Britannia of Billingsgate is a reasonably early sound film which provides a critical commentary on the film industry’s shallowness, whilst simultaneously wanting to present a career on screen as aspirational. The film strikes an awkward balance between promoting traditional British values of community and common sense; and foregrounding the glamour of cinema.
At the opening of the film we are introduced to the Bolton family: Bert Bolton is a porter at Billingsgate fish market, whilst his wife Bessie runs a chip shop adjacent to the market. The couple’s young adult children, Pearl and Fred, are obsessed with movies and motorcycles respectively. The Billingsgate community is shown as a warm, Cockney environment where everyone knows and supports everyone else.
An Italian director has picked the market as a location for his latest film. Due to a technical mix-up, the film set’s sound recorders accidentally record Bessie singing in her café. The film’s producers are so impressed with the quality of Bessie’s singing that they track her down and offer her a big contract to star in a musical film. Bessie has no interest in an acting career, but her husband and children all want the money that is attached to the offer. Bessie relents and agrees to star in the new film, which will be called Piccadilly Playground.
Whilst Bessie is working on the film, the family move into a luxurious apartment. Bert, Pearl and Fred all start moving in wealthier circles. Bert drinks heavily and starts gambling; Pearl also gambles and tries to ingratiate herself with her favourite film star. Fred secretly pursues his dreams of becoming a motorbike racer – something Bessie is against as she perceives it to be very dangerous.
Bessie is the only one not corrupted by the sudden wealth that has befallen the family. She rejects fancy dinners in favour of fish and chips and visits her old café where she engages in a community sing-a-long with the regulars. In this middle section of the film, Britannia of Billingsgate is clear to show that money is leading Bert, Pearl and Fred astray, most notably in a scene where Bert engages in a game of strip poker with a number of younger women. Bessie’s commitment to her roots and her rejection of luxury are clearly presented as commendable.
On the night of Bessie’s film premiere, both Pearl and Fred pretend to be ill. Pearl wants to secretly sneak into the flat of the film star she so admires, in the hopes that her sudden presence in his bedroom will seduce him. Fred plans to take part in a motorcycle race. Bessie and Bert duly head to the film screening alone. Bessie is convinced Piccadilly Plaground will be a terrible flop. In the meantime, Pearl and Fred conduct their own plans, but they are spotted by one of Bessie’s friends and by her butler.
Bessie’s friend comes into the cinema and alerts Bessie that Pearl has gone to the actor’s apartment. Bessie leaves the film screening halfway to confront Pearl, who by that point has been discovered by the actor (who is disgruntled to find this vapid young woman in his bedroom). After Bessie has given Pearl a literal spanking, the party go to the racetrack to find Fred. Seeing Fred win his race makes Bessie change her mind about racing and she becomes supportive. Meanwhile, Piccadilly Playground has proven to be a huge success and the film producers offer Bessie an even bigger contract. Despite her misgivings about wealth and acting, which she has voiced consistently throughout the story so far, Bessie agrees to make another film. At the end of Britannia of Billingsgate we see that the film producers have replicated Bessie’s old fish and chip shop on set, and she records a scene in which she sings with the guests, just like she was doing in ‘real life.’
Like other films of the period, such as Sally in Our Alley (1932) and Say it with Flowers (1934), Britannia of Billingsgate romanticises working class communities and shows the working-class woman as sensible, down-to-earth, and representing British values. Indeed, the film’s title compares Bessie to Britannia herself. Bessie’s rejection of wealth and the make-believe world of film fits entirely within that worldview. Pearl’s obsession with film, expressed through the avid reading of film magazines, cutting out photos of her favourite film star, and her eventual decision to make herself sexually available to this actor, are presented as both silly and morally wrong.
Yet at the film’s end, Bessie agrees to continue as a film actor, even though she appears to have had very little enjoyment out of the role so far. And while Pearl gets punished for her transgression, Fred’s ambitions as a motorcycle racer are ultimately shown to be commendable, inadvertently demonstrating Bessie’s double standard in her attitude to her daughter and son. Like many other films of the period, Britannia of Billingsgate presents a rags-to-riches story, where an ordinary person is catapulted to national fame and wealth. Although this narrative was very popular with audiences, it stood at odds with a traditional class-based society in which everyone supposedly knew their place and the working-classes were expected to work hard and be satisfied with very little. Ultimately, Britannia of Billingsgate tries to have its cake and eat it too: it allowed viewers to dream of being suddenly discovered and made famous; whilst also reaffirming that ultimately, audiences would be best off in the environments in which they were raised.
Britannia of Billingsgate is available to watch for free on BFI Player (for those based in the UK).