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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

Featured

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.

Featured

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

Jessie Matthews

FeaturedJessie Matthews

Jessie Matthews was one of the biggest British screen stars of the 1930s. She achieved success not only in Britain, but also in the US, even though she never made a Hollywood film.[1] Matthews starred in a whopping fourteen films between 1931 and 1938; yet most contemporary articles foreground her private life over her film career. The BFI article linked to above references her ‘generally loveless marriages’; many sources refer to the details surrounding her second marriage to co-star and director Sonnie Hale.

Such interest in Matthew’s romantic life, with its undertones of tragedy and disapproval, undermine her considerable professional success. Matthews was not only an actress, but also a singer and dancer; her films showcase her considerable talent and the hard work she put in to master her craft.

Matthews was a commercial success almost from the start of her film career, but her establishment as a real star originated from the beginning of her collaboration with director Victor Saville. Saville and Matthews first worked together on The Good Companions; followed by Friday the Thirteenth (both 1933); Evergreen (1934); First a Girl (1935); and It’s Love Again (1936).

The Good Companions was based on a J. B. Priestley novel[2]; the text, as Lawrence Napper has argued, seeks to “express ‘modernity’ (…) without a retreat either away from the popular audience or into cultural pessimism.”[3] In other words, it seeks to create a balance between literary intellectualism and popular entertainment. By casting Matthews in a prominent role in the film, Saville picked an actor who herself embodied this duality. Matthews was born in a large, working-class family in Soho but much-commented-on elocution lessons allowed her to shape an upper-middle-class star persona.[4]

After The Good Companions, in which Matthews plays an ambitious actress from a humble background, Saville continued to cast Matthews in similar roles. The seemingly upper-class actress repeatedly played aspiring stage stars from common backgrounds:

  • In Friday the Thirteenth, as related in the post about that film, she’s an aspiring stage star caught in a bus crash.
  • In Evergreen Matthews is the daughter of a famous turn-of-the-century music hall star, who decides to impersonate her mother to achieve fame and success.
  • In First a Girl – an adaptation of the German film Viktor und Viktoria (1933) – she is an aspiring stage star who pretends to be a female impersonator to achieve fame and success.
  • In It’s Love Again she’s an aspiring stage star who pretends to be a socialite to achieve fame and success.

It was not unusual for 1930s actors on either side of the Atlantic to have such a defined star persona and to appear in a number of films along the same formula. In fact, in this respect Matthews had much in common with the other big British female star of the time, Gracie Fields. Although one of Fields’ key characteristics was her strong Northern accent, which was diametrically opposed to Matthew’s ‘plummy’ pronunciation, Fields also starred in a number of films in which she is a performer from a humble background who ends up achieving great success. As a female film viewer the message you received remained the same, regardless of whether you identified more with Matthews or Fields: being a stage performer was a desirable and exciting career through which you could find romantic love.

However, whereas Fields’ films were grounded in a very British, very working-class environment, with a strong emphasis on community, collaboration and staying positive in the face of adversity; Matthews’ films on the other hand presented the viewer with a glamourous and consumerist fantasy.[5] The sets are bright and light, with smooth floors that are perfect for impromptu dance performances. In Evergreen, Matthews’ character and her would-be love interest stay in a modern mansion in which she can showcase the latest luxury homeware whilst waltzing across the rooms.

To the modern viewer, the Matthews/Saville musicals feel akin to Hollywood films of the same period. Although the films are (mostly) set in Britain, they express a cosmopolitan outlook. They contain handsome, worldly men; art deco architecture; cocktails; and trips to the French Riviera. Contemporary audiences were already familiar with this fantasy world through the American films also available at the British box office. Matthews’ films brought that glamour to a British setting, suggesting that the same level of sophistication and modernity was also within reach on this side of the Atlantic. Although intellectual circles in interwar Britain retained a stubborn anti-Americanism, the popular success of Matthews as a film star indicates that the mass audience had no such qualms.

Today, however, Gracie Fields has remained relatively prominent in the public imagination, whereas Matthews is largely forgotten. Fields body of work evokes supposedly fundamental British qualities which appear to reflect the ‘good old days’ of community, common sense and national pride. Matthew’s oeuvre, on the other hand, shows only how much 1930s British culture was also about international cultural exchange and a dissolution of national identity. In the current times, which seem to be a near-constant quest of what it means to be ‘British’, it is Field who provides the more appealing answer to most; but the films of Jessie Matthews show that even a hundred years ago, being British was as much about having an international outlook as it was about celebrating local culture.

Jessie Matthew’s films are available on DVD from Network On Air.


[1] Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (London: IB Tauris, 2010), p. 207

[2] For more on J.B. Priestley see the post on Laburnum Grove (1933)

[3] Lawrence Napper, British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar Years (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2009), p. 83

[4] Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace, pp. 208-209

[5] Sarah Street, ‘‘Got to Dance my Way to Heaven’: Jessie Matthews, art deco and the British musical of the 1930s’, in Studies in European Cinema vol 2. no. 1 (2005), 19-30

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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

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Laburnum Grove (1936)

Laburnum Grove was written as a play in 1933, by J.B. Priestley, a prolific writer and dramatist.[1] It was first staged at the Duchess Theatre in London’s West End (which is currently, Covid restrictions permitting, home to the Play That Goes Wrong). Laburnum Grove transferred to Broadway in 1935 and was turned into a feature film a year later by Associated Talking Pictures. The film adaptation was directed by Carol Reed, who had only recently graduated from Assistant Director positions. The play was adapted for the screen by Anthony Kimmins, who later on in the 1930s would repeatedly direct George Formby on screen. The result is one of the few interwar British films that is explicitly situated in London’s suburbs.

In Laburnum Grove, we meet the Radfern family; father, mother, and daughter Elsie. They live in the eponymous street in an unidentified suburban development. The Radferns have got their in-laws staying over, Mr and Mrs Baxley. Elsie has a beau whom she is hoping to marry. Mr Radfern has some vaguely identified clerking job in a company; he appears content with his suburban routine of commuting to work and tending to his vegetable patch in the evening.

Both the Baxley’s and Elsie are keen on more wealth and success, and both ask Mr Radfern to lend them money – as he does not appear to be attached to it. Over dinner, Mr Radfern calmly explains that his suburban life is merely a front and that he is in fact the lynchpin in an international criminal network, through which he makes a fortune. The rest of the film plays on this tension between his identities as unremarkable ‘middle England’ character and his criminal career. Radfern’s family struggle to believe his claims, and the Scotland Yard inspector investigating the criminal network finds it hard to pin anything on the seemingly innocuous Radfern.

Laburnum Grove is effective because it plays on what, by 1936, was already being cemented as stereotype in the British popular imagination: what it means to live in the suburbs. The title of the film refers to the street in which the Radferns live: although it appears to be a specific location, in reality it stands in for any suburban street. A quick Google Maps search suggests that there are numerous Laburnum Grove’s still in London today, for instance in Hounslow, Southall and New Malden – all areas that saw extensive suburban development during the interwar period.

London’s physical environment expanded rapidly during the interwar period; first many soldiers returned from the front which spurred on the (partially successful) Homes Fit For Heroes campaign. Throughout the 1920s the British economy grew, and more Londoners were able to save up disposable income to put towards a house. The economic crisis of the 1930s did not impact the spending power of people in the south-east of England as much as it did the North, but it did make building materials cheaper.[2] Additionally, the replacement of horse-drawn vehicles with motorcars negated the need for growing wheat to feed the horses, which is what most of Middlesex had been taken up with.[3] This created ideal circumstances for private investors to buy up newly available plots of land and fill them up with competitively priced semi-detached houses. Many people were now in a position to buy a sanctuary away from the noise and smoke of the inner city.

With this mass flight to the outskirts of the city also came assumptions and stereotypes about the people who lived in suburbs. Most suburban developments looked very similar to one another, as private investors and contractors wanted to maximise the number of houses for the lowest possible cost. Consequently, the stereotypical suburban worker also became interchangeable in the public’s imagination: an anonymous stream of men all walking to the same train station in the morning, and returning home via the same route at night. So quickly was the notion established that suburbanites were bland and middle-brow that even during the interwar period, some developers started to market their own houses as “away from suburbia” or “non-suburbanised.”[4]

The gardening that Mr Redfern occupies himself with in Laburnum Grove is also stereotypical – as most suburban houses included a garden, gardening became the quintessential leisure pursuit for suburban men in the interwar period.[5] In Laburnum Grove, Redfern uses his gardening activity as a way to covertly meet up with his neighbour, who is also a partner in the criminal enterprise. Because gardening was such a common leisure activity for suburban men, and because it appears unthreatening (or even emasculating), it provides a strong cover for nefarious activities.

Laburnum Grove repeatedly and skilfully plays with the preconceptions audiences have about suburbs and the people who live in them. The perfect ordinariness of Redfern’s life serves to hide the most extraordinary reality, even from his own family. There is an additional meta-textual element to this, also; very few fiction films in interwar Britain were set so explicitly in a suburban environment. The vast majority of films set in London set their action in either the East End or West End, both of which of course had their own stereotypes attached to them. It appears that writers and filmmakers shared the assumption that there was little of interest to be found in suburban life; that it was too ordinary to ask audiences to pay attention to this.

In Laburnum Grove, Priestley masterfully uses and subverts these expectations of suburban life both within the world of the story itself, and between the film text and its audience. Laburnum Grove provides a British counterpart to the more familiar, post-War American depictions of suburbia. Viewing the film in the 21st century highlights how little these depictions and expectations have changed; the film still works and (most of) the jokes still ‘land’. Despite all the changes London has gone through, the notion of what it means to live in a suburb still endures.

Laburnum Grove is available on DVD from Network On Air.


[1] Priestley turned Laburnum Grove into a novel as well, co-written by Ruth Holland

[2] Mark Clapson, Suburban century: social change and urban growth in England and the United States (Oxford: Berg, 2003) p. 2; Stephen Halliday, Underground to everywhere: London’s underground railway in the life of the capital, (Stroud: The History Press, 2013), p. 113

[3] Alan A Jackson, Semi-Detached London: Suburban Development, Life and Transport, 1900-1939 (1st ed 1973; 2nd ed 1991), p. 57

[4] Alan A Jackson, Semi-Detached London, p. 162

[5] Mark Clapson, Suburban Century, p. 68

Friday Night is Amami Night

FeaturedFriday Night is Amami Night

Let’s talk about the biggest and most famous hair product of interwar Britain: Amami shampoo. It was scarcely possible to read tabloid newspapers for any length of time and not see one of the ubiquitous adverts for this brand, with the strapline ‘Friday Night is Amami Night’ used consistently across the interwar period. The brand targeted young women and encouraged them to cultivate a habit of washing their hair with Amami shampoo on Fridays. By encouraging its users to all use the product on the same day of the week, Amami attempted to build a communal experience for women in the interwar period.

In addition to this persistent print campaign, Amami also released an advertising film in 1936, which is available to watch on the BFI Player for anyone based in the UK. Advertising films such as this one would be shown in cinemas, which tended to screen programmes of around three hours in length that contained a mixture of feature films, news reels, cartoons, and perhaps an ‘interest’ film.[1]

The short film, entitled Crowning Glory, is directed by Andrew Buchanan, a Putney native who directed a small number of non-fiction shorts in the 1930s and 1940s. Crowning Glory is his first known directing credit, but it is none the less ambitious for that. The film stands out for its rather laboured commercial messaging, but also for its unusual formal choices. It also highlights who the ideal Amami customer was; and demonstrates the values with which Amami intended to align itself.

The first tongue-in-cheek device the film employs is in the opening credits; after listing the various actors against their character names, the final entry on the list is ‘The Audience – Yourselves’. This is followed by a shot of a film director walking onto a film set, and looking into the camera to directly address the audience. He invites the viewer to ‘join [him] in the interesting experiment of making’ a film. Immediately the film sets up the pretence of a live interaction between audience and character, in a manner still regularly used by children’s TV programming, today. This device serves to enhance the audience’s emotional investment in what is shown, making them feel complicit even though they do not truly have any agency over it.

The director’s journey to make a film is the framing device for the whole short. He states that the subject is ‘one dear to every woman’s heart: her hair’, thus reaffirming Amami’s central brand message that its shampoo should be used by all women, as all women cared about their hair. However, the film’s subsequent visualisation of ‘every woman’ is, unsurprisingly, rather limited.

The film proceeds to show the audience British women in different environments. In the first section of the film, the director finds a woman going for a walk in the countryside (‘a girl who symbolises the British love of the open air to perfection’); a young woman working in a London office (she ‘symbolises the feminine touch in commerce’); a society girl (‘equally important’ to the working woman); and a young woman swimming in a swimming pool (‘the girl who most truly represents sport’). Throughout these scenes the director comments about the women’s excellent hair, and is reassured that no matter what activity, Amami Shampoo and Wave sets can ensure women’s hair stays in tip-top shape.

In the scenes concerning the first, second and fourth woman, the director is physically present in their environment with his hand-held camera, and we can hear his voice in voice-over as if originating behind the camera. This format wavers slightly when we are introduced to the society girl, as she is getting ready for a party in her boudoir. Although the voice-over makes it clear the director is observing her, he is not physically shown to be in the same room as her, giving the scene a more voyeuristic feel. Crowning Glory then changes track and shows the party this society girl is attending as a more straight-forward fiction film sequence. The voice-over disappears and partygoers talk amongst themselves. The film director, however, is also present at the party and spends a few minutes making gags about the party’s other attendees.

Although the film sets these four examples up as representing a wide range of women, they are of course in truth a very narrow representation of femininity. All four women are young, slender, white, apparently unmarried and childless, and middle-class as a minimum. The cinema audiences to which this film was shown was potentially much more diverse. The assertion at the start of the film that ‘every woman’ cares about her hair, combined with the clear visual messaging that only women of a specific type represent ‘the British woman’, likely lead to some female viewers of this advert feeling excluded from the film’s message.

After showing the swimming woman, the film breaks the fourth wall even more decisively. The director is shown in close-up, addressing the camera directly. He tells the viewer: ‘You are going to provide the climax to this picture’; the shot changes to a circular frame to signify the view through a camera lens. Inside the circle, a cinema audience is visible. A woman gets up from her seat and starts walking up the aisle, closer and closer to the camera until she ‘smashes’ it, which is signified by a cartoon scene transition.

In the subsequent shot we see the woman, later identified as Betty, arrive home and talk to a female friend. The very first shot of this sequence is framed as if it is on a theatre stage, adding a further layer of complexity to the advert’s interlocking layers of fiction. Betty’s friend berates Betty for not looking after her hair properly, and decides that a wash with Amami shampoo is in order to lift both Betty’s hair and spirits. The friend stresses that the shampoo should be used ‘every Friday night’ in keeping with the Amami brand.

Looking after your hair is explicitly stated to be as the key to keep a man’s interest and affections. The shampoo is followed by a wave set treatment which is so successful, Betty barely recognises herself. Her ever-attentive friend reminds her to use the wave set every night, and the shampoo every Friday night. The film concludes with Betty not only successfully winning the affections of Dick, her suitor, but also with her friend’s suitor commenting on how well Betty is looking. The closing shot, naturally, has the shampoo’s slogan emblazoned across the screen.

Amami was producing its setting lotion until 2010 but in its later years it was mainly used by women with a particular interest in vintage hair styling. During the interwar period, however, it was one of the most well-known hair products in Britain. Whilst its advertising film was formally innovative, its messaging was predictably narrow and patriarchal. Crowning Glory is a good example of a popular text that demonstrates pervasive cultural ideas in interwar Britain.

Watch Crowning Glory on BFI Player (UK only).


[1] JH Hutchison, The Complete Kinemanager, (London: Kinematograph Publications, 1937), p. 49

Featured

George Formby

George Formby (1904-1961) was one of the top-grossing and most popular British film stars of the late 1930s, both in Britain and abroad. Like many other British film stars of the period, he started out as a variety stage performer; he also had a prolific music output. Born in Wigan, Formby’s trademark features were his strong Lancashire accent, his ukulele, and a consistent presentation as an honest, simple, hapless man finding his way through a complicated world.

Formby entertaining the troops in France in 1940. By War Office official photographer Puttnam L A (Lt) – Public Domain photograph

Formby started his career on the regional stage in 1921 and made his West End debut at the Alhambra in 1924.[1] As a variety performer, he would sing songs and perform short skits, usually on a bill with other acts. He recorded many of his stage songs as records; he put out a total of 189 songs during his lifetime.[2] Many of his most famous songs contain liberal sexual innuendo; film historian Jeffrey Richards has pointed out that sex was ‘a subject of fundamental importance which was not allowed to surface (…) in popular culture’ during the 1930s.[3]

Richards builds on connections initially drawn by George Orwell, between working class culture, seaside postcards, music hall, and sex. For example, Formby songs like ‘Delivering the Morning Milk’ and ‘In My Little Snapshot Album’ are narrative songs that could be part of a music hall show; the lyrics of both are brimming with sexual innuendo and references to voyeurism. Songs like this were a key part of Formby’s brand, but when he moved into film production, he had to balance them with the conventions and expectations of a wider audience.

Formby and his wife Beryl, who had been a stage performer in her own right prior to their marriage, decided to dip their toes into the world of cinema in 1934. The resulting film, Boots! Boots! and its successor in 1935, Off the Dole, were low-budget productions which proved successful in the north of England.[4] On the back of that success, Basil Dean at Associated Talking Pictures offered Formby a contract for eleven films at his studio in Ealing.[5]

It is at this point that Formby’s explicit northern brand, so heavily dependent on saucy jokes and working-class culture, needed to be made palatable for a wider audience. Like that other Lancashire star whose popularity had preceded Formby’s – Gracie Fields – the film producers at ATP had to find a way to make Formby appealing to those in London and the Home Counties, who represented a large slice of the domestic cinema market, whilst not alienating his original fanbase.

That the innuendo-heavy content of Formby’s songs was not a comfortable fit for the protectors of good taste is evidenced by the fact that John Reith, the original BBC director-general, banned ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’ from being broadcast. This song does, however, appear in Keep Your Seats, Please!, the second film Formby made with ATP, in 1936. As Jeffrey Richards has argued, in the films, ‘the songs, however cheeky, were contained in and by stories whose attitudes to life and work were irreproachable, thus limiting the extent of the rebellion the songs embodied.’[6] As the overall narrative of the film was conventional, it could give occasional space to a daring song without this proving too disruptive.

In the films Formby made for ATP during the second half of the 1930s, he inevitably plays a young, ambitious man who endures a series of adventures and mishaps, but who in the end achieves his goal and gets the girl in the process. Except for Formby’s own instantly recognisable and consistent persona, the films’ plots are generic. Each contains some musical numbers which do not necessarily gel with the narrative; both Formby himself and Michael Balcon (who was head of ATP from 1938) in hindsight agreed that the films would have been stronger, narratively, without the songs, but that they needed to be included to attract Formby’s original fanbase.[7]

None of the films Formby made with ATP are set in the north; most of them are set in a generic urban environment that could be deduced to be London (such as Keep Your Seats, Please!, Feather Your Nest and I See Ice!, made in 1936, 1937 and 1938 respectively). The associations with the working classes were also toned down, with Formby increasingly playing characters that had skilled professions.[8]

The Formby films of the 1930s, then, represent an awkward clash of class cultures. He owed his popularity to his clear northern identity, and his ability to build on working-class cultural traditions such as music hall and seaside entertainments. Formby was careful to maintain this persona, which included keeping the same appearance and the same catchphrases throughout his career. On the other hand, once he was contracted by a London-based, national film studio, his appeal had to be widened without alienating his original audience. This tension even played out in Formby’s personal life; he and Beryl moved to London in 1936 but he continued to regularly visit Lancashire on the weekends.[9]

The films promote Formby in a way that would allow southern and middle-class audiences to make sense of him; in most of them he is a plucky and enterprising young man who manages to overcome obstacles. The fragmented nature of the music hall performance is replaced with a cohesive, 90-minute narrative arc. However, as noted above, the musical interludes still disrupt this narrative and provide a window on the decidedly more recalcitrant potential of popular comedy. In this way, Formby’s film output emblematises the social tensions of interwar Britain, where social upheaval changed class dynamics. Formby was able to provide working-class audiences with a hero they could identify with, but only at the cost of significantly toning down the more impertinent aspects of his output.

George Formby’s films are widely available on DVD; seven of his ATP films are available in Optimum Home Entertainment’s ‘George Formby Collection’. Seven of his films made in the 1940s are available in the ‘George Formby Film Collection’ DVD boxset distributed by Sony. His music is even more easily accessible, for example on the 3 CD ‘The Absolutely Essential Collection – George Formby’ produced by Big 3.


[1] John Fisher, George Formby (London: The Woburn Press, 1975), p. 16

[2] Ibid., p. 23

[3] Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (London: IB Tauris, 2010), p. 193

[4] David Bret, George Formby: A Troubled Genius (London: Robson Books, 1999), p. 40

[5] Fisher, George Formby, p. 49

[6] Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace, p. 196

[7] Alan Rendall and Ray Seaton, George Formby, (London: WH Allen, 1974), pp. 79-80

[8] Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace, p. 199

[9] Bret, George Formby, p. 56

1927: More Women Die Young

Featured1927: More Women Die Young

On 22 September 1927 the Daily Mail printed the following article on page 9 of the London edition:

More Women Die Young

Especially When Single

Healthy Married Life

A remarkable fact revealed in a report by the
Government actuary, Sir Alfred W. Watson, on the
expectation of life as shown by statistics, is that the
death rate is increasing for single women between 18 and 27.[i]

The article goes on to note that life expectancy for both men and women has gone up; that both sexes between the ages of 30 and 60 are showing considerably increased levels of ‘vitality’; and that married women between the ages of 18 and 27 are ‘healthier than ever’.

Despite this apparent abundance of good news, the article’s main concern is that for the subset of single women between 18 and 27, a ‘deterioration’ in life expectancy is observed. The article does not only note this trend, but also presents an expert opinion as to what may be the cause of this.

The article’s final paragraph quotes Dr Ethel Browning, an accomplished scientist who was in the process of writing a book on common illnesses and how to prevent them.[ii] Browning is quoted in the Daily Mail as follows:

Probably the increased rates of mortality among
young unmarried women are due to the fact that
so many more of them are now doing really hard work
and closely confined in offices. At night, instead of getting
fresh air, they go to dances or spend their time in cinemas,
with a continuation of the same evil tendencies.[iii]

On the face of it, this article is unremarkable. The article was a one-off, not part of a special series or campaign. It was wedged in on the page between an article about a man who was wrongfully convicted of being drunk and disorderly; and a report on a deadly fire in a school in Winnipeg, Canada. Page 9 of the Daily Mail was reserved for general news items which were not the lead stories of the day. Yet the article is based on a number of tacit underlying assumptions which are highly political. A close reading of a seemingly throwaway article such as this, can demonstrate the agenda of national popular newspapers in the interwar period.

The article makes it clear that the part of the survey that readers should be most interested in is that young, unmarried women appear statistically more likely to die at a younger age, than in previous decades. This implies that the death of a young, unmarried woman deserves more attention and concern than the death of other members of society. The article’s headline explicitly ties marriage to health, underscoring the desirability for women to follow this conventional route.

The report does not actually specify by how much the life expectancy of young single women has declined; it merely states that this is the only group for which a decline has been identified. At the end of the article, Dr Browning is addressed by her title, but no additional information is given about her credentials or area of expertise.[iv] Her title provides her with sufficient authority that her subsequent argument about the detrimental effects of office work, dancing and cinema-going to women’s health are presented as fact. The choice to quote a female scientist sets up a dynamic between a (presumed) older, learned woman criticising the behaviour of younger, more frivolous women.

The Daily Mail editorial team could have chosen to highlight any of the positive aspects of the statistical survey, such as the increased life expectancy for boys and girls. Instead, the article taps into concerns about young women’s behaviour which were amplified regularly through the pages of the Mail and other newspapers in this period. During 1927 and 1928 concerns about ‘flappers’ were particularly fraught as the Representation of the People Act 1928 extended voting rights to women from the age of 21.[v] Articles such as the one under consideration here, helped to subtly reinforce the narrative that young women were irresponsible in their lifestyle choices.

Dr Browning’s comments about office work potentially contributing to earlier deaths for women can be interpreted as a rejection of women’s entrance into the workplace. One could reason that if women were not working in ‘closely confined’ offices but instead spent their time home-making (as they would do when they were married) then women would be healthier. The second part of the quote focuses on leisure activities which, it is implied, women participate in through choice – as they could instead choose to ‘get fresh air’. The supposed ill health of the women therefore becomes their own responsibility; if they chose to have healthier leisure pursuits when single, and endeavoured to get married as soon as possible, they would be healthier and live longer.

This short analysis demonstrates how, through day-to-day reporting, popular newspapers such as the Daily Mail promoted conservative values and stoked concerns that social change was having detrimental effects, in this case implying that fertile young women were dying. Although an article such as this may not seem political, its structure, its language and its cavalier approach providing evidence for statements all work together to reinforce ‘common-sense’ assumptions to its readers. When replicated across hundreds of articles in the daily popular press, these tacit assumptions went a long way to influence how newspaper readers thought about the world around them.


[i] ‘More Women Die Young’, Daily Mail, 22 September 1927, p. 9

[ii] Bartrip, P. W. J. “Browning [née Chadwick], Ethel (1891–1969), toxicologist and factory inspector.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 19 Dec. 2020. https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-57854

[iii] ‘More Women Die Young’, Daily Mail, 22 September 1927, p. 9

[iv] Ether Browning is primarily remembered as an industrial toxicologist.

[v] Adrian Bingham, Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press in Inter-War Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 16

Featured

Friday the Thirteenth (1933)

Long before the seemingly endless horror franchise of the same name, Gainsborough Pictures made Friday the Thirteenth (1933). This comedy/drama directed by Victor Saville centres on the passengers of a London bus on the eponymous unlucky day. Due to a freakish bad weather event, the bus crashes. We find out that two of the passengers are killed in the crash; which ones pass away is not revealed until the end of the film. First, the film goes back in time and shows the activities of each of the passengers in the day leading up to the crash.

Friday the Thirteenth was one of Saville’s many films for Gainsborough, and one of six in which he directed Jessie Matthews. She appears in this film alongside her then-husband Sonnie Hale; the cast also includes Ralph Richardson, Robertson Hare, Emlyn Williams, Edmund Gwenn and Mary Jerrold.

The film is one of several produced in interwar Britain that foregrounds modern culture’s ability to bring people of all walks of life together. Public transport in London, particularly Underground trains and buses, fostered social mixing. Long-distance railway trains at the time operated three different ticket prices, which in turn ensured that people of different social strata sat in separate carriages. Tubes and buses, on the other hand, operated a flat fare and there were no separate seating arrangements.

According to transport historian Christian Wolmar, during the 1930s London’s public transport network “was probably most crucial as a means of transport to the widest range of social classes”.[1] This was the brief period in which the public transport network had expanded to cover the city and its suburbs; and private car ownership was not yet commonplace, particularly not for travel in the city centre.[2] For almost everyone in London, using public transport was one of the easiest, quickest and cheapest ways to get around.

The characters on the bus in Friday the Thirteenth are a careful mix of familiar stereotypes. There is the aspiring showgirl; the put-upon husband; the East-End crook; the well-to-do City trader; the clerk struggling to make ends meet; the devious blackmailer; and of course the street-wise bus driver and conductor. As we are introduced to these characters throughout the film, we see that each one of them has their problems. Despite their differences, they all end up travelling alongside one another, and get caught up in the same accident. No matter how wealthy or poor, or successful or not, these characters are, the film highlights how the city brings them all together.

A similar trope appears in the 1928 film Underground, directed by Anthony Asquith. That film’s opening title states about the London Tube:

The “Underground” of the Great Metropolis of the British
Empire, with its teeming multitudes of ‘all sorts and
conditions of men’, contributes its share of light and shade,
romance and tragedy and all those things that go to make
up what we call ‘life’.

Both films purport to show a ‘slice of life’; normal people going about their business. For most Londoners in the interwar period, using public transport would have been a very common experience. The city’s suburban expansion (in the 1930s in particular) meant that many people lived so far away from the city’s centre that public transport was imperative to get to their place of work as well as to central places of entertainment such as West End theatres and cinemas. Audiences could recognise the characters and situations the films presented.

It was an appealing message that public transport was a great leveller, and that the modern urban experience eroded class differences and strengthened commonality of experience. Cinema itself, alongside other emergent forms of mass-communication, provided a common cultural ‘language’ for all Britons during the interwar period.[3] For the working- and middle-class members of the audience it was no doubt reassuring to be reminded that wealth and success do not make one immune from being potentially caught up in a deadly bus crash.

However, Friday the Thirteenth deviates from its central tenet that all men (and women) are fundamentally equal, in its resolution. At the end of the film it is revealed which two passengers did not survive the crash. One is the struggling clerk, who was just about to go home and surprise his unhappy wife with tickets to a dream holiday. The other is the blackmailer who was carrying a cheque written by his latest victim; his death releases his target from a lifetime of extortion. All the other characters are shown to have learnt their lesson from the crash; they make amends with their partners or revisit the bad decisions they were about to make.

The two victims of the crash clearly represent the two ends of the scale. The death of the blackmailer not only helps his victim, but also society as a whole: a police officer informs the erstwhile victim that the police had been trying to pin down the blackmailer for a while. The message is clearly that many future crimes are now prevented. The death of the clerk, on the other hand, appears designed to elicit nothing but sympathy from the audience. Whereas most of the other characters were making morally questionable choices (selling stolen goods, cheating on their spouses) the clerk is presented as faithful to his wife and hardworking.

It is in this resolution, then, that Friday the Thirteenth moves away from its apparent principle of demonstrating equality between people, and instead reminds the viewer that death and fate are not always ‘fair’. The viewer is asked to reflect on whether the surviving characters deserve to live. It is precisely the assumption that some people are more deserving than others that drives the narrative tension in Friday the Thirteenth; and it is an assumption that the film ultimately encourages rather than dispels.

Friday the Thirteenth is available on the Internet Archive and on DVD via Network On Air (Jessie Matthews Collection Volume 1). Please note the film contains the mention of a racial slur by one of the characters.


[1] Christian Wolmar, The Subterranean Railway: How the London Underground was built and how it changed the city forever (London: Atlantic, 2005), p. 276

[2] Michael John Law, “‘The car indispensable’: the hidden influence of the car in inter-war suburban London”, in Journal of Historical Geography, 38 (2012), 424-433 (p. 424-425)

[3] D. L. LeMahieu, A Culture for Democracy: Mass Communication and the Cultivated Mind in Britain Between the Wars (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), pp. 59-66