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Sunday, 26 February 2017

Dad’s 1950s Films

After posting recently about Nevil Shute and the R100, I found myself dreaming about the film of his book On the Beach which I saw around the age of ten. If you know it, you might wonder how a ten year old in 1959 got to see something so pessimistically awful and depressing. It was because my dad took me. We went once or twice a year from perhaps as young as four. It was always to see what he wanted to see. I had no idea what was on.

Over the next couple of weeks the names of other films came back. I am surprised to be able to recall twelve titles, all from before the age of twelve. They were mostly nautical, or about the war, or both, and are listed below with links to trailers or clips, together with my own vague, idiosyncratic, reconstructed childhood impressions.

What an unsuitable catalogue of horror they are: casual violence; cold blooded killing; wartime death and destruction; the stuff of nightmares. Although most had ‘U’ certificates meaning Universal or suitable for children, that does not mean they really were. Films tended to be restricted more often because of sexual content than violence. The films I saw would now be considered highly inappropriate for children. But fear not. I think I emerged undamaged. For most of the time I was completely mystified as to what was going on: a feeling not experienced again until I sat through films in French during foreign exchange trips to Belgium.

Just as with everything else, children have to learn how to make sense of the special language of film and moving images, and those of us born before every home had a television would have came late to this kind of literacy. It was especially true for me. We did not get a set until I was around twelve, and as I went to my grandma’s on Saturdays I never went to Saturday morning children’s cinema. It is no surprise I did not understand the films I saw. Sometimes I don’t even now.

We can now easily look up film release dates and work out my age at the time, although they may have taken a few months to reach our small Yorkshire town. 

Shane (Certificate A, released April 1953, aged 3)

Shane had lots of shooting and fighting in magnificent landscapes. It also had an ‘A’ certificate which meant children were allowed to see it only if accompanied by an adult. It is pretty violent. Did my dad really take me to see this aged four at best?

He always enjoyed a good ‘cowboy’, as he called Westerns, and I remember his infatuation with Alan Ladd’s quick draw, but how can I be sure it was this particular Alan Ladd Western we saw? On seeing the trailer again now on YouTube, I feel sure it was indeed Shane. Not even a four year old could forget nasty Jack Palance’s flat nose, deep-set eyes and wide cheekbones. 

The Student Prince (U certificate, released June 1954, aged 4) 

The only film not to have guns, ships or aeroplanes. Not at all what you would think my dad would see. Despite being only four or five I retain some faint impressions. It was in colour and there was lots of singing, most memorably the Drinking Song, “Drink, Drink, Drink”. My dad believed he could sing as well as Mario Lanza whose voice was used in the film.
The Dam Busters (U certificate, released May 1955, aged 5)

Some of my dad’s school friends had flown in bombers, and many had died in them. He talked about having a drink one wartime Thursday evening with a lad who flew as a navigator and had to return to his squadron on the Monday. He was terrified. He was lost over Germany a week later.

The Dam Busters might have given my dad some idea as to what it was like but all I saw was lots of aeroplanes flying. The only incident I specifically remember is the black dog belonging to one of the pilots being run over and killed. It was most distressing. Today people only get upset at its unfortunate name.

Thanks to Uncle Mac and Children’s Favourites we can all still hum the iconic theme tune (‘Derrr der der der de de der der’). I also subsequently learned that some of the aerial sequences were filmed over the River Don at Goole, otherwise known as the Dutch River, a dead ringer for the Dutch canals.

Reach for the Sky (U certificate, released July 1956, aged 6)

Another war film. Kenneth More walks about with a stiff upper lip and even stiffer legs playing Douglas Bader, the amputee wartime fighter ace. Again there were lots of aeroplanes but More’s delivery was far too fast and clipped for my Yorkshire ears.


Around the World in 80 Days (U certificate, released October 1956, aged 7)

Another display of British stiff upper lip, this time with David Niven playing Phileas Fogg who bets he can circumnavigate the world in 80 days. He arrives back five minutes late, losing £20,000. The twist is that because he travelled eastwards he gained a day, so wins the bet after all. That was useful in school Geography, years later.

Afterwards I always recognised David Niven and remembered the odd name of his character from before it became a brand of crisps, and also that of his sidekick Passepartout. The film now seems like an attempt to get the most stars possible into one production, but I knew none of them at the time.

The Battle of the River Plate (U certificate, released October 1956, aged 7)

My dad especially liked films about the sea because his grandpa had been a captain and his cousin was in the merchant navy, so he knew all about it. Three Royal Navy cruisers chase the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee around the Atlantic Ocean. There was lots of naval shelling and one of ours, the Exeter, was hit and caught fire. The main thing I remember though, was wondering what on earth was a “pocket” battleship.

Dunkirk (U certificate, released March 1958, aged 8)
 
I remember this quite well, especially the terrifying Stuka dive-bombers with their wailing sirens, and men queuing chest deep out into the cold sea to be picked up by small civilian boats. I wonder whether the new film to be released this summer will be anywhere near as good.

I was fascinated by my dad's personal acquaintance with small boat owners on the Yorkshire Ouse who had sailed down to Ramsgate to take part in the evacuation. 
 

The Vikings (A certificate, released June 1958 , aged 8)

Did my mum really know what my dad had taken me to see – a violent certificate ‘A’ Norse saga?

Kirk Douglas with his ridiculous dimpled chin has his eye pecked out by a falcon and leaps about with a disgusting blind eye for the rest of the film. When he dies at the end his body is cast out to sea in a burning Viking longship with dragon heads at the ends and a big square sail.

I recognised other actors who later became familiar as having been in the film, most notably the tousled head of Tony Curtis and the lined face and wide toothy grin of Ernest Borgnine. The most memorable thing however was the theme tune played over a backdrop of animated Viking scrolls. I can still hum it after nearly sixty years.

A Night To Remember (Certificate U, released July 1958, aged 8)

A film about the sinking of the Titanic, said to be the most historically accurate of them all. Kenneth More’s stiff upper lip made another appearance but with working legs this time. I remember thinking I would not want to be a stoker down in the boiler room, and also asking what was wrong with the wobbly guy who drank the best part of a bottle of whisky which later supposedly protected him from the cold, but don’t think I followed much else at all. Events take place calmly and without panic so as not to frighten the passengers – or the audience.

On The Beach (Certificate A, released December 1959, aged 10)

A film about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. Only the Southern Hemisphere remains inhabitable. To the strains of Waltzing Matilda, men spend interminable boring hours in a submarine sailing from Australia to America to investigate the source of telegraph signals which they discover are caused by a bottle suspended as much as your disbelief from a fluttering window blind so that it rests upon a Morse key which happens still to be powered and switched on. They then go back to Australia where everybody either kills themselves or dies of radiation sickness. It is so boring that the trailer has to focus on telling you how good it is rather than showing you excerpts from the film. Oh well, Nevil, at least it would have put an end to those brutish and uncouth Yorkshire women, as you describe my grandmother’s social group in your autobiography.

Sink the Bismarck (Certificate U, released February 1960, aged 10)

The fifties have ended but my dad is still taking me to see yet more rousingly patriotic films about the war at sea. Again we see Kenneth More and his unintelligible stiff upper lip. H.M.S. Hood explodes when hit in the magazine (armoury) by a German shell but we begin to get our own back when we attack with torpedoes delivered by Fairey Swordfish biplanes. I still know the names of all the English and German battleships.

The Alamo (Certificate U, released October 1960, aged 11)

At last I get to see something I had asked to see: Davy Crockett in his bizarre hat – basically a dead raccoon on his head with its tail hanging down the back. There were lots of people fighting, riding horses and shooting each other. It was just as boring as my dad’s films.

I had only wanted to see it because of the Davy Crockett song (thanks to Children’s Favourites again):
Born on a mountain top in Tennessee,
Greenest state in the land of the free.
Raised in the woods so's he knew every tree,
Killed him a bear when he was only three.

Davy, Davy Crockett King of the Wild Frontier.
But the song wasn’t in the film. I didn’t like John Wayne’s sanctimonious voice either. 

Davy Crockett was the last one. Soon afterwards we got a television which put paid to our joint cinema outings for a decade.

I may have forgotten one or two. I definitely remember going to see Bambi at some point, but it wasn’t with my dad and certainly not in 1942 when it came out.

I think we only went to the pictures together twice again, for The Battle of Britain in 1969 and Murder on the Orient Express in 1974 which we saw in Leeds. That was another film with a lot of stars. My dad wanted to see it because of Lauren Bacall.

Now I wish we’d gone more of course.





The links to the trailers on YouTube may cease to work if blocked by the copyright owners.

Monday, 20 February 2017

The Real Marigold Hotel

Amanda Barrie, Paul Nicholas, Bill Oddie, Lionel Blair, Dr Miriam Stoppard, Dennis Taylor, Rustie Lee and Sheila Ferguson


Watching the second series of The Real Marigold Hotel (currently on Wednesdays on BBC1) makes me wonder what the elderly celebrities say to each other when the cameras aren’t rolling. In particular, has Bill Oddie apologised to Lionel Blair for what now seems the less than politically correct song ‘Les Girls’ he wrote to end the sketch about the Miss World contest in the ‘I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again’ New Year Special broadcast on BBC Radio Four on the 31st December 1970.

The song later re-appeared in a 1975 episode of ‘The Goodies’ called ‘Chubby Chumps’, described on a fan site as follows:
The 'Housewife Of The Year' contest in 'Chubby Chumps' is kicked off by Bill masquerading as Lionel Bleeeah performing a very camp rendition of 'Les Girls' with the help of a troupe of pink-suited male dancers. As Bill sings "Boys, she'll really make you a man ..." one of the dancers sashays up to him and utters "Oh will she make me one too?!" and at the end of the song Lionel prances off the stage hand in hand with another of the dancers before Terry (Graeme in disguise) introduces the judges and housewives.
This, of course, is from the era of shows such as ‘Are You Being Served?’, ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ and ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’, when racist and homophobic comedy was endemic. Those who weren’t around in those days look now in sheer disbelief that they were ever broadcast. And apart from all that, the ISIRTA/Goodies song was so unjust to Lionel Blair anyway. But it so happens that I recorded the ISIRTA programme, and still have it. Here is my transcript:

[spoken]
And so with a fitting climax to this annual cavalcade of beauty, let’s take one last look at this sparkling line of lovelies. Yes, here they are, Lionel Bleeagh and his boys, to sing their tribute to Les Girls.

[spoken over intro music]
Come on come on come on lads. Are you ready?
Yeah.
John! John! Straighten your tie.
Slow down I’ve got a ladder.
Let me climb up it.
Cheeky cat.
That’s enough!
It’s not enough.
Butch voices, right?
Right hard face.
One two three ...

[sung to showbizzy tune which begins a bit like ‘Back Home’ by the 1970 England World Cup squad]
Les Girls, Just show us the way to
Les Girls, Let’s do it their way.
I’m a red blooded fella with hair on my chest,
I got my hat got my cane and a pink woolly vest.

Les Girls, I'm simply astounded,
Les Girls, I'm completely surrounded
By dimple cheeks and beautiful curls.
Les Girls. Les Girls.

[spoken]
I’m as butch as the next man.
I’m the next man.

[sung]
Les Girls, Oh that’s what they call us.
Les Girls. We’re the gentlemen’s chorus.
I love the way they wiggle of their big blue eyes,
I love the low cut dresses. Oh just my size!

Les Girls, I wanna kiss them quick.
Les Girls, I think I'm going to be sick.
Big big diamonds, rubies and pearls, [and me]
Les Girls. Les Girls.

Oh you’ll do a lot of things you never knew you could do,
If you’ll only let a woman get a hold of you,
Boy she’ll make you a man.
Will she make me one too?
Les Girls. Les Girls. Les Girls.

[spoken on telephone]
All right all right! Director General Here again. We don’t want any nancy poofta nonsense on the B.B.C. Let’s have some nice seasonal entertainment. Some jolly Christmassy songs. Eh? Not too late for those.
[on to Censored Bawdy Christmas Songs sketch]


Oh dear! I’ll be carefully observing the interaction between Bill and Lionel.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Hi there Duggy!

A student sends an awkward email to an eminent professor

Early in the nineteen-nineties, I came across a strikingly enlightening piece of research which suggested that girls who work together can be much better learners than boys. It was an experiment in which pairs of eight-year-old children worked from an interactive multimedia videodisk – a very new and unusual experience at the time. Some weeks later they were asked to write essays about it on their own. The surprising result was that girls who had worked with other girls remembered twice as much as either boys or girls paired in other combinations.* There were many other aspects to the experiment too, making a useful contribution to the idea that educational software can encourage collaboration as well as individual learning.

I stumbled upon this research as a newly appointed lecturer at a recently upgraded northern ex-polytechnic, hoping to develop a career by devising innovative courses about the new technologies. I asked each student to lead a short seminar discussion about a published research paper they had chosen from a list. One student, let us call him Arshad, chose the paper about the pairs of children and the videodisk. 

Email was also relatively new in those days. Some university staff still resisted its use, and those who welcomed it were having to come to terms with the accessibility and informality it brings. We took pains to educate our students about the possible pitfalls. It seemed inevitable that it would sometimes be used inappropriately, but it was with disbelief that I read the email Arshad sent to the author of the research paper.

The author was Professor Dougman Fairwood, an eminent and influential Head of School in a top Russell-group university, author of numerous books, review articles and research papers across a wide range of topics. He had been awarded several high-value research grants, guided no end of doctoral students to successful completion, served on government advisory committees and was internationally respected in his field. You get the idea. Most of these over-achieving professors are pathological workaholics and take themselves very seriously. They get upset if you don’t address them formally, or fail to treat them with the respect and deference they think they deserve.

This is the email Arshad sent:
From: sexyarshad@screaming.net
To: d.p.fairwood@-----.ac.uk

Subject: Study questions?
Hi there
Duggy,
Hows it going, My name is Arshad A-----, Im a student at --- University, Currently I am reviewing one of your publications titled “--------- ------------ --- ------- --------”. I would be very gratefull if you would be so kind to answer a few questions reagding the study.
1 - Was there any initial assumptions taken into account about the children taking part in the study? (if any, how valid were the assumptions?).
2 - Taking a retrospective look at the study, how well do you think the study was carried out?, do you think anything was overlooked in terms of implemantaion or methodolgy?
3 - Do you think your study has any implications or links to other ideas?
4 - How importantly do you think your study is relevent today and more importantly in the future?
Thanks in advance
Arshad A-----.
It was not long before an angry reply was circulated to staff.
Dear Colleagues

The attached is a message received both here and by my co-author, and comes, apparently, from a --- University student. The student does not identify his Department, so I’m sending this complaint to the Heads of Psychology, Education, Computer Science, Engineering, Multimedia and Information Systems, with a copy to the Vice Chancellor.

Your student appears to be writing an assignment on one of our papers, and the questions that we are being asked would be just the kinds of questions that a tutor might set. Is it your practice to have your students get the answers to their questions by doing the equivalent of looking at the back of the book? Obviously not, and you might want to take some action to inform the student about your preferred practice.

But the main reason for writing is to complain about the e-mail itself. The interrogational style had ---- and I phoning each other to ask what was going on here. Speaking for myself, I am decidedly cheesed off with this e-mail. Being asked to justify the validity of my own assumptions, or the relevance of my work, is something that I do not expect from a student hoping to pass a term paper. Of course, if you believe that your student is doing exactly the right thing here, then I would be especially grateful to hear from you.

Best regards

Dougman Fairwood.

Professor Dougman P. Fairwood BSc PhD DSc CPsychol FBPsS
Head, School of -----
University of -----
I can think of at least five so-called rules of email etiquette Arshad ignored, but even had all been correct, the content was way out of order. Students may well have genuine grounds for writing to staff at other universities, but they should always pass it by their own supervisors first. They certainly should not do it in such a clumsy and tactless way.

I drafted a grovelling apology but never had to send it. It turned out that our Head of School had already apologised on behalf of the university believing that Arshad had been looking at the paper for his final-year project. No one ever associated his email message with the course I was teaching. That was fortunate because at the very next conference I attended, I got into conversation with the friendly chap sitting next to me and asked his name. “I’m Doug Fairwood,” he answered. “Going for a coffee?” We had an interesting chat about interactive talking books.

When Arshad’s seminar came along it was fairly obvious that either he had not understood or had not read the paper at all. He still graduated that year with a respectable degree – well, he was a nice enough lad and the university did not like us to fail people. I wonder what he’s doing now.


* One possible reason for the girls’ so much stronger recall is rehearsal. Girls, being more sociable, seem more likely to have talked about their experiences afterwards, possibly in play. Strangely, the authors did not consider this in their paper.