Forgotten London films: Pool of London (1951)

A gripping and beautifully shot 1951 film noir from Ealing Studios, Pool of London follows two merchant seamen on shore leave who get sucked into a world of petty crime which quickly escalates out of their control. Its principal claim to fame these days is that it features an inter-racial love story – the superb Earl Cameron plays one of the sailors – but it deserves to be much more widely known purely on its merits.

Very few films give as vivid a sense of London as a living city as this one – particularly in this period. That is in part due to the tightness of the plotting and the believability of the characters (with perhaps the odd exception), as well as the decision to shoot so much of the film on location. But the cinematography surely plays a large part too. The camerawork by Ealing stalwart Gordon Dines is stunning, making full use of the evocative locations, many of which have since been redeveloped out of existence. This is particularly true of the areas around Poplar, which are used extensively, but there are numerous scenes shot in and around Bermondsey, Woolwich, the City and elsewhere, as well as the eponymous Pool of London.

The film also features the young Alfie Bass, and both Leslie Phillips and James Robertson Justice in rare non-comedic roles.

Pool of London is available from Amazon and elsewhere on DVD.

The other films I have written about under the Forgotten London Film series are: Night and the City, No Trees in the Street, The Boy and the BridgeLondon Belongs to Me, Waterloo Road, Run for your Money, The Happy Family, St Martin’s Lane, and Underground.

My brief introduction to the series is here.

Forgotten London films: The Boy and the Bridge (1959)

The bridge in question is Tower Bridge, where the boy, played by nine-year-old Iain Maclaine, flees after he sees – or believes he sees – his drunken father get arrested for murder. At heart, this is a rather tender film, as Maclaine’s character works resourcefully to live hidden away in one of the towers, with moments of both pathos and gentle comedy. (A young Arthur Lowe plays one of the tower’s engineers.)

For those interested in the tower itself, there is some wonderful footage of its interior, including dramatic scenes shot in the bascule chambers which house the great – not to say terrifying – counterweights that swing down whenever the bridge opens.

Hailed at the time as a new child star – John Huston declared him the greatest find since Jackie Coogan – Iain Maclaine seems never to have acted again. The son of an aircraft worker at De Haviland’s Hatfield plant, Maclaine won the part after an exhaustive search which saw the production team interview some 3,000 local boys.

The film was written and directed by Kevin McClory, whose career was dominated – perhaps blighted – by a dispute with Ian Fleming, and subsequently Fleming’s estate, over the film rights to James Bond. McCrory co-write the script for what would have been the first Bond film, Thunderball, which Fleming subsequently novelised without either crediting or recompensing McCrory. Although the initial dispute was settled in 1963, further disputes were still being litigated in the early 2000s.

The Boy and the Bridge is available to watch on the BFI website here.

The other films I have written about under the Forgotten London Film series are: Night and the City, Pool of London, No Trees in the Street, London Belongs to Me, Waterloo Road, Run for your Money, The Happy Family, St Martin’s Lane, and Underground.

My brief introduction to the series is here.

Forgotten London films: Night and the City (1950)

Unarguably the finest British film noir ever made, Night and the City was directed by American Jules Dassin. Its strikingly dark tone may not be unrelated to the fact that Dassin took the project because studio head Darryl F Zanuck had told him he was about to be blacklisted by the McCarthyite House Un-American Activities Committee. No doubt 5,000 miles from Hollywood seemed a good place to be at the time.

The lead, Harry Fabian – played with charismatic, compelling desperation by Richard Widmark – is a small-time con-artist looking to break into the big time. He thinks he has a chance at being a wrestling promoter in London, but the sport is a cartel run by a Greek named Kristo. As soon as we meet Kristo, played by Herbert Lom with a characterisic stillness and steel that seems to simply absorb all of Fabian’s restless energy, we know how the story is going to end.

No-one in the film has much, if any, decency; there is no-one here to root for, not even Fabian’s foolish girlfriend (Gene Tierney) whose indecency is emotional, rather than moral. What kind for person would fall for a guy like Fabian anyway? The great Googie Withers is also memorably venal in a supporting role.

Fabian’s brief shot at redemption takes place on the embankment at Hammersmith right up against the film’s closing titles. Whether or not he is, in fact, redeemed depended on where you saw the movie. In the UK, Fabian was allowed a little dignity to close the movie with; for US audiences, not so much.

Scorsese is a big fan of the film, and its not hard to see why. He was slated to direct the 1992 remake with De Niro in the Fabian role. Perhaps it would have been more successful if he had. As it is, the fight scene in Raging Bull surely owes something to the brutal wrestling bout which is Fabian’s death knell in Dassin’s version.

Night and the City is available from Amazon and other DVD retailers.

The other films I have written about under the Forgotten London Film series are: Pool of London, No Trees in the Street, The Boy and the BridgeLondon Belongs to Me, Waterloo Road, Run for your Money, The Happy Family, St Martin’s Lane, and Underground.

My brief introduction to the series is here.

Forgotten London films: introduction

What do you think of when you think of London films? For most people, myself included, it is probably Ealing films such as Passport to Pimlico and The Ladykillers. I asked friends on Twitter and got responses ranging from Escape the Block and Long Good Friday to Shakespeare in Love. Bit cheeky the last one I thought. But I take the point.

But there are many films that feature London extensively – and that feature Londons that are no longer here – which are equally worth seeing – whether we watch them as Londoners, film historians or those in search a good night in. In some, vanished aspects of the city are merely backdrop – intriguing if you have an eye for lost vistas or long-forgotten buildings – but in others its presence is so strong it might as well be a lead character.

I have written about ten of them for the wonderful London Historians newsletter, and am now reproducing those pieces on my blog. I do not necessarily claim all these to be classics, although I would say that Pool of London and, in particular, Night and the City, most definitely are. But these films, and many others like them, are as much a part of our city’s heritage as Hogarth, Dickens and Wren. They deserve to live on in our collective memories.

NB I am indebted to the excellent Reel Streets website for details of filming locations.

The ten films I have written about are: Night and the City, Pool of London, No Trees in the Street, The Boy and the BridgeLondon Belongs to Me, Waterloo Road, Run for your Money, The Happy Family, St Martin’s Lane, and Underground.

Review: Emigrants by James Evans

Otto von Bismarck was once asked to identify the pre-eminent fact in modern world history. That America spoke English, he replied. In Emigrants, James Evans attempts to explain how and why that happened.

For much of the 17th century, England was something of a failed state. In mid-century it collapsed into a brutal and protracted civil war, but extensive persecution of religious minorities was rife throughout. Widespread enclosures drove people off the land. Prices rose. Wages fell in real terms. Harvest after harvest failed. Famine and plague killed thousands. Begging children were so numerous they were like “the lice of Egypt”, it was said.

It is hardly surprising then that people looked for deliverance from what looked, to a religious-minded people, very much like the wrath of God.

But America? At the beginning of the century it was a far from obvious choice. Sir Walter Ralegh had tried and failed to establish a colony in the 1580s. Jamestown in Virginia was founded in 1607, largely in the illusory belief that gold would be found nearby. Further north, in Newfoundland, settlement began in 1610, primarily to support the extensive fisheries offshore.

This did not sound like the promised land, but it is a measure of England’s failure that it seemed like such to so many people. Close to 400,000 emigrated over the course of the century, roughly half of them to North America, out of a total population of some 5.5million.

We think of the early colonists, especially in New England, as Puritans and many of them were. But they came seeking the freedom to be themselves, not to allow others a similar freedom; Evans reminds us that the Puritans were hanging Quakers in Boston in the 1660s.

During the Interregnum, however, many disillusioned royalists came here too, and in particular to Virginia where the governor, William Berkeley, was loyal to the Stuart cause. It took four ships from by Cromwell to dislodge him.

Between the English settlements in Virginia and New England lay New Amsterdam, Dutch in theory but even in its earliest days a melting pot. By the 1640s, although there were just 500 people in the settlement, they spoke more than 20 different languages. Its leader, Peter Stuyvesant was more clear sighted than most – or perhaps merely more cynical. He dismissed those who sought “an imaginary liberty in a new and, as some pretend, a free country” with contempt.

But still they came. In the case of New Amsterdam, the principal economic draw was beaver pelt. Thanks to changing fashions in Europe, four beaver skins could buy enough grain to feed a family for a year. And it wasn’t just their fur that was in demand: eating their tails was said to help men maintain an erection. “If some of our ladies knew the benefit thereof,” one colonist wrote, “they would desire to have ships sent to trade for the tail alone.”

Many who came were far from the pioneers we imagine them to be. Soon, the slave trade would fulfil the need for cheap labour, but for much of the 17th century indenture that answered that want. The starving and desperate of England sold themselves to the colonies for fixed terms – usually five years for an adult – in exchange for the promise of land and a house thereafter. Nearly half of the 200,000 who sailed to North America were indentured. But fewer than one in ten of them lived to claim their reward.

Some 8,500 poor children were simply taken from the London streets between 1619 and 1625. Often parents never knew what happened. Poignant letters home from one such boy, Richard Frethorne, form one of the more moving passages in the book.

The attrition rates for all were extraordinary, however. Often, 50% of those onboard died before they even made shore. Likewise almost half of those who reached America were dead within a few years of arrival; in some areas, the death rate was as high as 80%. Virginia was particularly deadly.
Why did so many English men and women emigrate? The same reasons people emigrate now: freedom from persecution; freedom from poverty; political exile; religious liberty; the pursuit of wealth.

But Evans’ book is eloquent testimony to the fact that the commodity America has always traded in, above all others, is hope.

This review first appeared in the Financial Times.

Review: So High A Blood by Morgan Ring

So High A Blood explores in detail the life of Margaret, Countess of Lennox, a Tudor princess without whom, perhaps, there would have been no Stewart succession and no subsequent union between England and Scotland.

Born in 1515, Margaret was the daughter of Margaret Tudor, the eldest daughter of Henry VII, by her second husband Archibald Douglass, the Earl of Lennox. Her life in many echoes that of her cousins, Mary I and Elizabeth I. The stain of bastardy hung over her birth, owing to the complex legal status of her parents marriage, and she was herself at times close to the English succession under both Henry VIII and Mary. She was reported to believe her own claim to throne stronger than Elizabeth’s, comments which helped earned her a spell in prison when Elizabeth came to hear of them.

It wasn’t only her alleged bastardy that stood in Margaret’s way. She remained a devout Catholic, and she was both English and Scottish, to the discomfort of all, it seems. Margaret was born in England while her mother was in temporary exile and would spend most of her life here. However, her estates were largely in Scotland – even if she wasn’t always able to assert her ownership of them, or of their revenues. As such, she was uniquely ill-positioned to manipulate events in either country to her advantage.

That did not stop her trying, however. What she couldn’t achieve for herself, she aimed to do for her children. Of the eight she gave birth to, only two survived to adulthood. One of those, Henry, Lord Darnley, was murdered aged 21, less than two years into his marriage to Mary, Queen of Scots. Margaret had connived to bring the two together – which Elizabeth saw as part of a plot to overthrow her and had Margaret committed to the Tower as a result – and, you could argue, her work was ultimately vindicated: it was Darnley’s brief marriage to Mary that produced James I of England.

Morgan Ring has written an absorbing account of Margaret’s life, and has found a fresh angle from which to view the Tudor court, which is no mean feat. If at times Margaret herself seems to fade from the scene as tumultuous events at both courts take centre stage, that is perhaps only fitting for a woman who had to fight all her life for what she believed to be her due.

This review first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement.


Me and Debbie McGee – or, Life and Death in West Ruislip

I know what you’re thinking. What does Debbie McGee, diminutive relict of the late pint-sized prestidigitator Paul Daniels, have to do with anything? And, more specifically, what does she have to do with me?

Just a few weeks ago, I’d have wondered the same thing. And then she turned up at the auction of my parents’ furniture with a camera crew in tow. Also with Chesney Hawkes – you know, the one and only – although I could care less about him. He has no pizzazz. This, strangely, is relevant. The pizzazz, I mean. I’ll come back to that later.

I must admit, I was in two minds about attending the auction. Watching people dismantle my parents’ home – my childhood home – had been a strange and wearying experience. Everything in it had its own memories, or its own place in the background of remembered familial dramas, consequential sometimes, mostly not.

And I suppose I should have spotted the warm tide of absurdity beginning to lap around my feet when I discovered that the man leading the removal team was the founder of the UK Don McLean fan club. I gather he has a large tattoo of Don’s face on his back, but sadly I cannot confirm that. (I can confirm that his ring tone is, of course, American Pie.)

Still, there were other things on my mind.

It had been over a year since my father died and I suppose this was a moment we had all known was coming. And, since everything in the house was still more or less as it had been when my mother died in 2009, we had all known it was coming a long time. All of us except my father, perhaps, who had refused to countenance moving until it was too late, and whose last months were a dementia-fuelled cycle of shock, horror and anxiety – repeat to fade – about his rapidly declining physical and mental health.

I don’t think I had realised quite how much Alzheimer’s takes from you, how punishing its sleight of hand. I still lie awake remembering his disbelief. Like Freud’s patient with his absurd dream, I still regularly dream that my father is still alive – ill, but alive – and then remember, inside the dream, that no, he died already, and wonder how I am going to break the news to him. The details vary; those elements are constant. Perhaps death is like the sun in that respect; it cannot be looked at directly.

And now the bed he is still -ridden in in my dreams has gone. My parents slept in separate beds – as far as I know, all their married lives – in the same two beds for sixty-odd years. My mother’s bed, which I remember creeping into when I was small and scared in the night, is gone too. It’s also the last place I saw her meaningfully alive, early in 2009 when I cooked a meal for her. I saw her again later, at the hospital, after the end, but she never stirred from unconsciousness.

She had cancer of the oesophagus – it had been diagnosed about eight months earlier. She was weak, but wanted to climb the stairs to bed unaided. My father let her. Let’s just say the choices they made are not those I would have encouraged had I been consulted. I was angry with my father for this for a long time, and for other things too. The tumour ruptured shortly afterwards. I don’t think she was conscious for long. To the last day, climbing those stairs I would think, these are the stairs that killed her.

But then, walking down them, I would think, these are the stairs I used to jump down when I was little, half-landing to half-landing, delighting in the discovery of energy and flight each time. This is where I remember sitting with my mother – heaven knows why there – and talking about Auden and Wallace Stevens. To one side is – was – a window seat where my sister and I used to watch the neighbourhood fireworks on November 5, waiting for our father to come home from work.

The multiverse is a fashionable idea, these days, but really, this world is multiple enough for the most of us. The simplest things in our lives exist in their own prodigious universes of meaning – the drunkenness of things being various, as MacNeice said – that it is more than most of us can cope with. We tamp meaning down, lest it explode in our faces.

Everything is gone. The chairs my mother reupholstered by hand – slaved over, she might have said. The hostess trolleys wheeled out at Christmas for chicken liver pate or smoked salmon, and bowls of nuts I don’t recall anyone eating. The bowls we ate breakfast cereal out of. The stores of unwritten birthday cards. The chair my dad sat in when I shaved his beard for him after a month in hospital towards the end. The razor. The shaving brush. The plastic bowl that held the hot water. The dry towels I wiped his face with.

Usually when you empty a home it is to move into another. This was, simply, an end. Nothing new will come of it. Not for us, at least; the house itself will begin another life with another family. For my family, it was – or seems to have been – the last thing that kept us together and involved with one another’s lives. The death of my father exposed a lot of tensions between us in different ways, and relationships are much more precarious than I – perhaps we – had previously realised.

I had never seen the house bare before; my parents bought it when I was two months old. All that was left after Don McLean had done his work were the books – mountainous, tumbling stacks of them in every room – waiting for me to take them to Oxfam, and my father’s papers, which I drove to the Modern Records Centre at Warwick University the day the house sale went through. (I leave things to the last minute, me.)

I had taken a few things: my mother’s Heals dressing table with its trifold mirror for my daughter; an old wooden trunk my father brought back from the East after the war, its surfaces decorated with appliqué boats and fishes and island temples that I remember exploring in wonder with my fingers when I was a child; a couple of glass-fronted bookcases; a few things more.

My sister took some things for herself, too. I think we would have taken it all, if we could have done. Letting go of it seemed disloyal, but what else was there to do?

An auction seemed a respectful choice – a way, perhaps, to assure a kind of longevity for all these things: furniture, gardening tools, glassware, lights, LPs, and on and on. And attending the auction seemed appropriate too. A final look at all these things, in the process of becoming something else, transitioning through inventory into a place in the lives of others.

But then there was the team from Antiques Road Trip.

I don’t watch Antiques Road Trip, to be honest, so I am not au fait with the personalities. But everyone knows Debbie McGee, don’t they? And you’d probably think, like me, that the opportunity for her kind of showbiz shtick would be somewhat limited at an auction room in West Ruislip. Dear old Chesney didn’t belt out any of his hit. So what could Debbie do?

What she could do, it turns out, was put an old red military jacket into the auction – that’s how the show works: celebs buy things in antique shops and try to make a profit from them at auction – and then leap up when the item comes under the hammer and model it for a bemused audience of octogenarians, septuagenarians, my partner and me. And for the camera, of course.

By ‘model’ I mean vamp and shimmy. Or, more precisely, and to my appalled amusement, vamp and shimmy in front of my family’s beloved and beautiful 1970s rosewood dining table, which was probably the most valued thing they had, only used for important occasions and looked after as if it were made of glass.

Debbie didn’t drape herself on it, which I rather feared she might. But there the moment was, nonetheless. My parents tended more to earnestness than frivolity. I’m not sure they would have seen the funny side of a middle-aged dancer shaking her stuff for the camera in front of something they took such pride in.

And I don’t know how they would have processed that strange distorting thing the glamour of even minor celebrity does to a room, as if it were a Tardis, intruding into reality at an indiscreet angle, always larger than itself somehow, and awkward, too, for everything around it.

I’m not sure how well I processed it myself. I think you just have to accept life’s lovely irregularity and disorder, and walk forward into its surprises. Life will keep flicking its cards at you, whether you like it or not. Sometimes, just sometimes, it’ll be the Ace of Hearts. More often, it’s from a B&Q loyalty scheme.

The expert who caught my eye most was a forty-something man in a waistcoat and what I think was a white fedora. (My parents didn’t have The Observer Book of Hats when I was growing up, so my knowledge of such things is a little thin.) He seemed rather charming, in that slightly awkward way some men have when they are trying too hard. Energetic and excitable in front of the camera, he relaxed once shooting was over, sat back in his chair and rested his hands on his crotch. It seemed an instinctive gesture of comfort and self-reassurance; young boys do it a lot. I wouldn’t, of course, call the ball-cupper a young boy, but we all retain things of childhood inside us. Perhaps that was one of his.

And maybe – just maybe – he had the right idea.

Once the auctioneers’ expenses and percentages were taken into account, we were left with, well, why don’t you guess? I’d bet it’s lower than you thought. Or did you hit £47.44 on the head? It’s lower than I expected, and my expectations were rock bottom.

I can see the black humour in it, of course, although I know that whatever dark comedy there is also masks – intends to obscure – the sense of that sum as a reckoning on childhood, family, my parents’ tastes and judgement, on me for not simply giving everything to charity in the first place.

I know it isn’t true, that sense of a small reckoning in a big room. But there it is: £47.44 and a smattering of C-list showbiz glitter was what the day gave us. The surprise is, it’s the glitter I’m grateful for.