Alastair Sim

FeaturedAlastair Sim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Olympia, 7 June 1934

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 14

[7] Ibid. p. 9

[8] Ibid. p. 20

[9] Ibid., p. 37

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

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

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

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Sabotage (1936)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Year’s Eve 1921

FeaturedNew Year’s Eve 1921

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

[6] Ibid.

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

[8] Ibid.

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

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

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

Edmund Gwenn

FeaturedEdmund Gwenn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Ibid., p. 123

Kate Meyrick’s Private Diaries

FeaturedKate Meyrick’s Private Diaries

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

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

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

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

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

Advert in the Daily Express of 4 March 1933

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and the Birmingham Daily Gazette grumbled that

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Ibid. p. 64

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

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

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

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

First a Girl (1935)

FeaturedFirst a Girl (1935)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid., p. 218

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

Woman: Her Health and Beauty (1919)

FeaturedWoman: Her Health and Beauty (1919)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This patriarchal tone pervades throughout the introduction, which states that

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

And

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid., p. 15

[3] Ibid., p. 22

[4] Ibid., p. 24

[5] Ibid., p. 27

[6] Ibid., p. 21

[7] Ibid., p. 35

[8] Ibid., pp. 29-30

[9] Ibid., p. 19

[10] Ibid., p. 49