As someone who has lived all their life in England, one of my pleasures has been to watch old British films. I love to see the streets, the cars, the style of dress, and to reflect on a way of life that changed so rapidly after World War Two. Very often, these films show places that were familiar to me as a child, the same places that I have watched disappear as I grow older. Sometimes, they promote clichés and stereotypes, presenting a rose-tinted view of a life that was much harder than it looks on celluloid. Others look back to the loss of community, infrastructure, and a time when everybody knew their neighbours.
Whatever the approach, I always find them delightful to watch.
I have chosen a selection of films dating from 1940-1955. They document changes in society over the years, yet all retain that familiar warmth and comfortable feel of a Britain that has since changed beyond recognition.
The Stars Look Down (1940)
Carol Reed’s film examines a theme that would be revisited during the renaissance of British drama in the 1960s. Michael Redgrave stars as Davey, the young man from a poor mining community who does not want to follow his family down the pit. The miners are poorly served by the owner, and a mood of resentment and industrial unrest pervades the film. Davey wants to leave the grim town, and study at a college in the nearby city. Whilst there, he runs into an old friend, Joe, who is now a bookmaker and petty criminal. Through him, he meets the attractive but deceitful Jenny (Margaret Lockwood) a girl who Joe has split up with. She persuades him to abandon his studies, and return to their hometown, where he gets work as a teacher. Jenny wants to be a social climber, and quickly accrues debts that Davey cannot hope to pay off. When she is unfaithful with Joe, Davey leaves her, and begins to dedicate his life to politics, and fighting for improvements in the mines.
This is often a grim film, but the strive for nationalisation of the coal industry, the poor safety conditions that result in a pit disaster, and the changing face of a society that wants to live on borrowed money, and turn its back on its origins, is well documented. It is also ironic that the coal industry that was eventually nationalised, then privatised once again during the 1980s, has now almost disappeared in this country.
Brighton Rock (1947)
Based on a novel by Graham Greene, this classic British film noir gave the young Richard Attenborough one of his finest roles as the cruel gangster, Pinkie. Set in the seaside resort of Brighton during the 1930s, this film follows the lives of a group of small-time crooks and the characters they encounter as they go about their seedy business. These days, Brighton is often called ‘London on Sea’. Its former life as the weekend destination for day-trippers from the south is long behind it. It is now a favourite home for commuters into central London, and gentrification has forced up house prices and changed the face of the population too. It is also famous as the ‘gay capital’ of the south, a sort of English San Francisco.
In ‘Brighton Rock’, we see the place as it was. Inundated with holidaymakers and weekend visitors, behind the scenes of enjoyment at the pier and people eating ice creams in the arcades there is real poverty, violence, and organised crime. Most of the film is shot on location in the town, and as well as being a convincing and well-made crime thriller, it is also a fascinating historical document.
Whisky Galore (1949)
This gentle Ealing comedy set in the Scottish islands also shows a way of life that not only no longer exists, it probably didn’t even exist when it was made. Although it is based on a real event, the film’s intention is to amuse, and to paint a picture of a certain group of people living a life that looks far more attractive than it was. It is set in the Outer Hebrides, during WW2, when the islanders are dismayed to discover that they have run out of whisky. Luckily for them, a passing cargo ship runs aground near the island, and soon they are looting the cargo, which is of course, whisky.
The local Home Guard, led by a pompous English officer, is ordered to guard the rest of the goods. There ensues a battle of wits between the canny and inventive Scots, and their old adversary, a British officer. Many amusing situations surround the hiding of the looted bottles and cases, and the ingenious Scots manage to keep much of the hoard concealed. With many familiar stereotypes, and a good cast of stalwart character actors, including Basil Radford and Gordon Jackson, this film is always enjoyable. It may have spooned a little too much sugar onto a period when Britain faced its ‘darkest hours’, but it cheered up the post-war country very nicely.
Passport To Pimlico (1949)
In the same year, Ealing Studios presented this classic and enduring comedy, again based on a real event. When an unexploded bomb detonates in the London district of Pimlico, locals find an ancient treasure hoard containing a charter. This states that the district was once given to the Duke of Burgundy. As this was never revoked, the local people get together and decide to declare independence from Britain.
This provides many opportunities for humour. With Pimlico no longer subject to the laws of the country, post-war rationing no longer applies. Licensing hours are scrapped, and free trade declared.
The furious British government cuts the area off from the rest of London, and in retaliation, the residents forbid traffic and trains to cross their newly-independent borough. Even today, this film is a joy to watch, and the story as relevant as ever. A great cast includes Margaret Rutherford, Stanley Holloway, and Barbara Murray, and everyone plays their part brilliantly.
But it is the views of London that endure. An area that now commands huge property prices, and is home to government ministers and many prestigious companies, was once just another run-down working class area populated by average Londoners trying their best to get by. In a very short space of time, the Pimlico shown in this film would be all but a memory. One to treasure though.
The Blue Lamp (1950)
This film is about the everyday life of the metropolitan policemen in London; The ‘Bobby on The Beat’, so familiar until fairly recently. It has warmth and nostalgia in equal measure, and also manages to be a very good crime drama too. Starring Jack Warner as the kindly middle-aged policeman, George Dixon, it also features Dirk Bogarde as the vicious cop-killer, Tom Riley.
This film is a real treat on so many levels. Filmed in and around the Paddington area of west London, many of the buildings and streets are little changed to this day, yet just as much has gone, and an urban motorway now dominates the district.
Policing has changed too. The everyday patrol officer is rarely seen, and almost never known by name. London now has firearms units, police helicopters, officers armed with CS spray, Taser devices, and using numerous types of vehicles. There is personal radio communication, and even body-worn video cameras, both things unknown in 1949. A young person watching this film today would see that there was little change from the policing of the Victorian age at the time, and they might wonder at the absence of tall buildings too. The Blue Lamp is a record not only of the changing face of a city, it also shows how crime-fighting has evolved since the late 1940s.
The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953)
At the time, the railways in Britain were undergoing a series of changes that would result in the isolation of some communities, and a necessary increase in car ownership that began to clog roads with traffic. Five years after the nationalisation of the railways in 1948, this film took a swipe at the impact of the closure of small branch lines, and left us with one of the most amusing and endearing light comedies of the decade.
The fictional village of Titfield is rocked by the news that their small local railway line is to be closed down. They need the transport to get goods to the nearby market town, and to commute to jobs there too. The villagers soon organise against the closure, and with the help of a local rich man they decide to operate their own private train instead. This will be allowed, but will be subject to a government inspection to approve the new service. However, they are not reckoning on the owner of the local bus company. He sees the closure of the line as his chance to take control of transport in the area, and he sabotages the efforts of the villagers, eventually destroying their steam engine and carriages. Faced with the forthcoming inspection, the doughty crew does not give up. They take an old 1838 locomotive from the nearby museum, (the Thunderbolt of the title) and get it working again, just in the nick of time for the government inspection.
This film is an absolute treat. It looks at village life that has all but disappeared since, and has a Vicar, and a Squire as pillars of the community. Hilarious scenes are reminiscent of silent films, or the earlier work of Will Hay. One great set-piece features two drunken men stealing a train, and driving it around the streets chased by a policeman on a bicycle. As you might expect, it also delivers a suitably happy ending, which of course was not reflected in real life, as hundreds of stations and lines were shut down. The cast is full of great British actors too, including Stanley Holloway, John Gregson, and Sid James.
A Kid For Two Farthings (1955)
Carol Reed’s quasi-religious fantasy, based on the novel of the same name, takes us into the world of the London street markets ten years after the end of WW2. The Kid of the title is a sickly baby goat, born with one horn. A young boy, Joe, believes that this creature is actually a unicorn, and is told by the kindly tailor, Kandinsky, that it will bring everyone good luck. Believing that his ‘unicorn’ will make his wishes come true, Joe sets about trying to change the luck of everyone on the market community.
But this is not a review of the film, rather a look back at the world it is set in. Strong men, prize-fighters, and market traders struggling to survive in harsh economic times. The stagey sets still manage to bring alive the feel of the hustle and bustle and wheeler-dealing associated with London markets, and an excellent cast lends authenticity to the surreal story line. David Kossof holds the film together as the Jewish tailor, Kandinsky, and the underrated Diana Dors supplies both eye candy, and a kindly face. Sid James turns up again, and the marvellous Irene Handl delivers yet another fine performance as Mrs Abramowitz.
Many of these markets are still around in London. These days, they sell electronic goods, fake designer items, and logo T-shirts. Some even trade in ‘Artisan’ bread, alongside exotic street food, and tremendously expensive cheeses and charcuterie. Few retain the spirit and everyday aspect of survival evidenced in this film though. Another part of life long gone, yet preserved here for us all to discover.
Soon after, the 1960s brought us a very different sort of filmmaking. The British New Wave, the ‘kitchen sink’ drama, and the films featuring greed, lust, and a society that was no longer prepared to accept its lot in life. ‘Angry Young Men’ replaced the gentle villagers, and young women began to remove their clothes on screen.
Cinema began to reflect life in the raw as a matter of course, but left us these examples of what had gone before.