Alastair Sim

FeaturedAlastair Sim

Alastair Sim was born in 1900 in Edinburgh. After an aborted university education and active duty during the Great War, he trained as an elocution teacher and took up a lectureship in that subject at the University of Edinburgh in 1925. Elocution and drama teaching was his route into an acting career, of which his parents were not supportive. In 1930 Sim moved down to London, where his acting career took off.

After several years of stage roles, Sim made his film debut in 1935, with no fewer than five film credits to his name in that year alone. All were mostly low-budget comedies or crime films, in which Sim played smaller parts. Throughout his career he mostly played supporting roles, with the notable exception of Scrooge (1951) in which he played the titular character. It’s still considered one of the best portrayals of Scrooge on film.

As the 1930s continued, Sim got more substantial film roles in higher-profile films. His lanky frame (he was just over 6 feet tall) and distinctive voice made him instantly recognisable to audiences. In 1936 Sim starred opposite George Formby in the Monty Banks-directed Keep Your Seats, Please!. In the same year he was also directed by Monty Banks in the comedy The Man in the Mirror, although his name was misspelt as Alistair in the film’s credits.

In 1937-38, Sim starred opposite Jessie Matthews three times, in Gangway (1937); Sailing Along (1938) and Climbing High (1938). In Gangway, Matthews plays a journalist who gets caught up in a trans-Atlantic criminal plot. Sim is Detective Taggett, who is attempting to arrest the criminals. In Sailing Along, Matthews plays a precocious young woman and aspiring dancer who is brought up on a tug-boat. Sim here is the supporting character Sylvester, a confused and slightly simple-minded man who helps Matthews in her career aspirations. By the time of Climbing High, Sim was sufficiently famous that his name was included on the film’s poster. He again plays a supporting comedy relief character in this film.

Sim was only seven years older than Matthews, but in none of the three films is there the slightest inkling that he may be a suitable romantic partner for her characters. In fact, throughout the films Sim made in the interwar period, he plays characters who don’t have any romantic entanglements with co-stars. This was no doubt partly to do with his appearance, which did not meet conventional beauty standards of the period. Even in his thirties, he looked older than his years, and appeared somewhat ageless. His persistent casting in comedy roles further diminished his romantic appeal.

It is surprising, then, that in the 1937 crime film The Squeaker, Alistair Sim plays a character who has a settled domestic life, just when you least expect it. In The Squeaker Sim is Joshua Collie, a crime reporter for a popular newspaper. Journalists featured regularly in British interwar films, and were usually portrayed on the move, gathering news on the street; or pushing against deadlines in the newspaper offices.

Collie, on the other hand, is shown inside his comfortable living room, where he smokes a pipe after dinner like a suburban family man. He is not particularly interested in chasing down news, even though his friend, Scotland Yard inspector Barrabal, is feeding him plenty of information about the big criminal case he is working on. Collie reluctantly follows Barrabal’s leads only when his editor threatens to sack him for neglecting his duties. Alastair Sim played against the expected stereotype of the crime reporter, by making Collie a bit lazy and committed to his creature comforts. This enabled him to position himself again as a comedy character, even in a serious crime film which was based on a hard-boiled Edgar Wallace novel.

At the tail end of the interwar period Sim starred opposite Gordon Harker, another prolific interwar actor of comedy roles, in Inspector Hornleigh (1939). Sim played Sergeant Bingham, assistant to Harker in the titular role of Hornleigh. The pair are asked to investigate a murder in this comedy. The film was successful enough to spawn two sequels: Inspector Hornleigh on Holiday (also 1939) and Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It (1941).

Sim’s acting career lasted until his death in 1976. In the 1950s, as well as his interpretation of Scrooge, Sim also starred as the headmistress in the original St Trinian’s films, The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954); and Blue Murder at St. Trinian’s (1957). Although his most commercially successful roles date from the second half of his career, he built up his screen persona and fame throughout the interwar period.

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Olympia, 7 June 1934

This post is the second in a loose series of posts about fascism in interwar London. The first post explored the popularity of the British Union of Fascists in the East End.  

The British Union of Fascists (BUF) was founded by Oswald Mosley in 1932. Within a few years, the party had gained thousands of members, and by 1934 Mosley felt confident enough to stage several large-scale public speeches. In April of that year, the BUF hosted a largely successful rally in the (Royal) Albert Hall. The next event in the series took place on 7 June at Olympia, a Victorian events venue that could hold up to 15,000 people.

The event attracted many people who were not members of the BUF but were interested to hear Mosley’s ideas, or curious about this new political movement. In the run-up to the event, left-wing publications such as the Daily Worker encouraged readers to attend the event and set up counter protests against fascism. Mosley set the event up as a spectacle, using standard-bearers and spotlights and many BUF members in attendance in full uniform.[1]

The exact events which took place in the hall on 7 June 1934 were subsequently disagreed on by attendees from different political persuasions. It is established that at various points during Mosley’s speech, individual audience members heckled and challenged him. In those instances, a much larger group of BUF members, acting as ‘stewards’, would physically accost the interrupter and remove them from the hall. The extent of violence used against these interrupters was disputed, as was the total number of victims, and whether the hecklers formed part of an orchestrated attempt of the extreme left-wing to interrupt the meeting.

Both the political left and the BUF released pamphlets following the meeting, each presenting their own version of events. The left-wing pamphlet, called Fascists at Olympia: A record of eye-witnesses and victims, was published under the pen-name ‘Vindicator’ by publisher Victor Gollancz, a British Jew who openly supported left-wing politics. The pamphlet was distributed for free with the aim of raising awareness of the BUF’s methods.

Fascists at Olympia contains named statements of people who were present at the Olympia meeting; statements of those who claimed they were beaten up by BUF stewards, and statements of doctors who claimed to have helped the wounded in make-shift sickrooms set up in the vicinity of the hall. A statement in the pamphlet’s opening was subsequently used by the BUF to discredit it:

Several of the documents in this book, in their original form, contain references to the attitude of the police. These have been deliberately omitted, as the object of this pamphlet is to call attention to the actions of Blackshirts, and it is not desired to complicate the issue.[2]

During the Olympia meeting, the police were not present in the hall as it was a closed gathering in a private venue, and therefore they had no jurisdiction to enter it.[3] Police officers were present on the roads adjacent to the hall but came under criticism for not interfering with or challenging the violence perpetrated by BUF stewards. The compilers of Fascists at Olympia apparently did not want to risk that anti-fascist sentiment would be considered the same as anti-police sentiment, or anti-establishment feelings more generally.

This agenda is also clear across many of the witness statements included in the pamphlet, which repeatedly present fascism as ‘not English’:

‘I could not help shuddering at the thought of this vile bitterness, copied from foreign lands, being brought into the centre of England.’[4]

‘I witnessed other scenes of great brutality such as I had never thought to see in England.’[5]

‘For that [use of violence] I can see, as an ordinary Englishman concerned for fair play and decency no possible justification.’[6]

‘I can only say it was a deeply shocking scene for an Englishman to see in London. The Blackshirts behaved like bullies and cads.’[7]

‘I fail to see the necessity for this brutality, which is so foreign to the British race.’[8]

‘I belong to no political party, but what I saw and heard on the evening of June 7th made me think that the behaviour of the opposition, those reds to whom Mosley refers as the scum of the ghettoes, were far more in the English tradition than the Blackshirts with their flags and uniforms.’[9]

By 1934, Hitler’s violence in Germany and Mussolini’s hard rule in Italy were well-known in Britain, and Fascists at Olympia worked hard to persuade its reader that this type of political movement was a threat to the British (English) way of life. Terms like ‘fair play’ were still considered foundational concepts that separated the (white, upper and middle-class) English from other, less civilised and more violent people. The authority of the British police was similarly built on notions of ‘decency’ and temperance, and was another way in which England could consider itself more enlightened than other countries.[10]

The emphasis on fascism as ‘not English’, were used by the BUF in their counter-pamphlet about the Olympia meeting. Red Violence and Blue Lies: An Answer to “Fascists at Olympia” was published by the BUF’s own press. On its opening page, it horrifically states: ‘English men and women?’ ‘Who are the “English men and women” who break up Fascists’ meetings?’[11] This rhetorical statement is followed by a list of names, supposedly the names of those arrested by the police for disrupting the meeting – all the names are of Jewish provenance. The author(s) do not need to spell this antisemitism out more explicitly; the reader is expected to conclude that these names do not represent ‘English’ people.

The BUF pamphlet goes on to sketch a wide-spread left-wing conspiracy to silence Mosley’s party. The left-wing press’s exhortations to their readers to visit Olympia and stage a counter-protest, ahead of 7 June, are presented as evidence of this conspiracy. Throughout the pamphlet this argument is subtly built up and alluded to, until it is made manifest at the pamphlet’s end in a way that draws together antisemitism, suspicion of the state, and fear of socialism:

At Olympia [the ‘Red Terror’] was renewed with large organised and powerful financial support from quarters which are well known. Alien finance and Red terror join hands to fight the movement of “Britain First,” with the tacit and even open approval of the Old Parties of the State, who unite to oppose the new force that threatens them with ultimate destruction at the polls.

With the hindsight offered by history, we know that the BUF lost support throughout the 1930s and that fascism did not become the dominant ideology in 20th century Britain. In the debates following ‘Olympia’, this was far from evident, however: as Martin Pugh has demonstrated, MPs in the House of Commons did not roundly condemn the BUF’s conduct during the meeting, and allegations of a left-wing plot were also aired there.[12] The pamphlets published by both the BUF and the political left in the immediate wake of the event demonstrate how both sides sought to influence popular discourse about the meeting.


[1] Julie Gottlieb, ‘The Marketing of Megalomania: Celebrity, Consumption and the Development of Political Technology in the British Union of Fascists’, Journal of Contemporary History, (2006), Vol. 41, No. 1, 47

[2] Vindicator, Fascists at Olympia: A record of eye-witnesses and victims (London: Victor Gollancz, 1934), n. p.

[3] Martin Pugh, ‘The British Union of Fascists and the Olympia Debate’, The Historical Journal, (1998), Vol. 41, No. 2, 541

[4] Vindicator, Fascists at Olympia, p. 11

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 14

[7] Ibid. p. 9

[8] Ibid. p. 20

[9] Ibid., p. 37

[10] Clive Emsley, The English Police: A Political and Social History, 2nd edition (Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd, 1996), pp. 144-145

[11] Various authors, Red Violence and Blue Lies: An Answer to “Fascists at Olympia” (London: BUF Publications, 1934), p. 5

[12] Pugh, ‘The British Union of Fascists and the Olympia Debate’, 532-533

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Sabotage (1936)

As noted elsewhere on the pages of this blog, Alfred Hitchcock started out as a director during Britain’s silent film period. He continued making films in Britain during the 1930s, before making his move to Hollywood around 1940. In 1936, he directed Sabotage, a Gaumont production based on the Joseph Conrad novel The Secret Agent. (Rather confusingly, in the same year Hitchcock also directed a film called Secret Agent which in turn was based on a novel titled Ashenden.)

By the mid-1930s, the tense European political situation was reflected in a spate of British films about spies and international criminal networks. Although Conrad’s source novel was published in 1907, and its plot is set in the 1880s, Hitchcock had little difficulty in adapting the storyline for a contemporary audience which was, again, concerned about German expansionism.

In Sabotage, a couple called Mr and Mrs Verloc run a cinema in central London. Mr Verloc is of unidentified Eastern European origin, whereas Mrs Verloc appears to be British. With them lives Stevie, Mrs Verloc’s teenage brother. Mr Verloc hides a secret from his wife – he is part of an international terrorist gang which is planning a series of attacks to disrupt British society. Scotland Yard have their eye on Mr Verloc, and undercover agent Ted Spencer is keeping a close eye on the cinema from a vegetable stall across the road.

Mr Verloc’s gang plan to blow up Piccadilly Circus underground station with a bomb hidden in a film reel tin. As Verloc suspects he’s being watched, he sends Stevie to drop off the package at the station’s cloakroom. Stevie, however, gets waylaid on the way to the station and the bomb goes off while he is still on the bus, killing him and all the passengers. When Mrs Verloc realises that her husband is responsible for her brother’s death, and he starts threatening her too, she kills him with a large kitchen knife. Ted Spencer, who by now has fallen for Mrs Verloc, shields her from arrest at the film’s end.

The sequence of Stevie travelling to Piccadilly Circus with the bomb is the most-discussed – and indeed, often the only discussed – part of Sabotage. Stevie is unaware of the real contents of the parcel he is carrying, he simply knows he needs to leave it in the luggage collection point in Piccadilly Circus station by 1.30pm. The audience knows that the bomb will go off at 1.45pm. Sabotage heightens the tension by a series of close-ups alternating between the parcel of explosives, Stevie, and various clocks which he sees on shop fronts along the way. As the clocks inch closer to 1.45pm, the individual shorts become shorter and shorter, culminating in an extreme close-up of the hand on a clock moving to 1.45pm. The bus spectacularly explodes, and Stevie and all the other passengers are killed in the blast.

Critics of Sabotage have pointed out that the rationale for Mr Verloc’s criminal gang is not defined. At the start of the film, the gang causes a mass electrical failure in London which causes widespread disruption. Their planned bombing of Piccadilly Circus would not just cause great material damage and loss of life – Piccadilly Circus was the symbolic centre of London, England, and the British Empire. When its underground station was completed in 1928, it was hailed as a feat of engineering. London Underground even produced a poster depicting the station’s tunnel network as the ‘stomach’ and digestive system of London. The motivation of the criminal gang, then, is to disrupt society, to cause unrest without providing a clear enemy against which people can direct their anger. The threat of destabilisation was keenly felt in 1930s Britain, as people watched great social change in Germany, Italy and elsewhere unfold. Many films of the period feature shady and undefined foreign criminal networks, including Laburnum Grove (1936), Midnight Menace (1937), and Bulldog Jack (1935).

The cinema is extensively used as a location in Sabotage. Mr and Mrs Verloc live in a flat situated behind the auditorium. To enter the flat, one has to go through the auditorium, and characters are frequently shown to pass through here whilst patrons enjoy the screening, apparently undisturbed. During his investigations, Ted Spencer is able to approach the flat unseen because the cinema audience is engrossed in a farcical comedy film. Spencer then enters the space behind the screen, in which there is a connecting window to the Verlocs’ living room. Spencer uses this window to eavesdrop on Verloc’s conversation, without the cinema audience being any the wiser.

After Stevie’s death, Mr Verloc tries to justify and explain himself to Mrs Verloc. Following this conversation, Mrs Verloc walks out of the flat and into the cinema auditorium, where a children’s showing of Disney’s Who Killed Cock Robin? is in progress. The children’s laughter prompts Mrs Verloc to first grimace in despair, before she turns to the screen and sits down to watch the show. Despite the centrality of its cinema location, this is the only time any of Sabotage’s main characters actually takes the position as audience member.

Engrossed in the cartoon, Mrs Verloc starts to laugh through her grief. She is unable to process the enormity of her emotions and uses the film as a welcome distraction. The distraction is all too brief: the cartoon bird gets shot, which plunges Mrs Verloc back in despair. This breaks the spell of the cinema for her, and she gets up and walks back through the auditorium with determination to see things out with her husband. Soon after returning upstairs, Mrs Verloc stabs her husband to death. After the spectacle of the bus explosion, the killing of Mr Verloc is understated. Mrs Verloc picks up a knife to carve dinner. She then pauses to look at it for a minute whilst an idea seemingly dawns on her. When Mr Verloc stands next to her to speak to her, she turns around and sticks the large knife in his abdomen. It is a murder which originates from a deep despair, rather than from anger or a desire for revenge.

Immediately after the murder, one of Verloc’s associates sets the flat on fire. Ted Spencer meets Mrs Verloc outside; although she confesses the murder to him and wants to give herself up to the police, Spencer tells his superiors that Verloc died in the blaze. Because Mr Verloc was a foreigner set to disrupt British society, and he stooped so low to use a child as an unwitting assistant to his plans, Mrs Verloc is allowed to go unpunished for her crime. Her insistence that she should give herself up to the police only serves to set her out as even more deserving. One perspective on Sabotage is that it argues that as long as British citizens are willing to make personal sacrifices, they can collaborate with the police to successfully neutralise foreign threats; and it is their duty to do so.

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad can be read for free via Project Gutenberg.

New Year’s Eve 1921

FeaturedNew Year’s Eve 1921

For this last blog post of the year we’re travelling back in time 100 years, to have a look at how London spent New Year’s Eve in 1921.

In 1921, 31 December fell on a Saturday, so the Sunday papers had the privilege of welcoming in the new year. The News of the World posted this cartoon on its front page, under the banner ‘A Happy New Year to All of Our Readers’.

Cartoon printed on the front page of News of the World, 1 January 1922

1921 appears to have been considered a year well worth saying goodbye to: the old man representing the past year carries a sack containing, amongst other things, ‘Bolshevism’; ‘Revolutions’ and ‘Shortage of Houses’. These, along with ‘Profiteering’ and ‘Unemployment’, indicate that the impact of the Great War on British society had continued to reverberate. The custom of depicting the previous year as an old person and the new year as a youngster was common, as evidenced by the following report in the Daily Telegraph:

Never has a New Year been welcomed with more public rejoicing and festivity in London than that upon which we have just entered. (…) all the great London hotels and restaurants were crowded with guests, for whom elaborate programmes of feast and entertainment had been arranged, including in most cases some novel and exhilarating means of marking at midnight the death of the Old and the birth of the New Year.[1]

Probably the most extravagant party was held in the Savoy, which catered for either 1600 or 1750 guests (numbers given by the Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard respectively). The distinguished guests, which included Lord Curzon, watched as a recording of Big Ben, projected on a screen, counted down the minutes to midnight.[2] Another notable entertainment was given in the Hotel Victoria, where a miniature airplane carrying a little girl appeared to descend out of the ceiling.[3]

Crowds were not just found inside hotels and restaurants, but also in the churchyard of St Paul’s Cathedral: ‘The crowd which gathered from East and West within the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral on Saturday night to sing “Auld Lang Syne” was a record one.’[4] This ‘record’ size crowd was unlikely to have only contained ‘London Scots’ as the Daily Telegraph article supposed: the crowd as so great as to make it ‘almost impossible to move.’[5]

Whilst the parties in the hotels and restaurants were only accessible to the wealthy, the poor were not forgotten. The Daily Telegraph reported that some 18,000 deserving children in various East London boroughs had been treated to a special meal earlier in the day.[6]

The Observer looked beyond the London festivities and reminded readers that half the world welcomes the New Year before Britain does, with festivities starting in a ‘small group of islands which belong to New Zealand.’[7] The article also points out that those countries using the ‘inaccurate Julian calendar’ would not be celebrating the New Year until a few weeks later. The article expresses the hope that the newly founded League of Nations may eventually ‘bring about international uniformity in the matter of the calendar and thus ensure a simultaneous celebration of the birth of the New Year among the nations of the Earth.’[8]

In contrast to these reports of parties and celebrations, the Manchester Guardian instead reported on ‘The Old Year’s Violent Passing.’[9] Whilst Londoners were celebrating, other parts of the country experienced forceful gales which particularly affected those living near the sea and rivers and which lead to ‘Wrecks, Heavy Damage, and Loss of Life.’

The other New Year’s tradition was (and is) the publication of the New Year’s honours list, which was reported in full by the Manchester Guardian and The Times but ignored by the more popular papers. Sir J.M. Barrie, who had been made baronet in 1913, was made a member of the Order of Merit in 1922; Gerald du Maurier received his knighthood.[10]

By the time the afternoon of 2 January rolled around, news about the New Year parties already had to make way for developments in what would become one of the most notorious murder cases of the interwar period. The Evening Standard announced a ‘Solicitor’s Sensational Arrest’ on its front page.[11] Over the weekend, whilst everyone had been distracted by the gale force winds and the parties, police in Hay, near the Welsh border, had arrested Herbert Rowse Armstrong, who ran one of the two local law practices.

Armstrong was arrested for the attempted murder of Oswald Norman Martin, a solicitor at the rival firm. By the time the Evening Standard appeared in the stands, the body of Armstrong’s late wife had been exhumed. Upon re-examination it was concluded that she, too, had been poisoned. Armstrong was eventually convicted of her murder and executed – the only solicitor in British history to be hanged for murder. The arrest of the ‘Hay Poisoner’ ensured that 1922 started with the familiar thrill of, as George Orwell would have it, a good old-fashioned English murder.


[1] ‘New Year’s Eve’, The Daily Telegraph, 2 January 1922, p. 6

[2] Ibid., and ‘A Londoner’s Diary’, Evening Standard, 2 January 1922, p. 4

[3] ‘Revels Greet 1922,’ Daily Mail, 2 January 1922, p. 4

[4] ‘Revels Greet 1922’, Daily Mail, 2 January 1922, p. 4

[5] ‘New Year’s Eve’, The Daily Telegraph, 2 January 1922, p. 6

[6] Ibid.

[7] These islands are Tonga, Samoa and Kiribati. ‘The Journey of the New Year’, The Observer, 1 January 1922, p. 9

[8] Ibid.

[9] ‘The Old Year’s Violent Passing’, Manchester Guardian, 2 January 1922, p. 7

[10] ‘New Year Honours,’ Manchester Guardian, 2 January 1922, p. 7

[11] ‘Solicitor’s Sensational Arrest’, Evening Standard, 2 January 1922, p.1

Edmund Gwenn

FeaturedEdmund Gwenn

British actor Edmund Gwenn is internationally best-known for his role as Kris Kringle (‘Santa’) in the 1947 Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street. This role earned Gwenn his only Oscar win (although he was nominated once more in 1950). Prior to his move to Hollywood at the start of World War II, Gwenn was a prolific stage and screen actor in interwar London. His instantly recognisable demeanour and voice made him a reliable choice for both leading and supporting roles.

Gwenn was born in 1877 and started his acting career on the late-Victorian and Edwardian stage, specialising in supporting roles of plays written by contemporary playwrights such as J.M. Barrie and John Galsworthy. He was a successful stage actor and did not make the transition to film acting until the start of the interwar period, when films were settling into the length and narrative types that we still recognise today.

Gwenn starred in only two feature-length silent films (Unmarried, opposite Gerald du Maurier, in 1920; and The Skin Game in 1921) before giving films a rest again until talkies became the norm in the early 1930s. Gwenn likely recognised that his power as an actor required him to be able to use dialogue as a means of expression. Once sound film work was available, he took to it with a vengeance, making no fewer than 36 films in the 1930s. No mean feat for an actor who was already 53 when the decade started.

In this film work, as in his stage roles, Gwenn continued to be associated with contemporary English writers. His first foray into sound film was a remake of The Skin Game, released ten years after the silent version in 1931. Both films were based on a Galsworthy play; the 1931 version was directed by Alfred Hitchcock.[1] Gwenn stars as Hornblower, a nouveau-riche industrialist who is looking to buy a piece of land from genteel landowner Hillcrist, to build industrial works. The conflict between ‘old England’ which values rural landscape, tranquillity and honour; and the new, industrial outlook which favours trade, progress and money, is at the heart of the film. The emotions between the two men and their families run so high that Hillcrist’s wife decides to reveal a damning secret about Hornblower’s daughter-in-law, as a result of which the young woman commits suicide. Hornblower, crushed with grief, decides to leave the area. Hillcrist’s victory is hollow, however, as he contemplates the moral depths to which his family has stooped to defend their way of life.

Gwenn played a man from a different social background a couple of years later in The Good Companions, a 1933 adaptation of a popular J.B. Priestley novel.[2] This Victor Saville-directed film remains a popular example of a British interwar comedy, and also stars Jessie Matthews and John Gielgud. In The Good Companions, Gwenn plays Jess Oakroyd, a Northern labourer who gets fired for speaking up against a malicious manager. Oakroyd decides to travel ‘south’ in search of work. In the Midlands, he stumbles across a faltering theatre troupe called the Dinky Doos. Simultaneously with Oakroyd’s arrival in the midlands, the film also follows teacher Inigo Jollifant and Miss Elizabeth Trant, who reach the Midlands from the East and West of England respectively. The three travellers join the Dinky Doos and help to make the troupe a success. The Good Companions was well-received by critics, who praised it as a ‘British’ picture at a time when the British film industry had been under considerable domestic pressure to prove it could stand up to the influence of Hollywood.[3]

Gwenn used his non-threatening appearance to great effect in 1936’s Laburnum Grove (directed by Carol Reed), which has been discussed in detail elsewhere in this blog. In this film, Gwenn plays Radfern, a seemingly innocent and typical suburban husband who is secretly involved in an international crime network. The film is, again, based on J.B. Priestley source material. Reed directed Gwenn again in 1938, as the working-class lead of Penny Paradise. This comedy-drama is set in Liverpool, and Gwenn plays Joe Higgins, a tug-boat captain who religiously enters the ‘penny pools’ – a postage betting system in which players try to guess the correct football scores for the entire league. Miraculously, Higgins guesses all the scores correctly, and he believes himself a rich man. However, his friend Pat, who was supposed to have posted in Higgins’ winning score, forgot to post it on time. Higgins gives up his job and throws a large party for the entire community before Pat has the courage to tell him what has happened.

Penny Paradise is a fairly typical 1930s British comedy, with the expected happy ending and moral lessons for the main characters. Gwenn rounded out the decade with a very different part, in what has commonly been called the ‘first Ealing Comedy’. Cheer Boys Cheer, produced by Michael Balcon and directed by Walter Forde, was released in 1939. It follows the plight of a small beer brewery which is up against a big, capitalist brewing corporation. The conviviality of the workers at the small brewery models how Balcon planned to run his new studio. Gwenn plays Edward Ironside, the head of the industrial brewer. The film’s most striking scene (to a modern audience) is a brief shot of Ironside reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf. In this last role of the decade, just before his move across the Atlantic, Gwenn came full circle with his performance as Hornblower in The Skin Game: that of an industrialist intent on undermining traditional British values. The changes which Britain underwent in the 1930s, however, meant that whilst at the beginning of the 1930s it was the life of the landed gentry that was worth protecting, by the end of the decade it was the working-class community spirit that was held up as the British ideal.

Gwenn continued to act almost up to his death at the age of 81, in 1959. His later roles increasingly included incidental parts in TV series. Whilst his later, American career may have brought him international and lasting fame and recognition, his frequent appearances in British films of the 1930s made him a key contributor to the interwar cultural landscape.


[1] Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace (London: IB Tauris, 2010) p. 316

[2] Laurence Napper, British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar Years (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2009), p. 81

[3] Ibid., p. 123

Kate Meyrick’s Private Diaries

FeaturedKate Meyrick’s Private Diaries

Kate Meyrick was known as the ‘Nightclub Queen’ in interwar London. She ran a string of nightclubs, of which the ‘43’ in Gerrard Street was the best-known. Nightclubs operated on the edge of the law – a club in itself was not an illegal space, but if alcohol was sold outside of hours permitted by the club’s license, the club owner could face hefty fines or even prison time. Additionally, clubs were supposed to only be open to members, who paid yearly subscriptions and were known to be of good character. In practice, Meyrick and other club owners generally allowed guests to become ‘members’ upon arrival.

Kate Meyrick made substantial money from her nightclub ventures, although they also cost her a lot to maintain. Her career effectively ended when it was revealed in 1929 that she had been bribing Police Sergeant George Goddard.[1] Goddard would tip Meyrick off if any of her clubs were likely to get raided, so that she could make sure no illegal activity was taking place in them.[2] Both Goddard and Meyrick were convicted – the latter to fifteen months’ hard labour which negatively impacted her health.

Throughout Meyrick’s career as a nightclub owner, she had become a well-known public figure, recognizable from press reports to those who would never get close to setting a foot in her clubs. After her death in 1933, publisher John Long published her memoirs, The Secrets of the 43.[3] Extracts from her ‘private diaries’ were subsequently serialised in the Sunday Express. These posthumous publications show how Meyrick’s family worked to shape her public image from convicted criminal to caring mother.

Meyrick had eight children, and professed that her main goal in entering the nightclub business was to give her family financial support. Many of her children entered her business as managers and staff in her ever-expanding network of clubs. Although Meyrick did not leave her children much capital when she passed, she had been able to secure advantageous marriages for most of them. Mary, one of Meyrick’s eldest daughters, married the Earl of Kinnoull. It was with his introduction that Meyrick’s diaries were published in the Sunday Express, giving them an aura of respectability.

In his introduction, the Earl calls his mother-in-law a ‘remarkable’ and ‘dynamic’ woman who hoped to give her children ‘brilliant chances she had been so determined they should enjoy.’[4] Her decision to start selling alcohol illegally is framed as the only option she had to make money for her children, as well as a result of her ‘impulsive nature’. The subsequent move through periods of financial success followed by raids, fines and prison sentences is related as ‘the slow slipping of the power of wealth from her fingers, her powerlessness to help her children as she longed to do.’

Advert in the Daily Express of 4 March 1933

The diary serialisation was advertised by the Sunday Express with reference to the notorious criminals Meyrick had hosted in her clubs, consciously tightening the public’s association between nightclubs and serious crime. If we accept the printed diaries as accurate copies of what Meyrick recorded, she herself was also eager to align herself and her clubs with notorious criminal cases. She describes that Ronald True, who was convicted of the murder of Gertrude Young, was in the ‘43’ the night before his arrest:

Have just seen the account of the arrest of Ronald True for the murder of Gertrude Young. He was in the 43 last night. Wonder if I am psychic? I went downstairs at 4 a.m. to stop the band, and ask them to come up to the first floor. When I went upstairs I felt I must turn round. When I did turn I found Ronald True gazing at me with murder in his eyes. (…) I suppose I ought to have warned somebody. But who?[5]

True was arrested on 9 March 1922 and was therefore in the club on 8 March – Gertrude Young had been murdered on 6 March, so any warning Meyrick could have given would not have saved her life. The ‘murder’ in True’s eyes was presumably imagined by Meyrick after she heard of his arrest.

This didn’t dissuade Meyrick from believing in her psychic abilities. She raises the topic again when she describes allegedly greeting Patrick Mahon in one of her clubs, shortly before he is arrested for the ‘Crumbles murder’; one of the more graphic murders to take place in England in the 1920s.

He [Mahon] was only in last week. How dreadful to think I shook hands with a murderer. (…) I am sure I am psychic. Just as in the case of Ronald True, Mahon’s eyes impressed me. They were not like the eyes of ordinary people: there was something behind them.[6]

Through the publication of Meyrick’s autobiography and diaries, her family were able to exercise control over her public image, which in turn affected their own reputations. By downplaying the illegal activities in which Meyrick had participated and foregrounding her commitment to her children, the Earl of Kinnoull was presenting his mother-in-law as a courageous and hardworking woman. He also profited from her by selling her diary to a newspaper. The Sunday Express, in the meantime, milked Meyrick’s proximity to notoriety to boost its own circulation. After her death, Meyrick’s own words became a tool for others to use.


[1] Heather Shore, ‘Constable dances with instructress’: the police and the Queen of Nightclubs in inter-war London’, Social History, (2013) Vol. 38, No. 2, 183–202, p. 199

[2] Clive Emsley, ‘Sergeant Goddard: the story of a rotten apple or a diseased orchard?’ In: Srebnik, Amy Gilman and Levy, Rene eds. Crime and culture: an historical perspective. Advances in Criminology (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005), pp. 85–104

[3] Kate Meyrick, The Secrets of the 43 (London: John Long, 1933)

[4] Earl of Kinnoull, ‘The Things She Could Never Tell’, Sunday Express, 25 February 1933, p. 9

[5] ‘Sergeant Goddard’s First Raid’, Sunday Express, 5 March 1933, p. 13

[6] ‘Valentino – Mahon – Kreuger – and Jimmy White’, Sunday Express, 12 March 1933, p. 13

Featured

E.M. Delafield – Messalina of the Suburbs (1924)

In 1924, six years before she would become a household name with her Diary of a Provincial Lady, E.M Delafield penned Messalina of the Suburbs, a fictionalised take on one of the most notorious murder trials of interwar Britain. In December 1922, Edith Thompson and her lover Frederick Bywaters were convicted of the murder of Edith’s husband, Percy. They were both hanged, despite the fact that it was Bywaters who stabbed Percy Thompson, and Edith claimed not to have any knowledge that he would do this. At the time, some newspapers launched a campaign to have Bywaters’ sentence commuted or quashed; as historian Lucy Bland notes drily: ‘No public steps were taken at the time on behalf of Edith.’[1] More recently, the case has been re-assessed in favour of Edith’s innocence; there is even a dedicated website that argues her conviction was a miscarriage of justice.

In Messalina of the Suburbs book, Delafield imagines one version of events that could have led to Edith (Elsie in the book) ending up in an unhappy marriage, with a lover who kills her husband. Against the prevailing attitude of the time, Delafield is surprisingly sympathetic to Elsie, without shying away from her more questionable decisions.

The book starts with Elsie as a teenager, living with her sister in the boarding house run by their mother. Elsie is already aware that men find her attractive; in the book’s opening she agrees to go to the cinema with an (older) male lodger, and does not protest when he kisses her. Delafield describes going to the cinema as a sensual experience for Elsie, foregrounding her sexuality:

To-night, as she entered the hot, dark, enervating atmosphere of the cinema theatre, she thrilled in response to the contrast with the street outside. When she heard the loud, emphasised rhythm of a waltz coming from the piano beneath the screen, little shivers of joy ran through her.[2]

After this escapade with the lodger, Elsie ends up working as a live-in help with a doctor and his wife. Before long, the doctor makes advances to her, which culminates in the pair having sex several times. Needless to say, even describing sexual relations between a married man and a younger woman was daring on the part of Delafield. But the scenes also make clear that the doctor is using Elsie for his gratification, with little regard for her well-being. When the doctor’s wife starts to realise what is going on, it’s Elsie who has to pack her bags.

Her next job is as a clerk in the office of Mr Williams, a lawyer. Initially, Elsie thinks the job will be very boring, but she cheers herself up by dressing up for her first day of work:

Elsie spent the week-end in cutting out and making for herself a blue crepe blouse, which she intended to wear on Monday morning. She also made a pair of black alpaca sleeves, with elastic at the wrist and at the elbow, to be drawn on over the blouse while she was working. She put the sleeves, her shorthand pad and pencil, a powder-puff, mirror, pocket-comb, and a paper-covered novel in a small attaché case on Monday morning, pulled on the rakish black velvet tam-o’-shanter, and went off to Mr. Williams’ office.[3]

This quote captures how Delafield consistently presents Elsie as a slightly childish innocent. Although she is aware of her effect on men, and enjoys physical relations with them, she is hardly a calculating vamp.

At the law office, Williams, too, starts flirting with Elsie, and suggests that she go with him on a weekend to the seaside. At this point, Elsie’s friend Irene advises her that she should hold out, as that will persuade Williams to marry her. Marriage represents safety and stability, and both the doctor and Williams indicate to Elsie that her sexual experience lowers her ‘value’. Elsie manages to persuade Williams to marry her by holding off all his sexual advances. Williams tells her that he respects her propriety – but as soon as they get married he makes it clear that she is now his property and he gets to decide what she does, when, and with whom.

Trapped in this stifling marriage with a man she does not find attractive, Elsie eventually meets ‘Morrison’, a friend of her sister’s. From this point, Messalina of the Suburbs largely follows the real-life narrative of Thompson and Bywaters, including the romantic letters they wrote (she destroyed his letters, he didn’t destroy hers – something that weighed heavily against her during the trial) and the fateful events of the final evening. It is here, at the end of the novel, that Delafield makes her sympathies most clear. There is no doubt at all for the reader that Elsie has no idea that Morrison is going to kill Williams. There is no suggestion that she is the mastermind behind the plan, or that she spurred him on to do it, which were suggestions made during the trial. Instead, Elsie’s naiveté and her repeated abuse by men land her in the dock, where the novel ends.

That Messalina of the Suburbs was somewhat controversial is clear from the reviews it received. It was not reviewed very widely, and mostly in the local papers. The most positive review appeared in the Yorkshire Post & Leeds Intelligencer on 16 April 1924:

a powerful psychological reconstruction of the woman in a recent murder case. (…) Miss Delafield does more to make comprehensible the motives of the unhappy and blundering woman than any of the more scientific analyses have succeeded in doing.(…) The story is not pleasant, but it is well told. Miss Delafield knows with incredible intuition the hearts of the lower middle classes’[4] 

The review implies that the writer and readers of the book are of a different species than the ‘lower middle classes’ which populate the novel. Nonetheless, the reviewer appears to grasp and approve of the ultimately sympathetic portrayal at the novel’s core. Other reviewers were not so generous, instead protesting that the novel had no reason to exist. The review in the Westminster Gazette stated

Miss Delafield tells the story very well; but, whether, merely as an exercise in fiction, it was worth telling or not is another matter[5]

and the Birmingham Daily Gazette grumbled that

Whether it was worthwhile thus recalling a sordid tragedy eighteen months afterwards is a little doubtful, but the analysis of indiscipline is very skilful.[6]

Somewhat surprisingly, the most negative review appeared in Common Cause, the newspaper of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies:

the characters in this novel are so unrelievedly sordid that there is little pleasure to be derived from their acquaintance.[7]

Delafield’s psychological analysis did not win her many fans, and her career did not take off until she returned to writing the comic works for which she is now best known. With Messalina of the Suburbs, however, she demonstrated a real sensibility for the complex character of Edith Thompson, and an acute awareness of the structural exploitation young women faced, which could lead to devastating consequences.


[1] Lucy Bland, ‘The Trials and Tribulations of Edith Thompson: The Capital Crime of Sexual Incitement in1920s England’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Jul., 2008), p. 645

[2] E.M. Delafield, Messalina of the Suburbs (London: Hutchinson, 1924), p. 16

[3] Ibid. p. 64

[4] ‘Messalina of the Suburbs’, Yorkshire Post & Leeds Intelligencer, 16 April 1924, p. 4

[5] ‘A Bold, Bad Girl’, Westminster Gazette, 4 June 1924, p. 5

[6] ‘An Ilford Novel’, Birmingham Daily Gazette, 14 April 1924, p. 4

[7] ‘Messalina of the Suburbs’, Common Cause, 16 May 1924, p. 6

First a Girl (1935)

FeaturedFirst a Girl (1935)

Musical star Jessie Matthews was at the prime of her career in 1935 when she starred as the lead in First a Girl.[1] This musical comedy directed by Victor Saville is one version of a popular film plot; it is a remake of the German comedy Viktor und Viktoria (1933), which was re-made in West Germany in 1957, and most famously adapted by Hollywood in 1982, as Victor/Victoria starring Julie Andrews.

The basic plot of all four films, including First a Girl, is similar. An aspiring stage actress (in the British film she’s called Elizabeth, and naturally is played by Matthews) meets Victor, an actor who aspires to Shakespeare but in reality performs as a female impersonator. When a bad cold prevents Victor from performing one evening, he persuades Elizabeth to take his place, by pretending to be a man who pretends to be a woman. This is a great success, and ‘Victoria’ quickly becomes an international star, forcing Elizabeth to appear as a man when in public. Things get complicated when Elizabeth falls in love with a (straight) man, who believes her to be a man also.

Whilst both the 1933 original and the 1982 American version are regularly interpreted as queer films, First a Girl underplays the homosexual possibilities of Elizabeth’s flirtation with her male love interest. This is partly due to Matthews’ own appearance. As The New York Times noted upon First a Girl’s US release in 1936:

Normally it is with sorrow and self-hatred that this column hints at the inadequacies of a star, but this time it is a distinct pleasure to call Miss Matthews’s acting performance hopelessly bad. In “First a Girl” she is pretending to be a man and making no headway at all, except with the members of her supporting cast, who swoon with astonishment upon discovering her sex. 

Quite beside Matthew’s obviously feminine appearance, First a Girl underplays any potential sexual tension between Elizabeth and her love interest, Robert, until Robert understands that Elizabeth is a woman. Prior to that point, the film focuses on the comedic potential of Elizbeth’s cross-dressing, rather than any transgressive possibilities in her relationship with Robert.

Jessie Matthews as ‘Victoria’, appearing with Sonnie Hale, in First a Girl

All versions of the film appear to include a similar sequence in which ‘Victoria’ is ‘forced’ to perform activities which are coded as specifically masculine, to comic effect. In First a Girl this sequence is set in a Parisian nightclub, where Victor and Elizabeth find themselves during their European tour. Elizabeth has to wear a tuxedo here, and hangs out at the bar with Robert – a part of the club only available to men. She quickly gets drunk when trying to keep up with Robert’s rate of drinking, and struggles when trying to smoke a cigar. Whilst these scenes give Matthews an opportunity to display her comedic talent, they also undermine her sexual capital whilst she is performing as a man. As soon as Elizabeth’s true gender identity is revealed to Robert, she turns from an unsophisticated youth into a charming young woman.

It is significant that these scenes of gender-bending performance are set in Paris – a location that invited connotations of licentiousness and sexual transgression in the British popular imagination of the 1930s. Interestingly, in the 1933 German film, ‘Victoria’ is in London when forced to undertake activities which may ‘out’ her as a woman. ‘Victoria’ finds herself in an environment that is both literally and figuratively foreign to her.

As Jeffrey Richards points out, male and female impersonation had a long tradition on the British theatrical and music hall stage.[2] The character of Victor, then, works well in this British film. He is portrayed as older than Elizabeth (although actor Sonnie Hale was only five years Matthews’ senior) and can easily be read as a music hall performer in the Victorian tradition. His female impersonation act is purely comic, whilst Elizabeth’s is sophisticated. He links the film’s plot to a specifically British performance tradition, whereas the glossy song-and-dance numbers performed by Elizabeth have more in common with Hollywood productions.[3] The film makes no explicit reference to its German origins.

First a Girl, then, significantly dilutes the queer and transgressive possibilities of the original source material, which allowed the film to flourish in interwar Britain. According to the BFI, it was a great commercial success when it was released (something also suggested by its export to the US the following year). It remains a very watchable and enjoyable film for modern audiences; and a good example of how British interwar filmmakers moderated both European and Hollywood influences to arrive at a British compromise between the two.

First a Girl is available for rental on BFI Player (UK only) and on DVD via Network on Air.


[1] Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (London: IB Tauris, 2010), pp. 217-218

[2] Ibid., p. 218

[3] This is not unusual for Jessie Matthews films. See Sarah Street, ‘Got to Dance my Way to Heaven’: Jessie Matthews, art deco and the British musical of the 1930s, Studies in European Cinema, 2:1, (2005), 19-30

Woman: Her Health and Beauty (1919)

FeaturedWoman: Her Health and Beauty (1919)

At the close of the First World War, publisher John Long put an English translation on the market of the French book La culture physique de la femme: beauté et santé par la gymnastique rationnelle. Written by the French sports and physical health specialist Max Parnet, the book provides the reader with daily exercises she should do to stay fit and healthy. The Wellcome Trust estimate that the French edition was originally published in 1913. In its English translation, it was titled: Woman: Her Health and Beauty.

The bulk of the book consists of a weekly exercise schedule, which gives the reader six compulsory and one optional exercise for each day of the week. These exercises are accompanied by illustrative photographs of a woman in a bathing suit demonstrating them. The French edition, which contains the same photographs as the English edition, has been preserved by the Internet Archive. The exercises look familiar enough to anyone who has undertaken a fitness class, although they are all on the less vigorous end of the exercise scale. The book also spends some time instructing the reader in proper breathing techniques; this holistic approach to breath and movement can also be found in many twenty-first century approaches to fitness.

Before the book goes through the exercises, however, there are some 50 pages of text which set out a general argument as to why women should exercise. It is telling that John Long decided to publish the English translation immediately following the Great War. At a time when so many of the country’s young men had either died or been maimed, the book stressed the need for women to stay fit and healthy, explicitly linking female health to the health of the nation:

It is a service to the country and to humanity to make women understand the importance of physical culture, of which health is the principal aim.[1]

Ten years before books like Sleeveless Errand exposed the mental toll to which young women who had survived the war were subjected, Woman: Her Health and Beauty encourages women to use exercise to improve themselves. However, it consistently couches the language of self-improvement in the context of becoming more beautiful. Rather than pursuing physical health as a goal in itself, women were assumed to want to be beautiful above all things.

True beauty depends especially on perfect health, that is to say, on the perfect harmony of the whole organism.[2]

[we] do not aim at producing remarkable muscles which, in a woman’s case, would not be aesthetic, but only to acquire suppleness of the body and harmony of form.[3]

A significant portion of the book’s introduction is devoted to arguing that high heels and corsets are bad for a woman’s form and health. If the French original was written in the early 1910s as suggested, corsets at that point had not yet been as fully abandoned as they would be in the 1920s. However, after arguing that wearing heels deforms a woman’s spine and corsets compress the chest, the book states that ‘civilization demands’[4] that women wear high heels and to suggest a woman should abandon the corset is ‘such a radical step [that] would bring ridicule upon us.’[5] Instead, women are advised to wear heels for as short a time as possible and not lace their corsets overly tightly. Women are instructed to adhere to the conventions of beauty over their own health.

This patriarchal tone pervades throughout the introduction, which states that

In consequence of her more delicate organism, certain exercises which are suitable to men, and even children, might be dangerous to women[6]

And

women, as we have said, do not know how to breathe[7]

The reader is also scolded for her perceived insistence to do things her own way and not follow the advice of the male experts:

The first requirement of rational and beneficial gymnastic exercises is to perform them in accordance with defined rules, and not according to the personal ideas of each individual.[8]

The end result is a book that chastises women for not applying themselves sufficiently to the rational requirements of physical exercise, but at the same time holds out the promise that any woman can be ‘graceful and agreeable to look upon, provided that they take pains to suitably and completely develop their physical condition’.[9] It gives women information about how fashionable clothes may be hurting them, but then tells them to keep wearing them anyway as it makes them beautiful. Ultimately, the book’s exercises are even presented as an inferior replacement for ‘real’ exercise such as horse riding:

Natural gymnastics are in reality the most salutary of all, and they alone are sufficient for health and beauty; but in our unnatural and civilized existence it is almost impossible for most people to indulge in them.[10]

Woman: Her Health and Beauty is therefore a prime example of the type of self-help books that leave the reader feeling insufficient and at the same time offer up a path to salvation, gained through the rigorous adherence to, in this case, a daily exercise regime. It is not possible to trace how many women bought the book or followed its instruction (although there appears to have only been one edition of the English version published). The existence of Woman: Her Health and Beauty in the first place, however, gives an insight in how patriarchal structures created a space for women to be held personally accountable for the health of the nation following the war.


[1] Max Parnet, Woman: Her Health and Beauty (London: John Long, 1919), p. 19

[2] Ibid., p. 15

[3] Ibid., p. 22

[4] Ibid., p. 24

[5] Ibid., p. 27

[6] Ibid., p. 21

[7] Ibid., p. 35

[8] Ibid., pp. 29-30

[9] Ibid., p. 19

[10] Ibid., p. 49

Gracie Fields in Picture Post (1938)

FeaturedGracie Fields in Picture Post (1938)

Gracie Fields was one of Britain’s biggest stars during the interwar period, and she is certainly one of the stars that is best remembered today. With her signature Lancashire accent; dry, witty comedy; and hearty songs, she came to represent a version of Britishness grounded in no-nonsense hard work and companionship. Whilst the music hall stage was her natural home, in the 1930s Fields expanded her reach through appearing in a string of musical comedy films. In these, she generally played a working-class woman with aspirations to perform as a singer. Her characters, often called Grace/Gracie or Sally, met any obstacles with good cheer and eventually achieved their ambitions.

In 1938, Fields was invited to perform for Queen Mary (the late King’s wife and grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II) in the Royal Albert Hall. To mark the occasion, Picture Post featured an extensive spread titled ‘A Day With Gracie’.[1] The text and pictures of this article give an insight in how Fields’ celebrity persona was constructed at this stage of her career, when she had become an established star.

Rochdale News | News Headlines | Appeal for Gracie Fields memories for new  biography - Rochdale Online

The article starts with an imaginative recounting of how a six-year old Gracie used to sing on the streets of Rochdale, whilst dreaming of future riches: ‘She thought of the day when she would be a famous actress, with enough money to buy clothes, mansions, motor-cars, and holidays abroad.’[2] The article positions Fields’ working-class and Northern background as a pivotal part of her development as a singer. However, it also states that a desire for material wealth underpinned her ambition.

The article goes on to describe Fields’ first attempts as a singer: supporting an existing music hall act; singing at local competitions and charity events; joining a troupe of ‘Juveniles’ on tour. Throughout these descriptions, the article constantly refers back to Fields’ father’s scepticism of her ambitions, and the need for Fields to bring income into the family. After the failed Juveniles tour, Fields’ mother ‘got Gracie a job as an errand girl to a confectioner.’[3] The article goes into the formative part of Fields’ career in such detail, because it allows the journalist to present Fields as completely determined in her ambition to succeed. Like Fields’ personas in her various films, she was not deterred by setbacks, but instead kept trying to find a way to realise her ambitions.

Initially, this path to success took the form of incredibly hard work: Fields was working shifts in a local mill, going to school, and also attending dance classes in Manchester several times a week.[4] She studied music hall acts and eventually was given another opportunity to perform at a local music hall. Rather ironically, it was not until Archie Pitt, a performer sixteen years her senior, ‘spotted’ her and decided to build his next show around her, that Fields’ career really took off. She married Pitt in 1923, when she was 25 and he 41; the couple divorced in 1939 and the marriage was already very rocky by the time the Picture Post article was published – Pitt does not appear in any of the images accompanying the piece.

Although the article refers to Fields as ‘probably the highest-paid woman in the world’[5] and the ‘Most-interviewed woman in the world’[6] (both unsubstantiated claims), the article is at great pains to stress that Fields is no diva. She finds buying clothes ‘a bore’, likes walking around in old clothes, and is ‘vague’ – a characteristic apparently demonstrated by her tendency to leave half-written letters lying about the house. Although the article originally set up the premise that the young Gracie dreamt of riches, it then takes pains to underline how little the adult Grace is interested in a wealthy lifestyle.

Even more strikingly, the article refers very minimally to Fields’ actual work, despite her enormous success in that area. Instead it focuses a great deal on her work with children. No fewer than 8 out of the 17 photographs that accompany the piece, feature her nephew Michael, who looks about three years old. The captions state that ‘There are almost always children in the house’[7] and ‘Hundreds of children have spent happy afternoons’[8] in Grace’s garden. She also set up a charitable children’s home near Brighton.

What is glaringly absent through the many references to her apparent fondness of children, is any acknowledgement that Fields herself was childless. At the time the article was written she was 40, which is explicitly referred to in the text; the conclusion is quickly drawn that Fields’ childlessness at that age was not wanted. The reality is that Fields’ battled cervical cancer which greatly diminished her ability to get pregnant. Whilst it is understandable that Fields was not keen that her medical history would be known to the public, one wonders how she felt about being presented as such an explicitly maternal figure in this article.

Overall, the Picture Post article is ambiguous in the way it presents Fields. She is both British through and through and someone with international allure and star power. The article devotes considerable attention to her ‘talent, hard work, and personality’[9] and ability to overcome setbacks. At the same time, it frames Archie Pitt as the catalyst of her success. It presents Fields as a rich woman who loves re-modelling her vast house, but also someone who ‘is not interested in money’.[10] It provides an interesting study of how the interwar press attempted to present a successful female star as she moved into middle age.

See Gracie Fields in action in this clip recorded in 1938

[1] ‘A Day With Gracie’, Picture Post, 29 October 1938, pp. 10-16 and 70

[2] Ibid., p. 12

[3] Ibid., p. 14

[4] Ibid., pp. 15-16

[5] Ibid., p. 12

[6] Ibid., p. 15

[7] Ibid., p. 12

[8] Ibid., p. 14

[9] Ibid., p. 70

[10] Ibid.

W. Lusty & Sons Ltd – Furniture Makers

FeaturedW. Lusty & Sons Ltd – Furniture Makers

During the 1930s, London’s suburbs developed and expanded at a rapid pace.[1] The droves of new ‘white-collar’ workers were sold on the promise that they, too, could own their own home and garden. All these new homes needed furniture. Before IKEA, there was W Lusty & Sons, makers of solid-wood furniture for affordable prices.

The workshop of Lusty & Sons was based in Bromley-by-Bow, more specifically just south of Empson Street. The yard bordered on the Limehouse Cut, which allowed for the easy transportation of goods in and out of the premises. Customers were obviously not expected to attend here; instead, the company maintained a showroom in Paul Street (just east of Old Street station). The bulk of Lusty & Sons customers, however, appear to have bought out of their catalogues. The company boasted a UK wide delivery service by goods or even passenger train – the latter if the order was particularly urgent.

Drawing of Lusty & Sons yard in Bromley-by-Bow, as included in 1936 catalogue

To allow for these shipping methods, Lusty & Sons built furniture that was delivered in parts, and could be easily assembled in the home. Dining tables, which in 1936 ranged in price from 7 shilling and 3 pence to £1, 19 shilling and 9 pence, came with detachable legs. The catalogue reassured prospective customers that this novel way of furniture production was not dangerous: ‘Although the legs are detachable, the tables, when fitted together, are perfectly rigid and strong.’[2]

It is not just the affordable prices for the cheaper versions of the furniture that indicate that Lusty & Sons clientele were white-collar workers rather than the leisured classes. The company also provided a number of furniture styles which were explicitly designed to fit into modest houses. The ‘cottage’ dining table range, for example, came with two fold-out leaves.[3] When folded away, the table took up minimal space, and for dinner it could be extended to give everyone a seat at the table. This design has, of course, continued to be a welcome solution to those living in smaller spaces.

Their kitchen furniture catalogue reveals even more strongly that Lusty & Sons furniture was aimed at newly married couples of reasonably modest means, setting up house together. The supply of domestic servants had been steadily shrinking since the Edwardian era: by the 1930s, young women had plenty of other employment options which were more appealing than a life in service.[4] Additionally, the expense of live-in servants was one that newlywed couples were unlikely to be able to afford. Lucky for the inexperienced housewife, then, that Lusty & Sons could supply her with an all-in-one kitchen unit which provided her with all the tools she needed to run her household.

Multi-functional kitchen cabinet sold by Lusty & Sons in 1936

These comprehensive kitchen cabinets again came in a range of prices; the more expensive the model, the more functionality it had. This model, which at £9 was one of the more expensive ones, came with an instructive image which explained to the prospective buyer exactly how to use the unit. The 29 (!) arrows tell the housewife that she should put her large household utensils on top of the cabinet; keep her preserves in the jars in the bottom left cabinet; and put her ‘various kitchen sundries’ in the middle drawer on the bottom right. This particular cabinet comes with a chart of food values built in, and a pocket for household account books: these underline that the housewife’s task is a serious one. The health and economic survival of the household are her responsibility. The porcelain table top extends to a dining table; the catalogue provides a drawing that depicts the white-collar couple harmoniously at breakfast, using the full range of the cabinet’s functions.

Drawing included in catalgue, demonstrating use of cabinet

The Lusty & Sons furniture catalogues shine a light on how the new interwar workers furnished their homes. Like contemporary mass-furniture makers, each piece of Lusty & Sons furniture was available in a wide range of finishes. Customers were able to personalise their furniture to fit their tastes and budgets, thus avoiding the risk of having exactly the same furniture as their neighbours. At the same time, the catalogues instructed customers on how to use the furniture, and by extension, how to manage their households. Far from being a neutral object, the catalogue’s tacit and explicit instructions make visible what was considered an appropriate way of living for white-collar workers in the mid-1930s.


[1] Mark Clapson, Suburban Century: social change and urban growth in England and the United States (Oxford: Berg, 2003), p. 2

[2] ‘W. Lusty & Sons Ltd Catalogue’, 1936, held by Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, LC10550

[3] Ibid.

[4] Miriam Glucksmann, Women Assemble: women workers and the new industries in inter-war Britain (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 52-3

Night Alone (1938)

FeaturedNight Alone (1938)

The 69 comedies produced in Britain in 1938 include two George Formby vehicles (I see Ice! and It’s in the Air), Break the News starring Jack Buchanan and Maurice Chevalier, and the marital comedy Night Alone. With a modest run-time of one hour and 16 minutes, the film nevertheless manages to combine a comedy about misunderstandings between husband and wife with a sub-plot involving the international smuggling of fraudulent banknotes.

By the tail end of the 1930s, the British film industry was steadily producing upwards of 150 films a year, and the majority of them were comedies. Comedy is more culturally specific than crime or melodrama, and cheaper to produce. Despite their increased output, British film studios could not usually hope to compete with high-budget Hollywood productions.

Welsh actor Emlyn Williams (who in the same year starred in the hard-boiled They Drive By Night) plays Charles Seaton, a solicitor who for seven years has been happily married to Barbara (Lesley Brook). Whilst on route to visit Barbara’s sister Vi, and see Vi’s daughter in a school play, Charles is unexpectedly detained by urgent business. This means the couple have to spend a night apart for the first time in seven years: Charles in a hotel and Barbara at Vi’s house. Despite Charles’ best intentions to stay in his room for a quiet night in, when he meets his old friend Tommy, he is persuaded to go to a nightclub in Villiers Street. Vi, at the same time, needles Barbara to the point that she starts doubting Charles’ loyalty.

A fair portion of the film is set in the nightclub that Charles, Tommy and two of Tommy’s friends, Gloria and Celia, visit. By 1938, the perceived threat of nightclubs to society had mellowed to the point that the film can joke about the club’s dubious legal status. When Tommy first tries to persuade Charles that he should come out, Charles tries to get out of it by arguing that he is not a member of the nightclub. ‘All you have to do is put a bob in a slot machine and you’re a member for life!’ scoffs Tommy. Towards the end of the film, when Tommy has to give an account of the party’s movements to a police officer, he immediately gives a fake name and address, on the assumption that he is part of a regular nightclub raid and will be let off with a warning.  

Tommy is presented as a bit dim-witted, but ultimately harmless and fun; he certainly knows how to behave in the nightclub. Charles inability to do the same, and his awkwardness in the pub, is played up for its comedic value. After his initial refusal to dance, he sits at the table with Celia, who appears to be in league with the nightclub staff. She first gestures over the cigarette seller. Charles agrees to buy a cigar, but baulks when he’s told it will cost 10 shillings. He then feels obliged to buy a packet of cigarettes instead, even though that is still overpriced at 4 shillings. Celia then waves the girl who sells chocolates, over. Charles again feels that decency compels him to buy some chocolates for Celia, even though they cost 25s and the girl does not give him any change.

Later in the evening, Charles shares a few dances with Gloria, with whom he gets on much better than with Celia. In his nervousness, Charles keeps drinking until he passes out. The other three manage to get him out of the club and into Gloria’s apartment, which is nearby. Celia and Tommy head out again, and Gloria is about to settle in on the couch when her American boyfriend unexpectedly shows up. He has just arrived by plane from Paris with a suitcase of forged banknotes, and the police are hot on his heels. Gloria and he escape the flat, leaving the drunk Charles snoring on the bed. When the police raid the flat shortly afterwards, they arrest Charles as an accomplice to the smuggling and put him in a cell for the rest of the night. The next morning, Charles has to try his hardest to get back to the hotel before Barbara and Vi come back. He manages to do so with seconds to spare and Barbara believes him when he says he’s not left the hotel all night: marital bliss is restored.

Charles has several dances with Gloria and the pair share light-hearted jokes (sample: Charles: ‘I’m not as young as I look’; Gloria: ‘You don’t look young at all’). It is not until Charles thinks he’s about to be arrested for forgery that he is concerned about Barbara finding out what has happened during the night. Night Alone presents Charles initial devotion to his wife and his quiet life as unnatural and comic. In line with other popular comedies of the time, such as the Aldwych farce A Cuckoo in the Nest, the narrative suggests that there is nothing wrong with spending a night in another woman’s flat, as long as your wife doesn’t find out about it.

Barbara, for her part, is admired by one of the other parents at the school play. Vi encourages her to enjoy a little flirtation on the grounds that Charles is bound to be doing the same. The ‘flirtation’ goes no further than an awkward, stilted conversation between Barbara and the man. Her refusal to engage with the man is part of her virtue as a wife, as is her blind belief that Charles would never do anything untoward. Barbara is constantly compared to Vi, whose cynicism and jokes about sex mark her out as coarse, in the same way Tommy is shown to be unreliable compared to Charles. Vi and Tommy are a lot of fun to watch but Night Alone makes it clear that the reward of a stable marriage with trust and companionship is worth more than short-term fun and entertainment.

Dorothy L. Sayers – Murder Must Advertise (1933)

FeaturedDorothy L. Sayers – Murder Must Advertise (1933)

Dorothy L. Sayers is readily regarded as one of the most prominent contributors to the ‘Golden Age of Crime Fiction’: a period that spans nearly all of the interwar period. It marked not only a huge increase in the popularity of crime stories in Britain, but also saw innovations in the genre, for example the unreliable narrator in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and a crime with half a dozen possible solutions in Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929).

Sayers’ main contribution to the genre were the eleven novels she wrote around amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey; the debonair younger brother of the Duke of Denver who combines a passion for antiquarian book-collecting with his hobby of crime detection. The first Wimsey novel, Whose Body? appeared in 1922 in the US and in Britain a year later. Sayers’ continued writing Wimsey novels until Busman’s Honeymoon in 1937, after which she turned her attention to writing scholarly works on theology.[1]

The eight Wimsey novel out of a total of eleven, Murder Must Advertise, appeared in 1933. In this book, Wimsey goes undercover to work as a copywriter at a fictional advertising firm, Pym’s Publicity. He is invited to do this by the manager, Mr Pym himself, after a suspicious death on the firm’s premises: one of the staffers has fallen to his death from a spiral staircase. Sayers drew on inspiration from her own time working as a copywriter in the early 1920s for S.H. Benson; the Benson office even had a steep spiral staircase like the one that appears in Murder Must Advertise.[2]

Sayers’ real-life work experience lend the novel’s descriptions of the office life in an advertising firm an authentic air. The novel’s opening sees all the firm’s office staff gathered in the typists’ room, to surreptitiously organise a sweep on the horse races. There are pages of rapid, overlapping dialogue of staff discussing the sweep and the arrival of the new colleague. When they hear one of the managers approach,

‘the scene dislimned as by magic. (…) Mr Willis (…) picked a paper out at random and frowned furiously at it (…) Mr Garrett, unable to get rid of his coffee-cup, smiled vaguely and tried to look as though he had picked it up by accident and didn’t know it was there (…) Miss Rossiter, clutching Mr Armstrong’s carbons in her hand, was able to look businesslike, and did so.’[3]

It is a scene still familiar from modern office-based comedies and dramas such as Mad Men (2007-2015) and The Devil Wears Prada (2006). Throughout the book, the copywriting staff spend most of their time chatting and trying to come up with new slogans, interspersed with bursts of extreme stress when an advert needs to be reworked close to the printing deadline. A key scene in the novel sees the Morning Star newspaper ring the office at 6.15pm because they have noticed an unintentionally rude image in one of the adverts due to be printed that evening.[4] The resolution to the murder investigation ultimately also lies in the adverts: Wimsey finds out that a drug racket uses advertisements to communicate with one another.

Because of Wimsey’s aristocratic background, he does not normally engage in paid work in any of the books. Alongside the murder mystery, Murder Must Advertise gives the reader the opportunity to glimpse the world of advertising in 1930s Britain. The subject matter gives Sayers’ ample opportunity to poke fun at the public. During his time at Pym’s, Wimsey accidentally comes up with a wildly successful campaign for (fictional) Whifflet cigarettes:

‘It was in that moment, (…) that [Wimsey] conceived that magnificent idea that everybody remembers and talks about today – the scheme that achieved renown as ‘Whiffling Round Britain’ (…) It is not necessary to go into details. You have probably Whiffled yourself.’[5]

Essentially, the campaign is a coupon scheme; coupons collected on cigarette packets could be traded for hotel stays, train tickets, holiday outings et cetera. Sayers’ describes the scheme as growing beyond the initial campaign to

‘Whifflet wedding[s] with Whifflet cake[s] (…) a Whifflet house, whose Wihfflet furniture included a handsome presentation smoking cabinet, free from advertising matter and crammed with unnecessary gadgets. After this, it was only a step to a Whifflet Baby.’[6]

At the time the novel was published, this type of all-encompassing branding had also been embraced by the British Union of Fascists, as discussed in a previous post. Advertising and marketing in general had taken an enormous flight during these decades, in no small part due to the increased circulation of daily newspapers.

Sayers herself is sceptical of the industry – the novel ends with a paragraph of fictional advertising slogans and the closing line ‘Advertise, or go under.’[7] Although Sayers apparently enjoyed her time working at S. H. Benson in 1923,[8] when Murder Must Advertise was published ten years later she appears to have been more critical of the industry. Nonetheless, Murder Must Advertise provides a comic look into what was a growing industry in interwar Britain, written by someone with first-hand knowledge of its operations.

A 1973 TV adaptation of Murder Must Advertise can be found on YouTube.


[1] Francesca Wade, Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars (London: Faber & Faber, 2020), pp. 329-331

[2] Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (London: Collins Crime Club, 2016), p. 13

[3] Dorothy L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise (London: New English Library, 2003 [1933]), p. 6

[4] Ibid., pp. 135-145

[5] Ibid., p. 288

[6] Ibid., p. 289

[7] Ibid., p. 388

[8] Wade, Square Haunting, p. 125

Jack Hulbert

FeaturedJack Hulbert

A wildly popular musical comedy star of stage and screen in the 1930s, Jack Hulbert has since been dismissed by some critics as a ‘light entertainer’[1] who ‘can seem tirelessly jaunty company.’[2] During the peak of his film career, Hulbert ranked high in popularity charts. In 1933 he was voted the top British male star in audience questionnaires and 1936 he was the third most popular British star based on domestic box office returns.[3] He starred in fourteen films across the decade.

Jack Hulbert was born in Cambridgeshire in 1892 to a doctor. He studied at Cambridge where he joined the Cambridge Footlights. His brother Claude Hulbert, who was eight years his junior, followed the same trajectory. Both brothers became two of the first Footlights alumni to reach acting success and fame. After Cambridge, Jack Hulbert got a role in a theatre production, playing opposite Cicely Courtneidge. The couple married in 1916 and stayed together for the rest of their lives, often working together on stage and screen.

After completing his war service, Hulbert returned to his career in variety theatre and produced and acted in numerous stage productions across the West End. During the 1920s, British films were still silent and therefore did not provide a suitable medium for comedy stage stars like Hulbert and Courtneidge, who depended on witty dialogue and song-and-dance numbers to win over their audiences. Further, until the adoption of the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, very limited numbers of British films were being produced at all.

By the start of the 1930s the couple found themselves in debt due to financial mismanagement. As the British film industry was at the same time transitioning to sound, the time had come for Hulbert and Courtneidge to make the leap to the silver screen. Their first appearance was as themselves in Elstree Calling! (1930). As implied by the title, this film was a series of separate sketches performed by popular entertainers supposedly broadcasting from Elstree studios north of London.

After Elstree Calling! Hulbert moved into narrative fiction films, and increasingly worked separately from Courtneidge. In common with other popular comedy stars of the period, such as George Formby and Gracie Fields, Hulbert usually played characters called Jack. The titles of some of his films, such as Jack’s the Boy (1932), Jack Ahoy (1934), Bulldog Jack (1935) and Jack of All Trades (1936) worked to eliminate the difference between the actor and his characters even further.

Hulbert’s persona was a confident and likeable middle-class charmer who was able to be both comic and romantic.[4] . His films ‘appear to exist primarily for the display of [his] talents as singer, dancer and comedian.’[5] In Jack of All Trades, he plays a likeable chancer who is looking for a job. After striking up an acquaintance with Lionel, a bank clerk (played by Robertson Hare) Jack starts showing up at Lionel’s office and pretend that he works there. His pretence is so successful that he ends up convincing the bank bosses to build an entire new shoe factory. The scenes where Jack and Lionel present their proposal to the Board, all of whom approve the plans because they are too embarrassed to admit that they have no idea what they are being shown, still have the power to resonate with modern audiences. The final third of Jack of All Trades, however, descends into fast-paced slapstick action typical of Hulbert films with a lot of physical comedy.

Hulbert singing ‘Where There’s You, There’s Me’ in Jack of All Trades

A similar tension between narrative and apparently stand-alone action can be found in Bulldog Jack, a film satirising the extremely popular Bulldog Drummond book and film series. Bulldog Drummond was a fictional, highly successful police inspector. At the start of Bulldog Jack, Jack Hulbert’s character accidentally crashes his car into Bulldog Drummond’s, injuring the latter and making him bed-bound. When the young daughter of a jeweller asks for help because her father has fallen victim to a gang of thieves and blackmailers, Drummond asks Jack to pretend to be the famous ‘Bulldog’ and take on the case.

Again, the first section of the film gives plenty of space for comedy and romance, before the action-packed climax set in the London Underground. The criminal gang have set up their headquarters in a disused Underground station, and the gang leader hijacks an Underground train in an attempt to get away. Jack ends up crawling over the top of the train carriages, like a true action hero, to stop the train. Prior to this final chase, Bulldog Jack uses sped-up shots of Jack and his friends chasing the criminals up and down the spiral staircases of the Underground station.

By the mid-1930s the use of sped-up film was quite unusual; it was a device much more often used in the ‘cinema of attractions’ that pre-dated World War One. Jack Hulbert’s films did not fully conform to the conventions of narrative filmmaking. Instead, they applied techniques from earlier film genres and from the variety stage onto the long-form fiction film medium. Although this allowed Hulbert to perform in a similar mode across his stage and film productions, as a result his 1930s film work can jar to modern audiences and make it more challenging to understand Hulbert’s enormous popularity at the time.

Elstree Calling! can be viewed on YouTube.


[1] James Chapman, ‘Celluloid Shockers’, in The Unknown 1930s: An alternative history of the British cinema, 1929-1939, ed. Jeffrey Richards (London: IB Tauris, 1998), p. 91

[2] Brian McFarlane, ‘Jack of All Trades: Robert Stevenson’, in The Unknown 1930s, p. 164

[3] Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (London: IB Tauris, 2010) pp. 160-161

[4] McFarlane, ‘Jack of All Trades’, p. 163

[5] Ibid.

Fascism in East London, 1932-1940

FeaturedFascism in East London, 1932-1940

The most notorious expression of anti-Semitic sentiment in interwar Britain was the creation and rise of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) by Oswald Mosley. Mosley founded the BUF in 1932, after first serving as an MP for the Conservative and Labour parties, and standing as an independent MP.[1] The history of the BUF has been extensively researched, and there is a general consensus that the BUF’s most fruitful recruitment ground was London’s East End.[2] The BUF’s popularity and membership fluctuated throughout the 1930s until Mosley was interned in 1940, which effectively ended the BUF’s existence.

Whitechapel and its environs had been the centre of London’s Jewish community from the mid-19th century[3]; when unemployment rates went up in the 1930s, the BUF’s anti-Semitic messages – formally adopted in 1934[4] –  found traction with some East Enders. When the local population struggled to get work, it was all too easy to blame the Jewish immigrants for ‘taking jobs’. Anne Kershen, a historian of the East End, has pointed out that Jews were the largest minority ethnic group in interwar Britain.[5] This, combined with a long history of anti-Semitism in Britain and Europe as a whole, made the Jewish community a much-used scapegoat for any perceived unfairness in society. With anti-Semitism on the rise across the content in the 1930s, in Britain too these sentiments were foregrounded more in the mid-1930s than in previous decades. 

The BUF paid considerable attention to the visual impact of its branding. Apart from the Blackshirt uniforms, which immediately identified BUF members in public, the party also recorded and sold speeches by Mosley and recordings of the Blackshirt Military Band as well as posters, postcards and photo books of Mosley and other BUF leaders.[6] Historian Julie Gottlieb has argued that the party deliberately borrowed from cinematic conventions at their rallies and meetings, which were sometimes held in cinemas. The use of light and sound effects, banners and flags, and choreographed movement all built up to a crescendo when Mosley himself appeared.[7]

The BUF recruited and retained its members primarily through its network of local offices and branches, were members could convene, plan and discuss activities such as rallies and marches. This local, grass-roots organisation meant that there was significant variation of BUF uptake and activity from parish to parish. In the East End, the Bethnal Green branch of the BUF was very successful in drumming up support by offering a cohesive ideological alternative to the local socialist council, which had left residents disillusioned.[8] The BUF also gained traction in Limehouse and Whitechapel.[9]

The organisational structure of the BUF also meant that a member’s involvement with the party was primarily based on local interactions and social activities. In the local headquarters, (male) party members convened to educate themselves, work on party outreach activities and undertake physical exercise classes. Female members had an entirely separate, but similar, experience, with their activities centring on recruiting and training new female members, as well as learning ‘fencing, boxing and first aid’.[10] The BUF’s insistence on physical fitness was part of its racist quest to create ‘New Men’ who would be able to ‘maintain and re-unify’ the British Empire.[11]

Beyond the social activities of the local branch, members could buy the aforementioned party memorabilia as well as party newspapers, cigarettes from the party’s own brand, playing cards, letter heads, et cetera.[12] For the truly committed BUF couple, a fascist wedding may be considered. At these, the groom would typically wear his Blackshirt uniform, whereas the bride could accessorize her dress with Fascist details. At one wedding, the bride cut the cake with an axe rather than a knife.[13] As historian Michael Spurr puts it: Rather than simply voting fascist at elections or proselytising on the streets, members of the BUF became Blackshirts, individuals whose identity and social experience was shaped and defined by this alternate fascist community.’[14]

Herein lies the key to the BUF’s popularity in the East End of the 1930s. The vast amount of social and cultural change which Britain experienced during the interwar period left some groups feeling abandoned. The international political situation was uncertain and a second World War seemed increasingly inevitable. The BUF offered a sense of community and a promise of a Greater Britain – as well as a strong commitment to peace with Hitler. The Party’s savvy marketing strategies amplified its mass appeal; it also frequently recruited teenagers looking for a sense of belonging. Being a BUF member left such an impression that members were able to fondly recall their time with the party, decades later.[15] For them, it was not the party’s political ideas which were of primary importance, but rather its community and the belief that Britain would rise above its difficulties to come out stronger.


[1] Mosley’s Blackshirts: The Inside Story of The British Union of Fascists 1932-1934 (London: Sanctuary Press, 1986), p. v-vii

[2] Thomas P Linehan, East London for Mosley: The British Union of Fascists in East London and South-West Essex, 1933-1940 (London: Frank Cass, 1996), p. 199

[3] Anne Kershen  Strangers, Aliens and Asians: Huguenots, Jews and Bangladeshis in Spitalfields 1666-2000 (London: Routledge, 2005), p. 64

[4] Michael A. Spurr. ‘’Living the Blackshirt Life’: Culture, Community and the British Union of Fascists, 1932-1940’, Contemporary European History, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Aug., 2003), 305-322 (307)

[5] Kershen, Strangers, Aliens and Asians, p. 208

[6] Julie Gottlieb, ‘The Marketing of Megalomania: Celebrity, Consumption and the Development of Political Technology in the British Union of Fascists’, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Jan., 2006), 35-55 (41-42)

[7] Ibid., 45

[8] John Marriot, Beyond the Tower: A History of East London (Yale: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 306

[9] Ibid.

[10] Spurr, ‘Living the Blackshirt Life’, 315

[11] Liam J. Liburd, ‘Beyond the Pale: Whiteness, Masculinity and Empire in the British Union of Fascists, 1932–1940’, Fascism, 7 (2018), 275-296 (284-285)

[12] Spurr, ‘Living the Blackshirt Life’, 318

[13] Ibid., p. 319

[14] Ibid.

[15] Mosley’s Blackshirts: The Inside Story of The British Union of Fascists 1932-1934 (London: Sanctuary Press, 1986) is a compendium of past BUF members’ memories of the party

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They Drive By Night (1938)

Towards the end of the interwar period, Warner Brothers’ British arm produced the thriller They Drive by Night, directed by Arthur Woods. This should not be confused with the 1940 American film of the same title, starring George Raft and Ida Lupino; although both films make reference to the long-distance lorry driving community, which is what their titles also refer to. Woods was still only in his early thirties when he directed They Drive By Night, but he’d already had a long career in the industry as a director (Radio Parade of 1935; Music Hath Charms) and screenwriter (Red Wagon; I Spy). They Drive By Night is a thriller, different from the majority of Woods’ work which was in musical comedy. Woods died in 1944 in active combat after joining the RAF at the outbreak of the Second World War.

The hero of They Drive By Night is ‘Shorty’ Matthews, played by Emlyn Williams. A the start of the film Shorty has just been released from prison, and he goes to look up Alice, an old flame who works as a dance hostess. When he arrives at her lodgings, Alice is dead in her room. Shorty panics and goes on the run, by posing as a long-distance lorry driver. With the help of Molly, one of Alice’s friends and colleagues, he keeps out of the hands of the police and is eventually able to track down Alice’s real killer. The killer is an older man with an obsession for the ‘criminal mind’, who used to often dance with Alice at the dance hall.

Although They Drive By Night is based on a British novel and set in England, the influence of the American producers on the film is marked. It is a prime example of the kind of film that met the criteria of a ‘British’ film under the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, without actually conveying the British cultural values the Act also aimed to promote. For example, the characters use Americanisms and slang throughout the film. When Shorty first gets out of prison, he meets a woman in a bar: she is ostentatiously chewing gum, and her hair is dyed platinum blonde. This was hardly the type of womanhood thought to reflect British values, but Shorty and the barman look after the woman appreciatively.

They Drive By Night’s overall narrative also espoused values that are not typical of British films of the period. The main characters are a convicted criminal and a dance hostess turned lorry girl. As Julia Laite has explored, the lorry driving community caused concern in 1930s Britain as some young women hitched rides from drivers. It was suggested that this type of hitchhiking sometimes involved an exchange of sexual favours, which in turn led to the spread of venereal diseases amongst the lorry driving community.[1] This in turn could lead, it was feared, to unsafe road situations when lorry drivers were ill, thus neatly linking the whole matter to ongoing road safety debates.

In They Drive By Night, however, there is no suggestion that Molly sleeps with the lorry drivers that help her, and the general practice of girls hitching rides is not condemned. When one of them tries to take advantage of her, she fights him off. This driver is presented as a ‘bad sort’ and not representative of the whole lorry driving community – a second driver whom Shorty spends some time with is shown to be faithful to his wife at home. Overall, the lorry driver scene is presented as a more positive male environment than Shorty’s criminal network back in London; but ultimately the film presents a heterosexual coupling as the only truly appropriate outcome for Shorty.

The police play only a minor part in They Drive By Night, and they are not instrumental to the capture of Alice’s killer. Unlike other thrillers of the late 1930s such as The Squeaker or The Dark Eyes of London, the police inspector in They Drive By Night is not one of the protagonists who leads on the resolution of the case. Indeed, they do not feature in the film’s climax, in which Shorty and Molly are at home with the killer and he nearly succeeds in murdering Molly, at all. They Drive By Night skips over the killer’s arrest and trial – the parts of the process in which the police would be involved – straight to the day of his execution.

The police primarily feature as a plot device that gives urgency to Shorty’s actions as the police chase him. Shorty’s criminal record is no impediment to his status as the film’s hero, but throughout the film characters encourage him to ‘go straight’. First the owner of his regular bar tells Shorty not to go back to his old criminal habits. Then Molly’s steadfast support of Shorty whilst he is on the run for the police persuades him to say goodbye to his criminal life for good and turn himself in voluntarily. Only then is he able to outwit the killer and save Molly’s life as a traditional hero would. The eighteen months Shorty has done in prison for his earlier crimes are sufficient to wipe these off his slate and allow him a fresh start; arguably a philosophy more reflective of American culture than British values. Molly, too, is presented as a suitable romantic partner despite her past as a lorry girl and her work as a dance hostess; two roles which were regularly connected with loose morals.

They Drive By Night seems to represent a transitional point in British interwar cinema, where American values had influenced British culture so much that they started to permeate British films. Despite the best efforts of the legislators, they were not able to stem the tide of American cultural influence on the domestic film industry. This influence went beyond hairstyles and mannerisms to a fundamental re-appraisal of morality and social values.

They Drive By Night is available to view on Youtube.


[1] Julia Laite, ‘Immoral Traffic: Mobility, Health, Labor, and the “Lorry Girl” in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain’, Journal of British Studies (2013) 52:3, pp. 693-721 (693-4)

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Night Work for ‘Phone Girls (1929)

An ubiquitous feature of books and films in the interwar period is the use of telephones, and therefore the presence of phone exchange operators. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, most phone calls in England were put through manual switchboards, which were owned by the Post Office and were mostly operated by young women. These operators would ask the caller which number they wanted to connect to, and then connect the wires on the switchboard to place the call. Switchboard operating became a ‘female’ job, because, in the words of the Science Museum: ‘The job of a switchboard operator took concentration, good interpersonal skills and quick hands. The Post Office, which ran the telephone service in the UK, soon realised that women and girls were much more skilled and reliable than the messenger boys who had first taken on the job.’

Switchboard operating fell into the same category as other jobs which were presumed to require nimble hands, such as hand-colouring films and working in confectionary and biscuit factories.[1] The operators were usually young because it was still the convention that women gave up paid work upon their marriage. There are plenty of anecdotes about regular callers getting to know ‘their’ switchboard operator. The romantic and dramatic potential of the job was effectively used by Maurice Elvey in his 1932 film The Lodger (The Phantom Fiend) in which a young female operator overhears a murder down the line.

In 1929, switchboard operators found themselves at the heart of a debate in which modernity and progress clashed with perceived notions of the suitability of female labour. The Daily Telegraph ran an article on 6 July of that year headlined ‘Night Work for ‘Phone Girls’ – note both the novelty of shortening the word ‘telephone’ and the referral to working women as ‘girls’, as was common practice. The article reports that the Postmaster General proposed to extend the shifts of female operators from 8pm to 10.30pm or 11pm. This would necessitate the hiring of more operators as an individual’s working hours would not increase, but rather a shift pattern would be introduced.

According to the article, the current convention to end women operator’s days at 8pm was maintained at the recommendation of ‘Parliamentary committees’ which were opposed to the employment of girls late at night. The Postmaster General however was of the opinion ‘that social conditions as they affect the employment of women have so changed in recent years’ that this rule could now be abandoned. The increased mobility of women in the immediate post-War period, as well as better access to public transport, had made women much more mobile after dark, and it was becoming commonplace for women to travel around at night.

Curiously, there is also reference to a ‘medical argument’ against women working at night. Although this argument is not spelled out, on suspects there would be concerns that night-work negatively impacts women’s health and may in turn affect their ability to have children. This argument is countered by the Postmaster General through reference to the extensive work women undertook during the Great War, which did not compromise their health.

So far for the social arguments against women working late at night – but the proposal to extend their shifts in the telephone exchange also touched on a recurring debate about jobs for men versus jobs for women. While the women’s roles were ending at 8pm, the evening shift in the exchanges was undertaken by part-time male operators, whose work was apparently ‘subject to a disproportionate number of complaints’. This appears to be the key reason the Post Office was proposing a change; they wanted to improve the service to their customers.

The part-time nature of these men’s contracts is pivotal: the Post Office stresses that for these men, the ‘post office pay is not intended to form their principal means of livelihood.’ [emphasis mine] If the proposal was for women to replace full-time male breadwinners, there would have been considerable opposition to it, even if it would improve the evening telephone service. During the interwar period, the narrative of the male head of household working to provide for his family was much supported.[2] It was regularly argued that women should not be ‘taking’ any roles that should go to male workers. The careful phrasing of the Postmaster General implies that the loss of labour would not be a hardship to any of these men; but it seems likely that for some of them, at least, the Post Office role was their primary income, and a redundancy would be keenly felt.

As this article demonstrates, an apparently simple desire to improve the telephone service for customers was enmeshed in wider debates and concerns that echoed throughout the interwar period. The attentive and powerful press industry could help or hinder an organisation’s ambitions by being either supportive or obstructive. During this period, heads of organisations such as the Post Office had to be acutely sensitive to the political environment even for innovations which may have appeared as strictly internal affairs.

You can see switchboard operators at work here at the International switchboard in London


[1] Miriam Glucksmann, Women Assemble: Women Workers and the New Industries in Inter-War Britain (London: Routledge, 1990)

[2] Christine Grandy, Heroes and Happy Endings: Class, Gender, and Nation in Popular Film and Fiction in Interwar Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014)

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“The most suppressed novel ever published in England”

When we think of banned books in interwar Britain, it’s likely that two examples spring to mind: D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) and Radclyffe Halls’ The Well of Loneliness (1928). Lawrence’s book, however, was not actually banned in Britain at the time of its publication. Rather, the book’s frank treatment of extramarital sex meant that Lawrence was not able to find a commercial publisher for it. Instead the book was printed in limited runs for private subscribers; and later, a censored, abridged version of the novel was circulated more widely. Chatterley’s reputation as ‘banned’ actually stems from the 1960 obscenity trial that was started when Penguin decided to print the full, unabridged version of the novel for the mass market.[1] Penguin won the landmark case from the government and the book has been available in its full form ever since.

The Well of Loneliness did get banned, but not until after it was released on the market. The book was published in July 1928; an obscenity trial was convened in November of the same year. The book’s description of lesbian (sexual) relationships was judged obscene and likely to corrupt readers’ minds; it was subsequently withdrawn from the British market but remained available through copies printed in Paris. The novel was re-printed in 1949 without incurring a further trial and it has been in print ever since.

There was, however, a third book at the end of the 1920s which fell victim to an obscenity trial. Unlike the two more famous examples cited above, Norah C James’s novel Sleeveless Errand was suppressed before it was even properly published. The book was printed and distributed to reviewers and bookshops in February 1929. The reviewer of the Morning Post was so alarmed by the novel’s contents, that he alerted the Home Office, who promptly moved to confiscate all distributed copies. The police went as far as visiting reviewers who had received a copy of the book, at home, and demand they hand their copies over.[2] This decisive action meant that not a single copy of the book remained in circulation in Britain when a magistrate officially confirmed its status as ‘obscene’ in March 1929.[3]

Like The Well of Loneliness, Sleeveless Errand was subsequently published in English through a French publishing house; but it has never been re-published by an British press. The copy in the British Library is one of the ‘French’ copies, the preface of which draws parallels with Hemingway’s Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, which had been published in 1926 and was not considered obscene despite dealing with similar themes as Sleeveless Errand.

For all the noise around the novel’s supposed obscenity, what exactly is it about its contents that was considered so objectionable? Sleeveless Errand follows Paula and Bill, two young Londoners, over the period of around 36 hours. At the start of the novel, Paula is dumped by her lover Philip. They are not married, but have clearly had regular sex, which the novel does not condemn. After the break-up, Paula goes to a Lyons Corner House where she contemplates suicide. Bill happens to be put on the same table as her; he’s just walked in to his wife and his best friend in bed together, so he is also feeling very depressed.

The pair meet each other in their mutual low moods and Paula takes Bill to some of her regular night haunts, where they meet a group of Paula’s friends who drink and swear liberally. Eventually, Bill stays the night in Paula’s flat and they tell each other about their childhoods. The next morning Paula settles a will and the couple hire a car, with the plan to drive off a cliff near Brighton. On the way south they run into various other delays, which lead them to postpone the suicide until the next morning.

At night in their hotel, Paula gives Bill a firm talking-to and tells him he should go back to his wife and make amends; in Paula’s view, Bill’s wife’s infidelity is not an insurmountable hurdle as he still loves her. Bill agrees to go back and patch up his marriage. The novel ends with Paula driving up to the intended cliff-top and very calmly and deliberately driving the car off the cliff at sunrise.

Newspaper articles reporting on the magistrate court hearing that banned Sleeveless Errand drew attention to the novel’s language: ‘Specifically, the prosecution protested that the book took the name of God or Christ in vain over 60 times, as in the line, “For Christ’s sake give me a drink.”’[4] Ostensibly then, it is the novel’s language that led to its suppression. One may also consider the liberal discussions about sex, including Paula’s explicit affair at the novel’s opening and her views on monogamy: “It doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the world because a woman has intercourse with a man who’s not her husband.”[5]

Additionally, descriptions of the activities Paula and her friends get up to in nightclubs are decidedly seedy: “By now, nearly all the couples were sitting about the room embracing. Rathbone was what Hudson called “dry cleaning” a large good-looking girl whose name was Letty. She was the Haunt whore.”[6] According to Christine Grandy, heroes in interwar fiction “were distinguished by their fulfilment of the independent male breadwinner role, while the deviancy of the villain’s character lay in his inability or unwillingness to work for his wealth.”[7] None of the characters in Sleeveless Errand come anywhere near this hero template; Paula and her friends all appear to be independently wealthy and happy to drink their days away, and Bill has decided to abandon his breadwinner duties.

But Sleeveless Errand goes one step further. Not only do none of the characters conform to the pervasive discourse present in interwar fiction that presented contributing members of society as ‘good’; it argues that the post-War generation is fundamentally unable to contribute to society and that suicide is the moral choice. Throughout the novel, Paula repeatedly refers to the condition of her generation, those who came of age immediately after the end of the First World War.

[M]y generation of women is rotten to the core. Freedom came too quickly for us. We weren’t ready for it. We had no reserves with which to meet the deadly disappointment after the War of finding ourselves workless, and husbandless and useless.[8]

This is the horror at the core of Sleeveless Errand. Rather than celebrating the end of the war and the upward mobility allowed by modernity, white-collar jobs, suburbs and automobiles, instead it maintains that the war has ruined the mental health of the young women. Those women, who are pivotal to the continuation of British culture by settling into their roles as wives and mothers, are ‘rotten’ and unable to fulfil their duties to society. Instead, Paula uses that symbol of modernity and progress, the automobile, to engage in the most subversive act of all. It is the rational, considered approach to suicide, which Paula commits to calmly and unwaveringly, that emblematizes the book’s dangerous potential. At a time when suicide was usually recorded as occurring ‘while of unsound mind’, Sleeveless Errand dares to raise the possibility that the act can be a well-thought out, even responsible, choice. Allowing women to entertain that possibility could have affected the foundations of interwar British society beyond repair. Seen in that light, the Home Office’s swift and decisive oppression of the work becomes understandable.


[1] Christopher Hilliard, ‘“Is It a Book That You Would Even Wish Your Wife or Your Servants to Read?” Obscenity Law and the Politics of Reading in Modern England’, American Historical Review 118:3 (2013), 653-678, https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/118.3.653

[2] Bill Harrison, ‘Censors, critics, and the suppression of Norah James’s Sleeveless Errand.’ Atenea, 3:1-2 (2013) 23-41 (25)

[3] Ibid., 26

[4] Ibid.

[5] Norah C James, Sleeveless Errand (Paris: Henry Babon & Jack Kahane, 1929), p. 54

[6] Ibid., p. 66

[7] Christine Grandy, Heroes and Happy Endings: class, gender, and nation in popular film and fiction in interwar Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), p. 3

[8] James, Sleeveless Errand, pp. 204-5

Benita Hume

FeaturedBenita Hume

Benita Hume was born Benita Humm in London in 1906. Although she’s largely forgotten today, and there is little information available about her online, she was an incredibly prolific actress in interwar British films. Like some of the other actors discussed on this blog, she made the move to Hollywood in the mid-1930s. At the eve of World War Two Hume married British-actor-in-America Ronald Colman and she largely retired from acting, meaning that she spent the bulk of her acting career in the British film industry.

Hume started out on the stage but very quickly moved into film, landing her first, small, part in the 1925 Jack Buchanan vehicle The Happy Ending. There followed a tiny uncredited part in Hitchcock’s Easy Virtue. In 1928 Hume starred in The Constant Nymph, an adaptation of an immensely popular interwar novel. This Adrian Brunel-directed drama, with Ivor Novello as the romantic lead, was a box-office success.

Although Hume does not play one of the leading roles, the film definitely raised her credentials. After The Constant Nymph, Hume was never out of work again and usually made around four films a year. Her dark colouring and aristocratic features led her to be cast as the wealthy socialite as much as the love interest; her characters were usually thoroughly modern women. In 1929, she starred opposite Jameson Thomasin the sci-fi film High Treason. Although Hume’s character Evelyn Seymour is romantically involved with Thomas’ character Michael Dean, she still leads a revolution of women against him when she realises his actions may unleash a world war. Evelyn Seymour is not the kind of love interest who defers her judgement to a man.

Later in the same year, Hume played an extremely capable secretary in Géza von Bolváry’s The Wrecker. In this film, the heir to a train company, ‘Lucky’ Doyle, is trying to figure out who is after a series of deadly train crashes. Hume is the company secretary, Mary, who is (of course) also Doyle’s love interest. The film’s climax sees Mary travelling solo on a train that is due to be ‘wrecked’. Doyle manages to prevent the disaster from occurring, after which he and Mary team up to unmask the Wrecker for once and for all.

Hume made the transition sound film apparently without issue. She used her stage career to good advantage: in 1930 she appeared in the original Broadway cast of Symphony in Two Flats, written by and starring Ivor Novello. Novello and Hume also took on the leading roles in the British film adaptation of the same play, which was released in the same year (a separate ‘American’ version of the film was made in which Hume’s role was fulfilled by American actress Jacqueline Logan).

A couple of years later, Hume appeared opposite Leslie Howard in Service for Ladies. Howard at this point had already transitioned his career to Hollywood and was allegedly in Britain for a brief holiday when Alexander Korda persuaded him to spend a few days filming this light-hearted comedy. Here, Hume is not the love interest but rather the wealthy foreign socialite Countess Ricardi, who does her best to seduce Howard’s Max Tracey and distract him from the real object of his affection.

In 1934, Hume played a lead part in the British production Jew Süss, which, unlike the notorious 1940 Nazi-sanctioned film of the same name, was made with a view to be a sympathetic portrayal of the Jewish people. In the same year, she starred opposite Douglas Fairbanks in another Alexander Korda film, The Private Life of Don Juan. It was to be Fairbank’s last film. Korda intended Don Juan to have the same success as his Private Life of Henry VIII which he’d made the year before, but unfortunately Don Juan flopped badly at the box office.

As the 1930s continued, Hume’s portfolio increasingly included American as well as British film productions. In Britain, although she was continually cast as either the female lead or the second most substantial female part, she never really had a career-defining role, nor was she ever nominated for any major prizes. Some of the films she appeared in were cheap productions that are no longer available for viewing, which is no doubt partially why Hume’s name is largely forgotten today. She was, however, a household name in the interwar period, and her considerable acting talent is on display in the range of films in which she took leading parts.

The British 1934 film Jew Süss can be viewed on YouTube.

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Glamour Girls

We’re going to have a closer look today at two articles that appeared in early issues of Picture Post. Picture Post was a weekly photojournalism magazine that was launched in Britain in 1938. Its pages contained a huge breath of articles and reportage, which covered topics from word politics to science and nature to fashion and entertainment. Due to the timing of its launch, and the fact that its founder and editor was the Jewish journalist Stefan Lorant, the first issues contain frequent criticism and condemnation of Nazi Germany. This political content was balanced with pieces on ‘lighter’ topics.

In November 1938 and May 1939, Picture Post ran two pieces on ‘Glamour Girls’. Together, these pieces give an insight into the position of young female stage performers in London at the end of the interwar period. By the end of the 1930s, ‘glamour girl’ was the name for the young women who danced on the stage as part of troupes – they were more commonly referred to as ‘chorus girls’ in the earlier part of the interwar period. The adoption of the term ‘glamour girl’ is symptomatic of the continued Americanization of British popular culture throughout the 1920s and 1930s – indeed, one of the Picture Post articles follows an American dance troupe in London.

The row of young, thin, white chorus girls who are all dressed alike and dance in perfect unison was a very recognizable feature of modern urban entertainment during the interwar period. The phenomenon has most famously been critiqued by Siegfried Kracauer in his essay ‘The Mass Ornament’ which originally appeared as a series of articles in the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1927. Kracauer, too, centres his analysis around an American troupe, the Tiller Girls – but British chorus girl troupes quickly sprang up to emulate the American original. Chorus girls appear in myriad British films of this period, from Friday the Thirteenth (1933) to The Show Goes On (1937).

But what of the glamour girl in news reportage? The first Picture Post article under consideration was published in the issue of 22 October 1938 and is entitled ‘A Glamour Girl’s Day’. This piece purports to give insight into the day-to-day life of a group of American dancers who were performing at the Dorchester hotel at that time. Why the show’s impresario, Mr Chester Hale, did not recruit British girls when he had to put on ‘the snappiest cabaret show’ possible, is not made clear. Chester Hale himself appears to have been an American; and it’s implied that American girls are better qualified for ‘snappy’ shows.

The piece both observes the dancers as a foreign species and reassures the readers that they are completely harmless; and it also does not neglect to draw attention to the girls’ physical features. The captions to some of the photos give a good indication of the article’s overall tone:

Hard-working, ambitious, well-educated, carefully chaperoned is the first-class glamour girl of to-day. Wanda Cochran has studied philosophy and public-speaking. Is studying now at the R.A.D.A. (…) Doris Call, a blue-eyed blonde from Virginia, is also studying at the R.A.D.A. She has six sisters, two brothers.

The piece makes much of the fact that the girls are very young – some of them are reported to be only 16. A few have brought their mothers and siblings with them for company; according to one of the mothers, she thinks dancing in a cabaret is much safer for a girl than going to high school (in America). The article runs the reader through a typical day for the troupe during their run at the Dorchester, and repeatedly stresses that the girls engage in wholesome activities such as learning about London and British history; educating their siblings; and improving their dancing and singing skills. It is also emphasised that they usually go home after they finish their shows at 1am – they very much do not go to nightclubs with young men.

Slipped in between the descriptions of the girls’ physiques (average weight 8 st 8 lbs; average height 5 ft 6 in) is the following:

Mr Hale gets a lump sum per week from the Dorchester. Out of that he pays the girls and their fares, and provides the dresses (…) the dresses have run him into a good many hundred pounds. The girls pay their own living expenses. Most of them stay in flats with various accompanying members of their family.

As the dancers have to pay for their own accommodation in central London, as well as their food and regular clothes and expenses, one suspects that they did not actually have any money left over to save. It is also not specified whether the fares for the ‘various accompanying members of their family’ were covered by the Dorchester. What the young women get out of the experience is the ‘glamour’ of their costumes, and the opportunity to learn more about British history and British culture; which covers up a precarious employment position that required them to temporarily relocate; work late hours; and forego traditional schooling.

The conditions of employment also receive attention in the second Picture Post article, printed on 6 May 1939 under the title ‘The Making of a Glamour Girl.’ Although this piece appeared only 6 months after the previous article, the tone differs markedly. The status of the glamour girl appears to have rapidly deteriorated; no longer does the article attempt to stress the career aspirations of glamour girls. Instead, the piece confidently states that ‘Few of them [glamour girls] have any stage ambitions, the majority realise their limitations and are content to be just glamorous.’

Indeed, the low requirements for the role are presented as a selling point:

To be a good Glamour Girl, a girl must possess four qualities. She must have good looks and a figure to match, she must be able to walk gracefully in time to music, she must know how to wear clothes, and she must be tall. No girl who has these attributes need starve or spend her days tapping on a typewriter, stage managers will only be too eager for her services.

The role of the glamour girl (now capitalized) is no longer presented as one that requires hard physical work or any skill, but instead is reduced purely to physical requirements. It is presented as an ideal job for a ‘fun’ girl who wants to make easy money; the jobs are alleged to pay at least £5 a week. The implication that this is a good wage is belied by the statement also included in the article, that many glamour girls work as fashion models and mannequins during the day. The apparent need to work two jobs, alongside the short ‘shelf life’ of the glamour girl (the article estimates the average girl’s stage career to last 3 or 4 years) do not signal this as a financially sound or stable career path. Through these articles, girls and young women were not encouraged to consider long-term benefits of education or jobs that could be done at any age, but instead were directed to consider a job in which one had to work relatively few hours and wear nice clothes, as desirable.

Of course, it would be amiss to imply that these articles were primarily aimed at aspiring glamour girls; both articles were clearly (also) an excuse to print photographs of slender young women in revealing outfits. The 1939 article is accompanied by a dozen photographs, nine of which show the performers in bathing suits or other similarly revealing performance outfits. The 1938 article mostly shows the girls dressed in everyday clothes, but allows the reader a glimpse ‘backstage’ with photos of the girls putting on make-up and putting on their shoes. Both articles present the reader with a fantasy of young, happy, untroubled dancers and only hint at the financial precarity these roles perpetuated.

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The Lodger (1927 and 1932)

This post is the second of a two-part mini series about Marie Belloc Lowndes’ story The Lodger. The first post considers the short story and novel Lowndes wrote. This post discusses two film adaptations of the book made in interwar Britain.

Marie Belloc Lowndes novel The Lodger, which appeared in 1913, was twice adapted for the screen during the British interwar period. The first, silent, adaptation was directed by Hitchcock in 1927; a sound remake directed by Maurice Elvey appeared five years later. Building on last week’s post which considered the differences between the short story version of The Lodger and the novelisation, this post unpicks the differences between the novel and the films.

The main difference between the novel and the screen adaptations is the identity of the Lodger. In the novel, there is no doubt that the lodger, Mr Sleuth, is responsible for a series of murders of women across London. The book’s tension is generated by the concern of Mr Sleuth’s landlady, Mrs Bunting, that the police are going to find out her lodger is a murderer, and how that will impact her own position. In both film versions of the story, the lodger is ultimately revealed to be a ‘good’ character, who is trailing the murderer in an attempt to stop him. Whilst Mrs Bunting in both films is equally as suspicious of her lodger, because he keeps leaving the house on nights that murders are committed, he is ultimately revealed to have honourable reasons for this.

Hitchcock has publicly claimed that this softer ending was foisted on him, and that he preferred the book’s ending. One presumes that the sound remake followed the same template for the sake of appeasing audiences familiar with the first film. Whilst the change makes the story feel a lot less sinister, it also aligns it more with expected film plots in which the main male character is revealed as a hero and suitable love interest for the female character.

This female character, Daisy (Mr Bunting’s daughter), is much more fleshed out in both films than she is in the book. The role is played by June Tripp in the first film, and by Elizabeth Allan in the second film. In the novel, Daisy is only present in the house every now and then, and she only meets Mr Sleuth face to face right at the book’s end. Generally, Daisy comes across as a bit dim and easily led. In a reflection of women’s increased participation in the workforce during the interwar years, Daisy has a job in both films. In the 1927 version, she is a mannequin for clothes – it is a job, but still one in which she is expected to be passive and decorative. In the 1932 film her job has changed to that of a telephone operator; in that capacity she overhears one of the murders as the victim desperately tries to ring for help.

In the films, Daisy plays a much more material part in the story, and her relationship with the Lodger is more substantial. In both films, she meets him at several points throughout the story and is on friendly terms with him. The fact that the lodger is played by film star and heartthrob Ivor Novello in both productions helps to present him as a viable love interest for Daisy. In the 1932 film, Daisy goes so far as to reject her original boyfriend in favour of the lodger. Again, these changes, which introduce a conventional young romance into the story, make the source material conform more closely to cinematic genre conventions.

Daisy’s original boyfriend, Joe Chandler in the book, also transforms between films. In the Hitchcock version, Joe is a police officer tasked with hunting down the murder, as he is in the novel. Like in the novel, Joe is oblivious to the possibility that the lodger is the murderer he is after – although of course unlike in the book, in the film the lodger is revealed to be innocent. Hitchcock also used the motif of the police officer who is blind to the guilt of those closest to him in his 1929 film Blackmail, so he perhaps appreciated the irony Lowndes built into the novel.

For the later film, Joe Chandler became John Martin, who is not a police officer but rather a tabloid reporter. By 1932 tabloid journalists had become much more socially visible as circulation figures of newspapers rapidly increased. In films, journalists were often presented as pseudo-detectives, collaborating with the police to investigate crimes. Perhaps it was felt that to change the Joe/John character from a police officer to a journalist was not too much of a change. John Martin is a ruthless reporter; at the start of the film, when Daisy witnesses a murder across the telephone line, he passes a picture of her on to his news desk without her consent. To her horror, Daisy finds the portrait printed on the paper’s front page the next day. John excuses this behaviour as he considers it his duty to present his bosses with all the scoops he gets. John’s inconsiderate behaviour paves the way for Daisy to ditch him for the lodger at the end of the film.

A final significant change between the novel and the 1932 film, specifically, is the identity of the lodger. In the book, Mr Sleuth is presented as a British gentleman, albeit one with possibly some foreign blood in him. In the Elvey film, the character is called Angeloff, and Novello plays him with a thick Ruritanian accent. The film’s resolution reveals that Angeloff has been on the trail of the murderer for many years, and that they have both travelled from a foreign country to Britain. Whereas the novel codes the criminal as domestic, the film explicitly presents him as a foreigner, who has wreaked havoc in Britain. The audience can rest assured that such horrific crimes would not be committed by a fellow citizen.

The Lodger enjoyed considerable popularity for decades after its release. However, throughout those years the story, which was originally closely modelled on the Jack the Ripper murders, developed to increasingly deviate from the original to reflect the changing times. The main element of the story, however – a man roaming around the streets at night killing young women – sadly remains relatable to audiences even to this day.

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The Lodger (1911 and 1913) – Marie Belloc Lowndes

This post is the first of a two-part mini series about Marie Belloc Lowndes story The Lodger. This first post considers the short story and novel Lowndes wrote. The next post discusses two film adaptations of the book made in interwar Britain.

Today’s post discusses two texts which were written before the Great War, but which had a great cultural impact in interwar Britain due to their popularity. The writer Marie Belloc Lowndes published her short story ‘The Lodger’ in McClure’s Magazine in 1911.[1] She then expanded the story out into a full-length novel which was published by Methuen in 1913.

The Lodger’s main character is Mrs Bunting, a retired domestic servant who lives with her husband just off the Marylebone Road. Mr and Mrs Bunting are very poor at the start of the story, until a mysterious lodger, Mr Sleuth, rents a room with them. Mr Sleuth pays handsomely, but before long Mrs Bunting gets suspicious that he may be responsible for a spate of murders in the capital. Young women are found murdered at night, and these discoveries seem to coincide with Mr Sleuth going for night-time walks.

After a few weeks, Mr Bunting’s daughter Daisy comes to stay with the family, and Mrs Bunting gets increasingly concerned that Mr Sleuth will harm Daisy if he meets her. In the book-length version of the story, there is a fifth character: Joe Chandler, a young and ambitious police officer who is a friend of the family and who is courting Daisy. As the murders start piling up, Joe often pops into the house to give the Buntings updates on the police investigation, but he never once suspects that Mr Sleuth is the killer.

The short story puts the reader in the middle of events, and then relates the arrival of Mr Sleuth into the Bunting’s house through Mrs Bunting’s internal recollections. Daisy visits the house only very briefly in this version of the story. The novelisation presents the action chronologically, and allows much more time for Mrs Bunting’s suspicions and fears to develop. It also expands on Mr Bunting’s thirst for news, which is presented almost as an addiction.

At the start of the book, when the Buntings find themselves in extreme poverty, Mr Bunting is described as buying a paper with one of his last pennies ‘[w]ith an eagerness which was mingled with shame.’[2] Throughout the book he keeps buying papers, rushing out as soon as the newspaper boys come down the street, and sometimes not even waiting to go back inside before reading them. Yet despite Mr Bunting reading every column of newsprint on the case, he does not suspect Mr Sleuth to be the murderer until he physically bumps into him on a late-night stroll and finds his coat covered in blood. In The Lodger, the newspapers sensationalise the case and function as a potentially harmful distraction for the masses, rather than aiding with the resolution of the case.

The police, also, don’t have any grasp on who the murderer may be. This theme is brought out more in the novel rather than the short story. In this expanded version, the character of Joe Chandler frequently provides the Buntings and the readers with updates on the police’s investigation. There are a few moments in the novel where accurate eye-witness accounts of Mr Sleuth are dismissed by the police. When Mrs Bunting attends the inquest of one of the murders, there is one witness who accurately describes Mr Sleuth, but he is ignored. When he tells the coroner that the murderer left the scene carrying a bag such as the one the reader knows Mr Sleuth to possess, ‘not a single reporter at the long, ink-stained table had put down that last remark of Mr. Cannot. In fact, not one of them had heard it.’[3]

When Joe Chandler follows up on a possible sighting of the murderer, ‘on one evening he described at immense length the eccentric-looking gent who had given the barmaid a sovereign, picturing Mr. Sleuth with such awful accuracy that both Bunting and Mrs. Bunting secretly and separately turned sick when they listened to him, he never showed the slightest interest in their lodger.’[4] It is Mrs Bunting, rather than the police or the reporters, who susses out very quickly that it is her lodger who is committing these crimes. Initially, she does not alert the police because her mind refuses to accept her suspicions. Later on, however, her reluctance to alert the police originates from the perceived shame that it will bring on her household. Bunting has the same fears once he gets suspicious about the lodger:

‘But Londoners of Bunting’s class have an uneasy fear of the law. To his mind it would be ruin for him and for his Ellen to be mixed up publicly in such a terrible affair. No one concerned in the business would give them and their future a thought, but it would track them to their dying day, and, above all, it would make it quite impossible for them ever to get again into a good joint situation.’[5]

Instead, Lowndes allows the Buntings to get rid of the lodger without having to report him, in an ending that is near-identical in both the short story and the novel. Daisy ends up staying with the Buntings for her 18th birthday. Mr Sleuth invites her and Mrs Bunting to come to see the waxworks in Madame Tussaud’s. Inside, a private party which includes the Head Commissioner of the Police, is just exiting the building. As they pass the Buntings and Mr Sleuth, the Commissioner is telling his guests that the police know the murderer is someone who previously committed murders elsewhere in Britain, and who had escaped a lunatic asylum just before the London murders started.

The Commissioner makes it clear he would recognise the man if he saw him again; yet when he crosses paths with Mr Sleuth on his way out of Madame Tussaud’s the Commissioner ‘passed by Mr Sleuth unconcernedly, unaware.’[6] The lodger, however, is furious; he believes Mrs Bunting tried to trap him. With an excuse, he hurries out of the Madame Tussaud emergency exit and is never seen by the Buntings again.

The Lodger was clearly inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders which took place in 1888; and whilst its ending echoes the apparent disappearance of Jack the Ripper; and it allows the Buntings to continue their lives in peace, it does leave a murderer out on the streets, ready to strike again. Throughout the story and book, Lowndes spends virtually no time at all discussing the lodger’s victims; her concern is with how the strain of secrets and suspicion affects the Buntings’ marriage. With Mr Sleuth’s exit from the scene (and, in the book, the engagement of Daisy and Joe), their troubles are resolved.

Yet no thought is spared for the women navigating the streets at night. Although the identities of these women are not made explicit, it is suggested by Mrs Bunting that they are not ‘proper’ (in the short story, she refers to one of them as a ‘hussy’, although this reference is removed in the novel[7]). The implication is that respectable people like the Buntings should look out for themselves and do not need to have qualms about protecting those less fortunate. The Lodger provides a female-centred exploration of the strains of retaining respectability at all cost, written at a time when social status was imperative to many people.

The Lodger (novel) can be read for free at Project Gutenberg.


[1] Marie Belloc Lowndes, ‘The Lodger’, reprinted in Into the London Fog: Eerie Tales from the Weird City, ed. Elizabeth Dearnley (London: British Library, 2020), pp. 199-239

[2] Marie Belloc Lowndes, The Lodger, (London: Methuen, 1913), chapter 1, accessed online: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2014/2014-h/2014-h.htm

[3] Ibid., chapter 19

[4] Ibid., chapter 24

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lowndes, ‘The Lodger’, p. 237

[7] Lowndes, ‘The Lodger’, p. 215

Ivor Novello

FeaturedIvor Novello

Polymath Ivor Novello, born David Ivor Davies in Wales in 1893, was one of interwar London’s prolific entertainers. Novello was his mother’s maiden name; choosing this as his professional title undoubtedly gave him greater name recognition than his paternal family name. Novello’s first success came as a songwriter during the Great War, with the popular tune ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’.

During the interwar period, Novello was active as a composer, actor, playwright and screenwriter, occasional film producer, and all-round society figure. In 1926 he ran a nightclub together with actor Constance Collier, with whom he also regularly collaborated on creative projects. The club, the 50/50, was temporarily struck off the register of licensed premises after alcohol had allegedly been served after licensed hours.

Besides his collaborations with Constance Collier, Novello’s interwar projects read like a who’s who of creative Britain. He wrote songs for a play penned by P.G. Wodehouse, wrote songs for Jack Buchanan and had an affair with Siegfried Sassoon. His British film debut came in 1923 as the lead in Adrian Brunel’s The Man Without Desire; Novello also co-produced the film with Miles Mander. The Man Without Desire is a romantic historical melodrama set in Italy; it was the first in a series of roles in which Novello played foreigners, often of high birth. His dark features made him equally convincing as British, Mediterranean, or Eastern European.

After The Man Without Desire came The Rat, which proved so popular that it spawned two sequels. This film was based on a play which Novello had co-written with Collier. In The Rat Novello starred as Pierre Boucheron, a dashing figure in the Parisian underworld. His long-time friend Odile is clearly quietly devoted to him, but the Rat is seduced by the wealthy Zelie de Chaumet, before inevitably realising it is Odile who can provide him with true love. Zelie first sees the Rat in an underground dive bar, where he performs a passionate parody of the Apache Dance with a young woman.

The Apache Dance in The Rat exemplifies Novello’s sexual ambiguity on screen. In real life he lived quite openly as a gay man with his lifelong partner Bobbie Andrews. This was possible in the artistic circles in which Novello and Andrews moved, but clearly it was not possible to explicitly depict homosexuality on screen or stage. Instead, Novello is positioned as a romantic hero; sensual rather than virile, and sometimes surprisingly a-sexual.

Ivor Novello portrait

In Hitchcock’s Downhill, for example, Novello’s character Roddy is not seduced by Mabel, despite her best efforts. Whilst Roddy’s friend Tim is wooing Mabel in the back room of the shop in which she works, Roddy is chatting to some small children who have come to buy sweets. When Roddy later in the film marries the actress Julia Fotheringale, the film never shows any physical intimacy between the couple. Unlike many films of the period, Downhill does not end with the establishment of a heterosexual couple, but rather with Roddy’s restoration as the male heir to his family.

Novello collaborated with Hitchcock for a second film in 1927, The Lodger. This film, based on a popular novel by the same name, was inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders. Novello reprised his role as ‘the Lodger’ in a 1932 sound film remake, directed by Maurice Elvey. In both versions, Novello’s character courts Daisy, the daughter of his landlord. Daisy already has a suitor, a police officer in the 1927 film and a journalist in the 1932 version. Daisy’s original suitors are men of action, who expect that Daisy will marry them based on their previous courtship. Novello’s character, however, manages to win Daisy over through conversation and emotional sensitivity rather than by displaying any of the more traditionally ‘masculine’ traits.

A year after the first version of The Lodger, Novello starred as Lewis Dodds in one of the multiple adaptations of the bestselling novel The Constant Nymph.1 Here Novello was again directed by his friend Adrian Brunel to play the composer who marries one woman but finds that his wife’s young cousin, whom he has known since she was a child, is more devoted in her affections. Again, Novello’s character is linked in a coupling which cannot fulfil the expected template.

After film transitioned from silent to sound, Novello returned largely to the West End stage as a writer and actor of musical comedies. This may in part have been due to the limitations of his specifically recognisable voice and accent, which made him less convincing in the foreign character roles in which he was regularly cast. Novello’s contribution to the musical genre continues to be remembered in the song writing and composing awards named after him, which were established a few years after his death.

The theatre in the building where Novello kept a flat for most of his adult life was also named after him in 2005. It is situated across the road from the Aldwych Theatre, where Tom Walls and Ralph Lynn first became famous; another one of the countless connections that put Novello at the heart of London’s interwar entertainment industry.

[1] Lawrence Napper, British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar years, (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2009), pp. 35-79

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Death in a Taxi

The hansom cab has been a mainstay of the London streets since the 17th century.[1] The black horse-drawn carriages were largely replaced by motorised vehicles by the end of the First World War. The designs of the motorcar taxis were based on the hansom cab that preceded it, which meant that the driver was seated in the open air, or under a canvas roof, and was physically separated from the passengers. This design ensured that the passenger(s) continued to enjoy privacy during their trip and did not have to share it in close proximity to a stranger. It also assuaged any class anxieties about wealthier passengers having to share a space with a driver from a lower socio-economic background.

Taxis occupy a unique position in the transport landscape: they are open to all users who can afford them but provide a private transport experience; they are also essentially urban and predominantly found in big cities. Both these features as well as the separation of passenger and driver all stress the anonymity of the taxi experience. There were no records of who used taxis beyond what a driver could remember of his customers.

It was presumably for these reasons that for some people, the London taxi was the chosen site for murder or suicide. Tabloids reported on a number of such cases in the first half of the 1920s. In November 1923 the Daily Mirror printed the headline ‘Dead Woman in Cab’.[2] The article described that at the end of the afternoon the previous day, a young man had come into a police station in Knightsbridge and said to the officer on duty ‘the woman is in the cab outside’. In the taxi the police found the body of Ethel Howard, with a wound to the throat and a razor lying next to the body.

Daily Mirror, 16 November 1923, p. 2

At first glance this could be a case of either suicide or murder. The man who reported the death remained unnamed in the article but was described as a ‘portrait painter’. This immediately sought to evoke images of bohemia in the newspaper reader’s mind. The romance and mystery of the case was brought crashing down to earth in the follow up article printed the next day, which reported on the magistrate’s inquest on the case.[3]

The ‘portrait painter’ was in fact the 24-year-old butcher’s assistant George William Iggulden. Iggulden and Ethel Howard had been engaged to be married on 16 November. Instead, Iggulden murdered his fiancée the night before the wedding. The Mirror called this ‘the irony of fate’, although the reader may conclude that this was not so much fate as George Iggulden using desperate measures to get out of his commitment. In the taxi, he found a confined space where Ethel would not be able to escape from, and where he was sure not to be interrupted. In this second newspaper article, Iggulden is reported not just to have said ‘the woman is in the cab outside’ but also ‘I did it with a razor’. He was duly remanded to stand trial for murder.

The party who is curiously absent in all this is the taxi driver. The only oblique reference to their presence is in the second article, which described that Iggulden ‘asked to be driven to the nearest police station’ rather than to Chelsea, halfway through the drive. The police are not reported to have spoken to the driver or gotten their statement, and there is no consideration as to what the impact of a murder being committed several feet away from them may have had.

A taxi driver did have a more active role in proceedings in a case in 1925. On 23 April of that year, the Daily Express reported on a ‘Mystery of A Taxicab’.[4] On 21 April, a Sunday, Major Frank Montague Noel Newton had engaged a cab to take him from his club to his hotel. Immediately it is clear to the reader that this passenger is a man of substance, who comfortably moves around the West End. Upon passing the Hotel Metropole (now known as the Corinthia Hotel) just off Trafalgar Square, the driver heard a noise ‘as though someone was knocking on the window with a stick’. The driver was evidentially located outside the cab, with a window separating him and his passenger.

Daily Express, 23 April 1925, p. 9

The driver didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary when he turned to look through the window, so he drove on to Major Newton’s hotel. Once he arrived there, he engaged the help of the hotel porter to try and rouse Major Newton, who appeared to be asleep. Then the men realised that there was a revolver on the floor of the cab, and that the noise the driver had heard was Major Newton shooting himself.

One must make allowances for the noise cars in the 1920s generated, but it still seems extraordinary that a driver would not identify a shot fired within such close proximity. However, the story repeated itself a year later:

On arriving at Charing Cross Station about midnight on Monday the driver of a taxicab found his fare shot dead. The man hailed the driver on Cromwell Road and nothing occurred during the journey to attract attention. When he did not alight at Charing Cross, the driver got down from his seat and found the man lying dead. A revolver was on the floor.[5]

Evidently, for these men, the mobile and anonymous nature of the taxi provided a suitable space for them to commit suicide. They knew they would not be disturbed for the duration of the trip, and that they would be found by a stranger. The man who was driving to Charing Cross was reported to be a Swede visiting London. Like Major Newton, he did not have a fixed address in the city; the locations of their deaths underscore this sense of fluidity and lack of permanency.

For the drivers, finding a dead body in their vehicle appears to have been something they were expected to handle in the course of their employment. They remain anonymous in the reports, their taxis indistinguishable from the rest of the fleet that swarmed London’s streets. It is this anonymity which made their taxis such appealing sites for illicit and illegal behaviour in interwar London.


[1] George N Georgano, A History of the London Taxicab (Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1972), p. 110

[2] ‘Dead Woman in Cab’, Daily Mirror, 16 November 1923, p. 2

[3] ‘Dead Girl in Taxi’, Daily Mirror, 17 November 1923, p. 2

[4] ‘Mystery of a Taxicab’, Daily Express, 23 April 1925, p. 9

[5] ‘Shot Dead in Taxi’, Daily Mirror, 3 November 1926, p. 2

Downhill (1927)

FeaturedDownhill (1927)

Before he became (one of) the greatest directors of the 20th century, Alfred Hitchcock started out his film directing career in London in the 1920s. After a few jobs as assistant director, he landed his first gig as principal director on 1923’s The Pleasure Garden. Four years later he made Downhill, a melodrama which has been described as only of interest to Hitchcock ‘completists’. In addition to providing an insight into the development of Hitchcock’s craft, this film also reveals cultural assumptions underpinning interwar London society.

Downhill stars the popular actor and entertainer Ivor Novello (who co-wrote the play on which the film is based) as Roddy Berwick, the son of a wealthy family who excels at his public school and has a glittering future ahead of him. Roddy’s best friend, Tim, comes from a less affluent background. Tim has a liaison with Mabel, who works at the local sweetshop; this affair results in Mabel falling pregnant. Mabel tells the schoolmaster that it’s Roddy, not Tim, who is the father; Roddy promptly gets expelled from school and disowned by his father.

Beginner's Guide to Alfred Hitchcock: Downhill (1927) — Talk Film Society
Mabel accuses Roddy

This starts Roddy’s downward trajectory in life. He first works as an actor and marries a glamorous actress who fleeces him for all his money before throwing him over. Roddy moves Paris, where he works as a gigolo. Eventually he ends up very ill in Marseille, where a few sailors manage to take him back to London. At the end of the film Roddy straggles back into his father’s house, to find that his father has found out that it was Tim who made Mabel pregnant, and has been desperate for Roddy to forgive him for his rash decisions. After his travails in the darker side of life, Roddy is restored in his rightful position.

One of the main themes of Downhill, as is clear from the plot description, is intergenerational conflict. When Roddy comes home from school a week early, his father immediately believes that the school must have been right in expelling him, and he does not even wait to hear Roddy’s explanations. The father’s rejection is so definitive that Roddy immediately leaves home and is unable to come back until he is almost at death’s door. Prior to this, the school and headmaster, who took their places as surrogate home environment and father figure, have also rejected Roddy.

The established institutions of society, school and the patriarchal father figure, turn their backs on Roddy. The older male generation here can be interpreted as a proxy for the generation of older politicians who sent off thousands of young British men to the trenches in France and Belgium in 1914. The War is not explicitly mentioned in Downhill, but its themes echo the sentiment that the older generation abandoned and unfairly sacrificed the younger one. When, at the end of the film, Roddy’s father asks Roddy for his forgiveness, it is not too much of a stretch to imagine him as a stand-in for the political establishment, asking the younger generation to forgive them for the War – a request that must, of course, remain limited to the realms of fiction.

The second theme running through Downhill, and this is perhaps one where Hitchcock’s hand is more readily recognised, is that apart from Roddy’s mother, all the women in the film prey on him and exploit him. Roddy’s mother, incidentally, only appears briefly at the beginning and end of the film and is completely irrelevant to the plot – it is only his father’s approval that matters to Roddy. Each stage of Roddy’s downfall is marked by a different woman. First there is Mabel, played by Annette Benson; she is depicted as a pretty one-dimensional ‘loose woman’ with make-up, a short skirt, and an apparently insatiable desire to flirt. She pro-actively asks Tim to come and see her in her shop on Wednesday afternoon. When he brings Roddy along, Mabel appears to consider this an opportunity rather than a barrier.

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Mabel flirts with Roddy

As soon as she has figured out that Roddy has more money than Tim, and is unlikely to allow himself to be seduced by her, she apparently hatches her plan. The film leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether Mabel is actually pregnant or not (although not sufficient time appears to have passed for her to be sure of it); it is pretty clear she accuses Roddy because she knows she can get more money out of him than out of Tim. Roddy does not dispute the claim out of a sense of honour and loyalty – he knows Tim’s future will be ruined if the truth comes out.

The second woman Roddy meets, and one he falls completely in love with, is the actress Julia Fotheringale. She is already in a relationship with Archie, but her expensive tastes is clothes and luxury goods are starting to become a problem. When Roddy unexpectedly inherits a large sum of money, Julie agrees to marry him. Once she’s spent his fortune, she abandons him again. Both Mabel and Julia are only interested in the money that Roddy can provide them with; they are both shown to be calculating and cold. Once Roddy’s money has completely run out he starts to work as a dancer-for-hire in Paris. His body is now the property, and it is control of the madams who run the nightclub.

1000 Frames of Downhill (1927) - frame 731 - The Alfred Hitchcock Wiki
Roddy as a gigolo in a Parisian nightclub

Downhill’s resolution provides an indication of what the audiences were encouraged to think really mattered: yes, Roddy’s father acknowledges he was wrong, but ultimately Roddy seeks his approval and wants to restore his place in the family unit. Roddy’s sense of honour, which leads him to keep Tim’s secret, is one of the central guiding principles for his behaviour. When he is nearly dying in Marseille, the knowledge that he has kept Tim’s secret for him is a comfort to Roddy. Paris, as usual, is shown to be a den of immorality. Ultimately, values traditionally associated with British upper class men are presented as desirable and admirable.

Downhill is available to view on Youtube.

Julian Swift – The Chronicles of a Gigolo (1929)

FeaturedJulian Swift – The Chronicles of a Gigolo (1929)

Today I am discussing a rather obscure melodramatic novel from 1929, which has not been re-issued since its first publication. The Chronicles of a Gigolo, written by actor and writer Arthur Applin under the pseudonym Julian Swift, is a roman-à-clef about the seedier side of London’s 1920s nightlife. The protagonist, Percy/Julian, is a gigolo – in interwar London a gigolo was a man whom women could pay to take them to nightclubs, dance with them, and generally entertain them. Undoubtedly that could also lead to paid-for sex, but in the Chronicles, Julian’s evenings with his clients end when he bids them goodnight in the hotel lobby or taxi.

The Chronicles of a Gigolo is a fairly sappy novel with a thin plot. Percy is an orphaned young man in training to become a lawyer, which he does not enjoy. One day he stumbled across the 43 club run by Mrs Meyrick in Gerrard Street.[1] He goes in and enjoys the crowd of professional dancers he finds there. He decides to ditch his legal training and become a gigolo, adopting the name Julian. Initially Julian is very successful; many rich women take him out to high-end clubs and pay him handsomely for his time. Julian falls in love with Babs, a young dancer who wants to go on the revue stage. Julian and Babs spend some months in France, living off his savings. Then Babs gets offered a role in a West End revue and she returns to London. Julian eventually follows her back to England but finds he has lost many of his clients in his absence. His relationship with Babs runs to ground and he struggles to support himself, behaving increasingly erratically. By the end of the novel, Babs has married her producer and has a child with him, whilst Julian has descended into poverty and illness. It is strongly implied he dies at the end of the novel.

Despite the broad-brush arc of a man rising from poverty to riches and then falling back into poverty again, Chronicles of a Gigolo gives a detailed account of the intricacies of London’s nightlife, as it was written by a real-life professional dancer. The book name-checks real-life clubs and places them in a hierarchy. Mrs Meyrick’s 43 club is the one Julian likes the best; he describes it as a “jolly room”.[2] Of the girls in the 43, he says “They looked jolly and laughed just as Mrs Meyrick had done and I soon discovered they were enjoying themselves, and I’d never seen girls enjoying themselves before.”[3] For Julian, the 43 is a democratic space, where everyone can be themselves:

Of course, at Mrs Meyrick’s and places like that, clothes don’t matter because people go mostly for fun and there are often more men than girls, and it’s the men who pay the girls to dance with them so the girls only dance with a boy pro. when they want to enjoy themselves.[4]

The downside of the 43, from a professional point of view, is that he is not able to make any money there. For that, he has to visit the more high-end clubs where his clients want to be seen. He mentions entertaining wives of MPs and aristocratic women. They go, for example, to the Orange-tree club on the Old Brompton Road:

The Orange-tree Club wasn’t a bit like the Forty Three. A long room with lots of pillars and little tables round it where everybody was in evening dress looking respectable and bored.[5]

[The 43] was full and everyone enjoying themselves – not a bit like the Orange-tree. I mean everyone there was very decorous and unnatural as if they were afraid if they let themselves go they would be peculiar, which if course they were.[6]

Yet despite the upper-class clubs being perceived as boring and artificial by Julian, they also hold an appeal for him. This becomes clear when one of his clients asks him to take her to the Kit-Cat Club on the Haymarket:

She suggested I should take her to the Kit-Cat. I did my best to hide my excitement – the Kit-Cat being one of the places I wanted to get into.[7]

This sentence lays bare the peculiar power dynamic between Julian and his clients. They ask him to ‘take them out’; yet he needs their wealth and social standing to be allowed into the venues where they want to go. The Chronicles of a Gigolo pays close attention to the artificiality of dressing up and ‘faking it until you make it’; Julian strongly advocates dressing as if you have money, to attract money. Yet no matter how much he dresses up, a venue such as the Kit-Cat remains too exclusive for him unless he is accompanied by a truly upper-class woman.

Advert for the Kit-Cat Club in Daily Telegraph, 21 December 1927

As the novel progresses, Julian’s career struggles are reflected in the struggles of the nightclubs themselves. Police raids on clubs become more frequent as the narrative progresses. Initially the raids are presented as a rite of passage for the customer and a badge of honour for a club:

Chez Victors Club was the jolliest place. It was getting quite high-class so they raided it. I was there and they took my name and address and I felt important.[8]

If a club has a high-profile clientele they are initially less likely to be raided, as the police and Home Office would not want to cause a big scandal.[9] Later on, rebranding a venue from a nightclub to a restaurant could help keep the police at bay.[10] This tactic, however, spelled bad news for the gigolo, who aimed to keep his entertaining costs as low as possible in order to maximise his profits.

It’s getting more difficult to earn a living as a professional dancer because the restaurants are taking the place of these clubs, and at a restaurant you must eat and drink a lot before you dance.[11]

More time spent eating and drinking meant less time for dancing, and it also required a bigger financial outlay to pay for the inevitable champagne and oysters. When Mrs Meyrick was sent to prison for bribing police officers in 1929, that further hastened the end of the brief golden age of nightclubs and gigolos. For Julian, the Home Office’s drive to close down nightclubs is misplaced: he describes it as “bigotry.”[12] Nevertheless, it is an unstoppable tide.

By the end of the novel, the free-spirited Babs has settled down for a conventional marriage with child; other professional dancers have found steady jobs, for example in Lyons restaurants.[13] Julian is unable and unwilling to trade in the wild democracy of the dancefloor of the 43 for a more respectable life. As the nightclubs disappear from London, so must he; but not before celebrating the brief window of possibility that nightclubs offered to those willing to seek adventure.


[1] For more on Mrs Meyrick and the 43, see Judith Walkowitz, Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), pp. 210-211

[2] Julian Swift, The Chronicles of a Gigolo (London: T Werner Laurie, 1929), p. 9

[3] Ibid., p. 10

[4] Ibid., p. 20

[5] Ibid., p. 28

[6] Ibid., p. 32

[7] Ibid., p. 34

[8] Ibid., p. 42

[9] Ibid., p. 43

[10] Ibid., p. 78

[11] Ibid. p. 206

[12] Ibid., p. 213

[13] Ibid., p. 242

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Tom Walls

Earlier this year this blog had a look at the comedy actor Ralph Lynn. Today we are going to discuss the other half of the ‘Lynn & Walls’ comedy duo: Tom Walls. Walls was born in 1883 and had a prolific career as actor, director and producer of plays and films; followed by a second career as the owner of a race horse stable in Epsom. As a young man, Walls attempted a career as an officer in the Met, but this did not last – allegedly, he spent rather too much time ‘interrogating prostitutes’ on duty.[i]

Tom Walls and Ralph Lynn first worked together on the farce Tons of Money in 1922.[ii] Prior to that time, Walls had been managing and acting in shows in seaside towns. Walls and his business partner Leslie Henson scored a big success with Tons of Money, which started out at the Shaftesbury Theatre but transferred to the Aldwych. Walls would remain at the Aldwych for the remainder of the decade, putting on a series of wildly successful farces with a largely stable cast and crew consisting of Ralph Lynn, Yvonne Arnaud, Mary Brough, and Ben Travers as the writer for most of them.

Whereas Lynn was remembered as the ‘ideal farce actor to work with’[iii], Walls tends to invoke phrases like ‘no shame’; ‘contemptuous’; ‘peculiar’ and ‘a dictator’.[iv] He was also undoubtedly a man with a lot of energy. He acted in a lead part in all of the Aldwych farces, as well as directing them. Walls was also the driving force behind getting the farces translated to film in the 1930s, when he wanted a new challenge. Not having worked in the medium before was no barrier to Walls; he acted as both director and actor from the first Aldwych film, Rookery Nook, in 1930. In total, Walls directed 23 films in the 1930s, and acted in most of those as well as in some other productions.

Most of Walls’ film roles, thankfully, remain available to us today. Due to the long-lasting partnership between Walls, Travers and Lynn; and Walls’ considerable control over the productions, many of the Aldwych farces are written to play to his strengths. Generally, Walls played older men who have charm and wits, against Lynn’s younger, naïve characters. One obituary of Walls described his roles as ‘the dominating man supremely confident in himself’ – probably not too much of a stretch for Walls to play.

Walls’ role as Mr Tutt in A Cup of Kindness is a prime example of this type – Tutt is a patriarch who bosses about his wife, sons, and neighbours – but the role also gives Walls a chance to show off his charms in the scene where Tutt takes the young nurse Tilly  out to a West End Restaurant. Toeing the line of marital fidelity is a recurring theme in the Aldwych farces, as it is in Walls’ later film roles.

In the 1934 film Lady in Danger, Walls directed himself as the lead opposite Yvonne Arnaud. In this comedy, Arnaud plays the unnamed Queen of a (fictional) European micro-state, who has to flee a revolution. Walls is tasked with smuggling her to Britain, whilst Arnaud’s husband the King is staying in Paris. ‘The King is always in Paris’ is used as a knowing short-hand throughout the film to refer to the King’s regular infidelities. Walls’ character Richard is engaged to be married, but that does not stop him from flirting with the Queen.

Unlike in the Aldwych productions, where Walls’ characters flirt but never go any further, Richard and the Queen do share at least a kiss. The film makes is clear that it is permissible for the Queen to engage in this affair because her husband is also unfaithful. It does not deem it necessary to give any justification to Richard; it is a given that he must be able to have a dalliance with another woman before he is married. At the end of the film, the monarchy in the micro-nation is restored and the Queen returns to her husband’s side, and Richard returns to his fiancée, and neither of them face any repercussions. As the film’s director, Walls could ensure that his characters could have their cake and eat it, too. The conventions of farcical comedy allowed him to entertain such potentially transgressive behaviours.

Although his directing career ended with the outbreak of the Second World War, Walls appeared in a dozen or so films in the 1940s. At that stage, however, his main occupation was the breeding and training of race horses in Epsom. He achieved a high point in this career in 1932 when his horse April the Fifth won the Epsom derby – Walls was the only Epsom-based owner to win that derby in the whole of the 20th century. This 1933 Pathé newsreel includes some shots of Walls’ stables and home:

Walls was a very influential and well-known player of the interwar London entertainment industry, with business interests in theatre, cinema and racing. His surviving film performances capture his persuasive charm as well as his dominant personality. That is fame faded after his death in 1949 seems fitting for a man who preferred seizing the day over careful planning.


[i] Ben Travers, A-Sitting on a Gate (London: WH Allen, 1978), p.99

[ii] Ibid., pp. 87-88

[iii] Ibid., 91

[iv] Ibid., pp 89-90

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Entertainment venues during the 1939 blackouts

Today we are going to venture to the extremity of the interwar period in Britain – September 1939. Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. In hindsight, this started what is now commonly referred to as the ‘Phoney War’ – a period that lasted until April 1940 during which little actual military action took place. At the time, of course, Londoners weren’t to know that the declaration on 3 September would not lead to immediate hostilities. Accordingly, the city prepared for the worst and much public activity was suspended. As soon as it became clear that the invasion was not imminent, however, restrictions were also loosened again very quickly. After our collective experience of various levels of restrictions and lockdowns over the past 18 months (at the time of writing), this period of rapid closures and re-openings of venues in 1939 resonates.

When reviewing the newspaper coverage of the first weeks of the war, what is striking is the relative prominence articles give to the closure of entertainment venues – specifically cinemas and theatres. On 1 September, the British government implemented formal blackout regulations to obstruct bombing efforts by enemy troops. Next morning’s Daily Mail article described how streetlights, hotels and even Buckingham Palace where thrown into darkness, but tellingly the headline of the piece is ‘London Cinemas, Theatres, Carry On in Dark.’[i] Whilst many cinemas and theatres understandably opted to close completely at night, some businesses attempted to continue business whilst adhering to blackout measures. It is these venues that the Mail celebrates for their determination to continue business as usual despite the circumstances.

On 7 September the Mail followed this up with an article that reassured readers that managers of theatres and cinemas that had been closed for the previous week, were ‘standing by’ in expectation of an imminent return to business as usual.[ii] The message to the reader is clear; no matter what may lie ahead, Londoners should be able to visit the cinema and theatre at night. After only a week of blackout, the entertainment industries were confident that the Government would exempt them from the regulations. As a sector that did not directly support the war effort, this confidence seems remarkable, but it was justified. On 8 September the Government approved that cinemas, theatres and football pitches in ‘safe zones’ could re-open immediately for business.[iii] Cinemas in London’s suburbs followed on 11 September, and Central London cinemas on 15 September.[iv]

For the Mail, it was clear why these spaces should be allowed to operate: they had a ‘job of assisting to maintain a cheerful Britain.’[v] The article presents the night-time entertainment industry as vital for keeping up the morale at the home front. The re-opening was presented as a return to ‘normality’, and a mark of resilience of Britons in the face of grave danger. The news of the first wave of re-opening was considered so welcome that a second article was included in the same issue, which highlighted the scale of the impact of cinema closures in particular. According to the Mail, cinemas served a million customers a week – the real numbers were in fact much higher.[vi]

When central London cinemas and theatres were finally reopened on 15 September it was front page news for the Mail again, and the article immediately listed which films would be showing where. The article ends with the sage reminder that ‘[i]f you do go to the cinema to-night, don’t forget your gas mask.’[vii]  Despite this possible danger, the Mail assumed its readers would rush to visit the cinema, as implied by the listings provided and the considerable coverage the Mail had given the issue over the previous week. Editors understood films to be an important part of their readers’ lives, even in wartime; and encouraged readers to continue with their lives as normal despite the war.

From reading the Mail coverage over these weeks, it appears that there is support for the Government decision to impose the blackout at the start of September, but also that it was considered unnecessary for that blackout to apply to places of entertainment. It was considered imperative for the public’s morale that they should be allowed to go out at night and enjoy themselves, also to show the enemy forces that the British spirit would not be broken.

Of course, entertainment venues were not immune to bomb damage. Once the Blitz started in earnest in autumn 1940, they did become targets – most famously, when the Café de Paris was hit in March 1941 dozens of people died. But during those first months of the Phoney War, entertainment venues were an important symbol of what was considered important to Londoners.


[i] ‘London Cinemas, Theatres, Carry On in Dark.’  Daily Mail, 2 September 1939, p. 10

[ii] ‘Managers ready for the ‘all clear’’, Daily Mail, 7 September 1939, p. 7

[iii] ‘Cinemas, football, start again to-day’, Daily Mail, 9 September 1939, p. 1

[iv] ‘First Two London Theatre Reopen’, Daily Mail, 12 September 1939, p. 5; ‘Cinemas and theatres are open until 10 to-night’, Daily Mail, 15 September 1939, p. 1 and p. 10

[v] ‘Cinemas, football, start again to-day’, Daily Mail, 9 September 1939, p. 1

[vi] ‘3,000 Cinemas Open Today in the “Safe” Areas’, Daily Mail, 9 September 1939, p. 5

[vii] ‘Cinemas and theatres are open until 10 to-night’, Daily Mail, 15 September 1939, p. 1 and p. 10

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The Love Test (1935)

Following World War I, the British economy was in crisis, and Britain’s status as a world-leading power was challenged as a result. This decline was also reflected in the nation’s film industry, with British film production grinding almost to a halt in the mid-1920s.[1]The British government decided to intervene in this state of affairs with the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act. This piece of legislation stipulated that a percentage of films distributed and exhibited in Britain had to be made in Britain. The quota was set to gradually increase over the first ten years of the Act’s existence, ensuring that an ever-greater number of British films would be made, distributed and seen by audiences.[2]

The Government decided to implement this quota not only to ensure more jobs in the British film industry, but also because as cultural products, films could reflect appropriately British values to audiences. The popularity of Hollywood films raised fears that British audiences, particularly young people, were being ‘Americanised’. Unfortunately, the implementation of the Cinematograph Films Act did not work out as intended. Hollywood studios moved onto British soil and started producing ‘British’ pictures as cheaply as possible. These films became known as ‘quota quickies’, made on a shoestring budget. Hollywood studios did not want these films to seriously compete with their prestige productions; they simply existed to fulfil the quotas set out by law.[3]

Rather than building a sustainable and influential British film industry, the 1927 Act encouraged the production of a lot of poor-quality films which harmed rather than helped the reputation of British film. The effects of the Act were not all bad; a lot of British film personnel were able to cut their teeth on the sets of quota quickies, which allowed them to get a lot of experience in a short space of time. The scripts of these films were not carefully crafted or edited; the objective was to get something produced as quickly and cheaply as possible. The speed and quantity at which the films were made provides opportunities for these films to reveal the everyday cultural narratives and assumptions circulating in interwar Britain.

Most of these pictures disappeared as quickly as they came; there was little incentive to preserve products generally seen as low-quality. Some, however, remain accessible to us today: for example, The Love Test directed by Michael Powell in 1935. Powell went on to have a long and illustrious career in the British film industry, which may partly explain why The Love Test has been preserved when similar films by other directors were not. He made this film for the British arm of the Fox Film Company. Googie Withers appears in one of her very first screen roles, and the male lead is played by South African actor Louis Hayward who had a reasonably successful career both before and after The Love Test.

It is not just the cast and crew that makes The Love Test more remarkable than most quota quickies. The film’s treatment of gender roles is also one that appears unusual for a 1930s production; although Steve Chibnall points out that none of the contemporary reviews comment on this aspect.[4] The Love Test focuses on the male and female staff of a chemistry lab, who are trying to invent non-flammable celluloid – certainly a product close to the film industry’s heart. Mary, the female lead, is a studious and talented lab worker on track to be promoted to a managerial position. Some of the male staff of the lab, led by the misogynist Thompson, are threatened by her professional success. His solution: one of them must seduce Mary, so that she will be distracted from her work.

Lab worker John (Louis Hayward) takes up the challenge; initially he finds it impossible to get Mary to focus on anything other than her career. She firmly tells him she has ‘eliminated sex.’ However, with the encouragement of her neighbour Kathleen, Mary starts to take an interest in her appearance. About halfway through The Love Test Mary has a make-over montage in the manner used by teen and romance films for decades since. With her new hair, make-up and glamourous clothes, Mary and John’s second date is much more successful. Mary’s new appearance also makes John see her as a real romantic prospect, and he stops trying to distract Mary from her career. Mary’s new appearance, combined with her professional skills, ensure her promotion in the lab. However, it is John who eventually finds the way to make celluloid non-flammable.

In many ways The Love Test offers a strikingly feminist narrative: there is no suggestion in the film that Mary should not be working, that lab work is not appropriate for women, or that she is anything other than excellent at her job. On the other hand, Mary is not able to access a romantic relationship until she changes her appearance and interests to encompass more traditionally ‘feminine’ traits. The film presents her post-metamorphosis appearance as more desirable and aspirational than the version of her that was not interested in clothes, make-up or men. The Love Test balances the acceptance of the inevitable emancipation of young women in interwar Britain with the counter-narrative that being sexually desirable to a man is still the most rewarding achievement.


[1] Steve Chibnall, Quota Quickies: The Birth of the British ‘B’ Film (London: BFI, 2007), p. 1

[2] Laurence Napper, British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar Years (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 2009), p. 28

[3] Chibnall, Quota Quickies, p. 4

[4] Ibid., p. 226

The Prince of Wales and the interwar craze for Fair Isle jumpers

FeaturedThe Prince of Wales and the interwar craze for Fair Isle jumpers

A few years ago I had the privilege of visiting Shetland, a group of islands approximately 170 kilometres north of mainland Scotland. This northernmost part of the UK has a strong heritage in textile creation, particularly in knitted lace and Fair Isle jumpers. It’s the latter garments this post will discuss, as the interwar period saw this type of knitwear absolutely explode in popularity in England. What I learnt during my visit to the (excellent) Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick was that this sudden popular appeal of Fair Isle knitwear had a big impact on the financial independence of Shetland women.

Fair Isle itself is a small island located to the south of the main Shetland archipelago; in 2020 it had a population of 65 individuals and is only accessible by intermittent ferry and flight services. It is here that a new style of knitting was developed in the 19th century, one characterised by bold use of colour and patterns. The practice was soon adopted across the Shetland islands[1], initially to produce accessories such as caps and stockings. A true Fair Isle garment uses a limited number of colours, usually four or five. Only two colours are used in each row of knitting, which are built up into stars, crosses, zig zags, and other motifs.

The patterns and colours used in Fair Isle knitting make it a time-consuming and expensive way to produce garments. Shetland women (obviously) also produced more standard knitting items such as jumpers and stockings, either for use within their own household or to trade. From the middle of the 19th century until the 1920s, Shetland women were dependent on something called the Truck System, “a trading arrangement which involved payment in kind.” Rather than being able to sell their knitwear to shops and traders for money, instead women were obliged to trade the garments for things like coffee, tea and sugar. Women had little control over how much they would get traded for each garment; and whilst it was no doubt useful to have staple foods for their household, the Truck System meant that women were not able to put aside and save money for longer term investments.

By the end of the First World War, women on Fair Isle and the rest of Shetland had started producing full jumpers in the Fair Isle technique. Then, in a stroke of marketing genius, Shetland hosiery dealer James A Smith gifted a Fair Isle jumper to Edward, Prince of Wales. The Prince of Wales was an immensely popular society figure and bona fide style icon.[2] He decided to wear the Fair Isle jumper whilst sitting for a portrait painted by John St. Helier Lander. In line with the increased importance of mass-communication and consumption of this period, the portrait was reproduced by the Illustrated London News.

Suddenly, Fair Isle jumpers were the must-have fashion item for fashion-conscious socialites. Although jumpers had initially only been made for men, parallel developments in women’s fashion that favoured relaxed fits and dropped waistlines meant that soon, women were also keen to have their own Fair Isle jumpers. This craze for genuine Fair Isle products inevitably had consequences for the women making these garments. Where they had previously been dependent on the Shetland merchants and traders to take their stock, now women were able to bypass the Truck System and liaise directly with wealthy English buyers. As these buyers sat outside the local economy, they naturally paid in cash which allowed the Shetland women greater financial independence. Eventually the Truck System collapsed completely by the Second World War.

Of course, buying a handmade Fair Isle garment from Shetland was still prohibitively expensive for most people. Very quickly, the exclusive garment worn by the Prince of Wales spawned mass-produced knitting patterns which allowed amateur knitters to make their own garments at home. These remained popular into the 1940s, and Fair Isle garments more generally have become a wardrobe staple for period dramas set in this period. Fair Isle jumpers and vests have periodically regained popularity ever since, and there continue to be knitwear designers on Shetland who are evolving the style. The original 1920s jumper that started it all has not been forgotten; you can purchase an exact replica of the Prince of Wales’ jumper from various Shetland merchants, such as here and here.


[1] Although to this day, only garments actually produced on the island of Fair Isle can carry the Fair Isle trademark

[2] He popularised amongst other things: a particular type of collar (still known as the Prince of Wales collar); a particular way of tying ones tie; the Prince of Wales check motif and plus-fours trousers

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Car ownership and regulation in interwar London

One of the features of the British interwar period is the absolute explosion of car ownership that took place, and the development of ‘car culture’. The number of private (non-commercial) vehicles on the road increased in particular; from 187,000 private cars in 1920 to 1,523,000 by the outbreak of the Second World War, of which around 350,000 drove around London.[1] Not only were there more and more cars on the road; they also were able to reach increasingly high speeds. These two developments led inevitably to one of the greatest traffic concerns of the interwar period: an increase in road traffic accidents leading to casualty or even death.

The rapid increase in the number of privately-owned cars was facilitated by both a reduction the price of cars (and a burgeoning second-hand market), and a general rise in living and income standards for lower-middle-class workers, particularly those in London and the South East.[2] More people were able to put money aside to buy consumer goods, and many more families were able to buy a low-power, low-cost car, or buy a care through a hire-purchase scheme in which one pays in instalments. For those who had moved into one of London’s newly developed suburbs, the car represented the possibility to go on weekend day-trips outside of the city and visit roadhouses. Yet suburban development also increased the chances of accidents, “because of the high number of fast arterial roads built there and the predilection for building housing estates near to these new roads.”[3]

As the number of vehicles on the road increased, so did the number of fatal accidents: from 2386 fatal accidents in England and Wales in 1920, to 5690 fatal accidents in 1935.[4] To put these figures in context: “there were more road fatalities in the three years 1929 to 1931 than there were British soldiers killed in the wars with France between 1793 and 1815.”[5] Naturally, these figures sharpened minds and political will to make roads safer. It seems counter-intuitive, then, that the Government actually decided to abolish maximum speed limits in 1930.[6] As the average car could reach speeds of 70 miles per hour, abandoning speed limits had consequences.[7] The decision was hastily reversed in 1934 in light of the fast-increasing numbers of accidents and casualties.[8]

The reason for the original abolishment of speed limits came down to social class, as so many things in interwar Britain do. Before the First World War, cars were luxury items that were only accessible to a select few. In the Victorian tradition of law making, the upper classes were used to their leisure pursuits to be unregulated.[9] When traffic regulations were adopted, many drivers suddenly found themselves confronted with the law for the first time.[10] To make matters worse, those enforcing the regulations were police officers who were generally working class.[11] Those with political clout and influence found themselves suddenly treated as criminals when they breached traffic regulations, and they were able to build a coalition that successfully lobbied for the removal of the speed limit in 1930.

The 1930 Road Traffic Act did, conversely, introduce additional offences in ‘careless driving’ and driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.[12] This subtle shift in legislation meant that rather than allowing blanket prosecution for anyone breaking an (arbitrary) speed limit, only individuals in specific circumstances could be prosecuted. It assumed that most drivers would be responsible enough to stick to a sensible speed limit. The rise in road traffic incidents and casualties following the passing of the Act, however, indicated otherwise. Before long, those lobbying on behalf of pedestrians and other vulnerable road users were able to argue in parliament for the (re)introduction of tighter traffic safety laws.[13]

The big flaw in depending on drivers to be responsible, was that there was no formal system for training or testing drivers. People taught each other how to drive, and there was no agreed quality test that determined what constituted ‘good’ or ‘safe’ driving. The 1934 Road Traffic Act tackled both issues together by not only re-introducing a speed limit (although it was raised from 20 mph to 30 mph[14]) but also introducing a compulsory driving test for everyone who started driving after 1 April 1934. The road infrastructure was also amended with the introduction of pedestrian and pelican crossings.[15] Ford made this reassuring instruction video for budding drivers in 1935, explaining how the driving test worked:

By the end of the interwar period the debates around traffic regulations and car safety had settled down as car ownership had become normalised. Cars were no longer a dangerous and transgressive novelty but rather had been incorporated into the standard and expected middle-class experience. After a period in which various futures for car ownership and regulation appeared possible, the matter solidified into a regulatory framework that is still in use today.


[1] Clive Emsley, ‘’Mother, What Did Policemen Do When There Weren’t Any Motors?’ The Law, the Police and the Regulation of Motor Traffic in England, 1900-1939’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Jun., 1993), 357-381 (p. 358); Michael John Law, 1930s London: The Modern City (Canterbury: Yellowback Press, 2015), p. 62

[2] Michael John Law, ‘‘The car indispensable: the hidden influence of the car in inter-war suburban London’, Journal of Historical Geography, no. 38 (2012), 424-433 (p. 427)

[3] Law, 1930s London, p. 70

[4] Emsley, ‘Mother’, p. 359

[5] P.W.J.Bartrip, ‘Pedestrians, Motorists, and No-Fault Compensation for Road Accidents in 1930s Britain’, The Journal of Legal History, 31:1 (2010), 45-60, p. 47

[6] Ibid.

[7] Law, 1930s London, p. 70

[8] Claire Corbett, Car Crime (Uffculme : Willan 2003), p. 107

[9] Emsley gives the examples of racecourse betting and foxhunting, which were permitted when equivalent pursuits of the working-classes were regulated. The regulation of foxhunting of course remains a live political issue in the 21st century. Emsley, ‘Mother’, pp. 358-360

[10] Corbett, Car Crime, p. 18

[11] Emsley, ‘Mother’, p. 358

[12] Corbett, Car Crime, p. 19

[13] Bartip, ‘Pedestrians’, p. 50

[14] Corbett, Car Crime, p. 19

[15] Bartip, ‘Pedestrians’, p. 48

Brian Aherne

FeaturedBrian Aherne

Like other actors featured on this blog, Brian Aherne started his career in English film in the 1920s, before moving to Hollywood in the 1930s. Unlike some of his contemporaries, however, he was able to establish a long and successful career in the US, which lasted until the 1960s. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his portrayal of Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico in the 1939 US production Juarez. The seeds of this career were sown in interwar London.

Aherne’s full name was William Brian de Lacy Aherne, which hints at his upper middle-class background. His father was an architect, his mother an actress; Aherne trained in his father’s profession before deciding to follow into his mother’s footsteps instead and pursue acting. He started out on the stage and landed his first film role in 1924, in a supporting role in the no longer extant film The Eleventh Commandments (dir. George A Cooper).

Aherne quickly moved into leading man parts and working with established directors; he was directed by Sinclair Hill in The Squire of Long Hadley and by veteran director Henry Edwards in King of the Castle, both released in 1925. He returned to work with Hill two years later in A Woman Redeemed. However, modern audiences are most likely to have seen Aherne in one of the two silent films he made with Anthony Asquith: Shooting Stars (1928) and Underground (1928). Both have been restored and re-released by the BFI in the last ten years so are readily available to us.

Brian Aherne in 1938

In both films, Aherne plays a good, kind and dependable man who has to endure adversity in his romantic relationships. His even features and a slightly dreamy look in his eyes made him a suitable romantic hero. In Shooting Stars, he plays Julian Gordon, an actor married to actress Mae Feather. Julian and Mae often act together in genre flicks in which he is the hero to her damsel in distress. Off set, however, their relationship is far from happy, and Mae enters into an affair with another actor, the comedian Andy Wilkes.

Mae worries that she will suffer professionally if she were to divorce Julian, so instead she hatches a plan. The couple are recording a western film, and are due to record a scene in which a stooge has to shoot at Julian with a shotgun. Mae secretly puts a live bullet in the gun, hoping that Julian will die and she can pass it off as a freak accident. Of course, the plan goes wrong; the bullet instead hits Andy, who is filming on an adjacent sound stage. Julian realises what Mae was planning and leaves her; her career is destroyed as a result, whilst Julian becomes a successful director.

Much of the joy from viewing Shooting Stars is derived from its tongue-in-cheek knowingness about the film industry, which is perfectly encapsulated by its double-entendre title. Julian’s graduation from actor to director reflects (not very subtly) his journey from a naïve young man to someone who literally calls the shots. Shooting Stars includes a telling scene in which Julian, as yet unaware of Mae’s infidelity, goes to the cinema to watch one of their own films, a typical action flick. He sits among the young boys in the audience and becomes completely engrossed in the fantasy-world in which he is Mae’s hero, saving her from danger. Although Mae is certainly positioned as a cold-hearted, manipulating woman, Aherne’s performance also initially shows Julian as gullible and a bit foolish. By the end of the film, director Julian is hardened and unmoved by Mae’s distress.

Aherne followed Shooting Stars immediately with a lead role in Underground, in which he played London Underground employee Bill. Underground portrays the romantic entanglements between four individuals, and uses the space of a London Underground station to link them together. Bill works as an attendant in the station, helping travellers to find the right trains, making sure they do not fall of the escalator, and answering any queries they may have. He meets Nell when she drops her glove whilst travelling up the escalator. It is love at first sight, but Nell is already being pursued by Bert, a worker at Lott’s power station. Bert in turn has an admirer in the seamstress Kate, who lives in the same boarding house as him.

As soon as Bert realises that Bill is his rival for Nell’s interests, he sends Kate to the underground station; she does as Bert says in the vain hope she will win his affection. Kate manages to lure Bill to an emergency staircase off the main Tube platform, under false pretences. She then waits for the platform to fill up before running out of the staircase and accusing Bill of assaulting her. As planned by Bert, Nell witnesses the incident and she (temporarily) withdraws from Bill as a result. To resolve the misunderstanding and win back Nell, Bill must fight Bert, in this case physically. He succeeds, and the film ends with Nell and Bill united in matrimonial bliss. Like Julian in Shooting Stars, Brian Aherne’s character in Underground starts out as an innocent, but matures through adversity and by tapping in to more traditionally ‘masculine’ behaviours.

After the transition to sound film, Aherne’s last notable British film appearance was his role as Lewis Dodd in the 1933 version of The Constant Nymph (directed by Basil Dean). The 1928 silent film based on the same source material, in which Ivor Novello played Dodd, is the one that is best remembered today. By the time the version with Aherne was released in cinemas, he was already across the Atlantic and appeared opposite Marlene Dietrich in Song of Songs (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933). By the time of his death, Aherne was generally remembered as a Hollywood actor first; but as his appearance in two of the best-known British films of the late silent period testifies, he was also a part of the cultural scene in interwar London.

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Comparing two nightclub raids

In the interwar period, London’s nightlife developed rapidly, in a grateful response to the lifting of blackouts and other restrictions imposed during the Great War by the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA). Nightclubs in particular, over restaurants, dance halls or cinemas, have captured the imagination and become emblematic of interwar London’s night-time culture. Nightclubs as such were not illegal, but many of them operated on the border of illegality by serving alcohol past permitted hours; not operating a sufficiently strict membership system; or allowing ‘indecent’ behaviour. As Judith Walkowitz has demonstrated, the appeal of the nightclub was largely that they were spaces that allowed people who would not normally come across one another, to mix freely.[1]  

The policing and controlling of nightclubs was a topic of public interest from the mid-1920s onwards. Due to the clubs’ restricted access, surveillance could only be done by undercover police officers. In order not to draw attention to themselves, these constables had to partake in the club’s activities during their observations. The image of the police officer spending his shift dancing and drinking champagne caused public discomfort, particularly as repeated observations were often deemed necessary before a club could be raided.[2] As nightclub owners got more suspect of single men entering clubs, the Metropolitan police started using undercover female officers as well. Female police officers were still a relative novelty; a male and female officer posing as a couple and entering a club together were less likely to raise suspicions.[3]

Nightclub raids were gratefully covered by newspapers; the reports reveal that the social background of the people attending a club to a large extent shaped how cases were dealt with. In March 1932 for example, the Daily Express covered a hearing at Marlborough Street Police Court relating to the Burlington Club, which had been observed and then raided in January.[4] The charge against the club’s owner and secretary was that of selling alcohol outside of licensing hours; this was the most common charge used against nightclub owners. Despite this illegal activity, the newspaper article takes every opportunity to stress the respectability of the club.

It starts with the description of the police constable who had conducted observations in the club: he is described as ‘debonair’ and having ‘beautifully curly hair and a public school voice.’ The inference is that in the only police officers who were able to successfully blend in with the clientele of the club were those who appeared to be of a high social class. The club itself is described as ‘extensive and well-furnished’ and the police inspector leading the investigation admitted that those present in the club during the raid were ‘reputable people of position’: “You could not put the place down as one of the usual dens”.

In deference to these visitors’ reputations, none of them were charged or even named in the newspaper reports; not even the club visitor who was found by the police to be ‘very drunk’ and emptying half a bottle of champagne over the head and neck of his female companion. The police had also found clear evidence that alcohol had been served at the club beyond permitted hours and not in accompaniment of the substantial meal that was required by law.

Very different was the newspaper reporting on the raid of the Caravan Club in 1934. The Caravan was a gay club in Endell Street, Soho, which was raided within months of its opening. The opening of the Bow Street police court hearing warranted reports across two pages in the Evening Standard of 28 August, against the one column given to the raid on the Burlington Club in the Express two years’ prior.[5]

Unlike the common charge of selling alcohol after hours, which was only laid against the proprietors of a club, in the case of the Caravan Club the charges were those of keeping a place for the purpose of exhibiting ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’ behaviour; and aiding and abetting such premises. The aiding and abetting aspect applied to all the visitors of the Club – a total of 103 individuals were put in front of the magistrate.

The first part of the Evening Standard report deals almost exclusively with the huge crowd that gathered around Bow Street to see all those charged as they entered the court. The reporter specifically states that ‘Most of the onlookers were market porters’.[6] This evokes an image of a crowd of men who look and behave within the bounds of masculinity as it was accepted at the time. As becomes clear of the remainder of the report, the ‘indecent behaviour’ witnessed at the Caravan Club mostly centred around men behaving in ways that were considered improper and not masculine. The reporter also notes that the crowd of market porters cheered and jeered at each of the defendants as they entered the court, further underscoring that those present at the club had behaved in ways that elicited public ridicule.

Although the language of the report is circumspect when it comes to describing the activities within the club, they are still reported in much greater detail than those that took place inside the Burlington Club. Men were seen dancing with men; men were dressed up as women; a male performer was half-naked; and the ‘conversation in the club was a lot on sex matters’.[7] Interestingly there were no allegations made of alcohol being served without a license; it appears that the club’s proprietors had been observing that particular rule. After the evidence was given, one of the counsels for the defence described the club as a ‘horrible place’.

As is evident from the comparison of these two newspaper reports, the moral judgement of what went on inside a nightclub weighed heavier than the legal argument. The language of the newspaper reports underscores the tacit assumption that wealthy, educated people should be allowed privacy even if they break the law, whereas men engaging in transgressive behaviour can be jeered and shouted at.

Serving alcohol outside of permitted hours was a clear offense, but if the club served ‘reputable’ people then the proprietors were simply fined. However, if the club allowed the display of ‘indecent’ behaviour, particularly behaviour that challenged what was considered appropriate for men, the punishments were much more severe. In the case of the Caravan Club, custodial sentences rather than fines were meted out, with the longest sentence given to the club’s proprietor who had to undertake 20 months of hard labour. Interwar nightclubs may have allowed their visitors to engage in transgressive behaviours but if they threatened to challenge accepted norms too much, institutions of authority were swift to move against them.


[1] Judith Walkowitz, Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), pp. 209-252

[2] Heather Shore, ‘Constable dances with instructress’: the police and the Queen of Nightclubs in inter-war London’, Social History, 2013 Vol. 38, No. 2, 183–202, p. 200

[3] Louise A. Jackson, ‘Lady Cops’ and ‘Decoy Doras’: Gender, Surveillance

and the Construction of Urban Knowledge 1919–59, The London Journal, 2002, 27:1, 63-83, p. 77

[4] ’72 People in Raided Club’, Daily Express, 11 March 1932, p. 7

[5] ‘Crowd of 500 in Club Case Scenes at Bow-street’, Evening Standard, 28 August 1934, p. 1; ‘Constable Tells of Scenes in Raided Club’, Evening Standard, 28 August 1934, p. 2

[6] ‘Crowd of 500 in Club Case Scenes at Bow-street’, Evening Standard, 28 August 1934, p. 1

[7] ‘Constable Tells of Scenes in Raided Club’, Evening Standard, 28 August 1934, p. 2

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Break the News (1938)

Break the News is a British film of the end of the interwar period that displays some of the ambition of the film industry at that time. The film is a remake of a 1936 French film called Le Mort en Fuite (Death on the Run). Break the News was directed by Frenchman René Clair who cast his compatriot Maurice Chevalier in one of the lead roles. The other male lead was played by Jack Buchanan, a British actor who enjoyed fame both on stage and on film. The main female role was fulfilled by June Knight, a Hollywood starlet who had come over to Europe. Buchanan also produced the film under his short-lived production vehicle Jack Buchanan Productions.

Although Clair is mostly remembered for his post-war films, he started directing in France in the mid-1920s. Break the News was his second picture in the UK, after he directed Robert Donat in the supernatural comedy The Ghost Goes West in 1936. The casting of Break the News demonstrates the high aspirations Buchanan and Clair had for the film. Buchanan had considerable star power in interwar Britain, and Chevalier was a recognised Hollywood star.[1]

The film’s plot is as internationally mobile as its stars. The action starts on the West End, where Teddy and François, played by Buchanan and Chevalier, are in the chorus of a musical comedy show. The show’s lead star is Grace Gatwick, played by Knight. Teddy and François long to have the same level of fame as Grace, so they come up with a cunning plan. After staging a face argument in their lodgings, they make it appear that François has killed Teddy, and make sure that he conspicuously tries to dump the ‘body’ in the Thames. Teddy goes off to the south of France to enjoy a holiday; the plan is that the ‘murder’ will generate a lot of newspaper publicity; François will get arrested and Teddy will dramatically return from France during the trial to ensure François gets acquitted. Both men will get famous and then they will be able to put on their own stage production.

Unfortunately, and obviously, the plan goes awry. Firstly, the anticipated media storm after the ‘murder’ does not materialise, so whilst François eventually gets arrested, the men do not get famous. Secondly, whilst in France Teddy is mistaken for a revolutionary leader of a (fictional) Balkan country, and gets kidnapped and taken back to this Ruritania. He only very narrowly manages to get out and return to Britain just in time before François is executed. This being a musical comedy, of course all is well at the end, and with the help of Grace the men do get their names in lights on the theatre façade.

The plot of Break the News, and indeed the film’s title, place great importance on the operation of the written press. The newspapers are presented as the only vehicle that can give Teddy and François the fame they long for. Fame is not dependent on talent on stage, but rather on who is able to get and keep the attention of the journalists. Grace’s character functions to demonstrate this; early on in the film she manages to create a media storm by reporting that her little dog has gone missing; and then another one when the dog is found. Once the story breaks of a ‘murder’ within her show’s production, she makes sure to put herself in front of journalists and spin the story in a way that puts herself at the centre of it.

Teddy and François also assume that a murder case will most definitely hit the front pages. Much of the comedy in the first part of the film is derived from the way the men stage the ‘murder’, starting with a phoney argument on stage in front of the whole company; moving on to a loud argument in their lodging; and finishing with François taking a black cab to Limehouse to drop a heavy, corpse-shaped parcel in the river. But what the men do not take into account is that the press are not interested in murder per se. Grace is able to generate publicity on anything because the press consider her to be interesting. François and Teddy are never interesting to journalists, no matter what they do. Whereas the men assume that the press can make someone famous, they find that in order for the press to pay attention to you, you must already be interesting or relevant yourself.

The power of the newspaper press is underscored through the implicit assumption that if the press were to write about the murder story, then Teddy and François would become instantly famous. As is often the case in interwar films, ‘the press’ is treated as a homogenous entity, and it is taken for granted that a story is either covered by all papers, or by none. Break the News shows journalists to be operating in a pack, indistinguishable from one another as they all try to get a quote from Grace. Once a story is covered, the next assumption is that the newspapers’ reach is such that the details of the story would become generally known.

The comedy of Break the News relies in a large part on the audience understanding and accepting these beliefs about how the written press operates. It is funny that the murder gets no attention from the papers, because, like Teddy and François, we assume that it would attract column inches. Whilst Break the News pokes fun at these assumptions, the jokes only work because we share the same underlying beliefs that the film’s plot is built on. In that way, Break the News gives insight in the position of the written press in interwar British society.


[1] Andrew Spicer, ‘Jack Buchanan and British Musical Comedy of the 1930s’ in Ian Concrich and Estella Trincknell (eds), Film’s Musical Moments (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006)

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Inspector French and the Box Office Murders (1929)

The British interwar period is often referred to as the ‘Golden Age’ of British crime fiction. Some of the authors of this period, most notably Agatha Christie, remain popular. Many others have sunk to relative obscurity, although in recent years publishers are re-issuing works that have previously fallen out of print. Irish author Freeman Wills Crofts is one of the crime writers who had a successful career during the interwar period, but who is less of a household name today.

Crofts was a prolific writer, producing 34 novels, 3 short story collections and a handful of plays and works of non-fiction. Like many other writers of his generation, he created a crime-solving protagonist whom he could use for multiple books: Inspector French of Scotland Yard CID. French first appeared in the 1924 novel Inspector French’s Greatest Case. Five years later, Crofts wrote Inspector French and the Box Office Murders, which we’ll explore here.

In this book, Inspector French is called upon for help by a cinema box office attendant, Thurza Darke, who believes one of her colleagues at another cinema was murdered. The book’s opening chapter, in which French interviews Darke, immediately gives insight in what was considered a typical set of circumstances for cinema box office staff. It is certainly true that the box office was usually staffed exclusively by women, in contrast to other parts of the cinema. Film historian Ina Rae Hark has persuasively argued that this is due to the cashier’s role to draw in patrons – in many cinemas, particularly in the US, the ticket seller would be enclosed in the glass box of the ticket office, which was often out on the pavement or immediately adjacent to it.[1]

In The Box Office Murders, Thurza is described as:

a pretty blonde of about five-and-twenty, with a good manner and something of a presence. Well but plainly dressed in some light summery material, she looked what she evidently was, an ordinary, pleasant, healthy young woman of the lower middle classes.[2]

We then find out Thurza is an orphan from Birkenhead; lives in a boarding house in Clapham; is good friends with a fellow boarder who works as a typist for a lawyer; travels to work by Tube; and attends evening arithmetic classes, where she met the box office girl who since got murdered. In a few short pages Crofts presents the reader with the outline of the typical life of a young woman working in the city and looking to better herself – although Thurza’s lack of family is undoubtedly added to avoid French having to deal with noisy family members when Thurza later gets murdered.

As French finds out, a criminal gang is operating in London who first get cinema box office girls in debt, and then get them to use the cinema box office takings to launder stolen money. Cinema box offices were considered vulnerable to theft. Contemporary cinema manager’s guide and industry publications often stressed that staff could be tempted to steal from the till, and suggested tactics to minimise this risk. For example, box office staff should not be encouraged to mix too much with other staff in the cinema, lest the (male) attendants could convince the female box office attendant to dip her hand in the till.[3]

After Thurza is killed by the gang, French recruits yet another box office attendant, Molly Moran, to help him entrap the gang members. French has identified that Molly has already fallen into the gang’s clutches. Before he approaches her directly, he first speaks to her manager as well as the managers of some other potential victims:

But as he had foreseen, the managers were not helpful. None of them had noticed anything abnormal or suspicious in the conduct of the girl in his company’s employment nor had there been any irregularity about her cash.[4]

Each of the girls lives in a boarding house, like Thurza Darke. When French goes to speak to the landladies, they have noticed that the girls were in ‘evident trouble’, but they did not know what it was: they ‘did not think it was financial (…) none of the girls had shown a difficulty in meeting her bill’.[5] The picture Crofts paints is one of a mass of young women who live in the city on their own; have no-one to look out for their best interests; and are vulnerable to exploitation and attack. Their relationships at work are surface-level and transactional: as long as the tills check out, their managers are not concerned. At home, they live with strangers, and the relationship is again primarily based on a financial transaction: if they can meet their rent, the landladies aren’t concerned either.

What underpins Inspector French and the Box Office Murders, then, is a discomfort with the independent lives young women were living in interwar London. Crofts, through French, primarily frames this independence as a vulnerability. The implication is that girls who lived at home with their parents, and who had people (men) to look out for their safety, would be better off.

This theme comes across particularly strongly at the end of the novel, when Molly Moran ends up kidnapped by the gang and French has to save her. Molly, who was introduced as having ‘a stubborn little chin [which] showed she had no lack of character’[6], by the end of the book is longingly waiting for French to save her.[7] When he does, and kisses her on the mouth in relief of finding her alive, she ‘instead of indignantly protesting against his conduct and demanding a commission of inquiry into the whole circumstances, smiled up into his face’.[8] It is all well and good for girls to be stubborn as long as they do not use their character to interfere with maverick police inspectors.

Inspector French and the Box Office Murders gives an insight into the anxieties that were provoked by one of the country’s most popular leisure activities depending on young women living and working independently. The book reveals the assumptions made about the type of woman who worked at the cinema box office. Whilst the criminal plot is fantastical, the concerns about young women challenging social norms were all too real.

Inspector French and the Box Office Murders and other Freeman Wills Crofts novels can be purchased in a variety of formats.


[1] Ina Rae Hark, ‘The “Theatre Man” and “The Girl in the Box Office”, in Film Exhibition Reader, ed. by Ina Rae Hark (2002), pp. 143-159 (p. 148)

[2] Freeman Wills Crofts, Inspector French and the Box Office Murders, (London: HarperCollins, 2017), p. 2

[3] JH Hutchison, The Complete Kinemanager, (London: Kinematograph Publications, 1937), pp.86-87

[4] Crofts, Box Office Murders, p. 99

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 100

[7] Ibid., p. 208

[8] Ibid., p. 228

Jameson Thomas

FeaturedJameson Thomas

Jameson Thomas was born in London in 1888 as Thomas Jameson – he swapped his name around for his professional career, presumably to either give him more recognisability or to hold his career at one remove from his family. As the BFI Screenonline entry on Thomas has noted, he is a ‘curiously overlooked star of 1920s British cinema.’ His film career started in 1923 in the Hebert Wilcox vehicle Chu Chin Chow.

At the turn of the next decade Thomas moved to Hollywood, where he appeared in approximately 50 films during the 1930s. The high-watermark of his Hollywood career was in 1934, when he played Claudette Colbert’s playboy lover King Westley in It Happened One Night. Thomas’ career came to an early end with his death of tuberculosis in 1939 – as a final testament to his ability to mould his public persona, his New York Times obituary shaves a whole five years of his age.[1]

Thomas was a prolific actor on both stage and screen, and his singular appearance makes him an instantly recognisable actor of the interwar period.

His best-known appearance in British film is as the male lead in E.A. Dupot’s Piccadilly (1929), in which he plays nightclub owner Valentine Wilmot. Thomas worked across genres and also appeared in Adrian Brunel’s historical drama Blighty (1927), the 1929 sci-fi High Treason (directed by Maurice Elvey), the crime thriller Night Birds (directed by Richard Eichberg, 1930). He even appeared as himself in the variety sketch compendium Elstree Calling (1930).

Piccadilly remains popular with modern audiences for its beautiful cinematography and the star turn of Anna May Wong as Shosho, the Chinese scullery-maid turned nightclub dancer.[2] Thomas plays Wilmot as debonair and detached, coolly surveying the activity inside his Piccadilly club. Yet beneath the surface smoulders an intensity which comes to the fore once he sets eyes on Shosho, dancing on the table in the club’s kitchens. Wilmot’s point of view serves as the literal male gaze that allows the camera its slow pan down Shosho’s body, lingering on her hips and legs. The construction is repeated in a later scene when Shosho, now opulently dressed in furs, descends from a spiral staircase at which Wilmot stands at the bottom.

Throughout Piccadilly, Thomas continues to restrain Wilmot’s passion for Shosho behind the trappings of an English gentleman’s conduct. One of the film’s more passionate moments occurs when he dares to grab and hold her hand in the middle of a rowdy Limehouse pub. Yet through his intense gazes at Shosho, which he does not bestow on the (white) dancer Mabel, Thomas makes clear where Wilmot’s passions lie.

Thomas used a similar restraint in his role in Brunel’s Blighty. This 1927 films follows the experiences of one upper-class family during the Great War. Thomas plays David Marshall, the family’s driver who secretly loves the family’s daughter. Marshall is quiet, steady and responsible, and is presented in juxtaposition to the family’s young and idealistic son Robin. Whereas Robin dies at the front, Marshall survives the war and ends up supporting the mother and daughter of the family. Blighty presents Marshall’s maturity as more desirable and useful to the family than Robin’s naivety, even though he is a servant. In line with the prevailing notion that the common experience of war allowed class boundaries to be broken down, Marshall is ultimately able to marry Ann, the family’s daughter.

Thomas put yet another spin on the type of the responsible and restrained man in Maurice Elvey’s 1929 science-fiction film High Treason, of which both a silent and a sound version exist. The events of this film take place in 1940, when a war threatens to break out between the ‘United States of Europe’ and the ‘Empire of the Atlantic States’. Benita Hume plays the lead as Evelyn, the daughter of the leader of the Peace League who is trying to prevent war. Thomas takes the role of Michael Deane, Evelyn’s boyfriend and the commander of the European Air Force. Evelyn tries to persuade Deane that he should not instruct his troops to take off towards America, as that would surely start hostilities. Deane, however, is adamant he must do his duty to protect Europe.

In the film’s visually striking climax, Evelyn leads hundreds of female Peace League members, all dressed in white, into confrontation with Deane’s air force troops, all dressed in black. Evelyn instructs the women to go onto the airfield to stop the planes from being able to take off; Deane instructs his men in turn to ready their firearms. Evelyn calls his bluff (‘They’ll never fire on women!’) before they are interrupted by a national broadcast which asks all activities to cease pending a government announcement. High Treason reflects the real-world anti-war sentiment which was promoted by the League of Nations. Whereas in Blighty Thomas’ character is praised for his sense of duty and responsibility, in High Treason he showcases what happens if that sense of duty becomes blind to reason.

In his British productions, Thomas proved himself a versatile actor who was not afraid to work across genres. He avoided getting typecast and tended to inject a sense of gravitas and responsibility in his roles. Along the way, he worked with some of the most famous directors and actors. However, he also had time to advertise the benefits of growing cacti, in this surviving clip which shows him from a different side:

You can watch High Treason for free on the BFI Player in both sound and silent versions (within UK only)


[1] ‘JAMESON THOMAS, HOLLYWOOD ACTOR; Londoner, Who Entered Films After Career on Stage, Is Dead at 45’, New York Times, 11 January 1939, p. 25

[2] Indeed, a new Blu-Ray edition is due to be released in June 2021.

The King and Queen go to the Movies

FeaturedThe King and Queen go to the Movies

The 1920s were a turbulent time for Britain, both at home and abroad. The decade saw the beginning of the end of the British Empire, as Ireland and Egypt gained a level of independence in 1922. Throughout the 1920s popular support for independence grew in India, with Ghandi’s Non-Cooperation Movement founded in 1920. At home, as in the rest of Europe, ideological and extremist political factions gained support. The British imperial identity was clearly under threat during this period.

The Royal Family, as the figureheads of this imperial identity, worked hard to reaffirm conservative values and traditions and bolster a sense of national cohesion. They used cinema as one of the ways in which to promote the Empire and their own role in maintaining it. In the 1920s the King, Queen and Prince of Wales interacted with cinema both as consumers and as subjects of films. By engaging with cinema, the Royal Family both shared in a common activity which appeared to bind them together with the general public; and set themselves apart as extraordinary figures whose importance enabled them to appear on the silver screen.

The Prince of Wales was a subject of films that were made of his various Tours of the Empire which he undertook in the 1920s. He visited New Zealand in 1921, India in 1921-22, South America in 1924 and South Africa in 1925. These tours were routinely filmed, and the films were screened in British cinemas. At their initial release the films usually premiered at the Marble Arch Pavilion and the Stoll Picture Theatre on the Kingsway, before being distributed more widely. On 12 May 1925 more than half of The Times’ regular ‘The Film World’ column is taken up by a detailed description of Part 1 of the Prince’s Tour of Africa film, which gives an indication of the importance these films held at least for the Empire-minded Times.[1]

These Tour films placed the Prince of Wales as inextricably connected with the Empire, in the popular imagination. For the general public, the Prince was frequently visible as visiting all the corners of the Empire, reasserting his Royal authority over citizens across the globe. The images and intertitles of the films show how the texts consciously stress the coherence and common experience of Empire. In the newsreel summary of the Prince’s Tour of South America, when he visits a group of war veterans, the intertitle confidently states that ‘There are few cities under the sun that cannot raise a muster of British ex-servicemen.’ Empire here is emblematised in the image of the war veteran, who risked his life and health in order to maintain the integrity of said Empire.

Apart from the Prince of Wales’ tours, the Royal Family was also subject of a number of feature length films. In 1922 Cecil Hepworth produced Through Three Reigns, a compilation film which consists of footage of the Royal Family between 1897 and 1911, as well as extracts from actualities and other early cinema footage. Hepworth updated his efforts in 1929 with Royal Remembrances, which was also a compilation of footage of the Royal Family but this time the most recent footage was of 1929.

On 25 September 1922 the King and Queen asked for a special ‘command’ performance of Through Three Reigns at Balmoral Castle. This event was widely reported in the press.[2] The Royal couple invited 200 guests, including their tenants and servants, to attend the screening where they effectively watched their own family history. Shown in conjunction with Through Three Reigns – and different newspapers give different weight to this – was Nanook of the North, the ground-breaking Inuit documentary made by Brit Robert Flaherty. In one evening, the King and Queen watched a film that reasserts the significance of the Royal Family, and a film which demonstrates the technological and geographical advancements of the British Empire. This was the third of such ‘command’ performances that year – at an earlier screening at Windsor Castle the King and Queen had asked for the Prince of Wales Tour of India film.

The King and Queen’s first public visit to a cinema came two years later, in November 1924 on the eve of Armistice Day. The occasion was a charity screening to raise money for the newly formed British Legion. The royal couple saw the non-fiction film Zeebrugge, which told the story of the British army’s attempt to close off the Belgian port of Zeebrugge during World War One. Again the event was covered extensively in the press.[3] Crowds cheered the Royal Couple as they arrived at the Marble Arch Pavilion and were shown to the Royal Box which was constructed for the occasion. Three commanders who had received Victoria Crosses for their bravery during the Zeebrugge Raid were also in the audience.

Photos in the Daily Mirror of the Royal visit to the cinema. Daily Mirror, 11 November 1924, front page

The Daily Telegraph gave a detailed report of all the aristocrats who attended the screening. The cinema space, normally open to audiences of all backgrounds, on this occasion became a much more exclusive space. It seems that the King and Queen could endorse cinema, as long as cinema related to serious and inoffensive topics –and the films they viewed were British productions, of course. The Royal’s support of cinema underscored the Royal Family’s values: of course the King and Queen saw films like everyone else, but only those that promoted the national identity of their country, and those that would not cause offence to any of their subjects.

During the visit to the Marble Arch the Royal Family also became the subject of a novel technological experiment: their arrival at the cinema was filmed, and while they were watching Zeebrugge the film was developed, and played back to the audience at the end of the evening. The Royals became subject of a film which they later consumed as an audience. This circularity was also demonstrated in the private Royal screenings in 1922: one of the topics that the Royal family could watch without risk of controversy was – the Royal family.

By the end of the 20s, film had become a recognised medium to promote empire, either directly through ‘educational films’ or indirectly by using cinema screenings to raise money for charities with Royal patronage. In this decade, the Royal family had gotten involved in the cinema business, and started using it as a means of increasing their popularity and profile, and of reaffirming discourse on empire and nationalism. Although the cinema could be a democratic space, the Royal Family’s interactions with it were carefully constructed. This way, they cleared the way for later generations of Royals to use popular entertainment to maintain the ‘common-sense’ status quo of monarchy.

Through Three Reigns is available to watch for free on the BFI Player (UK only)


[1] ‘The Film World’, The Times, 12 May 1925, p. 14

[2] ‘The King Sees Himself’, Daily Express, 26 September 1922, p. 7; ‘Royal Family Film’, Daily Mail, 26 September 1922, p.6; ‘Films at Balmoral Castle’, Daily Telegraph, 26 September 1922, p. 12; ‘Royal Ballroom Cinema’, Daily Mirror, 26 September 1922, p. 2

[3] ‘King and Queen at the Cinema Theatre’, Daily Telegraph, 11 November 1924, p. 11; ‘King and Queen See Zeebrugge Film’, Daily Mirror, 11 November 1924, p. 3; ‘The King & Queen Filmed’, Daily Mail, 11 November 1924, p. 7

A Cup of Kindness (1934)

FeaturedA Cup of Kindness (1934)

Following the blog a few weeks ago about British comedy actor Ralph Lynn, today we will look in more detail at one of the Aldwych film comedies, A Cup of Kindness (1934). This film was based on a stage production which was first performed in 1929. The film uses the location of a fictional London suburb to make fun of class aspirations in interwar Britain.

Advert for A Cup of Kindness at the New Gallery Kinema in Regent Street, Daily Sketch, 27 July 1934

A Cup of Kindness is the story of two neighbouring families, the Tutts and the Ramsbottoms. The parents of both families despise one another, but the children, Betty Ramsbottom and Charlie Tutt, are secretly dating and intending to marry. Once they reveal their relationship to their parents, hostilities between the families intensify. Charlie, played by Lynn in his characteristic bumbling way, starts to doubt whether it is such a good idea for him and Betty to marry. After the customary argument between the lovers, they are reconciled at the end of the film, and a truce of sorts develops between both sets of parents.

Although A Cup of Kindness presents itself as a timeless story,[i] both in its opening title and through an odd dream sequence in the second half of the film, where we see the prehistoric Tutt and Ramsbottom ancestors fighting with one another in front of their respective caves, its setting in a suburban development is very specific to the interwar period.

As noted previously on this blog, London’s suburbs expanded rapidly during the interwar period, and along with this stereotypes developed about the aspiring middle classes who lived in the suburbs. A Cup of Kindness, for all its broad comedy, adds further nuance to this stereotype through the subtle signifiers of class difference evident in the Tutts and Ramsbottoms. The modern viewer is required to pay close attention to these signs in order to decode them, but for interwar audiences they were likely much more familiar and easier to interpret.

The film opens with Mr Ramsbottom (Robertson Hare) walking from the train station to his house in the evening. Just before he reaches the family home, he passes the Tutt residence, where Mr Tutt (Tom Walls) is standing outside in the garden. The first signifier of difference is in the men’s dress: Ramsbottom is wearing a regular suit and a bowler hat; Tutt is wearing evening dress. Ramsbottom has clearly come from some sort of clerical job; his dress is the functional uniform of the white-collar worker. Tutt, on the other hand, is dressed for dinner; a custom usually observed by the upper classes. As he is already at home and had time to change, we can infer that he does not need to head the hours of the office worker.

The families’ houses, too, imply difference. The Tutt family home is detached, with a driveway and a portico. The Ramsbottom house on the other hand is semi-detached only, overall smaller in size and with a smaller garden. As the film continues, we find that the Ramsbottoms also have their slightly senile uncle Nicholas living upstairs; and they keep a day-servant as well as a day nurse for Nicholas. The Tutts, on the other hand, have no staff. They have, however, managed to send their son Stanley to Oxford, and are keeping their son Charlie despite him being apparently unable to hold down a job.

The outward signifiers then appear to show that Mr and Mrs Tutt are wealthier and of higher social standing than Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom. There is a line that the latter utters, however, that gives a clue as to what really matters in the social pecking order of suburbia, and it’s not money. During a particularly heated exchange, Mrs Ramsbottom snaps that Mrs Tutt “once was a barmaid.” The implications are clear. Not only are the Tutts not ‘really’ upper class, Mrs Tutt is not even respectably middle class. That one line by Mrs Ramsbottom reveals that in her opinion, its breeding rather than money that determines who comes out on top in the social pecking order.

Yet despite their apparently humble origins, Mr and Mrs Tutt are able to present a wealthy front in the suburban street, by spending their money on just the things that give the impression of riches. This reflects contemporary anxiety about the suburbs, which gave many more people who had previously been unable to enter the housing market, the opportunity to own their own home. This democratisation also facilitated the mixing of people who would previously not have been in each other’s orbit. People moved to the suburbs from all over London and you could end up living next to people were from slightly different socio-economic backgrounds than yourself.

The relationship between Charlie and Betty is an example of this: both sets of parents think that their child can do ‘better’: the Ramsbottoms think Betty should pursue someone more respectable and dependable than Charlie, and the Tutts think Charlie is lowering himself by settling for Betty. Their proximity in the suburban neighbourhood has allowed this pair to get to know one another despite their different family backgrounds. Whereas inner-city areas such as the East End developed an increasingly cohesive common identity between the wars,[ii] the suburbs’ lack of history or character encouraged more prominent attention to the individual or familial identity as opposed to the collective one. A Cup of Kindness demonstrates this tendency towards individual expression through consumer goods and social cues as timeless, when it is in fact specifically rooted in the historical period in which the story was written.

A Cup of Kindness is available on DVD from Network On Air.


[i] Indeed its writer, Ben Travers, referred to it as ‘Romeo and Juliet (…) of the suburbs’; Ben Travers, A-Sitting on a Gate (London: WH Allen, 1972), p. 108

[ii] Benjamin J Lammers, ‘The Birth of the East Ender: Neighborhood and Local Identity in Interwar East London’, Journal of Social History , Winter, 2005, Vol. 39, No. 2, Kith and Kin: Interpersonal Relationships and Cultural Practices (Winter, 2005), pp. 331-344

J. Lyons and Co – Trocadero and Corner Houses

FeaturedJ. Lyons and Co – Trocadero and Corner Houses

A key pleasure for Londoners in the interwar period was going out for tea or a meal. ‘French-style’ restaurants had appeared in London in the final decades of the nineteenth century. Whilst these original restaurants remained popular, the interwar period saw a democratisation of the dining-out experience. A wider range of outlets catered to people of different backgrounds and with different amounts of disposable income. As more and more Londoners, including women, increased their earnings and got more leisure time, they were able to experience (temporary) luxury in one of the many restaurants, cafes, and teashops in the capital. The player that left one of the biggest marks on the hospitality industry in London between the wars was J. Lyons and Co.

Like other restaurants, Lyons started its business in the late nineteenth century: with a teashop in Piccadilly in 1894, and the opening of the Trocadero Restaurant on Shaftesbury Avenue two years later.[i] The teashop turned into a chain of shops in 1909. Three of these teashops were Corner Houses, big, multi-storey hospitality spaces which offered affordable snacks and drinks to a mass audience. The Corner Houses on Coventry Street in Soho and the Strand were opened in 1909 and 1915 respectively, but the third Corner House, on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road, opened in 1928.[ii] This attests to the continuing success and popularity of the Corner Houses throughout the interwar period.

Corner Houses worked on economies of scale: they had hundreds of seats each, employed hundreds of staff, and aimed to get as many covers a day as possible. You can get a sense of the bustle of a Lyons Corner House in Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929). Near the start of the film, the heroine, Alice, and her boyfriend Frank, visit a Corner House after work. As soon as they walk into the building there is a crush of people around them; they struggle to get into the lift. Once they enter the spacious dining room, all the tables are taken. They are hurried along with every step, and only stay at the restaurant for a short while before leaving again. It is no coincidence that Alice has picked this location to meet her lover, ‘The Artist’ – the crowded room provides a perfect cover for a secret rendez-vous, and the Corner House is a democratic space that anyone can enter without difficulty. In real life, the Corner Houses also functioned as meeting spaces for marginalised groups, most notably for queer men.[iii]

Lyons operated a very different policy at the Trocadero restaurant. In some respects the Corner Houses and the Trocadero were very similar; both served hot meals, both catered to huge numbers of customers every day, and both sought to transport their diners to exotic locales through their interior decoration and design choices.[iv] But whereas the Corner Houses were explicitly marketed to a mass audience, the Trocadero restaurant had strict rules about who could enter the space and where they were allowed to go.

An internal “Memo to Superintendents and Reception Clerks” stipulated a number of rules on the handling of “Strange Ladies” – female customers not known to the staff. These rules were clearly intended to prevent prostitutes from entering the space and soliciting; the Trocadero was on the site of what used to be the ‘Argyll Subscription Rooms’, an entertainment venue notorious for the number of prostitutes that frequented it. In its efforts to distance itself from the site’s previous occupiers, the management of the Trocadero were asked to treat all “Strange Ladies” as potential disruptors:

For Luncheons. Strange Ladies to be placed at small tables round the Restaurant, the object being that in case of misbehaviour we can screen the table off.

For Dinners. Strange Ladies either in couples or alone are to be put at the small tables round the Blue Saloon Wall (When Saloon is closed round the Restaurant) the object being that in case of misbehaviour we can screen the table off.

For Suppers. Strange ladies are to be given the small tables in the Restaurant round the Wall, the object being that in case of misbehaviour we can screen the table off.

Grill Rooms. Strange Ladies either alone or in couples are to be placed at small tables round the small room, or (in the event of this being closed or full) at small tables in the Larger Room, the object being that in case of misbehaviour we can screen the table off.[v]

Clearly, the Trocadero restaurant was not intending to be an open and public space for female customers, who were rather expected to visit a Corner House instead. The gendered differences between the Trocadero and Corner Houses also extended to the waiting staff: all waiters at the Trocadero were male, whereas the Corner Houses had exclusively female waitresses, who came to be known as ‘Nippies’.

It was conventional in London that waiting staff in restaurants were male and waiting staff in teashops were female.[vi] Male waiting staff were perceived as similar to the butler or footman in a grand house; by attending a restaurant the (male) customer could experience something akin to what a gentleman in a country estate would experience. In the teashops, on the other hand, the female staff were appreciated for their speed, efficiency, and decorative function.

The Nippy grew into a cultural phenomenon in and of itself, to the point that she became a fictional character that both represented the Lyons brand and a host of positive feminine values. Internal guidance to female waiting staff placed a lot of emphasis on physical presentation: Nippies were required to have their hair “neat and tidy”; “teeth well cared for”; “cap correctly worn” and “no conspicuous use of make-up”.[vii] Lyons deliberately crafted this aspirational persona for its female staff and encouraged them to take pride in their femininity.[viii] In advertising for the brand, Nippy became the ‘Symbol of Public Service’.

Advert on front page of Daily Express, 14 April 1925

J. Lyons & Co. had a huge influence on the interwar London dining-out scene; there are countless references to its restaurants and Corner Shops in memoirs and fictional representations of this period. As this piece has shown, Lyons catered to two very different audiences through its restaurants and tea shops respectively. It is in the interwar period that these venues first reached their mass appeal, and the Nippy became established as a cultural reference point. For women, the choice was between conforming to a symbol of feminine perfection or risking being labelled as a prostitute. The venues lasted well beyond this period: the last Corner House closed in 1977 and the Trocadero remained active as an entertainment venue until 2011.


[i] Judith Walkowitz, Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), p. 197

[ii] Ibid., p. 198

[iii] Matt Houlbrook, ‘The Man with the Powder Puff’ in Interwar London’ The Historical Journal, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Mar., 2007), 145-171 (149)

[iv] Walkowitz, Nights Out, pp. 198-199

[v] London Metropolitan Archives: ACC 3527/186 – Rules and regulations for Trocadero Restaurant staff (indexed)

[vi] Rosalind Eyben, ‘The Moustache Makes Him More of a Man’: Waiters’ Masculinity Struggles, 1890–1910’, History Workshop Journal 87 (2009), 188-210 (197)

[vii] London Metropolitan Archives: ACC/3527/201/A ‘The Perfect Nippy’

[viii] Walkowitz, Nights Out, p. 205

Featured

Ralph Lynn

Ralph Lynn was born in 1882 in Salford and became one of the most popular comic actors in interwar Britain. Together with Tom Walls, Ralph Lynn formed the heart of a comedy ensemble that put on 10 plays and adapted 9 of those into films. The plays were put on in the Aldwych theatre, which Walls co-owned. During the interwar period, the term ‘Aldwych farce’ signified a very specific type of comedy production.

A version of Lynn’s performances in these shows are still available to us through his film work, which in addition to the nine adaptations of stage productions also include another eight films with Walls, not based on an existing stage production. These seventeen films were all made in the period 1930-1937, during which Lynn was also still acting on stage productions. After this enormously productive period Lynn mostly turned his back on film work, although he continued to appear on the London stage until 1958.[1]

The celebrity power that ‘Lynn and Walls’ had during the interwar period is still evident, for example in A Night Like This (1932), where the song that plays over the opening credits repeatedly reminds the audience “It’s Lynn and Walls.” There is also a newsreel of Ralph Lynn crowning the winner of an international beauty contest in 1935. This shows he was well-known enough to be asked to perform such minor public duties; the clip also gives a flavour of his comic talents:

This British Pathé newsreel of 1927, which shows clips from the stage production of Thark at the Aldwych, quickly dispenses with character names and refers to the characters as “Tom and Ralph”. Coincidentally, the clip also demonstrates why the Aldwych crew waited until 1930, when sound film started to become available, before they made their first film: the plays’ reliance on witty dialogue does not translate to silent film.

Modern audiences, then, can best experience Lynn as an actor through the film work he produced in interwar London. His character is invariably the ‘silly ass’, a foppish, hapless man who never tries to get into problems, but always ends up there. Ben Travers, the Aldwych’s regular script writer, remembers Lynn saying of one of his characters “[he] didn’t try to be funny but just walked rationally and naturally into trouble.”[2]

In A Night Like This (1932) for example, Lynn plays the upper-class, dim Clifford Tope, who decides to visit a nightclub in London. On the same evening, undercover police officer Michael Mahoney, played by Tom Walls, is undertaking an observation of the club because he suspects that the (legal) nightclub is a front for an illegal gambling club. Once inside, Tope gets inadvertently caught up in Mahoney’s investigation, primarily by physically getting in his way. In his apparent incompetence and naivete, Tope keeps unintentionally assisting Mahoney. In the end, of course, the men manage to bust the illegal gambling operation that is running upstairs. Mahoney is rewarded with praise from his superior officer; Tope has made an impression on nightclub dancer Cora (Winnifred Shotter).  

The stage production of A Night Like This, which had been put on in 1930, had benefited from a comfortable budget, which shows in the use of the elaborate nightclub setting. It had even been planned to use a real horse on stage.[3] The film version confidently uses the attractive nightclub setting and uses the cinematic medium to its advantage, for example through the insertion of lengthy sequences of Cora’s dance performances (which was a common trope in interwar films set in nightclubs) and in its focus on action over dialogue.

In other films that were adapted from stage plays, the action is more static and much of the enjoyment derives from the quick dialogue. Take for example this clip from Dirty Work (1934) which had been performed at the Aldwych Theatre in 1932:

Here, Jimmy Milligan (played by Lynn, on the right) and Nettle (played by Gordon Harker, on the left) are trying to convince Clement Peck (Robertson Hare) to don a disguise, in order to stage a fake burglary in the jewellery shop in which Milligan and Peck work. This short description adequately captures the absurdity of the plot, which, like many of the Aldwych farces, hinges on deception, disguise, and misunderstanding.

The pleasure of these films is not in their intricate narratives, well-developed characters or their ability to transport audiences to fantasy worlds. Instead, they provide a constant stream of witty gags, mix-ups and farcical situations right up until the happy resolution of the narrative. Ralph Lynn’s talents were strongly geared towards improvised comedy and wordplay, and in the Aldwych farces he had a perfect medium to display his craft. However, the historic and cultural specificity of comedy, as well as its perceived lower cultural value, has meant that the films have been relegated to relative obscurity. Because Lynn did not work in any other genre, he, too, has been largely forgotten; but his comic instinct and timing still work for twenty-first century audiences.

Most of the Aldwych farces are available on DVD via Network On Air.


[1] Morley, S.  (2020, November 12), ‘Lynn, Ralph Clifford (1882–1962), actor’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/37702

[2] Ben Travers, A-Sitting on a Gate (London: WH Allen, 1978), p. 90

[3] Ibid., p. 110

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All-Night Card Clubs

On 8 March 1927 the Daily Express ran a sensational exposé on its front page:

“London’s All Night Card Clubs – Women who play from tea-time to breakfast”

The story ran nearly the full length of the front page. It noted that an advertisement had been appearing in respectable broadsheet The Times, which read:

BEAUCHAMP CLUB
56 Beauchamp Place, S.W. 3 (Sloane 3340)
Mrs Hands has regular games of straight poker daily, at 3 and 9pm. Bridge lessons given

Poker clubs such as this one functioned as private member clubs, where members paid an annual fee to attend. The legislation of private member clubs had been drawn up with the classic Pall Mall club for upper-class men in mind. In the interwar period, however, club legislation and licensing were increasingly exploited by entrepreneurs to facilitate transgressive behaviour. Nightclubs of the period operated under the same legislation; they were nominally private member clubs, which allowed them to evade a level of external scrutiny. However, where the old clubs in ‘Clubland’ often had (and still have) extensive vetting procedures for new members, nightclubs and poker clubs usually allowed anyone to join as long as they paid their annual fee. The poker clubs were perfectly legal, but clearly they were stretching the intentions of club legislation beyond its originally intended purpose.

The Daily Express held the Beauchamp Club up as an example of a supposed sudden influx of private member clubs that catered to poker players. The members of these clubs were alleged to be mainly women, playing into persistent fears of the potential corrupting effect of modern society on women. The article states confidently that: “Women gamblers are patronising these clubs in increasing numbers. They begin in the afternoon, break off for dinner, and then sit down to another long session, which often lasts till dawn.” The question that this may raise in the reader’s mind is – what happens to these women’s families whilst they are spending time at the poker table? At a time when a married woman’s primary role was to support and look after her family, a woman who spends hours at the poker table was presumably neglecting her responsibilities towards her husband and children.

Mrs Hand, the owner of the Beauchamp Club, is quoted as saying “Women will always gamble”; this is presented as a simple fact of life, that all the readers of the article can agree on. Players are described as attending the club after the theatre shows finish, then playing until breakfast, and returning at 3pm for the next round. It is implied that women are particularly susceptible to this addictive behaviour. What is more, Mrs Hand’s earning model banks on it; on top of the club’s annual fee, she charges players for each hour they spend at the table.

The location of the club and the fact that the advert had been placed in The Times – the stalwart of the upper classes – implied that the club members were of a high social standing. The Daily Express was aimed at a lower-middle class audience; this story allowed the Express reader to feel indignation at the wealthy Londoners who were supposedly spending all day gambling their money away. Mrs Hand is quoted as explaining that club members “play for four-shilling rises (…) That means you would have to be most unlucky to lose as much as £10 in a sitting.” Ten pounds was a substantial amount of money for most people; Mrs Hand’s comments only highlight how removed she is from the average person in her understanding of the value of money.

The Express article traces the reason for the sudden increase in poker clubs specifically to a few key court cases of previous years. In 1921 the owner of the Cleveland Club was charged with allowing illegal gambling activity in his club because it contained a poker room. The Express notes that in that instance, “The stakes were low, and play was never continued for more than half an hour after midnight”. Nevertheless, the club owner pleaded guilty and paid a fine.

However, a similar case that was brought to trial not long after was put to a jury, which delivered a verdict of ‘not guilty’ on the basis that poker required a level of skill and was therefore not a form of gambling. According to the Express, the police have since stopped taking action against poker clubs as the jury’s verdict set a precedent. The debate on whether poker is a sport or a form of gambling continues to this day, with both sports and betting companies arguing for their respective positions. A variation of poker called ‘Match Poker’, which removes the random element of which cards a player is dealt. This version of poker is now recognised as a sport, but more commonly played versions such as Texas Hold’em are a mainstay in casinos, and players are required to be at least 18 years old (in the UK) to play.

It is clear where the Express stands on the matter of prosecution, even if the clubs are currently primarily frequented by those who can afford to lose some of their wealth. It argues that complaints keep arising of “women and young men losing much more money than they could afford in poker clubs, and of other evils arising out of this form of gambling.” The article’s final sentence notes that publicly advertising these clubs, as The Times is allowing to do, gives opportunity to professional gamblers to swindle others out of their money.

It is unlikely that many Express readers themselves had been affected by poker clubs, but it was a pretty safe topic to gain their audience’s approval, as it put people of a different social class in the firing line. The article did not spark a bigger inquiry into poker clubs and the Express did not pursue the story. For the paper, private poker clubs were a way to generate indignation towards women, the upper classes, The Times, and the government and police who were not taking any action against these clubs.

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The Squeaker (1937)

Today’s post is going to discuss another Edgar Wallace adaptation, as so many of his works were turned into films in interwar Britain. The Squeaker, also known as Murder on Diamond Row in the US, was made in 1937. The novel on which it is based was published ten years’ prior, in 1927. Wallace himself died in 1932 so although he is credited as a co-writer on the film, he had no active involvement in its production.

The Squeaker is directed by William K Howard, and American who came to Britain in 1937 to work for the – then already famous – producer Alexander Korda. The Squeaker was their first collaboration. The American link may be the reason why this film got more exposure in the US than most British interwar products; according to the film’s IMDb page, The Squeaker got broadcast on a number of regional US TV stations in a six-month period in 1948-1949, as part of a syndicated broadcast package.

The story of The Squeaker has all the elements of a British interwar crime story. There are criminals, police officers, journalists, and nightclub performers. Larry Graeme is a small-time jewellery thief. He sells his stolen goods on to a mysterious man known as ‘the Squeaker’. The Squeaker extorts his criminal suppliers; he offers a bad price for their goods but if they refuse him, he betrays them to the police. Larry is in love with the beautiful nightclub performer Tamara. Scotland Yard are after the Squeaker and the hard-drinking, gruff Inspector Barrabal goes undercover to investigate. Barrabal is friends with the journalist Joshua Collie, a crime reporter.

When Larry steals some valuable pearls and refuses to sell them on to the Squeaker, the latter makes sure Larry gets arrested. Larry escapes; the film’s climax takes place at a society party thrown by the affable businessman Sutton. Larry dies at the party; Barrabal gets accused of being the murderer. He however has realised that Sutton is the Squeaker and Larry’s killer, and the film ends in Sutton’s arrest and confession.

Contemporary reviewers have found the original novel uneven, hard to follow and poorly paced. Nevertheless, there have been no fewer than four film adaptations of the story. The first was made in Britain in 1930 and directed by Wallace himself. This version appears to stay close to the source material. A German film was made in the following year; and the Germans had another stab at it in 1963. (The popularity of Edgar Wallace adaptations in Germany is perhaps material for another post.)

The 1937 adaptation under consideration here is the only one who makes changes to the original novel. The biggest change is the addition of Tamara the nightclub dancer, whose character does not appear in either the source material or any of the other adaptations. In the film, Tamara’s nightclub performances are shown several times and at length. The inclusion of female nightclub dancers in films was a common trope in interwar British films, and they gave audiences an opportunity to enjoy the spectacle of the female body.

By introducing a nightclub dancer as a character, The Squeaker also opens up the nightclub space as one of the main sites of action in the film. The fictional club in the film is called the ‘Leopard Club’, and it is presented as a popular and high-end entertainment venue. However, the club is also the space where Larry can meet with Tamara. The film does not show the criminal Larry as being able to navigate any other public space, but in the nightclub he blends in with ease. In fact, the doormen of the club are shown to know Larry and greet him warmly when he arrives. The implication is clear: although the nightclub can be a fun space of entertainment and spectacle, it is also assumed to be a space on the margins of acceptable society, where criminals mix with non-criminal people.

Inspector Barrabal also moves in and out of the nightclub throughout the film, and easily builds rapport with Tamara. He is present at the club at the same time as Larry but makes no moves to arrest him; the nightclub’s status as a space almost outside of conventional frameworks, where everyone can mingle, is further underscored. The film later reveals that the inspector and the criminal know one another pretty well; they are sufficiently close that Barrabal can visit Larry in his apartment. The detective inspector is shown as someone who has to be able to build relationships of trust with anyone, and who plays the ‘long game’ in order to uncover a criminal plot.

Barrabal’s relationship with the journalist Joshua Collie does not quite have the same power dynamic as real-life 1930s journalists would liked audiences to have believed. Whereas real-life reporters liked to present themselves as indispensable to the police, because they could give them tips on live investigations, in The Squeaker the flow of information goes in the other direction.

Collie is unlike most cinematic journalists: rather than the stereotypical hard-nosed, ambitious hack, he is a fairly lazy man who rates his domestic comforts more highly than any professional success. In the film, Collie nearly gets fired by his editor because he is not chasing the Squeaker story as hard as reporters at other newspapers. However, Barrabal feeds him inside information from the investigation which allows Collie to impress his editor and save his job.

The purpose of Collie to Barrabal is not made very clear, yet Collie remains part of the action and is present at the film’s climax when Larry gets killed. There is a sense that by 1937, the crime reporter was considered such a staple part of the detective story that Collie’s character exists almost by default. He is there to complete the set of expected elements in the crime story; but his character is much less heroic or instrumental to the resolution of criminal cases than 1930s journalists liked to imagine themselves.

The 1937 film of The Squeaker does not feel uneven or poorly paced like readers have found the original novel. It is, however, difficult to find anything particularly objectionable in The Squeaker, but equally there are no original elements that make the film memorable.  There is a sense that by the late 1930s, British crime films were becoming so formulaic that filmmakers did not even question whether all the characters and elements were strictly necessary to the plot.

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Autobiography of an interwar journalist

JC (John Clucas) Cannell was a man of two, seemingly completely separate, careers. He was a Fleet Street journalist, but also a magician. In that latter capacity he became vice-president of The Magician’s Club. After his fellow (and more illustrious) Club member Harry Houdini died in 1926, Cannell wrote the book-length The Secrets of Houdini (1931)[1] which painstakingly explains exactly how each of Houdini’s famous tricks worked. In 1935 Cannell collaborated with Quaker Oats to distribute to Quaker customers copies of The Master Book of Magic[2]; again a book which explained how magic tricks worked.

Sources that relate to Cannell’s work as a magician are silent about his other career as a Fleet Street journalist. Yet the books Cannell wrote about magic show his reporting appetite. He was driven to lift the curtain on how magic worked; a stance that his fellow magicians did not necessarily appreciate. Cannell’s instinct to reveal the ‘truth’ to his readers would have served him well as a tabloid journalist in interwar London.

Aside from his books on magic, JC Cannell also wrote an autobiographical account of his work as a reporter: When Fleet Street Calls.[3] This book, which unfortunately has not been reprinted since its first issue, not only gives insight to journalism practices of the period but also to how journalists wanted to present themselves. In the 1930s British tabloid newspapers were in stiff competition with one another, and all tried to increase their circulation.

This decade also saw the launch of the first university-level course on journalism, at King’s College London.[4] There was ongoing public debate about the training and education of journalists. Traditionally most journalists had no formal qualifications but learnt on the job, usually starting out as teenagers on local and provincial papers before making the move to Fleet Street in their 20s. This group of journalists commonly stated that university graduates did not have enough ‘real-life experience’ to be good journalists. The counterargument was that journalists had a duty to explain increasingly complex political, technological and scientific news to their readers; and that without a formal education journalists would not be able to understand the topics they were reporting on.

Cannell’s autobiography is published in the midst of these discussions. In it, he builds a very specific picture of the job and the type of person suited to it. It is an early example of the mythologising of the journalist, that has been expanded on by many subsequent books and films.

For example, Cannell states authoritatively:

“In no profession are contrasts so swift and strange, or is life more full of the unexpected than in that of Fleet Street journalism.”[5]

And

“Because Fleet Street journalism is so unlike every other profession or occupation, the people who follow it are totally different from, may I say, the normal folk.”[6]

His argument is clear: journalism is a very varied job, and not everyone is cut out for it. The role’s fast pace requires stamina and wits. Cannell also implies that whether someone is ‘cut out’ to be a journalist is innate; you either are the right type of person or you are not. A university degree in the subject would not make any difference if you are part of the ‘normal folk’ who are not able to grapple with the challenges of the job.

A bit later on, Cannell addresses the arguments about journalists’ supposed lack of formal education, more head-on:

“There is at least as much culture and accomplishment per head in journalism as in any other of the professions, and the journalist has an additional advantage of more worldly knowledge and shrewdness than the others, apart from, I think I may say, the law.”[7]

The foregrounding here of ‘worldly knowledge and shrewdness’ again plays against the popular stereotype of the educated man as ‘bookish’; it evokes notions of journalists being scrappy and surviving on their wits.

The final part of the above quote concedes some respect only to those enforcing law and order, the most visible exponents of which were police. Cannell considers journalists and police officers as partners, with both groups contributing complimentary skills that allow criminals to be arrested. He describes reporting on a murder story, and going to visit the suspect’s family. Whilst Cannell is in their neighbourhood, he actually spots the main suspect:

“I was bound to inform the police that I had seen the wanted man. (…) The police are well aware that they cannot ignore the Press in their fight against crime, and I know of many cases in which detectives of national repute have asked the opinion of journalists covering a big murder story.”[8]

It is clear that in Cannell’s view journalists, like everyone else, had a duty to respect the rule of law. However, he also makes it clear that in his opinion, the police would not get very far without assistance from journalists. Although it is no doubt true that journalists occasionally provided the police with tips and information, the same happened in the other direction. The police were able to use the press to their advantage when they needed information, such as the description of a suspect, to be distributed quickly. The relationship between police and journalists was more symbiotic than Cannell wants to make it appear. He prefers a more macho representation in which even the police are dependent on the tough journalist to give them clues.

It unfortunately goes almost without saying that Cannell’s ideal, imagined journalist is indisputably male. Although women had worked in British journalism since the Victorian times, and their numbers increased steadily in the run-up to the Second World War, Cannell does not acknowledge their existence at all. Cannell’s description of his job implies that it is unsuitable for women; for example, he boasts that when King George V was seriously ill in 1928, Cannell spent eight nights outside Buckingham Palace, waiting for news.[9] He also describes that journalists can receive a call from their editor any time of the day or night that requires them to stop what they are doing and pursue a story.[10] These working conditions were simply not safe or feasible for women, particularly if they had caring responsibilities.

JC Cannell’s autobiography not only gives insight to the working conditions of tabloid journalists in the interwar period; it also shows how journalists of that period wanted to present the profession. He describes journalism as a challenging job, one that only those with natural aptitude are able to succeed at. Cannell also presents journalism as an essential part of the law enforcement apparatus, to give the profession more legitimacy. When Fleet Street Calls purports to reveal to the reader the inner workings of tabloid journalism, in the same way that Cannell’s magic books revealed the workings of magic tricks. However, in reality the journalism book rather reveals to the reader contemporary attempts to shape the image of journalism in the public imagination.


[1] JC Cannell, The Secrets of Houdini (London: Hutchinson & Son, 1931). The book was re-issued in 1973 by Dover Publications in New York – that version is still readily available for purchase.

[2] JC Cannell, The Master Book of Magic (London: Quaker Oats Ltd, 1935). Second-hand copies of this book are also available online.

[3] JC Cannell, When Fleet Street Calls: being the experiences of a London journalist (London: Jarrolds ltd, 1932)

[4] Political and Economic Planning. Report on the British Press: a survey of its current operations and problems with special reference to national newspapers and their part in public affairs (London: PEP, 1938), p. 14

[5] Cannell, When Fleet Street Calls, p. 92

[6] Ibid., p. 200

[7] Ibid., p. 201

[8] Ibid., p. 177

[9] Ibid., p. 140

[10] Ibid., p. 100

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Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930-1940)

[Note: The intention was to discuss in this post an interwar novel that has not been republished since its initial release. However, the continued closure of the British Library has prevented me from accessing this source for the time being.]

E.M. Delafield wrote four instalments of the Diary of a Provincial Lady, which were published in book-form in 1930; 1932; 1934 and 1940. The book started out as a weekly serial in Time and Tide magazine. As the title suggests, the books are fictionalised diary entries by an unnamed, upper-class woman who lives in Devon with her husband Robert and children Robin and Vicky. The books get a lot of their comic mileage out of the Provincial Lady’s attempts to keep her family afloat and keep up appearances whilst feeling decidedly out of her depth.

The characters are loosely based on Delafield and her own family, and the Provincial Lady becomes a writer like Delafield. In the first instalment the Provincial Lady writes a book which is well received, and which leads the character to become increasingly invested in her writing career.

Whilst a large part of the books is set in rural Devonshire, at choice moments the Provincial Lady visits London. This increasingly happens in the second instalment, The Provincial Lady Goes Further, when the protagonist rents a small flat in London as a base for her to focus on her writing. Throughout the books, London is presented in a very specific manner. It is not ever negative; there is no sense of the ‘country’ being superior over the city. Rather, London offers the Provincial Lady different opportunities and activities that broaden her horizons.

From the start, the Provincial Lady’s London life is largely coordinated by her friend Rose (or ‘dear Rose’ as she’s often referred to) whom the Provincial Lady knows from her ‘Hampstead days’, which were evidentially before her marriage to Robert. Rose remains unmarried and lives in a flat in London when not travelling abroad. From the outset, the Provincial Lady’s trips to stay with Rose in London are marked by recurring activities: shopping; attending beauty salons; visiting the theatre; and attending ‘Literary Parties’.

Early on in the first novel, Rose takes the Provincial Lady to a ‘Literary Club dinner’:

‘Am much struck by various young men who have defiantly put on flannel shirts and no ties, and brushed their hair up on end. They are mostly accompanied by red-headed young women who wear printed crêpe frocks and beads.’[1]

This passage immediately encapsulates both the appeal of London to the Provincial Lady, where she can mix with a wider range of people than in Devon; and the distance between her own life and that of the ‘literary crowds’ in London. The gentle mocking of London’s literary society continues throughout the novels even when the Provincial Lady herself becomes a successful author; her continued base in Devon ensures that she never feels fully part of the ‘smart set’. Indeed this is made explicit in The Provincial Lady Goes Further, when she attends another literary party where a friend gives her the details on other attendees:

‘Emma gives me rapid outline of many rather lurid careers, leading me to conclusion that literary ability and domestic success not usually compatible. (Query: Will this invalidate my chances?’[2]

The diaries are self-aware about the stereotypes that existed about both London and writers. Delafield on the one hand gives credence to the belief that writers must be based in London, by giving her character a Bloomsbury flat to write from. On the other hand, she challenges the notion that writers must be eccentric or have unconventional personal lives in order to be successful. Indeed, later on in The Provincial Lady Goes Further she finds that the constant stream of Literary Parties is keeping her from doing any writing at all. Because the Provincial Lady is always able – indeed, required – to return to Devon to deal with domestic concerns, she never gets sucked into the fast and bright life in London. Literary circles are shown to be fun but also shallow and self-centred.

Not everything about London is presented as trivial, however; the capital also allows the Provincial Lady to engage with culture in a way not available to her in Devon. Rose frequently takes her to theatre shows, although these also become an opportunity to show off one’s sophistication:

‘We go to see Charles Laughton in Payment Deferred, and am confirmed in previous opinion that he is the most intelligent actor I have ever seen in my life. Rose says, On the English stage, in cosmopolitan manner, and I say ‘Yes, yes’, very thoughtfully’[3]

London is also a place where the Provincial Lady can nurture a part of herself that gets neglected in Devon. Almost every time the Provincial Lady visits the capital, she makes sure to go to a hairdresser or beauty parlour, and to buy some new clothes. These visits are accompanied by apprehension and guilt at the expense, but ultimately they increase the Provincial Lady’s confidence. After a ‘very, very painful’ time at a beauty parlour:

‘Eventually emerge more or less unrecognisable, and greatly improved.’[4]

Similarly, after a visit to the hairdresser’s:

‘Undergo permanent wave, with customary interludes of feeling that nothing on earth can be worth it, and eventual conviction that it was. (…) am told that I look fifteen years younger – which leaves me wondering what on earth I could have looked like before, and how long I have been looking it.’[5]

In London, the Provincial Lady can spend time and money on her appearance, without being stopped by the thought that this is frivolous or a waste of money. When she’s in Devon, she is scrupulously careful with money and puts household and family expenses before her own. In London, she reclaims some of her own identity separate from her roles as wife and mother. This culminates in her taking out the rent on a flat in Doughy Street, Bloomsbury, under the encouragement of Rose.

This becomes her ‘room of ones own’ where she can write; although in true Provincial Lady fashion the diaries make more of the domestic and social concerns that the flat commits her to, than the writing she is able to produce in it. Yet throughout the series the Provincial Lady gains increasing literary success, quietly and committedly working away at something that gives her more space and time for herself.

By the end of the third book, there is not so much difference between her life and that of ‘dear Rose’, who she initially held in such awe and admiration. They can both hold their own at Literary Parties, they both travel and have acquaintances all over the world. London has given the Provincial Lady the opportunities to build this life for herself; the city allows her to assert her own identity as an individual and to meet a much wider range of people than she sees in Devon. For the Provincial Lady, it is not a matter of town versus country, but rather of balancing both.


[1] E.M. Delafield, Diary of a Provincial Lady (London: Penguin, 2013), p. 27

[2] Ibid., p. 186

[3] Ibid, pp. 138-139

[4] Ibid., p. 51

[5] Ibid. p. 140

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Miles Mander

Miles Mander was a film actor and director in interwar Britain, whose legacy was somewhat forgotten until the BFI restored his directorial debut feature The First Born (1928) in 2011. Anyone who has seen Mander on screen is unlikely to forget it; his features – which have earned him the description of a ‘character actor’ on his Wikipedia page – are not those of the square-jawed, chiselled romantic hero. Instead there is usually a hint of untrustworthiness to his performances, a slyness that gives the viewer pause. Directors used this ambiguity when casting Mander in roles as the emotionally manipulative antagonist.

Mander was born in Wolverhampton in 1888 to a prominent local family. His brother Geoffrey became a Liberal MP for Wolverhampton in 1929. As an MP, Geoffrey played a prominent role in film censorship debates in the 1930s, passionately arguing against the implementation of a strict, state-run censorship body on the premise that that would unduly infringe on the right to freedom of expression.[1] The potential conflict of interest of an MP influencing legislation that would directly impact his brother’s career appears not to have been a concern.

Miles Mander attended the prestigious public school in Harrow in line with the family tradition, but in his twenties he decided to take a different path. He spent some time in New Zealand as a sheep farmer and learnt how to fly planes – during the Great War he served in the Air Auxiliary Corps.[2] He was first married to the daughter of a Maharaja; in 1923 he married a second time to an Australian woman, Kathleen French. In 1925 she starred alongside him in an Adrian Brunel-directed comedy short where she was billed as ‘Mrs Miles Mander’ – but this appears to have been the extent of her acting career. Kathleen and Miles had a son, Theodore, who starred as the son of Mander’s character in The First Born.

Mander started his acting career in the 1920s, and he was able to use his colourful life experience up until that point in his work. As noted above, early on in his career he collaborated with fellow old Harrovian, director Adrian Brunel – Mander produced Brunel’s first feature film The Man Without Desire (1923). In 1925, Mander was cast in a lead role in Alfred Hitchcock’s first feature, The Pleasure Garden.

In this role, Mander could draw on the experiences he had in his twenties, living abroad. His character, Levet, becomes romantically involved with a British woman, Patsy, in London and convinces her to marry him. Shortly after the marriage, Levet has to move to Africa for work. After a while, Patsy hears that Levet has been very ill, so she decides to travel to Africa to look after him. When she arrives, however, she finds out that Levet has entered into a relationship with a local woman, who was unaware that he was married. The local woman (who is only known as ‘Native Girl’ and who does not appear on the film’s credits) becomes understandably upset with Levet; the argument culminates with Levet drowning the woman in the sea. Levet becomes wrecked with guilt and paranoia and becomes convinced that he must murder Patsy, too, in order to find peace. Before he can follow through with it, he himself is shot dead. Levet’s overall part in The Pleasure Garden is actually relatively minor; the scenes in Africa all take place in the final five minutes of the film. For most of the film’s running time Mander is not on screen, but this early role sets the tone of his later parts.

After The Pleasure Garden Mander took on some more acting roles, playing the part of upper-class British gentlemen. He also spent some time in Germany where he acted in about half a dozen films in 1927 and 1928. In 1928 however, he tried his hand at directing himself, for the first time. The result was The First Born, in which Mander also played the protagonist, Sir Hugo Boycott. The world of The First Born is one which Mander was familiar with through his family’s background: Sir Hugo is an aspiring MP and the film’s climax takes place on election night.

The First Born is a melodrama: Sir Hugo is married to Madeleine, but the couple are unable to conceive a son and heir. Madeleine becomes increasingly desperate and considers having an affair with a friend in order to get pregnant, and pass the baby off as Hugo’s. Eventually Madeleine has a son; the audience is kept in the dark as to his parentage. Hugo, in the meantime, is having an extramarital affair. On election night, Hugo and his mistress have an argument in the corridor of her apartment building; in the midst of it, Hugo stumbles and falls to his death down the lift shaft. In an ironic twist, is revealed to the audience that Madeleine’s son was Hugo’s, after all.

In The First Born Mander cast himself in the role of an unpleasant, privileged man; the audience’s sympathies are squarely with Madeleine. Mander apparently had no desire to present himself as the romantic hero, instead opting for a role with complexity. After The First Born Mander directed another five features, but he never cast himself in them again. He did continue to act in others’ films, for example playing an older, wealthy man who attempts to break up a young romance in Bitter Sweet (1933); taking the part of the sly private secretary Wriothesley in Korda’s Private Life of Henry VIII (1933); playing the rival race driver to the hero in Death Drives Through (1935); and portraying King Louie XIII in The Three Musketeers (1935).

Mander directed his last feature, The Flying Doctor, in 1936, after which he made the move to Hollywood. In his first American film, Lloyds of London, he acted alongside Madeleine Carroll, who he had given her big break in The First Born (and also cast in his third feature, Fascination). He continued to find opportunity to play British roles in American films, such as playing Benjamin Disraeli in Suez (1938) and acting alongside Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier in a US production of Wuthering Heights (1939). The Three Musketeers story also continued to give him employment; he appeared as Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers (1939) and as Aramis in The Man in the Iron Mask later that same year. Mander continued to act in films until his unexpected death in 1946.

On the one hand, Miles Mander’s career is unusual; particularly in his early career he had a wide range of interests and seemed reluctant to follow a set career path. On the other hand, his family background and education ensured he had access to great connections; aside from Adrian Brunel and Alfred Hitchcock, he also worked closely with Leslie Howard, A.A. Milne, Ivor Novello, and other familiar names. Ultimately, Mander’s career shows that even in an industry as new and dynamic as the film industry in the 1920s, coming from an established family background did have its advantages.


[1] Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (London: IB Tauris, 2010), pp. 92-96

[2]The First Born (1928) dir. Miles Mander: Rediscovery of a stunning late 1920s melodrama’, British Film Institute. Accessed 20 February 2021.

Grace Blackaller

FeaturedGrace Blackaller

Grace Blackaller was born in 1909 and murdered on 9 April 1925. She was a sixteen-year-old amateur dancer who loved going to the cinema. Her murderer was her boyfriend, Ernest Rhodes, aged nineteen. Grace’s murder provided tabloid fodder for about two weeks in April 1925 and has since been completely forgotten.[1] The murder of women by their partners sadly remains so commonplace that it is still treated as ‘normal’. In Grace’s case, newspapers were also quick to suggest her own behaviour was somehow at fault.

The newspaper reports immediately after the murder, which are reasonably sympathetic to Grace, hint at a family set-up that is not straightforward. Grace lived in a lodging in Nevern Square, a few minutes from Earls’ Court tube station; according to her landlady she had lived there for four years so since they age of 12.[2] Her mother, however, lived on Challoner Street, which is on the other side of Warwick Road near West Kensington tube. Both locations are about a 15- minute walk apart.

It was on the corner of Challoner Street that Grace was attacked on that Thursday evening. She managed to get to her mother’s doorstep where ‘Her mother found her on the doorstep of her flat with a wound in her throat. Miss Blackaller could only mumble “a man attacked me” and died in hospital without revealing the secret of her murderer’s identity or any detail of the attack.”[3]

The mystery of the attack was sufficient for a number of tabloids to give the story front-page news, and to include a picture of Grace with the reports as well. Grace’s landlady told the Daily Mirror that Grace was working as a dressmaker and a dance teacher, and although ‘she went out a great deal at night to dances and things’ this was ‘like most girls these days’ and Grace had ‘never seen (…) with a boy.’[4] The Express printed a similar line, that ‘Miss Blackaller was not known to be on friendly terms with any particular man.’[5] In these initial reports, when it is assumed that the attack was conducted by a random stranger, Grace’s behaviour is represented as normal for the period and no moral judgements are made about her.

Grace Blackaller,
Daily Mirror, 11 April 1925, front page

The newspapers only changed their tune about Grace when the story developed further, and a murderer came forward. Press reports no longer presented Grace as a wholesome girl who had fallen victim to a random attack when it became apparent that Grace had been killed by her boyfriend, Ernest. Ernest turned himself in to the police on 11 April, when he read in the newspaper that Grace had died – he claimed that he had thought he only injured her.[6]

According to his account, on the 9th of April the couple went to the Blue Hall Cinema in Ravenscourt Park. They got back to West Kensington at about 11pm, and Ernest walked Grace home. Ernest thought his girlfriend had been stringing him along, and he suspected her of seeing other boys. When she did not take his concerns seriously, he took a razor from his pocket and slashed her throat while they were kissing.

This revelation changed the press’s coverage of the case. Sympathy for the ‘pretty young dancer who was fond of gaiety’ gave way to concerns about young girls’ ‘double lives.’[7]  At the final day of the inquest, the coroner read out a letter he had received from a concerned citizen. According to the coroner, the letter expressed ‘common-sense views,’ including the notion that girl murder victims ‘were forward minxes and made advances to young men, stayed out late at night, frequented cinemas and dance places, and had evidently been allowed to run loose.’[8] Suddenly, the previous reports that Grace’s interests in dancing and cinema were normal for girls her age, were inverted to suggest that the fact that these habits were normal was an indication of a moral and social problem.

The text of the letter was uncritically reprinted in several daily newspapers. The Director of the Liverpool Women’s Patrol stated publicly that she agreed with the letter-writer’s assessment of young girls’ lives.[9] The coroner’s decision to read out this letter during the inquest demonstrates that it was accepted that he would have an opinion on the moral aspects of the case as well as on forensic facts.

The opinion of a single member of the public was presented by the coroner as the belief of the general public, and its subsequent endorsement by the conservative press cemented it as the commonly held view. According to a contemporary journalism trade journal, voicing concerns about the modern girl sold newspapers in the interwar period the way a sensational murder sold them before the First World War. [10] In the reporting on Grace Blakaller, the popular press had managed to combine both ingredients into a successful multi-part story which reaffirmed that it was safer for a woman to stay at home and not have romantic relationships.

To further demonstrate how deeply the narrative that Grace was at fault for her own plight was embedded, these were Ernest Rhodes’ lawyer’s comments when Rhodes was committed for trial: ‘without eliminating the question of provocation, (…) my defence will be – and I shall call on the highest medical evidence to support it – that he [Rhodes] did not know the nature and quality of the act or that, if he did know, he did not know he was doing wrong.’[11]

In other words, the first line of defence was that Grace provoked Ernest, which, it was implied, would diminish his culpability. The second line was that Rhodes did not know that running a razor across someone’s throat could lead to that person dying; and the third line was that Rhodes did not realise that committing an act of violence was wrong. It was this final argument that would be successful; Rhodes was committed to an asylum rather than prison and was released for good behaviour in 1933.

Again, the press reporting partially paved the way for this, as Rhodes was described as ‘a boy with rather a lot of peculiarities’ who was ‘constantly talking about Norman Thorne’ – a young man who had killed his girlfriend in December 1924 and who was awaiting his execution in April 1925.[12] Obsession with a killer was presented as a sign of insanity which, in combination with the narrative that had been constructed around Grace’s ‘provocative’ lifestyle, allowed Rhodes’ legal counsel to mount a successful defence. The daily press was instrumental in influencing the public’s opinion about this case which limited public sympathy for Grace and painted her as culpable for her own murder.


[1] Except by amateur historians and true crime enthusiasts who have pored over the story on internet fora

[2] ‘Murdered Girl: Woman’s Story’, Daily Mirror, 11 April 1925, p. 15

[3] ‘Dance Girl Murdered in London’, Daily Express, 11 April 1925, p. 1

[4] ‘Murdered Girl: Woman’s Story’

[5] ‘Girl Murdered in London’, Daily Express, 11 April 1925, p. 7

[6] ‘Dead Girl Dancer: Story of Youth’s Written Confession’, Daily Mirror, 14 April 1925, p. 2

[7] ‘Murdered Girl: Woman’s Story’; ‘Double-Life Girls’, Daily Express, 23 April 1925, p. 2

[8] ‘Dancing Girl’s Death’, The Times, 23 April 1925, p. 14; ‘Dead Dancer: Boy For Trial’, Daily Mirror, 23 April 1925, p. 21; ‘Double-Life Girls’.

[9] ‘Girls’ Double Lives’, Daily Mirror, 24 April 1925, p. 2

[10] Newspaper World, April 1927, as quoted in Adrian Bingham, Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press in Inter-War Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 48

[11] ‘Dance Girl Drama’, Daily Mirror, 29 April 1925, p. 2

[12] Ibid.

The Dark Eyes Of London (1939)

FeaturedThe Dark Eyes Of London (1939)

One of the more popular genres of literature in interwar London was crime fiction, and one writer became synonymous with London crime stories of this period: Edgar Wallace. Wallace was a born and bred Londoner who worked as a journalist before becoming a full-time fiction writer. At the end of his life he moved to Hollywood to write for the talking pictures. Wallace wrote over 175 books, a number of which were adapted for the screen.[i]

The consumption of written fiction experienced a boom in interwar Britain due to a convergence of several factors. Levels of literacy increased as a consequence of the 1918 Education Act which raised the school leaving age to 14. Penguin books costing sixpence each were first printed in 1935. Improved working conditions and legislation generally led to people having more leisure time in which to read; and reading became a common activity on the daily commute.

Wallace published the novel The Dark Eyes of London in 1924. In the story, Inspector Holt of Scotland Yard is approached by a young lady, Diana. Diana suspects that her wealthy father has been murdered for his life insurance money, on the orders of a criminal who pretends to run a charity home for the blind. The story was turned into a film in 1939, under the direction of the experienced Walter Summers. Although Wallace is credited as a co-writer, he passed away in 1932, so  had no active involvement in the film’s production

The film version of The Dark Eyes of London is notably heavier on the horror elements than the original story. The murders of the old men are undertaken by one of the criminal’s henchmen, Jake, who is ‘disfigured’ and appears as a semi-Frankenstein’s Monster. The film was released in the US under the title The Human Monster, to further underscore the body-horror elements. In the UK it was awarded a rare ‘H’ certificate by the BBFC which restricted its audience to those aged 16 and above. Most notably, the criminal mastermind is played by legendary horror actor Bela Lugosi, in a rare appearance in a British feature.

The Dark Eyes of London was shot at Welwyn Studios, a small studio in the new Garden City which was explicitly designated for the production of thrillers and second features (ie features shown as part of a cinema programme but not expected to be the main attraction).[ii] Walter Summers was no stranger to bringing the horror atmosphere to film.[iii] In short, The Dark Eyes of London had all the ingredients to become a British exponent of the pulp horror genre; and the finished product leans into this heavily.

Its genre tropes serve to obscure the underlying xenophobia and ableism on which the film’s story is reliant. Lugosi’s character is called Dr Orloff; a name clearly intended to signal an unspecified Eastern European descent. In Wallace’s original story the equivalent character is called John Dearborn. Like many British interwar films, the criminal element is marked as foreign, reflecting increased anti-foreign sentiments that circulated in the run-up to the Second World War. The threat Orloff brings to the British nation is signalled right from the film’s opening, when his eyes are superimposed over a shot of Tower Bridge. At the end of the film the foreign threat is neutralised and the union of the British couple, Inspector Holt and Diana, is celebrated.

The opening of The Dark Eyes of London

The treatment of disability in The Dark Eyes of London is even more explicitly problematic. Two types of disability are shown in the film: Jake, Dr Orloff’s henchman, has unspecified ‘deformity’; and Dr Orloff himself pretends to be blind. Jake’s appearance is intended to horrify the audience, with fake teeth, rolled-back eyes and a hunchback. He is also mute and his level of intelligence is left unspecified. He is possibly the ‘Human Monster’ to which the US title of the film refers – he certainly features prominently on the film’s poster.[iv] Jake is the one who commits the murders on Orloff’s direction; he is presented as having no free will and no understanding of right or wrong. At the film’s climax Jake turns on his master and kills Orloff before conveniently dying himself.

Introduction of Jake in The Dark Eyes of London

There are clear echoes of Frankenstein and his Monster here, but without the nuanced consideration of free will and agency of that novel, The Dark Eyes of London simply reduces Jake to a spectacle. His appearance bears no relation to real-life disability. The other characters variously treat Jake like a servant, animal, or child, reinforcing a narrative that those with a physical appearance that deviates from the norm do not need to be treated like equals.

The depiction of blindness in The Dark Eyes of London is markedly different. Orloff pretends to be blind to escape suspicion from the police, as blind people are assumed to be severely limited in their mobility and therefore unable to conduct criminal activity. The film’s plot heavily leans on the use of braille as a way of transferring covert and criminal messages. This is presumably the reason why Wallace chose for his criminal mastermind to be running a home for the blind. The blind are depicted as being separate from the rest of society, in their own community that cannot be penetrated and that may be devious. Although Orloff’s pretend-blindness is condemned because he uses it to evade criminal investigation, it is not treated as morally objectionable.  

Had it not been for Lugosi, who continues to have a dedicated fanbase, The Dark Eyes of London would likely have been forgotten. It uses horror genre tropes which allows the audience to put it in the same bracket as other B horror films from both sides of the Atlantic. However, these generic conventions hide underlying assumptions about which kind of people are the heroes (white, British, able-bodied) and which kind are villains (foreign, disabled). Some of these generic elements were specifically introduced in the film adaptation of the story, reflecting both the increasingly anti-foreign sentiments in the late-1930s and problematic visual cues used in cinema of the period, more generally.

The Dark Eyes of London is available in full on YouTube.


[i] According to Jeffrey Richards, 33 of Wallace’s books were turned into films in the 1930s alone. Jeffrey Richards, Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (London: IB Tauris, 2010), p. 254

[ii] Steve Chibnall, Quota Quickies; The Birth of the British ‘B’ Film (London: BFI, 2007), pp. 26-27

[iii] Ibid., p. 100.

[iv] Bela Lugosi is not pictured on the US poster at all despite having top billing.

Featured

Pygmalion

George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion technically originated prior to the Great War, but it continued to appear on the West End throughout the interwar period. Indeed, its impact has lasted throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Shaw’s play continues to be regularly performed in London. The various film adaptations have made the story familiar to generations: the 1964 version My Fair Lady with Audrey Hepburn is probably the best-known, but more recent films such as She’s All That (1999) and The Duff (2015) have used the same source material to transplant the story into a modern setting.

The story of Pygmalion, in turn, is based on the Greek myth about a sculptor of the same name, who makes a sculpture of a woman so beautiful that he falls in love with it. Aphrodite, goddess of love, is moved by Pygmalion’s devotion and decides to turn the statue into a real woman, so they can live happily ever after.

Shaw’s play dispenses with the mythical elements. In his story, Professor Higgins who has an interest in phonetics, meets the cockney flower girl Eliza. Higgins places a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering, that he (Higgins) can change Eliza’s speech so thoroughly that he will be able to introduce her into high society as a duchess. Higgins and Eliza embark on a rigorous training regime, during the course of which affection develops between them. The original play does not end with Higgins and Eliza in a romantic relationship – however, subsequent productions and film adaptations have made changes to increase the story’s appeal.

Pygmalion shows the international nature of British cultural life in this period. Shaw himself was Irish; although Ireland was still part of Britain when the play debuted, he was removed from the core of the Empire. Pygmalion’s first production was in Vienna in 1912; it was also performed in the US before it reached the West End. Consequently, there was a lot of ‘buzz’ around the play when it arrived in His Majesty’s Theatre in 1914. Newspapers covered the first performance extensively with text and pictures, as the play had already built up a reputation. Of particular interest to the tabloids was the line ‘Not bloody likely’ which is uttered by Eliza during the play. That a female actor would say the word ‘bloody’ on stage was considered extremely transgressive; the papers were not even willing to print the word but rather referred to it as ‘b—-‘.

Despite the ostensibly extremely British setting of the story, which for a substantial part hinges on Eliza’s Cockney slang and the peculiarities of class identities in British society, the production continued to have international appeal. This is also evident from the film adaptions. As the story is so dependent on pronunciation, it would have made little sense to attempt to adapt it as a silent film. However, once sound films became the norm in the 1930s, the first country to adapt Pygmalion for the screen was Germany.

Rather incredibly, the second feature length film version was made in the Netherlands in 1937; it moves the plot to Amsterdam and introduces a romantic ending for Higgins and Eliza. The first Dutch sound film was only made in 1934, years after the first sound films were made in Britain, Germany and the US. That Dutch filmmakers were willing to invest into a production of Pygmalion, which included paying a substantial sum for the rights to the story, indicates that the producers were confident the film would be a hit with the domestic audience.

In 1938 the first British film version of Pygmalion appears; co-directed by Anthony Asquith and actor Leslie Howard, the latter also fulfilling the role of Professor Higgins. Wendy Hiller stars as Eliza. This version introduces some of the elements modern audiences are most likely to be familiar with from subsequent adaptations, for example Eliza’s speech exercises ‘the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain’ and ‘In Hertford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen.’ The ‘not bloody likely’ line was also retained, but by 1938 it caused notably less controversy than it had done two decades prior.

The casting of Howard, who was mid-forties at the time, as Professor Higgins, changed the dynamic of the story’s central relationship considerably. In the original productions, Higgins was an older man who was primarily interested in Eliza as a research object. When she emancipates herself throughout the story and asserts her rights as an individual, it takes Higgins by surprise as he has not previously considered her as an equal. Howard, who was a successful film star on both sides of the Atlantic, plays Higgins as an absent-minded but romantic hero, who comes to realise he loves Eliza. Although the ending of the film is somewhat open, it can be interpreted that Eliza ends up choosing Higgins over her (other) love interest, Freddie. Shaw hated Howard’s interpretation of the role; he was insistent that Eliza should not end up marrying Higgins.[1]

However, audiences favoured the ending and it was retained for the musical adaptation of the play, My Fair Lady, which was first produced on Broadway in 1956 and then, as noted above, turned into a successful film in 1964. The original story which promoted female emancipation and independence was turned into a more conventional romantic tale, in which the woman stays with the man who has provided for her rather than making her own way. Pygmalion shows both the changing social norms of interwar Britain which allowed the production to thrive despite (or because of) the female lead uttering a swear word; and the enduring attachment to patriarchal values which over time reduced and removed the story’s more radical ideas.

The 1938 film version of Pygmalion is in the public domain and available to view for free via the Internet Archive.


[1] Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (London: IB Tauris, 2010), p. 237

Featured

Roadhouses

One of the lesser-known aspects of interwar Britain was the existence and popularity of roadhouses. A roadhouse was a large-ish venue, often located in the countryside a short driving distance from London. Their primary function was as a bar/pub, but many contained other entertainment spaces such as a dancefloor, a garden, or even a swimming pool.[1]

Cultural historian Michael John Law has done substantial work on roadhouses. He has demonstrated links between the emergence of roadhouses, the expansion of London’s suburbs, and the increase of private car ownership. Roadhouses were usually located alongside new bypasses, making it nigh impossible to access them in any way other than by car. Their location just outside the city allowed for the roadhouses to be bigger than a regular pub. The drive required to reach the roadhouse transformed the visit into an excursion. (It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that driving after drinking alcohol was perfectly legal in Britain until the mid-1960s.)

The interest of the popular media in the roadhouse appears to have peaked in 1932-1933. British Pathé visited a few roadhouses for their newsreels; those showing the ‘Ace of Spades’ near Kingston and the ‘Showboat’ in Maidenhead remain readily available. Both newsreels gratefully and extensively use the visual spectacle of roadhouse guests in swimwear, using the pool facilities. Beyond this focus on the swimming pool, however, both roadhouses are portrayed markedly differently.

The newsreel on the Ace of Spades consciously contrasts the roadhouse with more historical leisure pursuits and implies that the activities in the roadhouse are more energetic and transgressive. It exclusively shows activities taking place at night, including late-night swimming and a trio of singers performing a Duke Ellington song. The newsreel situates the Ace of Spades in the wider narrative of the aftermath of the roaring twenties and the London of the Bright Young Things. It shows the roadhouse as a space where adults can access ever-more exuberant entertainment and enjoy American cultural products.

The film taken at the Showboat, on the other hand, starts off during the day, and shows families with children enjoying the swimming pool. Here the roadhouse appears more like a country club where the community can enjoy its facilities. The evening’s cabaret is fairly staid, including dance performances and a comedian to whom no-one appears to be paying much attention. The Showboat is portrayed as less cosmopolitan and transgressive as the Ace of Spades, and as a less problematic space for Londoners to enjoy.

The links with American culture hinted at in the Ace of Spades newsreel were made much more explicitly in a 1932 Daily Express article entitled ‘Roadhouse Joys of Merrie England.’[2] In a stream of flowery language, the Express reporter describes his experiences in the ‘circle of gaiety that has been built around London.’ Yet the pleasure of the roadhouse cannot be enjoyed without complication for this reporter.

In 1932, some elements of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), originally implemented during World War One, still remained in place. Amongst these were the restrictions on when alcohol could be purchased and consumed; any venue with a license to serve alcohol could only do so until 10pm, or 11pm in London. The roadhouse the journalist visited, however, did not have a license to serve alcohol. Rather, guests were asked to bring their own – and consequently there was no government-imposed closing time.

The reporter writes: ‘So here was the English “speakie”, flavoured with a touch of American slang.’ Really, the link with the speakeasy and the Prohibition is tenuous: there was no outright ban on alcohol in England and, as the roadhouse waiter who is quoted in the article explains, it is perfectly legal for anyone to bring in their own alcohol and consume it. But throughout the article the journalist appears determined to link the roadhouse to Americanisation: he implies that the phenomenon was imported from America and that the ‘spirit of Jazz’ pervaded the place. The overall impression is that the young people frequenting the roadhouses are turning their back on traditional English culture and values; but also that they are having tremendous fun whilst doing so. The article encapsulates a recurrent tension in British interwar reporting where new developments are welcomed and distrusted at the same time.

Roughly a year later, the debate about whether the roadhouses were fun or to be feared, continued. The proprietors of an island in the Thames near Hampton Court, known as the ‘Thames Riviera’, sued the owners of the Reynolds Illustrated News for libel.[3] The paper had printed a series of critical articles about ‘up-river’ nightlife, which the owners of the island argued were without foundation. The contested reports included ‘Scandalous Bathing and Dancing Scenes’; ‘Plea that Mobile Police Should Combat Growing Menace’; and claims that ‘a large number of young ladies [were] running about naked.’ Although the claims were vehemently disputed by the venue proprietors, there was clearly an assumption both in the papers and in court that the reports could be true.

Roadhouses were a brief and now largely forgotten phenomenon in interwar London. They originated at the intersection between urban expansion, a boost in car ownership, an increase in leisure time and disposable income, and a rise of interest in American culture. As with many other interwar developments that were primarily focused on entertainment, roadhouses caused considerable anxiety about the ‘Americanisation’ of Britain and a potential loosening of morals. These anxieties appear to have been articulated more explicitly in the written press, whereas the newsreels leveraged the visual pleasures roadhouses provided to present them primarily as places of innocent, wholesome and British fun.


[1] Michael John Law, ‘Turning night into day: transgression and Americanization at the English inter-war roadhouse’, Journal of Historical Geography, 35 (2009), 473-494

[2] ‘Roadhouse Joys of Merrie England,’ Daily Express, 18 April 1932, p. 11

[3] ‘Night Life up the River’, Daily Express, 3 March 1933, p. 7