The Medium and the Message
Part 2: Crime and Punishment
By now, more than half a century after the events, we should know the contours of the criminal landscape to the Nineteen-Fifties and Nineteen-Sixties like the back of our hand; we should know about them but we don’t! We do know some of the well-trodden tracks, along the permitted footpaths we’re allowed to tread; paths that circumvent the peaks of criminality; routes that divert our attention while the summits remain hidden in the mist. So, presented with the dates in question you will recognise the familiar names: the Krays; the Richardsons; maybe even the Sabini gang. We might even have heard about the connection between the Krays and the Conservative M.P. Lord Boothby and the Labour M.P. Tom Driberg and the host of socialite guests they entertained. But these are merely shifting shadows, faint echoes from some distant land beyond our view. The real heights of political scandal, police corruption, military atrocities, legal injustice and repeated establishment cover-ups are still uncharted territories from which bad smells continue to waft in off the breeze; odours released by countless investigations and inquiries forced on a reluctant establishment after years and years of judicial obfuscation. These include:
- Inquiry into wrongful execution of Timothy Evans in 1953 by Scott Henderson Q.C.
- Inquiry into the Hillsborough Disaster and deaths of 98 fans by Lord Justice Taylor
- Operation Countryman investigation into police corruption in the Metropolitan Police
- Report into the 1981 riots (or uprisings) by Lord Scarman
- Inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence killing and the police failures by Sir William Macpherson
- Report into the Bloody Sunday murders in Derry by the British Parachute Regiment by Lord Widgery
- Inquiry into the Bloody Sunday murders in Derry by the British Parachute regiment by Lord Saville of Newdigate
- Sir Desmond de Silva’s report into the collusion between the British Military Intelligence with Loyalist Death Squads and the killing of Patrick Finucane
- The Hutton inquiry into the legality of the Iraq War and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s culpability in this war crime.
- The Levinson enquiry into criminal activity by the Press
These inquiries were, of course, as you can see, conducted by the ‘the Great and the Good’. In some cases they were a total whitewash (the Widgery report on Bloody Sunday murders, the Scott Henderson inquiry into the Timothy Evans judicial murder). In others, injustice was grudgingly acknowledged and empty apologies were given by people not involved - but no justice followed, no blame allocated unless, of course, it’s to some poor bloody overburdened social worker.
On the 14th March 1991 six Irish men, imprisoned for planting two bombs in Birmingham city centre pubs in 1975 which killed 21 people and maimed many more, had their convictions quashed in what became clear was just one of several such miscarriages of justice perpetrated by the police and the judiciary. They had spent sixteen years in prison and for most of that time the authorities had known that their convictions were unsafe. Yet, when they attempted to appeal in 1980, one of the most renowned faces of the British Establishment, Lord Denning, said:
‘Just consider the course of events if their action were to proceed to trial ... If the six men failed it would mean that much time and money and worry would have been expended by many people to no good purpose. If they won, it would mean that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats; that the confessions were involuntary and improperly admitted in evidence; and that the convictions were erroneous. ... That was such an appalling vista that every sensible person would say, "It cannot be right that these actions should go any further."’
This gives us an intriguing insight into the mind-set of the establishment and our right to question their suitability to rule over us, then and now. As I write this account, the attempt by the establishment to control the new inquiry into child sexual abuse involving establishment figures has been rebuffed – at least for the time-being. We shall have to wait and see (and wait…..and wait). The inquiry, it has been announced by Teresa May, has been widened and will now consider claims going back to 1945. I remain sceptical and find myself asking: ‘are a sufficient number of perpetrators now dead to allow the truth to come out? Or is the reputation of these pillars of our society still too precious to disturb?’
In the meantime, we continue along those well-trodden tracks that are the shared by-ways of the working class as well as crooks. And this inquiry (or rant) into how the British cinema portrayed crime during this period begins where we left off - in London.
We enter the Nineteen-Fifties aboard the spruce-looking cargo ship, Dunbar, out from Rotterdam, bound for the Port of London. It’s a Friday afternoon. The ship will depart sixty hours later on Monday morning, some twelve hours behind schedule, heading down a foggy river Thames bound for Rotterdam. In between these two events we witness an unacknowledged gem of British movie history. Pool of London (1951), written by John Eldridge and Jack Whittingham, directed by Basil Dearden, is a masterpiece of story-telling and a masterclass in film-making but, somehow, mostly ignored by the keepers of our cultural heritage. So many people take part in this drama - this is such a crowded piece of fiction - yet we are introduced to them and their intricate connections to each other so expertly that we follow the lead of the narrative through the bustling action and never get lost.
In Pool of London, we have a city in the process of regeneration. The scars of the Blitz remain everywhere but there is a new atmosphere forming over the cleared bomb-sites and the hollow shells of buildings; cranes tower over the skyline and scaffolding hugs the sides of buildings here and there showing the signs of renewal. Trams still trundle along the streets but these marvellous antediluvian creatures are soon to be scrapped, so we are reliably informed by Susan Shaw, who plays the part of Pat, the pretty music-hall ticket girl who befriends Johnny Lambert (Earl Cameron), the Jamaican sailor on shore-leave from the Dunbar. Johnny (one of the countless Johnnies we’ll meet in nineteen-fifties British movies) is the honest broker in this story, the visitor through whose eyes we see the city and its peoples. Johnny is black and he will encounter racial prejudice as well as kindness and affection in his short stay. He will see the energy of the people, revitalised by the new deal of the post-war government and the lethargy of the bureaucracy that still holds down the lid on public order in a country suffering from imposed rationing. He will see the bright sunlight over a glorious metropolis, ‘shining like a jewel’ and the dark, seedy underside of that same city. He will be a pawn in criminal game he doesn’t even know is being played. In the story there will be loyalty and betrayal; a number of implied sexual encounters; love; violence; daring escapes; drug smuggling and diamond robbery. Some characters in the story will demean themselves, others will redeem themselves. And there will be car chases! In fact, some of the best car chases staged in British cinema to this point and for at least a decade to come. For once, it’s not embarrassing to watch them.
From ship to shore, the crew, having exchanged enough banter to alert us to their character, head off in different directions into the city and we are plunged immediately into a ‘caper’ movie. While Johnny Lambert is the honest broker here, Dan Macdonald (Bonar Colleano) is the chancer; he is a small time player in illegal drug smuggling. Nothing more daring than concealing a few packets of marihuana and some nylon stockings from the customs officials but enough to get him involved in a an escapade that sucks him down into waters way beyond his depth. Dan provides the vitality to this tale, buoyant and cock-sure, determined to become a winner. He is a user of people who gets used but he’s intensely loyal to his shipmate, Johnny. Unfortunate in his choice of a female partner, the grasping Maisie (Moira Lister), he stumbles into a sensual liaison with the beautiful Sally (Renée Asherson), a woman who has been continually betrayed by her own lover. She will give him the moral strength to face up to himself and just the possibility that these two losers might becoming winners.
So Saturday passes, full of significant events and encounters that further the various plot-lines and maintain the pace of the movie. Then Sunday dawns. Peaceful, like Sundays used to be. Peaceful except for the bells of the churches that ring out suddenly across the city and scatter the pigeons. But people are used to them and they enhance rather than disturb the peace. Shops are closed. The streets in the financial sector are totally deserted. The roads are clear enough for cyclists to flock together and head off for the countryside. Johnny and Pat look down on the whole Pool of London from the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Then, suddenly, the peace of the Sunday morning is shattered by a brutal crime.
Just four years earlier we were introduced to a much dowdier Sunday experience with the London population of Bethnal Green looking worn and weary from living in a broken country still desperately trying to repair itself. With It Always Rains On Sunday, we have another classic of British cinema but, this time, an acknowledged classic. Here, the harsh domestic life of one family is placed under microscopic scrutiny without any comic back-light or rose-tinted filters to soften the harsh edges of post-war life. Rose Sandigate (Googie Withers in magnificent form) is the matriarch of a family consisting of a husband George (Edward Chapman), fifteen years her elder, two adolescent step-daughters from George’s previous marriage, Vi and Doris, and one pre-teen son, Alfie. What happened to the girls’ natural mother isn’t explained in the movie but we can quite imagine that she might have been one of the thousands of Londoners killed during the Blitz. Whatever the reason, the tension between mother and step-daughters is palpable. This is a tension borne from mutual hatred, most markedly between Rose and Vi. The resentment for their step-mother is shared by both daughters but Vi (Susan Shaw again) is the one with spirit – the rebel. She isn’t going to settle for this life of drudgery that her step-mother represents.
It’s this rebellious spirit that we see at the opening of the movie in the early hours of Sunday morning just as dawn is breaking over London’s East End. And sure enough, it begins to rain, right on cue as Vi arrives outside the house, having been dropped off from a sporty-looking car by her band-leader boyfriend Morry Hyams (Sidney Tafler). Vi’s late arrival home doesn’t go unnoticed though. Her father is watching from the bedroom window but he will keep his peace for the time being. Then, in one of several such shots, a model version of Morry’s car speeds past a model mobile-café on the corner of a model street. This is a linking shot because, at the café, there are three petty criminals having a cup of tea before setting off to do a ‘job’. One of the criminals, Whitey, is played by our old friend, Tommy Hanley. Why the linking shot couldn’t have been filmed without this scaling down isn’t clear since they obviously had the real car and the streets of London were contemporaneous to the story. Perhaps it was to keep the model department in practice. Or, more likely, it was an after-thought since the scene isn’t in the book. In the novel, Whitey and his wide-boy cohorts aren’t introduced into the story until we see them in the bar of the Two Compasses later on towards midday. Whatever, the model department would be called on again towards the finale of the movie.
This linking shot isn’t only a continuity device; it also provides a useful metaphor connecting together some of the different elements of life in the East End where ordinary people, etching out their living in unsatisfying occupations, rub shoulders with petty criminals, have a nodding acquaintance with racketeers and step-aside to let an occasional gangster go by.
The screenplay for It always rains on Sunday was written by Angus MacPhail, Robert Hamer (who also directed the movie), and Henry Cornelius. Hamer would go on to make the similarly dark, atmospheric revenge movie The Long Memory (1953) set along the mud-flats of the Thames Estuary and the backstreets of Gravesend. Both movies co-star John McCallum and in both films Hamer shows an instinct for portraying the ugly reality of criminality set against the mundanity of ordinary, domestic life. In It always rains on Sunday, the main location of this domestic backdrop is the home of the Sandigates. Their basic, utilitarian kitchen with its view out onto the small backyard, its shed, a re-purposed Anderson air-raid shelter, and its outside loo or ‘lav’. Beyond this, the dividing walls of the back-to-back terraced houses. Out front, the railway viaduct cuts across the street with the goods trains moving passed at irregular intervals. Here and there, the wreckage of the bombing is still very evident. We see the trolley-buses in the distance and the hustle and bustle of the Sunday morning market up close and the debris left behind when it’s finished. There are doss-houses for the homeless driftwood of society. The Salvation Army Band plays on the street corner, singing their militant songs against sin while small Sunday protest marchers slink by. Crowded, smoky pubs are meeting places. Sometimes it’s ill-met as a police detective frequents the same pub as our three sharply-dressed petty-crooks who have shown themselves to be incompetent wide-boys when their latest caper misfired. Detective Sergeant Fothergill (Jack Warner) is a confident, street-wise operator familiar with this ‘manor’ and all its characteristics. He’s on to them.
We see, also, some of the Nineteen-Forties cultural mix of Bethnal Green in evidence here. Though we only spot one black face in the market scene, the story is set against a well-established Jewish community. Some, like Lou Hyams (John Slater) are ‘fixers’, running a crooked bookmaking operation and a slot-machine business. Others, like his father, Solly, and sister, Bessie, are working hard for the community, trying to improve the lives of people of the area and despise Lou’s activities and refuse his ‘dirty money’ to help them. Morry Hyams is a struggling shop-owner as well as a band-leader though he’s also a serial love-cheat always chasing the young ladies or ‘little shiksas’ as Morry’s wife, Sadie (Betty Ann Davies), calls them. Morry is currently grooming Vi. The poster behind the counter in Morry’s record and musical instruments shop announces that he’s ‘The man with Sax appeal’. We come to see that Morry’s biological impulses aren’t supported by the same levels of sense or courage. Life goes on with all its ups and downs.
But this Sunday wasn’t going to be as ordinary as other Sundays. An escaped convict is on the run and he just happens to be an ex-lover of Rosy. A desperate Tommy Swann (John McCallum) turns up, hiding in their shed. Tommy and Rose will eventually sleep together on Rose’s marital bed while George, unaware of Tommy’s presence in their home, makes his weekly evening visit to the local pub to play darts. Tommy has the multiple lesions left by the ‘cat’ on his back. We had been told earlier that Tommy was arrested in Manchester following a ‘smash-and-grab’ robbery but he himself confides to Rose that he should have stuck to ‘what he was good at’ and the scars from the cat-o-nine-tails implies that the robbery had involved violence for which Corporal punishment was still practised. These scars should alert us and Rosy to Tommy’s true nature. But she still loves him and still remembers him as the hero figure he had once seemed to her. He will betray her in the end and his violent nature will become too apparent.
When Tommy is discovered in Rose’s home he tries to make his escape and hopes to get aboard a ship bound for South Africa. It’s now late in the evening and dark. What follows is an epic of British film-noir, set in a sprawling railway marshalling yard where goods-wagons are being shunted backwards and forwards in minimal light. In a sequence of edits as effectively executed as Dassin’s magnificent Night and the City, the chase ends with Tommy’s capture. Once again, the director has inserted two shots of a model train in the sequence which, though only lasting a second each, were really unnecessary. The ending of the movie diverges from the novel in several ways and leaves us with a rather more hopeful outcome for Rose and her husband.
Throughout this story Rose is a totally unsympathetic character. Her marriage, she herself acknowledges, had been purely pragmatic and she works out her frustration at being trapped in a loveless relationship on her two step-daughters. Her vindictiveness is unrelenting. This woman dominates her husband and is quite prepared to betray him for a man who doesn’t even remember he once gave her an engagement ring. Despite this, we can’t totally condemn her either. We can empathize if not sympathize. Not many people emerge from this story with very much honour intact. It’s a mostly joyless and very bleak existence that these people have to live. So bleak, in fact, that there were protests from the residents of the East End when the movie was first released. Unlike traditional film-noir movies like the excellent Night and the City where the narrative focuses on the underbelly of normal society, audiences must have been stunned, unprepared for such a brutally naked account of domestic life in the post-war years.
An even gloomier portrayal of London life appeared in 1952. Probably the darkest movie of the decade, Women of Twilight makes for a disturbing viewing experience as it mixes up together a range of genres in a sort of witches brew: film noir; expressionism; shock-horror; murder mystery; social realism. The story holds up a flickering light to penetrate the dark fringes of society where young women, abandoned by their men for various reasons and left to cope with babies, congregate in private lodgings hoping for mutual support only to be exploited by members of their own sex. Based on a play by Sylvia Rayman the movie is all about the women, their struggles, their hopes, their vulnerabilities. The original stage production was advertised as ‘an all women production’ and the film only has two brief scenes featuring a man (Laurence Harvey). It is stark and full of cruelty. First there is their abuse at the hands of men they thought loved them; next there is the rejection by society of unmarried mothers – their situation being a denial and a punishment at the same time; then there is the suffering of their children which they are helpless to alleviate; finally, the betrayal and manipulation by the landlady of the lodgings, Helen Allistair (Freda Jackson), the person they had thought was going to help them.
At the time, the play and the film caused quite a reaction, most critics praising the new playwright for her work in exposing to the daylight something that the authorities had preferred to keep hidden in the shadows. And still today the movie leaves you feeling a little dirty. It doesn’t deliver exactly the same impact as it did, partly because of changing techniques in cinematography and acting styles have made it seem far too fabricated. Partly, too, because some of the accents tend to jar; Dora Bryan definitely has the common touch in her delivery but other leading actresses use such a clipped, received pronunciation version of the English language that they sound totally out of place. Freda Jackson sounds like a female version of Noel Coward. As was coming to be accepted, the British Board of Film Censors ordered some changes to the dialogue; words like bastard, bitch and rape had to be removed so as not to offend our delicate sensibilities, which is ironic since the whole purpose of the story was to offend our delicate sensibilities. Oh well…
Let’s not forget though that the film-makers weren’t wholly altruistic in bringing this play to the big screen. There is always the element of voyeurism in these enterprises. As the film critic of the Daily Worker, Thomas Spencer remarked in January 1953:
‘It is not only rapacious boarding-house keepers and baby-farmers who exploit the misfortunes of unmarried mothers. Where would popular playwrights and film producers be without them?’
And we shall see plenty of examples where this was exactly the motivation in many of the movies of this period – and still is.
Films like It always rains on Sunday and Women of Twilight stands in stark contrast with that much more vibrant image of the city presented in Pool of London despite its noirish elements. Obviously, there are different creative minds and story-telling styles to contend with here but it might also reflect a genuine change in outlook. As we move further into the nineteen-fifties, we have weathered a few storms as well as some of the most bitter winters this country has experienced. The Welfare State is now up and… taking its first baby steps. TheFestival of Britain, held in London in 1951, celebrating Britain’s massive contribution to the arts and sciences over the centuries and promoting the concept of recovery was proving enormously popular despite opposition. A whiff of optimism was in the air. Visions of a re-constructed Britain were presented; new towns; new gadgets; a new beginning. By succeeding in giving ordinary people a sense of their own worth, The Festival of Britain was associated with socialist doctrine and immediately dismantled by Winston Churchill in a fit of spite on his return to power in October 1951. But Churchill’s bile at being ejected from office in 1945 and his reactionary instincts couldn’t quite turn back the tide. The right-wing political reaction that was beginning to muster had still been forced to compromise with the status quo and accept the Welfare State and the nationalisation of essential services that had been introduced by the Attlee Government – at least for the time-being. Standing at the turn of the decade, the Nineteen-fifties looked….. well, reasonably favourable.
It always rains on Sunday is based on a novel of the same name by Arthur La Bern, a one-time crime reporter and a writer with a strong sense of the dark side of society. Several of La Bern’s novels were adapted for the cinema including Night Darkens the Street which became Good-Time Girl, Freedom to Die retitled as Dead Man’s Evidenceand Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, which became the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, Frenzy. La Bern was deeply dissatisfied with Hitchcock’s adaptation which is understandable. Hitchcock, working with his collaborators, had been so brilliant in bringing such books as The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Lady Vanishes to the screen, giving them a much more coherent plot-line, a more exciting pace to the action and inserting some sex-appeal in the process, had somehow lost his magic touch by the time he undertook this endeavour. Dispensing with the ‘noir’ potential of the story by relocating it in the nineteen-seventies and shooting it in vivid colour didn’t help.
I’m not sure La Bern would have been too pleased with the outcome of Good-time Girl either. Although it maintains the gritty underside of life as the backdrop for the story, the quality of this movie is very uneven despite the fact that director David MacDonald had some excellent acting talent to draw on. Casting is the first problem. The premise for the movie is that a young fifteen year old girl about to go off the rails is given a cautionary tale by a magistrate from a juvenile court which concerns another young girl whose life spiralled out of control after consorting with the ‘wrong’ crowd. While the baby-faced Diana Dors could reasonably pass for the fifteen-year old being lectured to (she was just seventeen at the time), Jean Kent, who plays the sixteen-year old Gwen Rawlings and has the major role in the story, looks all of her twenty-seven years if not more. Good actors like Herbert Lom, Denis Price and Bonar Colleano are not given the space to really perform, others are painfully bad and the action scenes are unconvincing. Whether the failure to adapt the story lay with the screen writers (Muriel and Sydney Box and Ted Willis) or with the director is debatable. The one redeeming feature is the performance of Griffith Jones who plays a clever and engaging crook and a smooth-talking womaniser. He succeeds where others have failed in bedding the young Gwen. He can also be highly menacing and dominates the crowd that gathers around him. Director Ken Annakin had complained that Griffith Jones had been an inveterate scene-stealer when they were making Miranda together. Here, he steals the whole movie and the fault isn’t his.
Like It Always Rains on Sunday, Good-Time Girl plays with the motif of young, impressionable and highly vulnerable girls who come from broken homes or who are disillusioned and dissatisfied with their lack of prospects; girls who inhabit a society where older, wealthier men can easily manipulate them. Gwen Rawlings is one such girl and Vi and Doris Sandigate in It Always Rains on Sunday are two more. While Vi is much more worldly than Doris and prepared to use her sexuality to attract the attention of men, she is easily played by Morry who has no interest in her beyond a sexual dalliance with an attractive virgin (and to whom she does actually loose her virginity in the novel). These so-called ‘cautionary-tales’ for young girls are not knew to cinema. We can trace them back through folk-song or, even further, through folk-tale and through many mythologies that have survived. The novel It always rains on Sunday was actually set back in the late nineteen-thirties. But the theme has resonance in every media form in every age and cinema is no exception. We can see that it forms a part of the plot in quite a number of the movies made in these post-war decades.
One of the most famous of these was Brighton Rock (1947), directed by John Boulting, produced by his brother Roy Boulting, and based on a Graham Greene novel of the same name. The screen-play was written by Graham Greene and Terence Rattigan. It starred Richard Attenborough as Pinkie Brown, a role he’d established first in a stage adaptation. Greene’s novel was a sequel to his earlier work, ‘A Gun for Sale’ and both books were set in pre-war Britain. The rivalry we see in the movie between the two criminal gangs fighting for control of the race-track gambling rackets, using cut-throat razors to settle their arguments, is founded on an actual events. The Colleoni gang in the novel is based on the Sabini Gang, run by Charles Sabini. There’s even a quote from John Boulting that they used one of the former gang members as a technical advisor on the movie.
In ‘A Gun for Sale’ Pinkie Brown had murdered William Kite and taken over his position as the leader of a Race Track gang operating in Brighton. Pinkie is painfully aware of his own youthful inadequacies for the role of leader but remains determined to fulfil this destiny. Much of the internal struggle that Pinkie undergoes with his fundamentalist interpretation of Catholicism and his changing vision of Hell that you find in the novel and which is such a crucial element in explaining his otherwise irrational character is played out in the facial expressions of Attenborough rather than in the dialogue. This allows the movie to move with a certain amount of pace but leaves questions unanswered. Pinkie’s abhorrence at the thought of sexual intercourse which is an aspect of his vision of Hell is only fleetingly dealt with as when he says, bitterly, to Rose:
“You ever been in love?........You don’t know what it’s all about. I’ve watched it, I know love”
The metaphysical importance of Brighton in the story too is mostly lost; the glitzy outer-shell of the city where working-class Londoners flock for their holidays in order to spend their hard-earned money on trashy entertainments and cheap thrills, and the rotten inner-core of the city that Pinkie knows all about - the slum area where he grew-up and to which he will be drawn back. In the novel it’s the contrast between these two aspects of Brighton that mirror the visions of Heaven and Hell that Pinkie finds himself stuck between. Instead, the movie concentrates on the young sociopath attempting to maintain his authority; a tortured soul definitely, but we don’t see the fires that are doing the torturing. Except for the seedy, run-down lodgings where Pinkie’s gang hang out there is only one other reference to poverty and squalor of Brighton’s underside and this is in a strolling-text preamble at the beginning of the movie:
Brighton today is a large, jolly, friendly seaside town in Sussex, exactly one hour’s journey from London.
But in the years between the two wars, behind the regency terraces and crowded beaches, there was another Brighton of dark alleyways and festering slums. From here, the poison of crime and violence and gang warfare began to spread until the challenge was taken up by the Police.
This is a story of that other Brighton – now happily no more.
And, as the text clears the screen we are given another reference to the earlier novel as we see a holiday-maker, sprawled out on the shingle beach, a newspaper spread over his sleeping head with the headline ‘Brighton Gangster’s Body Found’. We then get a few seconds to read on about the finding of William Kite’s mutilated body and the suspicion that his murder was the result of a rival gang’s revenge for him revealing information regarding their Slot-Machine racket to the crime-reporter, Fred Hale.
The back-story cleared up as far as we need to know for this movie we then proceed. When Fred Hale turns up in Brighton as part of a newspaper sales gimmick where readers have to try and spot Kolly Kibber (Hale’s pseudonym for the newspaper stunt) and claim money as a reward, Pinkie decides to murder him for his leaking of the story in the press. Sustaining a credible alibi for the time of Hale’s murder then becomes his preoccupation and the focus of the story. By planting Kolly Kibber’s cards around the town which allow the finders to claim ten-shillings from the paper, Pinkie believes that the police will be fooled into thinking that Hale didn’t die until around 2 pm, a time for which Pinkie had arranged to be well away from the area of the murder. But one of the gang members leaves a card in Snow’s café. Pinkie is immediately alerted to the danger: the possibility that the waitress at the café who finds the card notices that the customer who sat at that table didn’t match the picture of Kibber in the newspaper.
This, in fact, proves to be the case. Pinkie then ensnares the innocent and susceptible waitress, Rose, played by Carol Marsh, into a relationship with him, ending in marriage which means that she will not be able to testify against him. We are not given any hint of Pinkie’s revulsion at having to consummate the marriage that night; his sense of descending into Hell through the sexual act and the exchange of bodily fluids.
The trusting, inexperienced Rose, seventeen years of age, infatuated by her ‘glamourous’ partner also seventeen, remains unaware of his manipulating nature and the fact that he never loved her but rather despised her until the very end.
For connoisseurs of movie trivia there is a nice little continuity error near the beginning of the movie. Hale, attempting to escape the clutches of Pinkie’s gang and catch a train back to London, sees some of the gang members watching out for him at the station gates. He jumps a number 40 bus, destination North Road, advertising Tamplin’s Ales on the near-side . In the next shot it’s a number 6 bus heading to Fishersgate advertising Andrews Liver Salt before becoming the number 40 again where Hale jumps off.
Another movie which reaches back to the inter-war years is Waterfront (1950). This is set in the port of Liverpool where the McCabe family live in a grubby tenement block in one of the slum areas of the city. Kathleen Harrison plays the mother, abandoned back in 1919 by her merchant seaman husband, Peter McCabe played by Robert Newton. After fourteen years of struggle, she has raised two daughters, Nora (Avis Scott) and Connie (Susan Shaw – yes, again), and a son, George Alexander (Robin Netscher).
Based on a novel by John Brophy and directed by Michael Anderson, the movie provides us with a few more glimpses of Liverpool in the fifties, a place that had not changed much since our last glimpse in The Magnet. We see the much missed Overhead Railway which ran the length of the dock road; Princess Landing Stage and the famous Liver Building, blackened with soot after just fifty years of standing in the smoky city; two of the large department stores, Owen Owen and George Henry Lee [the former gone and the latter only recently relocated to Liverpool One shopping precinct]; and Walton Prison. We also get a short ride on a mock-up of a Liverpool tram, also long gone. The story is set against the backdrop of the depression in the early thirties, the lay-offs and the hopelessness of unemployment. Not surprising for movies of this era, no one speaks with a recognisable Liverpool accent. The casting of Richard Burton and Kenneth Griffith in the movie ensure that there is more than a pinch of the Welsh dialect, an acceptable ingredient in the port’s cosmopolitan mix. Kathleen Harrison uses an accent indistinguishable from her normal appearances in other movies. Nora and Connie occasionally slips into a type of light Lancashire accent while Robert Newton uses the idiosyncratic form of the cockney he used in This Happy Breed. This, together with his twisting head-gestures and rolling eyes make it look as though he’s unable to shake off his earlier role as Long John Silver in the Disney version of Treasure Island (also 1950).
Once again the cautionary tale for young girls forms one of the sub-plots to the movie. This time, Connie, dissatisfied with the poverty and the life of drudgery that faces her, is determined to break out. Unlike her level-headed older sister who is engaged to a ship’s engineer, she prefers to date young men with money to lavish on her. The latest of these boy-friends is Morris Bruno (Kenneth Griffith), a smart operator at making money in these depressed times and she flirts openly with him in the hopes of eventually marrying him. She dreams of the life of ease she’ll have when she is married. When Nora accuses her of being bone-lazy she replies:
“Not half so lazy as I’m going to be when I’m married. I shall lie in bed every morning. The ladies-maid to bring me a cup of tea and breakfast in bed. No scrubbing floors and looking after dirty kids for me. Not when I marry Morris.”
When Nora warns Connie that Morris is not the marrying sort she retorts:
“As for Morris not being the marrying sort, you just leave that to me. I know how to handle him”
Connie is no innocent Rose. When he presses himself a little too tightly into her during a dance, she tells him to ‘Calm down, calm down’. He replies:
“I bring you out and I give you a good time and what do I get in return?”
Connie, confident that she has him under her spell and simply says:
“The pleasure of my company. That should be enough. More than you deserve.”
Morris persists and drives Connie to Chester where he wines and dines her at an expensive restaurant. She plays along with his rather crass attempt to seduce her. As she sips her champagne she says, teasingly:
“Champagne. I am having some new experiences tonight, aren’t I?”
He agrees. He wants to lure her to a secluded cottage where he hopes to spend the night with her after plying her with more drink. She’s smart enough to know exactly what he’s up to and goes along willingly and just as willingly lets him follow her up into bed.
The reappearance of their errant father and his conviction for murder stymie Connie’s plans; Morris believes he can use this knowledge of her family predicament to waive such social niceties as marriage in order to enjoy her sexual favours anytime he wants. In his car she complains:
“You think you can do anything you like with me.”
To which he responds:
“Now have I ever done anything you didn’t want me to?”
She doesn’t yet appreciate that her chances of marriage have blown away on the ill-wind that carried her father back to Liverpool and agrees to spend another night with Morris at the cottage. But when the suggestion is raised that they might get married, he laughs at the idea and makes it clear that she is to be nothing more than his mistress. The woman that he marries will be ‘pure’. Her dreams smashed to pieces, she slaps him and walks out crying. He shouts after her:
“Get out of here. And you can go back to your slummy home on your own two feet.”
A salutary lesson has been delivered to all you young working-class girls with aspirations above your station, who think you can get your man by surrendering your virginity. To counter-balance Connie’s profligacy, Norma’s constancy as she and her fiancé are prepared to wait until their economic situation has improved before copulating shows that abstinence is eventually rewarded. Sexuality, while a potent force, has to be restrained is the lesson here. Nevertheless, the producers and distributers of the movie were not afraid to exploit our prurient fascination with sex; the movie was later retitled Waterfront Women with the poster displaying a young lady of the night hitching up her skirt to fix her stockings to her suspenders. Well, you have to attract your audience somehow.
John Brophy also wrote the book on which another movie was based, Turn the Key Softly (1953). Kathleen Harrison co-stars again, this time with Yvonne Mitchell and Joan Collins, where they play three women on their release day from prison. The movie tracks the progress of these three very different characters in their first twenty-four hours of freedom. Mrs Quillian (Kathleen Harrison) is a shoplifter, ageing now and hoping to be able to desist from her recidivist ways. Stella Jarvis (Joan Collins), a very attractive and materialistic young girl, had been making her living as a prostitute but now plans to reform herself, marry and settle down with her bus conductor boy-friend. But it’s Monica Marsden’s story that carries the cautionary tale. Monica is played by Yvonne Mitchell, dark and alluring and in control, or so it would seem. She is an upper-class professional woman who had been jailed for her part in a burglary, corrupted by her lover, David (Terence Morgan), and taking the rap for the crime rather than betray him. Her prison sentence had given her time to reflect on David’s selfishness for allowing her to take the blame and never even bothering to visit her during her incarceration. She resolves never to have anything more to do with him. However, once David turns up on her doorstep after her release, she immediately falls under his spell again. On the pretext of collecting the clothes she had left at his apartment during their affair, David is quickly able to lure her back into bed with him. Her sexual cravings sated after twelve months enforced abstinence, all her resentment and thoughts of revenge melt away and, as Monica lies still tingling with the thrill of him inside her, she is blissfully unaware that she is about to be fooled into another criminal excursion. Once bitten, twice smitten, as they should say.
Coincidently, women’s experience of crime and imprisonment forms the context of two other movies from around this same period. Both The Weak and the Wicked (1954) and Yield to the Night (1956), were stories adapted from the novels of Joan Henry and both movies were directed by J. Lee Thompson. Joan Henry had herself served a prison sentence for fraud and she would marry J. Lee Thompson a few years later in 1958. In both movies, the voluptuous Diana Dors makes an appearance as the enticing platinum-blonde femme-fatale. In The Weak and the Wicked, she has a supporting role to Glynis Johns but she takes on the lead in Yield to the Night and won critical acclaim for her depiction of a woman awaiting execution for the murder of her one-time lover.
Another reason for the success of this movie was the fact that it appeared on the cinema screens just one year after the actual execution of Ruth Ellis. Born Ruth Hornby (later Neilson) to a family struggling to make a living, at the age of seventeen she had a child by an already married Canadian soldier. This child was brought up by her mother while she became a nightclub hostess at the Court Club in London. From being seduced she herself became a seductress, posing nude and prostituting herself to the clients in the club. Then, in 1950, at the age of twenty-four, she married George Ellis, seventeen years her senior, who turned out to be an unpredictable and possessive alcoholic. After giving birth to her second child she separated from her husband and returned to her former occupation. She had now dyed her hair blonde.
By 1953 Ruth had become the manager of a club, socialising with celebrities and living the high-life. She began a relationship with David Blakely, a former public-school boy from a wealthy, well-established family, but a little later became the mistress of another man, Desmond Cussen, director of a family firm, while the affair with Blakely continued and became more violent and abusive. In 1955 she suffered a miss-carriage probably because of her treatment at the hands of Blakely who she believed was having affairs himself. This complicated situation ended when Ruth Ellis shot Blakely dead in the street. She made very little effort to offer any defence and was convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged. There was some unease about the case and many people were in favour of a reprieve believing that it had been a crime passionnel. There were feelings too that the trial and sentence had been vindictive because of the difference in social status between herself and that of her victim. The trial judge, Mr Justice Havers, even told the jury to ignore any suggestion that she had been abused by Blakely.
“Ruth was a young woman, you may think, badly treated by the deceased man. Nothing of that sort must enter into your consideration . . . according to our law it is no defence . . . to prove that she was a jealous woman and had been badly treated by her lover and was in ill-health.”
And no attempt was made to attach any blame to her other lover, Desmond Cussen. She later claimed that Cussen had provided her with the gun, taught her how to use it and had driven her to the place where the murder took place. This last minute testimony was presented to Gwilym Lloyd George, the Conservative Home Secretary but he refused to commute the sentence. This was despite the fact that reprieve was commonplace at the time. This seemed to support the suspicion that the establishment was making an example of Ruth because of her class and the fact that she was a sexually promiscuous woman. Such behaviour was only permissible if you were from the upper classes, like Dorothy MacMillan, the wife of Harold MacMillan, the Foreign Secretary at the time of Ruth’s hanging and soon to be Prime Minister of the country. She had been having an outrageous affair with Harold Macmillan’s colleague, another prominent Tory M.P., Lord Boothby who fathered her daughter, Sarah. Or, even more pertinent, the case of Edward VIII’s former French mistress, Marguerite Alibert, who shot dead her husband, Ali Bey Kemel Fahmy, in 1923 but who was acquitted of his murder after Ali’s character was completely destroyed by her council while the Judge ruled that Marguerite’s history of prostitution and sexual promiscuity could not be heard in court – afterall, that history of promiscuity included the future King of England!
Raymond Chandler, American author and creator of the private eye, Philip Marlowe, wrote of the Ruth Ellis case:
‘This was a crime of passion under considerable provocation. No other country in the world would hang this woman.’
Yet Ruth went to the gallows, a real-life bleached-blonde femme-fatale just like in the movies. And she wasn’t the only person to be judicially murdered in this decade by the powers that be. The tale of Timothy Evans would be exposed in the book Ten Rillington Place in 1961 by Ludovic Kennedy, which made into a movie in 1971; his tragic end was commemorated in song by Ewan MacColl:
The Ballad of Tim Evans
Tim Evans was a prisoner,
Fast in his prison cell
And those who read about his crimes,
They damned his soul to hell,
Sayin', "Go down, you murderer, go down."
For the murder of his own dear wife
And the killing of his own child
The jury found him guilty
And the hangin' judge, he smiled.
Sayin', "Go down, you murderer, go down."
Tim Evans pleaded innocent
And he swore by Him on high,
That he never killed his own dear wife
Nor caused his child to die.
Sayin', "Go down, you murderer, go down."
The governor came in one day
And the chaplain by his side,
Said, "Your appeal has been turned down,
Prepare yourself to die."
Sayin', "Go down, you murderer, go down."
They moved him out of C-block
To his final flowery dell,
And day and night two screws were there
And they never left his cell.
Sayin', "Go down, you murderer, go down."
Sometimes they played draughts with him
And solo and pontoon,
To stop him brooding on the rope
That was to be his doom.
Sayin', "Go down, you murderer, go down."
They brought his grub in on a tray,
There was eggs and meat and ham,
And all the snout that he could smoke
Was there at his command.
Sayin', "Go down, you murderer, go down."
Tim Evans walked in the prison yard
And the screws, they walked behind;
And he saw the sky above the wall
But he knew no peace of mind.
Sayin', "Go down, you murderer, go down."
They came for him at eight o'clock
And the chaplain read a prayer
And then they marched him to that place
Where the hangman did prepare.
Sayin', "Go down, you murderer, go down."
The rope was fixed around his neck
And a washer behind his ear.
The prison bell was tolling
But Tim Evans did not hear.
Sayin', "Go down, you murderer, go down."
A thousand lags were cursing
And a-banging on the doors;
But Evans couldn't hear them,
He was deaf for ever more.
Sayin', "Go down, you murderer, go down."
They sent Tim Evans to the drop
For a crime he did not do.
It was Christy was the murderer
And the judge and jury too.
Sayin', "Go down, you murderers, go down."
One year after Ruth Ellis was put to death, in 1957, we find a movie billed as an exposé of the intricate and sordid workings of the prostitution racket in London. The Flesh is Weak starred Milly Vitale as Marissa Cooper, a beautiful young Italian girl recently arrived in London and desperate to find work. She is quickly selected by a ruthless gang of criminals run by the Giani brothers as suitable fodder for their prostitution racket. After being drawn into what she believes is a love affair with Tony (John Derek), the younger of the Giani brothers, she is gradually groomed into whoring for him. The film refrains from showing any actual salacious scenes, the only act of passion being one in which Milly is interrupted while being encouraged to perform oral sex on Tony. Instead, it focusses on the entrapment techniques used by the pimps to get the girls working the streets for them. Leigh Vance directed this movie in which the stars and supporting cast all gave convincing performances, especially John Derek. The Flesh Is Weak is an intriguing movie in the light of current scandals involving the grooming of young girls for the purposes of sexual exploitation especially as there is an implication that this is something quite alien to our culture, emanating from recently introduced ethnic attitudes towards females in society. Maybe if we all examined our sexual attitudes and impulses honestly we wouldn’t be so quick to make such judgements.
The decision to have the criminal gang in this movie so conspicuously of Italian decent seems more than a little controversial now but, as with Brighton Rock, it was to some extent predicated on an actual criminal family, the Messina Brothers, who had moved into and dominated the London underworld, trafficking women for prostitution throughout the Thirties, Forties and into the Nineteen-Fifties. It was only after the crusading journalist, Duncan Webb began publishing articles about their highly profitable prostitution operations that any action was taken against them and they fled the country. So, while the role of the crusading journalist Lloyd Buxton (William Franklyn) in the movie might strike us today as rather prim and prissy, it did have some basis in fact. Having acknowledged this, it is disturbing to discover how often the gangsters in these period movies turn out to be of Italian lineage, with The Noose (1948) and Assassin for Hire (1951) being other examples which, combined together, result in the creation of a negative national stereotype.
And so the cautionary tale theme continues well beyond this decade, weaving in and out of the crime genre. You’d think by now the lesson would be learnt and young, nubile girls would be wary of leery-eyed men enticing them with their wealth and promises in exchange for carnal access to their bodies. But….well, while the dangers are real enough, it’s probably better to admit now that the tales are less about caution and more about titillation. Cinema, right from the outset, has always had a taste for sexploitation; a universal truth readily acknowledged, as Jane Austen might have said had she been taken to the movies.
Arthur La Bern might not have approved of Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of his novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square but we can see why Hitchcock was attracted to the story. He had quite a penchant for stories where vulnerable young ladies are exposed to danger in the form of mentally unhinged and ultimately murderous men, as was the case in Frenzy, in Psycho, in Shadow of a Doubt, in Strangers on a Train, in…so many others. But Hitchcock’s fascination was shared by La Bern. He had started out as a crime reporter and, as well as his novels he also wrote a study of George Joseph Smith, a notorious serial-killer who murdered the women he married by jerking them up by the feet when they were in the bath, the shock of which caused them to drown without any sign of a struggle. He then collected the life-insurance and obtained their valuables. Smith became known as the Brides in the Bath murderer after he was caught and hanged in 1915. Following this, La Bern wrote a further study of John George Haigh, the Acid Bath Murderer. Haigh would lure his victims to his garage, kill them and then dissolve their bodies in an oil drum into which he poured concentrated sulphuric acid. He then forged papers to claim their possessions. He killed at least six people in this way and possibly nine. He was caught and hanged in 1949. The newspapers of course, as with the Ruth Ellis case, relished the prospect of relaying the accounts of these trials to their prurient public and the British cinema was not immune to the possibilities of exploiting such lurid tales of psychopathic serial killers either.
One of these stories about the depraved depths to which men can sink, was Cover Girl Killer (1959), a little known movie of the fifties, set in the seedy backstreets of Soho and starring Harry H. Corbett. Corbett was seen as a promising young actor at this time, three years before he would become Harold Steptoe in the T.V. comedy series Steptoe and Son, which virtually ended his career as a serious actor. Here we see him as a deranged voyeur with a perverted sense of morality which sees the semi-naked girls on the covers of glamour magazines as the root of all the world’s ills. His duty is to pursue and murder the girls who appear on the cover of WOW magazine for corrupting mankind. (Perhaps he should have applied for a job in the Film Censor’s Office). In order to lure the girls into his net, Corbett wears a ridiculous and obvious disguise. In his first scene in the movie he appears wearing a dirty white mac, a shapeless wig and the thickest pair of pebble glasses you can imagine. The overall impact is not of shock or horror but farce and yet, for some reason, the girls are taken in. The wardrobe department on this movie did more to harm Corbett’s reputation than Steptoe ever did.
Just one year later, Michael Powell would direct a movie written by Leo Marks about another psychopathic lady killer that was considered so depraved, evil and pornographic by the critics at the time that it virtually ended Powell’s illustrious career as a director. The movie was Peeping Tom (1960) and it has since become an international cult classic. Similar in plot to Cover Girl Killer in several ways, the writing, direction and acting are far superior. For this movie, Marks has created a protagonist, Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) with such a disturbed background and a personality that it has provided psychoanalysts with plenty of fertile ground to plant their theories and compete for the nourishment of acclaim.
Both films have, as an undercurrent to the plot, the pornographic industry that flourished then as now though the medium for its distribution has changed dramatically. With Cover Girl Killer, we are dealing with soft-porn which is as far as you could go in cinema at this time anyway. No actual nudity though there is reference to it when ‘The Man’ tells his latest victim, Joy Adams (Christina Gregg) as he prepares a photo-shoot prior to murdering her ‘I assure you, you’re nudity means nothing to me’. We’re in the realm of show-girls and models; girls who make their living out of showing off their bodies to men. In Peeping Tom, we also have prostitutes. Mark Lewis’s first victim is a prostitute and part of his income comes from his pornographic photographs, pictures which are sold under the counter in sleazy Soho shops. In some edits of this movie we also have a second or two of a bare breast – just the one. Both the protagonists in these two movies operate in areas that are just beyond the fringes of lawful commerce, in the territory of criminal activity where the ‘law-abiding’ public come to spend their money on illicit merchandise. This borderline between law and order and criminality is a moveable one like the borders of nation states. What might be illegal today could be lawful tomorrow and vice versa. We have many examples over the past fifty years of such cases: Abortion, homosexuality, drink-driving, nudity on stage, gambling, cigarette smoking in public places…… and it’s not just the criminals who inhabit this amoral no-man’s land – the police are here too, patrolling the dark alleys and passage-ways that run between the lines.
While Basil Dearden’s achievement for Pool of London might have gone unrecognised, an earlier directorial effort of his, The Blue Lamp (1950) received immediate acclaim. This movie was to become an iconic piece of British cinema for over a decade and would spawn a television spin-off, Dixon of Dock Green, with scripts written by Ted Willis. It ran for a remarkable twenty-one years from 1955 to 1976. Dearden uses some quite adventurous camera and editing techniques in the film as well as staging another of his dramatic car chase – not quite as authentic as Pool of London this time, with the street totally deserted. Despite the acclaim Dearden received, The Blue Lamp doesn’t stand the test of time either as a story or as a cinematic experience. The screen-play, written by Tibby Clarke (though based on an original treatment by Ted Willis and Jan Read), now appears as nothing more than a crude piece of establishment propaganda. Its aim was to reassure an anxious population who were worried about an apparent crime-wave that the forces of order, plodding though they may appear, were on the job. Clarke, an ex-policeman himself and an absurdist by temperament produced some of the most memorable comedy scripts in British cinema during this period: Hue and Cry; Passport to Pimlico; The Lavender hill Mob; Barnacle Bill; The Magnet. He was also the screen-writer on the adaption of D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Sons and Lovers. With The Blue Lamp he seems to have rested his imaginative talents and resorted to sentimentality.
In a documentary style opening to the movie we see an innocent man shot on the street by a gangster attempting to escape the police. The narrator then speaks over a spread of newspaper headlines:
‘To this man (the victim of the shooting), until today, the Crime Wave was nothing but a newspaper headline. What stands between the ordinary public and this outbreak of crime? What protection has the man in the street against this armed threat to his life and property? At the Old Bailey, Mr Justice Fillimore in passing sentence for a crime of robbery with violence, gave this plain answer: “This is perhaps another illustration of the disaster caused by insufficient numbers of police. I have no doubt that one of the best preventatives of crime is the regular uniform police-officer on the beat.”’
Jack Warner and Tommy Hanley, after being on opposite sides of the law in It always rains on Sunday, are back together on the same team for this little drama. PC Andy Mitchell (Tommy Hanley) is a new recruit, making his first excursion out on the beat. He is taken under the wing of PC George Dixon (Jack Warner) who, after serving for many years, is on the brink of retirement. The scene is set for the old timer to pass on his street-wisdom to this green copper. This is demonstrated in their first scene together when George is able to put Andy straight about a young boy who pretends to be lost in order to get a jam bun at the police station. Andy then makes the mistake of identifying a man on the street as a C.I.D. officer. Never mind, it’s his first day and he’ll learn.
After a few introductions to the other policemen back at the station we get to the meat of the movie. George and Andy are sent round to sort out an incident of domestic violence as some rundown tenement buildings in their precinct. While George takes away Alfie Lewis, Andy interviews his wife in their single-roomed lodgings surrounded by young children and a baby crying. Mrs Lewis tells Andy the problem started when their eldest daughter left home two days ago. ‘She’s ever such a pretty one’ she tells him before the narrator comes back in, talking over a shot of a teenage girl walking through the brightly-light night spots of London:
‘The case of Diana Lewis is typical of many. A young girl showing the effect of a childhood spent in a home broken and demoralised by war.’
Well, no doubt there, it’s that silly young impressionable girl again, attracted by the high-life and escaping her dowdy prospects. But it’s what the narrator says next that is really important. Over a sequence of shots of young men obviously up to no good, he continues:
‘These restless and ill-adjusted youngsters have produced a type of delinquent which is partly responsible for the post-war increase in crime. Some are content with pilfering and petty theft. Others, with more bravado graduate to serious offences. Youths with brain enough to plan and organise criminal adventures and yet who lack the code, experience and self-discipline of the professional thief, which sets them as a class apart. All the more dangerous because of their immaturity. Young men such as these two (focusing now on Dirk Bogarde and Patric Doonan entering a billiard hall) present a new problem to the police; men as yet without records or natural cunning and a ruthless use of violence has so far kept them out of trouble. The small, exclusive circle which represents the underworld does not accept them and they’re avoided by the regular criminals for they are a liability even to their associates’
The message is very clear; the police are dealing with new type of criminal – young tearaways who have no honour and follow no code.
Diana Lewis will eventually end up as the girlfriend of Dirk Bogarde who plays the violently unpredictable criminal, Tom Riley with great skill, his rapidly changing emotions flashing like sparks of electricity across his face: confidence, anger, fear, sadistic enjoyment. When a robbery goes wrong, Riley shoots poor George Dixon dead and the manhunt begins. Eventually, Riley is cornered at a greyhound race-track meeting and, who should help capture this renegade but the members of that very ‘underworld’, those ‘regular criminals’ who do ‘not accept’ these ‘ill-adjusted youngsters’. And thanks to these criminals who do not lack a code, justice is done!
But wait a minute. What’s going on here? Who exactly are these ‘regular criminals’, these professional thieves with their codes and self-discipline? This being the nineteen-fifties and London surely we’re talking about the Richardsons and the Krays or their immediate predecessors, the Messina Brothers, the Sabini gang, Billy Hill and Jack Spot, all of whom controlled crime in the capital in their time with a ruthless use of violence. Is Tibby Clarke surreptitiously alerting us to the fact that the police are in collusion with the underworld here?
Well, we know now that this is precisely what was going on. In the late nineteen-forties, Duncan Webb, that very journalist on which the investigative reporter in The Flesh Is Weak was based and who had revealed the extent of the prostitution rackets run by the Messina Brothers, also uncovered in The People newspaper, detailed incriminating evidence about the fact that the brothers were receiving valuable support directly from Scotland Yard. Despite this, we would have to jump forward to the late nineteen-sixties before the paternalistic schmaltz that The Blue Lamp is promoting was finally laid to rest. During those fifteen years corruption was rampant. Exposés by the Times Newspaper and other publications from 1967 onwards led to trials which revealed that corruption was the norm within the Met with criminals almost licenced to continue their activities through pay-offs or extortion. This involved officers of all ranks including at least one Chief Superintendent and a Commander. So called élite forces like the Flying Squad (Sweeney) and the Obscene Publications Squad (Dirty Squad) were heavily involved in the corruption. Ironic then that the television company Thames Television, would launch a new T.V. series at this very time that would make heroes of the men in the Sweeney. Hundreds of dismissals and forced retirements followed but it didn’t solve the problem. Another attempt to clean up the Met led to the formation of a squad of detectives from outside London. Called Operation Countryman, the investigation was effectively thwarted by obstruction and misdirection as the Met closed ranks. In 1987, the private investigator, Daniel Morgan, was murdered before he could reveal new allegations of police corruption and five subsequent enquires which revealed corruption and complicity in the murder by serving police officers failed on numerous occasions to convict anyone. Mark Ellison Q.C. published a report in 2014 in which he claimed that there was evidence of police corruption in the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Check out the History of the Metropolitan Police on Wikipedia and you won’t find any trace of this whatsoever!
Interestingly enough, Tibby Clarke scripted another movie in 1958 called Gideon’s Day (also known as Gideon of Scotland Yard) based on a story by John Creasy, directed by none other than John Ford (this was one of many joint British-American ventures in these years), and starring Jack Hawkins, which involves the unmasking of a corrupt police inspector in the Flying Squad.
So, collusion and corruption continued – continues. When the Krays were finally brought to book by a special investigation squad, it was independent of the Met for obvious reasons; they had too many connections in high office protecting them from prosecution. One of the most celebrated examples of this being when Lord Boothby was identified as the Peer involved in an illicit sex-ring. Boothby was bi-sexual and homosexuality was still illegal at the time but what we are talking about here is underage sex with young boys groomed and fed to Boothby and others in sex orgies run by the Krays. We are talking about some of these boys disappearing without trace!
An attempt to prosecute the Krays and Boothby in 1964 was blocked, allegedly, by the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson for fear of revealing that a Labour M.P. Tom Driberg was also involved in this sex-ring. Lord Goodman, the then Lord Chancellor, is thought to have used various legal levers to ensure the story was quashed and the Daily Mirror which had leaked the story, paid compensation to Boothby, sacked its editor and printed apologies to both Lord Boothby and Ronnie Kray.
When Ronnie and Reggie Kray were discharged after a not guilty verdict in another case in 1965, there were stories of street parties in the East End. Why? What would make ordinary people from this close, working-class community want to celebrate their release? In an interview with reporter Fred Dinenage in 2010, actor Steven Bercoff said:
‘If you come from the working classes as I have, you cannot help but have an association with villains. You’re a child, a teenager and you hear about these young men getting into trouble and doing incredible capers and they become in a way, heroes. Not because you admire thievery and killing and brutality but you admired the sense that these people were kicking against authority. These people were physically brave. There was something noble about them. We tended to cherish and value people of courage. The fact that they were villains, well, who gives a monkeys toss. More villains were in parliament.’
And in the police force, he might have added. It’s this ‘heroic’ status that goes some way to explaining why celebrities such as Diana Dors, Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra were keen to be seen in the company of the Krays and why Barbara Windsor claimed to have had a one-night stand with Ronnie Kray. Returning to the Blue Lamp, it also explains the behaviour of the young child, Queenie, who finds the gun used in the killing of George Dixon. She is among the ‘scruffy urchins’ playing in the muddy waste-ground and refuses to co-operate with the police – brought up in a tradition where the police are not to be trusted. As she tells them:
‘My dad says you mustn’t talk to coppers. My dad says “All coppers are….”’
And why should they be trusted. The police had proved themselves to be their class enemies. Far from being heroic crime-busters, they were seen more as a means of keeping people in their proper place – under the thumb. They were used to protect the interests of the rich, break strikes, evict families. When the ultra-Fascist leader, Leonald Mossley was blocked from marching his storm-troopers through the streets of the East End in 1938 by a united crowd of workers and Jewish organisations, the police baton-charged the crowd with unbelievable brutality. They would go on to use the same brutality against anti-war demonstrators in the nineteen-sixties, against the miners in the nineteen-eighties, against the anti-poll-tax demonstrators in the nineteen-nineties. Remember Peterloo? Some things don’t change.
Other things do, fashion being one of them. Around about 1951/2 something new began to appear on the streets of this country which was peculiarly British - the Teddy Boy. It was a sight which frustrated the establishment and terrified the middle-classes; it was the personification of a disaffected working-class youth with a culture that ran counter to their own. The fashion was derived from a number of different influences, owing something to the Zoot Suit trend in America in the nineteen-forties as well as the sharp suits worn in the American gangster movies of the thirties and imitated by the ‘spivs’ in Britain throughout the thirties and forties. After the war, Saville Row tailors resurrected a style of clothing worn by wealthy gentlemen in the Edwardian era, which had an initial appeal to wealthy young gentlemen of the forties. Whatever the sources, they were bastardised and reconstituted into a very distinctive sartorial style by the working-class youth in the fifties, keen to announce their individuality and their antipathy with the conventions of the time. The look most typically consisted of a greased-back hairstyle with high quiff and long side-boards, a loose drape-coat reaching down to the mid-thigh and finished with a felt collar, a slim-Jim or maverick neck-tie, tight ‘drain-pipe’ trousers, and thick crepe-soled shoes nicknamed ‘brothel-creepers’.
The term ‘Teddy Boy’ was an invention of the Daily Express using headline shorthand for ‘Edwardian’. They had formally been referred to as ‘Cosh Boys’ in the press because, as well as their association with new musical trends and dance crazes, they had also acquired a reputation for violence and gang rivalry that spilled out onto the streets. Despite the hysteria created by the press, who represented this gang violence as an anomaly peculiar to the nineteen-fifties, urban warfare between different gangs had a long history in the industrial cities of Britain. As far back as the Nineteenth Century there were the Scuttlers in Manchester, Peaky Blinders in Birmingham, the Glasgow Razor gangs and the Liverpool Cornermen. In each case, the gangs were known to have adopted a distinctive dress style. Perhaps youth is perpetually disaffected with the clothes-sense of their elders. What a thought!
Like the press, the British Film Industry was well aware of the commercial potential in exploiting the fear of this youth counter-culture. Even in 1950, when The Blue Lamp was released, the words ‘delinquent’ and ‘youth’ had been pummelled into a compound term and used incessantly in the sensationalist press. The narrator in the Blue Lamp had referred to ‘these restless and ill-adjusted youngsters [who] have produced a type of delinquent which is partly responsible for the post-war increase in crime’. Dirk Bogarde plays out the part in a convincing portrayal of the irresponsible, unpredictably dangerous youth-criminal even though he was almost thirty years old at the time. Pinkie Brown in Brighton Rock was a young seventeen year old, wearing the distinctive trilby and pin-striped, padded-shouldered suit which identified him as a ‘spiv’. So had Whitey, one of the petty crooks in It always rains on Sunday, and he too was a youth (or at least he was in the original story). And, as the newspaper headlines attached ‘Teddy Boy’ to every public outrage from robbery to murder, the movie Cosh Boy was released with the pretentious tagline:
‘The burning question of to-day! Are they getting the punishment they deserve? - These bandits of society!"
Cosh Boy (1953), renamed The Slasher in America, was based on a play written by Bruce Walker and was directed by Lewis Gilbert who would go on to direct a clutch of much more famous films such as Sink the Bismarck, Alfie and three James Bond movies. Here, though, in this low budget enterprise, the strains of compacting a three-hour play into seventy-five minutes leaves the film seriously distorted with some poor character development lacking any coherence. The seduction of Rene Collins (Joan Collins), sister of one of the gang members by gang leader Roy Walsh (James Kenney) is reduced to a threatening encounter which, ambiguous though it is, certainly comes close to being described as rape. Her firm rejection when he makes his sexual approaches, forcing himself on her, subsides into almost immediate submission, reconfirming the old male adage that she might have said ‘no’ but she really meant ‘yes’. But, even if this was the case, the acting in this volte face does not take the audience along with it. We can’t really suspend our disbelief enough to accept that Rene would so suddenly fall in love with the sociopathic Roy. Contrast this with the performances of Sylvia Syms and Herbert Lom in No Trees on the Street (1959) where the strong emotional tensions that exist between the two inimical personalities slowly and convincingly dissolve into a far more believable sexual encounter in what, in other respects, is another inadequate adaption of a stage play. In Cosh Boy, James Kenney as Roy does put in a fine performance but, overall, the flaws in the screen-play and the inadequate direction do prove overwhelming.
The plot in the story often pivots on the fact that the gang members are too young to face proper redress for their crimes (hence the tagline ‘are they getting the punishment they deserve’). This, the movie would have us believe, contributes to their social irresponsibility and the threat their violent behaviour poses for ordered society. Although there is some attempt to show that environment factors have some significance (single-parent families, poor living conditions, lack of prospects), it’s the lack of moral direction and the selfish personalities of this spoiled generation that are presented as the real core of the problem. After innumerable outrages committed against friends and relations as well as vulnerable strangers, the bullying Roy does face this deserved comeuppance when the movie concludes with Roy’s step-father administering the corporal punishment with his leather belt which the state has failed to deliver due to a far too lenient approach to youth crime. This reactionary message is underlined when the police detectives, responsible for the administration of law and order, turn a deaf ear to the illegal beating, walking away to the sounds of Roy’s screams.
As the decade wore on, teenage delinquency was proving to be an absolute magnet for the British cinema especially after the success of the American movie Rebel Without A Cause in 1955. My Teenage Daughter (1956) was typical of the many British movies that tried to mine the same profitable seam that American cinema had discovered, the theatrical trailer actually announcing:
‘It’s today’s story.. stark and untarnished. As emotionally bold as Rebel Without A Cause.’
If only! My Teenage Daughter (later retitled as Teenage Bad Girl, uhh!!) doesn’t even deserve to be described as a pale imitation of Rebel Without A Cause. It’s a cheap movie with a cheaper script, plastered throughout with clichés depicting ersatz teenage angst: ‘crazy mixed up kid’; ‘I’m mixed up’; ‘I didn’t ask to be born’; ‘getting into the mood’; ‘it sends me’ and so on. It features coffee bars and cellars where the boys and girls listen to jazz music – of a sort. The theme music featured in this movie, ‘Get With It’, is a happy-slappy song similar to some of the worst contemporary advertising jingles. My Teenage Daughter tells the story of a young girl from a dysfunctional home; the teenage girl in question has lost her father in the war and when her mother begins dating a new partner, she feel resentful and is ready to be inducted into the shallow world of disaffected youth and juvenile delinquency.
Sylvia Syms makes her screen debut in My Teenage Daughter and gives more than a hint of the talent that would shine through in later films such as Ice Cold In Alex. Anna Neagle plays her mother and she co-produced the movie with her husband, Herbert Wilcox who also directed the sorry affair. Anna Neagle was the darling of British Cinema throughout the thirties and forties, and raised to angelic status after playing the lead in Odetta, the story of a British secret agent in occupied France, but here she is plodding through swampy ground thanks mainly to the soggy screenplay and mushy direction. The film depicts a sort of middle-class crisis where this affluent, professional parent is haunted by the fear her daughter will get mixed up with the ‘wrong-sort’. This was actually the case too with Rebel Without a Cause though, with this British spin-off, affluence is associated much more strongly with class, which makes it hard to sympathise with any of the characters in the film. Inevitably, the girl does associate with the ‘wrong-sort’ even though the person she becomes most strongly attracted to is very, very middle-class.
Released the same year as Rebel without a cause, Blackboard Jungle also had a profound effect on British movies in the late fifties. Taking as its subject, the experiences of Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) a teacher who takes up a new post in an American inner-city school and is faced with anti-social behaviour and violence, the movie proved shocking with its brutal representation of real social issues. Blackboard Jungle was the inspiration behind a flush of British movies including Spare the Rod (1961), Term of Trial (1962), To Sir with Love (1967), all involving teaches attempting to introduce more liberal approaches to working-class schools. They tend to follow the same structure with the teachers compromised in some way or other and their expectations bruised and battered. However, the solidarity of the working-class kids is usually fractured by their efforts and, while some resort to ‘type’ (brutish, mindless violence) others are inspired by the middle-class values that the teacher represents. In Sex, Class and Realism, John Hill summarises the surreptitious message inherent in these and many others films of the period:
“What is then characteristic of not only Some People, but Spare the Rod, Term of Trial and practically all of the Basil Dearden oevre, is a denial of worth and validity to working-class forms of culture. Education and advancement derives from an assimilation of middle-class norms, the ‘reform’ of working-class youth from a contact with middle-class outsiders (teachers or youth workers) who occupy the parental role” (page 111, chapter 5)
We see this very clearly in another Dearden movie, Violent Playground (1958), this time set in a deprived inner-city district of Liverpool. Some shots of the city in this movie are reminiscent of the dereliction shown in The Magnet but the main action takes place in and around Gerard Gardens, a pre-war tenement complex, now demolished, designed to improve the living-conditions of the working poor. This is where teenage gang leader, Johnny Murphy (David McCallum) lives with his sister Cathie (Anne Heywood), a local nurse, and two younger siblings. As in Blackboard Jungle, a figure of authority steps blindly into the situation and becomes embroiled in the complex relationships. The figure of authority in this case is Juvenile Liaison Officer Sergeant Jack Truman (Stanley Baker). Though not so obviously Teddy Boys (by 1958 fashions had evolved), the gang members are nevertheless portrayed as dissolute, knife-wielding would-be sociopaths who behave, at one point, as though they are addicted to Rock & Roll which has a trance-inducing effect on them.
As with Blackboard Jungle, Rock & Roll is a dangerous, evil influence on our youth. And as in Blackboard Jungle, this movie is quite prepared to use Rock & Roll as a hook to pull in a youthful audience. The latent potential popular music to corrupt - not just Rock & Roll, quite often Swing or Jazz - is a recurring theme in British and American movies of this period; we see it encouraging depraved or licentious behaviour in such 1950’s movies as Cage of Gold and I Believe in You and it would continue to be an emblem of depravity into the Sixties and Seventies.
But, no matter how evil Johnny Murphy might be, he is still seen as a hero amongst his peers. In this movie we have another of Dearden’s stock-in-trade car chases as Johnny tries to make his escape driving a laundry van through the streets of Liverpool pursued by police cars. Just as the police close in on him, a small boy (played by a young Freddie Starr) steers his bicycle in front of the leading police car and forces it to brake. When the irate policemen try to seize the boy, they are shouted down by a hostile crowd: ‘leave the boy alone!’ No love lost here either for the police.
The screenplay for this movie was written by Scottish novelist, James Kennaway who had a successful though tragically short writing career with several of his works being adapted for the screen; Basil Dearden would direct another of Kennaway’s stories, The Mindbenders in 1963. Kennaway was killed in a car accident in 1968 and the last published work before his death, Some Gorgeous Accident, tells the story of a triangular love affair and is believed to be partly based on the real life sexual relationship between Kennaway, author John le Carré and Kennaway’s wife Susan. James Kennaway was writing the screenplay for the movie The Battle of Britain (1969) when he died.
With The Blue Lamp and Violent Playground we can see that Basil Dearden had quite an appetite for movies which carried a topical or social message and it wouldn’t be long before he was directing another. In 1958 a series of events took place which shook the authorities out of their complacency and revealed their complicity in the racial abuses which were taking place against a growing West Indian population in many British cities. The most notorious of these events occurred in Notting Hill, London when street battles broke out between gangs of young white youths and the West Indian residents of the area during the last weeks of summer 1958. But there was an even earlier occurrence of these growing racial tensions when, just the week before in Nottingham, attacks on Black residents of the St. Ann’s district resulted in street warfare that was so brutal that the Nottingham Evening Post, declared: ‘the whole place was like a slaughterhouse.’
Mass immigration into Britain began around 1948, the most famous case being the arrival of the ship, Empire Windrush, on June 22nd of that year at Tilbury Dock carrying around five-hundred West Indian passengers who had responded to an advert offering them employment in this country. The shortage of labour was the result of an industrial recovery as Britain dragged itself out of the ruins of the war but it was not accompanied by an abundance of housing, so much of it having been destroyed in that war. Competition for housing was just one of the causes of the tensions that would result from the growth in immigration. Another was down-right colour prejudice; a sense of white racial supremacy. Even as the Empire Windrush was approaching the shores of Britain, government departments went into a flap about whose responsibility they were and some voices objecting to their coming were raised in Parliament. But there were no immigration laws at the time and these were citizens of the British Empire afterall. The news-reels even referred to them patronisingly as ‘sons of the Empire’.
Housing would remain one of the causes of friction between white and black along with competition for unskilled jobs. Living conditions for the new immigrants were often appalling as landlords exploited the situation, sub-dividing houses into tiny flats for immigrant families and charging unfair rents. The most notorious of these ‘slum-landlords’ was Peter Rachman who levered existing occupants who had tenancy rights over rents out of the areas he controlled so that he could move in new tenants without these rights. And he would use threats and intimidation against anyone who tried to resist him. He also ran a number of brothels and clubs. One of these clubs, Esmeralda's Barn in Soho, he gave to Ronnie Kray, possibly as a pay-off. ‘Rachmanism’ has now gone down as a by-word for such exploitative tactics used by landlords but Rachman himself did not face any legal challenge and only became notorious after his death.
At the time, the authorities tried to disguise the fact that the riots in Nottingham and Notting Hill were anything to do with fractious racial relations. The Chief Constable of Nottingham, Captain Athelstan Popkess, dismissed the riots as acts of hooliganism and senor police officers in London assured the Home Secretary, Rab Butler, that there was no evidence of racial motivation behind the riots in Notting Hill and that it was all the fault of ‘ruffians’. These rejections of the true reasons for the riots were intended to conceal the fact that the police had completely failed to protect the black population against the vicious acts of aggression they were suffering and, more profoundly, they were a means for government to evade the issues which immigration was throwing up. As usual in this country, the establishment closed ranks and kept the true police records hidden for forty-four years.
These records confirm what we have always known; the disturbances in Notting Hill were triggered by a mob of up to four-hundred ‘Keep Britain White’ youths, described as ‘Teddy Boys’, armed with iron bars, butcher’s knives and weighted leather belts, hunting down and beating-up West Indian residents in the area. On the nights when the mass attacks first began, police stood by and watched. It wasn’t until the black residents formed a protective force and armed themselves with similar weapons, managing to beat off the white youths that the police took any action. Though such denials of fact might seem ludicrous to us now, they are at the root of what later became clear in the Steven Laurence enquiry when, in 1998, Sir William MacPherson described the Metropolitan Police Force as ‘institutionally racist’. In blanketing themselves in such denials the police were failing to deal with the problem that existed within their own ranks.
It seems that, whenever serious rioting occurs anywhere in Britain, the first reaction of the authorities is to dismiss any suggestion of deep-seated problems and to label it as bloody-minded hooliganism. In the case of the Notting Hill riots, we know now that white supremacy organisations had been active in the area, stoking resentment amongst the disaffected white working-class population and encouraging violence against blacks. But, by the time we have unravel the truth from the lies, the wound has been bandaged and the infection has been left to fester for another generation to deal with.
You can feel some of the intense energy and excitement that the immigrants from Africa and the West Indies were introducing to British society along with the resulting racial tensions in the almost contemporaneous London novels of Colin MacInnes: City of Spades and Absolute Beginners.
Though the authorities might have wanted to ignore the growing problem of racial antagonism in our streets, it would be unfair to say that the British film industry did as well - not entirely anyway. There are some interesting examples throughout the fifties of a growing awareness of the issue. Basil Dearden was among the first to highlight the issue of prejudice when, in Pool of London, Johnny Lambert had been faced with outright hostility from a number of white people. He tells Pat that, when he’s at the wheel of a ship at night, far away with nothing else to do, he wonders why one man is born white and another isn’t. When Pat tells him it doesn’t matter, he quickly retorts:
‘It does you know. Maybe one day it won’t anymore, but it still does.’
Often it’s only a solitary black face we see, as in the Bethnal Green market in It Only Rains on Sunday or in the billiard room of The Blue Lamp or in the Amusement Arcade in The Yellow Balloon. In another movie of the time, Hunted (1952) Chris Lloyd (Dirk Bogarde) is a man on the run and is so desperate at one point that he begs a cigarette from a black man on the street who immediately offers him his last one. But, in a much later movie, Tiger Bay (1959), directed by J. Lee Thompson, we see a story set against a well-established mixed community in the docklands of Cardiff; so well established, in fact, that it’s the white girl, Gillie Evans (Hayley Mills) who is treated as the outsider because she comes from London. In Violent Playground, we see black, white and Chinese children mixing together in the streets and tenements of Liverpool. This same Chinese community was depicted in an earlier movie, The Clouded Yellow (1950) which visits Liverpool for its denouement.
Then we come to Sapphire (1959), Basil Dearden’s intriguing little movie about a young girl who is found murdered one morning on Hampstead Heath. The movie has some wonderfully cringing moments for us now, the first being the shock the police inspectors get when Sapphire’s brother (Earl Cameron) arrives at the station to give evidence and turns out to be a black man. Sapphire, it happens, had been of mixed blood and, because of her skin tone, was passing herself off as white. Notice the term ‘passing herself off’. Prejudice and distrust between the races is barely beneath the surface throughout the movie and one of the purposes of this murder mystery is to point a spotlight on the problem and the destructive nature that colour prejudice can have. But even in the telling of this period-piece of cinema, we are faced with reactions and comments which reveal an internalised racism inherent in the screenplay and the direction. In the end, after a number of false leads and red herrings thrown into the paths of our two investigating policemen (played by Nigel Patrick and Michael Craig), we are expected to believe that it was Sapphire’s failure to reveal her true blood lineage to her fiancé’s family that provided sufficient motivation for her murder; to accept, in other words, that Sapphire is partly to blame for her own demise by playing at being white. The tolerant Superintendent Hazard (Nigel Patrick) stands in contrast to his subordinate Phil Learoyd (Michael Craig) who makes no effort to conceal his contempt for black people. But even Hazard displays a tendency to view black’s through the distorting lenses of white cultural stereotypes where, even those with ‘lilly skins’ can’t disguise their innate impulses, their voluptuous appetites. ‘You can always tell,’ says the manager of Tulips Jazz Club, ‘once they hear the beat of the bongo..’ to which one of the apparently white girls at the bar starts moving her feet and swaying her head to the rhythm:
‘Yes, no matter how fair the skin, they can’t hide that swing.’
‘Tulips’, the club where Johnnie Fiddle (Harry Baird) hangs out is not such a disturbing environment to Hazard as it is to Learoyd because Hazard expects it, tolerates it and can negotiate it like some white imperial police-superintendent in a subservient African colony. Earlier, when perusing Sapphire’s clothes in the police-station, he was initially puzzled by the flamboyantly seductive underclothes that she wore under much more conservative outer garments. This is all explained when he finds out that Sapphire was actually ‘coloured’. The crude symbolism of the gaudy knickers underlining the message that she was black underneath that white skin. No surprise then when it turns out that that Sapphire was pregnant when she was murdered. Of course, if we’d been paying attention to the sexual activities of ordinary young white girls in the movies from Holiday Camp (1947), through Women of Twilight (1951), Cosh Boy (1953), Serious Charge (1959) and on into the Sixties, then we’d appreciate that falling pregnant outside of marriage wasn’t the prerogative of black girls, but that kind of spoils the underlying cultural myopia inherent in this movie despite its good intentions.
And there were good intentions we mustn’t forget. One of which was to try and break some of the more obvious stereotypes held by white people. Sapphire was a student at the Royal College of Music, we hear. Her brother is a doctor and Paul Slade (Gordon Heath), one of the men she associated with at the International Club is a lawyer. Slade himself is intolerant of people with mixed blood, claiming he never contemplated marriage with Sapphire because she was ‘partly white’. He also reveals a haughty attitude to the police inspector whom he regards as servile and beneath him in class. In another scene, a black member of the International Club is heard referring to a Chinese student as ‘Wishy-washy there’.
Sapphire, like Tiger Bay, gives us an unwelcome insight into the living conditions of black and mixed race communities at the time, conditions that would prevail for many years only to be replaced in many instances by more modern but equally brutal estates. These sordid, overcrowded tenements were the lairs of the Rachman’s of this country who flourished before legislation was enacted to protect tenants from such extortion. Legislation that has since been chipped away until it is almost useless.
Less well-known than Sapphire put perhaps more direct in dealing with the issues is Flame in the Street (1961) which also highlights the living conditions of black immigrants into this country but goes much further in addressing racial prejudice both in the work-place and the home. Based on a play, Hot Summer Night, by our old screenwriter/playwright friend Ted Willis, the movie switches the action from the summer to Bonfire Night (Guy Fawkes Night). The change is significant metaphorically as it substitutes the simmering distrust and dislike between white and black which eventually reaches boiling-point for the cold climate of both the country and the hearts of the people. While in Sapphire we view the impact of immigration from a white perspective, in Flame on the Street there is some attempt to give expression to the black experience, living in a country growing more hostile to their presence.
In the movie, the incidence of racial prejudice is introduced in the workplace where the union leader in a furniture manufacturing factory, Jacko Palmer (John Mills), battles with some of his own union members for equality of opportunity on the shop-floor by allowing a black worker, Gabriel Gomez (Earl Cameron) to take up a position of charge-hand. It then moves into the home of Jacko and his wife Nell ( Brenda De Banzie) and the home of Gabriel and his wife Judy (Ann Lynn) were we see prejudice revealed in the attitudes of different members of the same families. It concludes on the streets where the flames of racial hatred are stoked by a band of Teddy Boys now clad mostly in leather.
Flame in the Streets was directed by Roy Ward Baker and had been a television production in-between its run as a play and the making of the movie. It had quite a distinguished cast; as well as John Mills and Earl Cameron, the movie includes Sylvia Syms who plays the daughter of Jacko Palmer who is in love with Peter Lincoln, played by a young and up-and-coming actor Johnny Sekka. Syms and Sekka play teachers at a local school. Harry Baird (Jonnie from Sapphire) also makes an appearance and, in his pre-Steptoe existence, Wilfred Brambell plays the father of Jacko, a retired union official himself. John Mills’ performance stands out both for its strength and its artificialness in the characterisation of a typical shop-steward in post-war Britain. It certainly doesn’t caricature the union leader or the members of the union as many other British movies did but it somehow lacks credibility – perhaps because the movie, despite its many changes, is still ‘stagey’ and the dialogue belongs more to the theatre than to the big screen.
Flame in the Streets is more difficult to critically analyse than Sapphire and I’m not sure why. The tensions that are exposed in the film are still with us and have grown more intense with immigration from the Indian sub-continent and other areas of the former Empire. It’s an uncomfortable movie to watch because of our ability to fill in the gap between when it was produced and the present day. Perhaps the difficulty comes from the admission that I’m not sure where we’re heading with this question since it certainly hasn’t been answered. In the long run, we all have to accept that we are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants into this country and that this has always caused social tensions e.g. The Irish immigration into Britain at the end of the Nineteenth Century. Maybe it requires centuries rather than years to accommodate. But centuries didn’t stop the Holocaust.
Both Sapphire and Flame in the Street mix race-relations with sexual-relationships in their melodramatic recipes because, remember, this is commercial cinema. But Flame in the Streets is less exploitative and more concerned with the perceived difficulties of inter-racial relationships. We hear a range of views on this subject expressed from different life-experiences. In the end though, nothing is settled. In the end, both literally and figuratively, there is a stand-off.
And with Sapphire and Fire on the Streets, we are moving towards the end of the Nineteen-Fifties and a period which, in an after-glow of the war and the call for equanimity that had been made to overcome a common disaster, had resulted in a new government and a type of consensus that things had to change – improve. There was talk of Britain becoming a meritocracy, of improved living-conditions, of slum-clearance, of equality of opportunity. People’s expectations grew. American cinema fed the dream with visions of overflowing affluence. Televisions were becoming more commonplace in the homes of working people. At first, television had been controlled by the BBC’s monopoly which fed the population on a diet of paternalistic roughage which it judged was beneficial to the cultural health of the nation. But in 1955, commercial television (Independent Television – ITV) appeared and, at last, we were able to move away from the nutritionally imbalanced fare of Ballet, Opera, Shakespearean drama and classical music. The BBC had to compete for its audience in order to justify its fee.
Outside the home there were also signs of this blatant consumerism appearing in the clustered, Nineteenth Century streets of Britain’s cities. As we head towards the end of the fifties, ordinary working people – not just the Joe Huggetts, but ordinary working people were able to afford to own a car! A little car anyway.
Little cars like the Ford Anglia. In 1960 an odd little movie called Never Let Go was released. Directed by John Guillermin, written and produced by Peter De Sarigny, it’s odd for a number of reasons. In the first place, it starred Peter Sellers acting in a straight role, one in which he adopts a northern accent of some description. So unusual this appears now that we wait for a good minute or so after he first speaks for him to begin playing the clown. After we put this expectation aside, we see him grow into the role of Lionel Meadows, a ruthless and thuggish garage-owner, the boss of a profitable little racket involving stolen cars which he re-badges with the registration plates and log-books of cars that had already been sent to the scrapyard. This prolific little scam, as we can see from the movie, began a long time ago.
The second oddity is the prominence this movie gives to such a proletarian car – a lovely little 1959 Ford Anglia. Not a swanky Jaguar or a precious little vintage number as in many of the movies around this time but the precocious little Ford Anglia! With its American streamline styling on its petite British chassis: a grinning radiator grille; protruding headlamps, slopping roof, backward-slanting rear-window; and tiny rear wings, the Anglia became a favourite for working-class families and a common sight on the streets of Britain.
This particular Ford Anglia was the pride and joy and necessary appendage of cosmetics salesman, John Cummings (Richard Todd). Already under pressure to improve his sales figures, when his car is stolen, Cummings’ life begins to spiral downwards. He begins to see its loss as emblematic of his own failing character – its retrieval as deliverance. Not quite on the scale of Michael Kohlhaas perhaps but it still becomes a burning obsession. Cummings identifies Meadows as the key mover in the crime. Symbolically, Meadows drives the much bigger and brasher Ford Consul and has nothing but contempt for Cummings. The police also have little sympathy for him and, in his extremity, he finds an ally in Jackie (Carol White), the teenage girl who has sold her soul, or rather her body, to Meadows. Although Jackie receives the material benefits from pandering to Meadows’ lechery, ready though not willing to perform fellatio on him as she sits on the bed while he stands erect, she is trapped by his abuse and is actually in love with Tommy Towers (Adam Faith) the youthful petty-criminal who stole Cummings’ car in the first place.
Adam Faith was already establishing himself as a pop singer by the time he was twenty when Never Let Go was released though he had always aspired to be an actor; he had previously appeared in the movie Beat Girl playing a role which was semi-biographical; his singing career did actually begin in coffee-bars around Soho where he was a member of a Skiffle group. Skiffle was a strange phenomenon, an amalgam between Black American folk-blues and jazz. The Skiffle craze swept Britain in the mid-fifties following the success of Lonnie Donegan’s adaption of an old Leadbelly song, The Rock Island Line in 1956. The appeal of skiffle lay partly with its accessibility to budding, working-class musicians, requiring only a cheap Spanish guitar, a washboard and a tea-chest bass to form a functioning skiffle group. That and lots of enthusiasm. The influence of skiffle and of Donegan himself on the groups who achieved international fame in the sixties has long been acknowledged by members of The Beatles, the Kinks, The Rolling Stones and many others. But another American musical influence was to push skiffle into the shade by the late-fifties. This was Rock & Roll, another Black American import but given a White American appearance to make it more commercially acceptable.
Following in the footsteps of Tommy Steel who had modelled himself on performers from the U.S.A. such as Elvis Presley, Adam Faith adopted a stuttering style of singing derived mainly from Buddy Holly while his musical arranger, the young John Barry, adapted the pizzicato accompaniment from Holly’s It Doesn’t Matter Any More for several of Faith’s singles. It was because Barry was Adam Faith’s musical arranger that he was asked to compose the score for Beat Girl in which Faith made his first screen appearance and which gave Barry his first break into movie sound-track composition.
Beat Girl is similar in some ways to My Teenage Daughter but far more interesting. It too portrays the reckless lives of young people whose irresponsible behaviour culminates in crime; it too is full of clichéd dialogue and synthetic attitudes purporting to belong to the beat-generation. But, while My Teenage Girl had been quite demure (we never know whether or not Sylvia Syms and her boyfriend consummate their relationship though we do get a quick glimpse of her in just bras and slip) Beat Girl has the added frisson of being set around a strip-joint from which we get to see an extremely erotic dance sequence, quite a few bare breasts, and references to prostitution and under-age sex. Jennifer Linden (Gillian Hills), our sultry teenager is delightfully provocative with her ice-cold performance and tantalizing with her aborted striptease. Also, in Kenny King (Christopher Lee), the manager of the strip-joint, we have the smooth male seducer, luring Jennifer into the exciting world offered by the sex industry. Anything goes when you’re a spoilt little rich-girl looking for ‘kicks’.
As Beat Girl shows, the British film industry continued to be fascinated with the theme of juvenile delinquency throughout the fifties and into the sixties, mixing varying portions of grubby crime plots, sexploitation, youth and popular music. Mostly the formula failed to produce anything worthwhile.
Cliff Richard made his first film-acting appearance in a little known (and best forgotten) movie called Serious Charge (1959). Curley Thompson (Cliff Richard), the younger brother of Larry Thompson (Andrew Ray) gets to sing a song or two and stand around looking full of teenage angst. His brother though is a tear-away and is disapproved of by the local vicar cum social worker (Anthony Quale) who runs the youth club. The vicar blames Larry for the death of a young girl, Mary Williams (Leigh Madison) who was pregnant by Larry and had been abandoned by him. She had thrown herself in front of a car when she sees Larry heavy petting with another girl. When taken to task about his lifestyle, Larry accuses the vicar of ‘interfering’ with him. Things get rather sticky for our vicar after this but, rest-assured, order is restored in the end. We can see this movie as another example of the ‘denial of worth and validity to working-class forms of culture’ as middle-class values are re-asserted.
Not to be out-done by his fellow pop-chart toppers, the actor-singer Anthony Newley appeared in another embarrassingly poor production called The Jazz Boat (1960). Again, lots of temptresses jiving with their leather-clad boyfriends to the music of……..swing bands? Frankie Vaughn too, a big pop star in the fifties, with a Teddy Boy quiff to his hair, and a powerful stage presence, appeared in a movie called These Dangerous Years (1957), playing a Liverpool gang leader called up into the army. This is another Neagle/Wilcox venture and amid the violence and mayhem of the creaking plot, Frankie Vaughn gets to sing a song or two. Again, a movie concocted from the usual ingredients.
Whether to accommodate or condemn this rebellious adolescence in their midst was a question the establishment struggled with throughout this period. In 1957, the BBC ventured out with the Six-Five Special, a programme aimed directly at their teenage audience. Named after the time it was broadcast (five past six in the evening) it show-cased many of the pop stars of the time. Nevertheless, the same organisation didn’t hesitate to ban one of Adam Faith’s singles for its lewd and salacious lyric:
Well I saw you sittin’ there so cool, like you just come down from school
Looking such a pretty sight, like a stick of dynamite
Sittin’ on a coffee-bar stool,
Well I guessing that’s a fact and I never can relax,
Until I made you.
Well I feel such a crazy clown, you’re the biggest thing in our town,
Come on honey it ain’t fair, never getting anywhere,
How do I melt you down,
Well I’m guessing that’s a fact and I never can relax,
Until I made you.
Well I’m not giving up this chase, I don’t wanna lose this race
Every time I make a play, baby you just run away,
I never made first base,
Well I’m guessing that’s a fact and I never can relax,
Until I made you.
Apparently, the BBC establishment was innocently unaware of the sexual innuendo or downright forthright sexual references in almost all pop song lyrics. Or where they even listening?
If paternalistic minds weren’t broadening to any great extent during the fifties at least there is some evidence of broadening horizons. Back in 1952, Dirk Bogarde had starred in a chase movie called Hunteddirected by Charles Chrichton. This begins in the blitz-scarred London docklands and meanders around London’s more deprived areas for some time as Chris Lloyd (Dirk Bogarde) evades the police for the murder of his wife’s lover while, at the same time, in the company of a young boy, Robbie (Jon Whitely) who has run away from home to escape abuse from his step-parents. The enforced companionship between the two characters adds to the tension of these early scenes as Chris attempts to confront his wife, Magda (Elizabeth Sellars) before deciding to break out from the circle of lawful retribution that was closing in around him and head ‘North’. In the ensuing pursuit across the country we catch an interesting glimpse of life in a working-class suburb of Stoke-on-Trent as the factory labourers trudge to work through the early morning streets of their city in their hundreds. The action culminates in a Scottish fishing village (actually Portpatrick) on the west coast.
An earlier movie Forbidden (1949) was ostensibly set in Blackpool though, saving a few back-projections, this light-weight budget film is almost wholly produced in the studio. Tread Softly Stranger is a little more indulgent and does use actual location shots during its depiction of a Yorkshire Mill Town.
Tiger Bay on the other hand made extensive use of locations for this complex story of love and loyalty with many of its scenes set in Cardiff and Swansea. Liverpool was exceptional in having quite a number of movies set in the city throughout the late forties and fifties: Beyond This Place; Waterfront; The Magnet; These Dangerous Years and The Long Haul (starring Victor Mature). In all these cases the location shooting was minimal, usually second unit editorial inserts into studio pieces although Violent Playground did venture out into the actual city for large parts of this story. Stanley Baker also starred in Hell is a City, a movie from the same period this time set in Manchester where, again, a considerable number of scenes were shot on location. Likewise, Newcastle was the setting for the caper movie Payroll (1961). Newcastle, Cumbria and Liverpool play fleeting backdrops to the cross-country pursuit of David Somers (Trevor Howard) and Sophie Malraux (Jean Simmons) in The Clouded Yellow.
Clear signs then that the London-based movie production houses were finally becoming aware that the nation continued a little way beyond the Home Counties and that the story-tellers, (novelist, poets, stage and screen writers) on whose work they based their movies had found fertile ground in the far northern industrial regions. There was, by the end of the Fifties, no doubt that a social revolution (or a series of interrelated revolutions) was under way and it was about to hit the cinema screens like a house-brick. Yet we need to be careful of how these revolutions were mediated in the movies of the late Fifties and early Sixties with the so-called ‘social realism’ of the New Wave British Cinema and its authentic industrial settings and almost authentic accents. The portrayal of working-class culture during this brief spell of energised creativity had a political slant that was just as off centre as the one we see presented in the Crime genre even though this came at us from a different angle.
Having floated that rather polemic statement I’m going to let it drift off for a while before giving pursuit in order to dive beneath the waves whipped up in these Crime movies of the Forties and Fifties (the alarm over women’s sexuality, the growing racial tensions, liberal ideas about crime and punishment, teenage angst and rebellion) and explore some of the undercurrents that were having a profound effect on British society at the time: Britain’s changing relationship with the rest of the world; the Cold War; and the realignment of allegiances at home.
So, we’ll say goodbye now to Jack Warner who will make one more appearance in Jigsaw (1962), a crime thriller set in the seedy Brighton (that the preamble to Brighton Rock claimed had long since gone) before leaving movie-making for the smaller screen where, miraculously, George Dixon was resurrected from the dead in 1955. Warner was already fifty years old when the Dixon of Dock Green series began and would play the role until he was eighty. Writer Ted Willis would script the programme for its twenty year run.
Basil Dearden whose movie, The Blue Lamp was the launch-pad for Dixon of Dock Green would continue his interest with ‘issue’ movies, directing Victim starring Dirk Bogarde in 1961, a story about homosexuality and blackmail.
The cinema roles for Kathleen Harrison would begin to dry up as we enter the sixties and she too turned to the small screen, playing Mrs Thursday, a char-woman who inherits a £10 million pounds in a comedy series that ran for two years.
Susan Shaw’s prolific career in the forties and fifties came to a sad end after her short marriage to Bonar Colleano ended when he was killed in a car crash in 1955. She turned to drink and became an alcoholic, dying of cirrhosis of the liver in 1963.
Diana Dors, so successful as a movie actress in the 1950’s, would try her luck in Hollywood but wouldn’t find success there. She would continue to appear in movies throughout the sixties but came to rely more on T.V appearances as well as her notoriety for salacious orgy parties and exposes of her sexual adventures in the press.
Carol White who appeared so appealingly in Never Let Go, was seen as one of the most promising actresses of her time but would also have to contend with the title of sex-siren during the sixties. Her star would burn-bright for only a brief time. Still, we will be seeing her again before she finally succumbed to drug abuse and her career went into terminal decline.
Dirk Bogarde, on the other hand, will transform himself, metamorphosing from the teenage idol of the Fifties Doctor series to the respected actor he became in the Sixties and Seventies.
Arthur La Bern, who had been recognised as an important new literary talent in the 1930’s, continued writing until his death in 1990. Although several of his novels were adapted for the Screen, none have survived the test of time as well as It Always Rains on Sunday. La Bern is almost forgotten now and doesn’t even merit an entry in Wikipedia. John Brophy too, had a series of his stories adapted for the Screen including Waterfront and Turn the Key Softly; the last of these adaptations being The Day They Robbed The Bank Of England (1960), a well-financed caper movie involving a group of Irish Fenians attempting to embarrass the British Government during their struggle for independence at the turn of the Nineteenth Century. It was a movie which helped launched the film career of Peter O’Toole. No entry in Wikipedia for Brophy either. Fame is fleeting or, as Kurt Vonnegut so often said, ‘so it goes’.