bar – but the headier lights of screen stardom were inevitably denied them. Even star character actors had to be more or less grand: Margaret Rutherford was always an upper-class eccentric, never, perish the thought, in the slightest bit vulgar.

Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford were fated, ever since Hitchcock had first put them together in The Lady Vanishes (1938), to play out their double-act of club-men totally insulated from life unless it took place on a cricket pitch or over the after-dinner port.

John McCallum and Googie Withers in Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sunday.

But even before Albert Finney was out of short trousers it was becoming evident that matters could not stay so simple. There were iconoclasts at large in the British cinema – few, maybe, but easily recognizable. Robert Hamer, with It Always Rains On Sunday (1947), dared to make a drama of working-class life in the slums. The story of a convict on the run who hides out with his ex-fiancée (now married) in Bethnal Green. Despite the studio realism’ of the treatment Hamer captured exactly the social ambiance, with the help of excellent performances from John McCallum (Australian and therefore classless) and Googie Withers (always cast in vulgar rather than ladylike roles).

He followed it with worse: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), under its veneer of verbal elegance and high style, turns the traditional class structure upside-down in its tale of a lowly shopman’s rise (by the mass murder of a ghastly family of aristocrats) to dukedom. Alee Guinness played all the caddish or tottering relies of the decadent dynasty with the necessary critical relish: Valerie Hobson was excellent as usual as the quick-frozen English rose upon whom the arriviste hero sets his heart: while Dermis Price, as the suspiciously Italianate duke-to-be, and Joan Greenwood. as his sexy suburban siren (from not quite the right side of the tracks), showed that the grand manner is somewhat more convincing when deliberately acquired than when left to the chances of birth.

This did not stop the British cinema in general from treading the primrose path to the eternal bonfire. Gradually lords and ladies carne to seem anachronistic in the post-war world. Actors who could play them convincingly (Rex Harrison, James Mason) and actresses who had difficulty escaping from perfect lady roles (Deborah Kerr, Wendy Hiller) seemed to find more pressing call for their particular abilities across the Atlantic or, like Michael Redgrave and Diana Wynyard, increasingly turned their attentions to the West End stage.

The big British hits of the time tended to be period dramas and adaptations of literary classics – Great Expectations (1946), Hamlet (1948) – which allowed little opportunity for authentic characterization of working-class English people. Others were evidently fanciful – like the Ealing comedies placed by screenwriter T. E. B. Clarke in London settings that could not disguise the never-never land at their heart – Hue and Cry (1947), Passport lo Pimlico (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951).

These apart – films with some claim (how-ever hazy) to be considered art – there were the bread-and-butter films. Out of Holiday Camp (1947), a fairly silly, many-stranded story of workaday pleasures in a holiday camp which is darkened by the presence of a murderer, came a series of films featuring the Huggett family. This was a collection of comical cockney stereotypes headed by Jack Warner and Kathleen Harrison as Joe and Ethel Huggett – whose increasingly feeble adventures at home (Here Come the Huggetts, 1948), in an election (Vote for Huggett, 1949), and in Africa (The Huggetts Abroad, 1949) provided innocent, if patronising, fun for a couple more years.

Dirk Bogarde in untypical early villain role in The Blue Lamp. The film which led to the long running series Dixon of Dock Green. Dixon himself was actually killed in the film but revived for the series.

The notion of the cockney (British films hardly knew of any other sort of working class, except for the occasional country yokel) as comic relief persisted well into the Fifties. Jack Warner was also central to the creation of another, allied stereotype in The Blue Lamp (1950). His heroic, hard-working. basic copper on the beat presented an image of the sober, responsible working class who knew its place, in peace as in war, and this portrayal led to the seemingly unending Dixon of Dock Green series which ran on British television, with Warner in the title role, for over twenty years.

Meanwhile, Korda’s low-budget. television-style film The Last Days of Dolwyn (1949) provided the first attempt for many years to exploit the distinctive speech and location of Wales. It starred Edith Evans as the oíd Welsh woman who tries single-handed to resist the turning of her valley home into a reservoir. If the Welsh were impassioned and liable to burst into song at the slightest provocation. the Scots of I Know Where I’m Going (1945) or Whisky Galore! (1949) were fey or canny according to choice, and either way generally portrayed by non-Scots like Roger Livesey, Pamela Brown and Joan Greenwood.

As for the England beyond the home counties, it might just as well not have existed. The pre-war convention of the trouble-at-mill drama was not continued after the war. About the nearest to it was Alexander Mackendrick’s fable The Man in the White Suit (1951) in which Alec Guinness played a man who causes problems by inventing a synthetic yarn that is indestructible and never needs cleaning. But the accent was on fantasy, and the place where the story happens was only vaguely defined.

And the stars of this period? They were mainly conspicuous by their absence. So many of the films of the time depended on teamwork, whether it was the Huggetts or Ealing comedy. The established stars, such as had resisted the call to Hollywood (or never heard it), were all beginning to fade, even the perennial Anna Neagle. No-one had really come forward to replace them except Guinness, the man of a thousand faces par excellence, who constituted in himself a one-man team. When a glamorous star was needed to attract audiences, it was increasingly likely to be an American star who would be chosen, equipped with as mid-Atlantic an accent as could be managed and probably ‘explained’ as Canadian.

It was such a demand which brought Richard Widmark in to spice up the London crime scene in one of the key films of the era, Night and the City (1950). Directed by Jules Dassin, an American who had made his name with violent dramas shot on the streets-where-they- really-happened. It presented a fantasy of exotic London lowlife which approximated very closely to the way British film-makers (and maybe even British audiences) wanted to see it. The film was the apotheosis of all the small-time dramas of cosh boys and good-time girls and spivs and other peacetime riff-raff that the more lurid side of British cinema loved to depict. How near the truth any of it was would be difficult so say, but it offered a potent alternative to the London-pride view of the chirpy cockney sparrow, and strongly implied that for British film-makers the working classes were a bunch of layabouts and petty criminals, with no sense of style whatever.

And still Anna Neagle soldiered on, getting quainter and quainter and more and more heroic. When the early fifties brought what seemed like some respite for the British film industry, with a boom in a nostalgic series of films harking back to the good oíd days of World War II, there she was in the forefront in Odette (1950). Of course. some might think it sad that so soon after the joy and relief of winning the war the British were already wishing themselves back in the midst of it. But then at least the war had absolved them from responsibility for the class-structure and obliterated class differences as everyone pulled together. Or had it; Anyway, it was a convenient myth to live by until the working-class hero burst upon the scene, exchanging for ever the old refined mythology for a new rough mythology of his own.

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