The Wrecker (1929) and The Flying Scotsman (1929)

During the silent film period, which in Britain lasted until roughly 1930, film production was a very international affair. Because the majority of the film’s plot was communicated to audiences with gesture, movement and facial expressions as opposed to dialogue, directors could relatively easily make films outside their own national context. One such director was the Hungarian Géza von Bolváry. Von Bolváry started his film directing career in Germany where he worked for most of the 1920s. In 1928, however, British International Pictures invited him to spend a year at the London studios. During this year he directed three silent films: Bright Eyes and The Vagabond Queen (both starring Betty Balfour), and The Wrecker.

The Wrecker was based on a 1924 play by the same name, which was also turned into a novel published in 1928. It is a prime example of the kind of cross-medial adaptations on which many interwar films are based. It is also one of several interwar British films which foreground public transport as a prime site of action.

The hero of The Wrecker is Roger ‘Lucky’ Doyle, the nephew of a train company magnate. A nefarious criminal, known only as ‘The Wrecker’, is repeatedly facilitating train crashes on Lucky’s uncle’s trainlines. Together with Mary, his uncle’s secretary (played by Benita Hume), Lucky attempts to uncover the Wrecker’s true identity. Eventually, with the help of the Wrecker’s female accomplice Beryl, Lucky finds out that his uncle’s business rival Ambrose Barney is behind the train crashes. Barney runs a company of long-distance charabancs, and the public’s panic about train crashes is boosting his own business. Lucky publicly denounces Barney, and of course wins Mary’s affections as well.

The Wrecker’s main selling point, both when it was released and today, is that Southern Railway allowed the studio to use its real rolling stock. Von Bolváry staged one spectacular train crash on a disused railway line, which is shown near the start of The Wrecker. The use of the real trains (as opposed to models) heightens the veracity of the crash scene and counteracts the sometimes somewhat overblown silent screen acting. The spectacle of the train crash was a draw for contemporary audiences. The value of the train crash sequence is underlined by the fact that its footage was reused for the Walter Forde-directed The Ghost Train which was released two years later.

The train crash in The Wrecker (1929)

Shortly after The Wrecker was released, cinema audiences could enjoy another train-based film with spectacular stunts. The Flying Scotsman, directed by Castleton Knight, was also released in 1929. This short feature is about an engine driver, Bob, who is working his last day on the London to Edinburgh line. A disgruntled ex-employee makes it onto the train with the intention of causing an accident. Bob’s daughter and a younger train colleague work together to avert the disaster.

Pauline Johnson, who played Barney’s accomplice Beryl in The Wrecker, takes the role of the leading lady in The Flying Scotsman, which sees her walking on the outside of an LNER train while it is in full motion. Johnson did the stunt herself, and like the crash scene in The Wrecker, the authenticity of the action creates a high-impact scene.

Pauline Johnson clambering down the side of a moving training in The Flying Scotsman (1929)

High-speed rail travel was not a novelty in interwar Britain. Trains had been running ever faster since their introduction in the early 19th century, and rail travel was popular for long-distance journeys and holiday travel. Although newspapers occasionally reported on the risks passengers faced on public transport, those risks were mainly due to other passengers, not technical faults. The almost simultaneous production of The Wrecker and The Flying Scotsman did not respond to a wider social anxiety about the safety of rail transport. Rather, it is likely that the technological advancements at the end of the silent era allowed directors to move their cameras more freely, which in turn enabled them to capture stunts and high-speed transport more effectively.

With the introduction and rapid expansion of sound film from 1930, cameras once again became static as they had to be connected to microphones and be kept still to avoid the recording of ambient noise. Filming actors clambering down the side of moving trains was no longer possible. By 1935 the climax of the action-comedy Bulldog Jack sees Jack Buchanan clamber over the top of a moving Tube, in an attempt to stop the rogue driver from crashing the train. Shots of characters inside the Tube are interspersed with shots taken from the front of the train and from platforms, and shots of Buchanan clambering horizontally across a ledge. The rapid editing gives the viewer the illusion that Buchanan is really on top of the train, but there is no doubt that the stunt is not real.

Although the introduction of sound film allowed for different types of storytelling on the screen, it also caused the loss of some visual capabilities which took decades to recover. The introduction of sound made film plots more dependent on dialogue, which also reduced the possibility of actors and directors working across national boundaries.

Bulldog Jack can be viewed on YouTube.

Criminal Investigation: A Practical Textbook (1934)

The Metropolitan Police was founded in 1829. From the beginning, its operations were based on ‘uniform patrol of regular beats in full and open public view’ to assuage concerns that any centrally controlled police form would become a state spying apparatus.[1] The introduction of plain-clothes detectives into the force was therefore slow. It was not until 1869 that each division of the Metropolitan Police got its own detectives, and a centralised Criminal Investigation Department (CID) wasn’t formed until 1878.[2]

Once detectives were established as a permanent part of the police force, leaders at the Metropolitan Police and its counterparts across the country and Empire were keen to ensure consistency of practice. To that effect, in 1906 the Crown and Public Prosecutor in Madras published the first English translation of a work by the Austrian Hans Gross.[3] Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter als System der Kriminalistik, or Criminal Investigation: A Practical Textbook as it became known in England was originally aimed at lawmakers and police officers in colonial areas. A revised edition was published in 1924, and a third edition appeared in 1934. This third edition was edited by Norman Kendal, then Assistant Commissioner for Crime in the Metropolitan Police.

The work, aiming to be ‘a practical textbook of instruction for all engaged in investigating crime’[4], runs to 569 pages. Although police detectives tended to have been slightly better educated than patrolling constables,[5] it seems unlikely that they all read and memorised the detailed instructions of Criminal Investigation. Moreover, the book provided instructions on best practice, but most of its contents were not legally binding. In short, the book likely tells us more about the ideal of police investigation than of its day-to-day reality. Nonetheless, it helps us understand how interwar police officers, magistrates and prosecutors understood crime.

During the interwar period, the police did not just investigate a crime up to the point of charging an individual, but were also responsible for collating evidence for the police courts. This often involved working with experts. No wonder then that nearly 100 pages in the book set out ‘The Expert and how to make use of him (sic)’. Specific items include ‘preservation of parts of a corpse’ and ‘colour-blindness’ (‘more widespread and more important than generally believed’).[6] The section on fingerprints was extensively re-written for the third edition, this area of work ‘having advanced by leaps and bounds even since 1924.’[7]

Beyond the practicalities of running a sound investigation, Criminal Investigation also sets out in detail supposedly common practices of various types of criminal. ‘Wandering Tribes’ receive a chapter all of their own, marking Gypsies and Travellers as particularly likely to engage in criminal behaviour – although it debunks the myth that Gypsies steal children (‘It must also be remembered that gipsies (sic) are very prolific and in consequence have no need to bring up other people’s children’).[8]

Criminals ‘shamming’ various afflictions such as blindness, deafness or even epilepsy was apparently a regular enough occurrence to warrant inclusion here, as were criminal superstitions. The reader is told how fortune tellers who claim to have ‘discovered’ the guilty party through divination, tarot cards, or their intuition can derail an investigation. Women in particular are claimed to put investigators on the wrong foot with their ‘presentiments’.[9] There is no practical advice on how to handle such a situation as an investigator other than, presumably, to roundly ignore any tips received through paranormal means.

The third section of the book deals with the skills investigating officers must possess, such as drawing and modelling of crime scenes; observing footprints; and finding traces of blood. Again there is a suggestion that criminals have their own communal language in a chapter on ciphers, which is given in addition to a short list of criminal slang.

The final section of the book categorises particular offences, including ‘Bodily Injuries and Poisoning’; ‘Theft’; ‘Cheating and Fraud’; ‘Arson’ and ‘Serious Accidents and Boiler Explosions’ (split up between ‘False Theories’ and ‘Admissible Theories’). Murder is not included as a category, as murderers were believed to mostly be ‘crimes of impulse’ and very few serial killers were known (Jack the Ripper being an obvious exception).[10] When speaking of ‘criminals’, police inspectors tended to mean those who were repeat offenders, often sticking to the same type of crime such as burglary.

Criminal Investigation was from the outset designed to be used across the British Empire. However, its origins as a Western European text does make one wonder its usefulness for lawmakers and detectives in, for example, India. There is little to no consideration of cultural differences. The impression created is that criminals, like lawmakers, are a homogenous group who behave the same regardless of their physical location or background. This demonstrates how handbooks like Criminal Investigation fostered the consolidation of the British Empire through their discourse.


[1] Robert Reiner, The Politics of the Police, 3rd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) p. 56

[2] Haia Shpayer‐Makov, ‘Becoming a Police Detective in Victorian and Edwardian London’, Policing and Society, 14:3, (2004) 250-268, (pp. 251-253)

[3] John Adam and J Collyer Adam, Criminal Investigation: A Practical Textbook, 3rd edition, edited by Norman Kendal (London: Sweet & Maxwell, 1934), p. xii

[4] Ibid., p. xiv

[5] Shpayer-Makov, ‘Becoming a Police Detective’, p. 263

[6] Adam and Adam, Criminal Investigation, p. 125

[7] Ibid., p. xii

[8] Ibid., p. 248

[9] Ibid., p. 262

[10] Frederick Porter Wensley, Forty Years of Scotland Yard (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968 [1931]), p. 86

Vita Sackville-West: The Edwardians (1930)

Vita Sackville-West: The Edwardians (1930)

During the interwar period, Sackville-West was best known as a prolific and celebrated author in her own right. By 1930, when her best-selling novel The Edwardians appeared, Sackville-West had already published more than a dozen other novels, works of poetry, and non-fiction volumes.[1]

The Edwardians was originally published by the Hogarth Press, the publishing house run by Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard. The book was a huge commercial success: by July 1930, within two months of its publication, Hogarth Press was already advertising that it had sold 20,000 copies. That the book clearly appealed to a working-class audience is evidenced by the popularity of the cheap sixpenny edition, of which 64,000 copies had sold by 1936.[2]

Advert for The Edwardians, Sheffield Independent, 14 July 1930, p. 3

Sackville-West herself was anything but working class. She grew up at Knole, a medieval palace remodelled into the Sackville family seat in the early 17th century (it is currently managed by the National Trust). Vita had many happy memories of her childhood at Knole, and in The Edwardians she created its fictional equivalent in the Chevron estate, seat of the Duke of Chevron. Chevron is the enduring foundation and backdrop throughout the book’s descriptions of upper-class parties and affairs.

The Edwardians’ main character is Sebastian, the young Duke of Chevron. At the opening of the book, in 1905, Sebastian is nineteen. He loves Chevron and being the head of the estate, but is vaguely dissatisfied with the social life of upper-class Edwardian England. Sebastian’s mother, Lucy, is part of the ‘smart set’: ‘They were all people whose names were familiar to every reader of the society titbits in the papers.’[3] Unlike the matriarchs of the Victorian period, Lucy’s friends think of themselves as less worried about decorum and ‘doing the right thing.’ One of the key themes of The Edwardians is how both the upper and the middle classes still put convention and appearance over personal freedom, despite their insistence that they have done away with Victorian primness.

Sebastian has three key relationships in The Edwardians, which are announced by its chapter headings. In 1905, he meets Anquetil, an explorer who is an outsider to Chevron’s smart set. Anquetil invites Sebastian to come away with him for a few years to see something of real life. Sebastian declines, as he has just fallen in love with Lady Roehampton, a 40-something married woman who is a friend of his mother and one of society’s great beauties. Lucy wholeheartedly approves of this affair, seeing it as a healthy rite of passage for a young man to be introduced to sex.

What is not intended, however, is that Lady Roehampton falls in love with Sebastian. When, after a year and a half, her husband finds out about the affair, he states she must move to the country with him and never see Sebastian again. This creates the first big crisis in the book: Sebastian tells Lady Roehampton that she should get a divorce and come away with him: Lady Roehampton, despite her belief that she is much more modern than her Victorian forebears, shrinks from the idea of divorce and dumps Sebastian instead.

Disgusted by the hypocrisy of the upper classes, Sebastian then pursues a middle-class married woman, Teresa. She is dazzled by the riches and ceremony of Chevron, but when Sebastian makes a pass at her at Christmas she is horrified that he would think she would cheat on her husband. Sebastian is now disillusioned with both the ‘smart set’ and the middle-classes. After a brief affair with a bohemian artist, he resigns himself to marrying a plain but proper daughter of a respectable family. Just before he decides to formalise his engagement, Anquetil shows up again. This time, Sebastian gratefully accepts the offer of escape from his cushioned life.

The Edwardians offers a detailed and, one senses, authentic view of upper-class society in the Edwardian period. Readers are entertained with descriptions of sumptuous parties and Downton Abbey-esque descriptions of the servants’ hall. At the same time, Sackville-West is critical of this lifestyle. For example, she repeatedly stresses that Lucy’s friends, despite their power and influence, are not particularly intelligent. When Teresa is invited to Chevron for Christmas and sits with the other ladies after dinner, ‘she was forced to admit that they did not seem to be saying anything worth saying.’[4] Sackville-West also pokes fun at the group’s own special lingo, ‘deevy’ for ‘divine’ and ‘adding an Italian termination to English words’: ‘lovel-are’ for ‘lovely’ and ‘dinn-are’ for ‘dinner’.[5]

Sackville-West’s critique also touches on more substantial matters: when Sebastian decides to give all his staff a raise of five shillings a week after New Year’s, it leads to critical self-reflection on his own part. He notes that the increase would cost him ‘thirteen hundred pounds a year; very little more than his mother would spend on a single ball; a negligible sum in his yearly budget. He felt ashamed.’[6] When at dinner, Lucy tells the other guests of the raise, Sebastian is harshly criticised by the other lords, who say that he has ‘spoiled the market’ for other landowners and that his staff will only ‘expect more’: ‘They all looked at Sebastian as though he had committed a crime.’[7]

Contemporary reviews of The Edwardians mostly did not note the social commentary of the book. Although the Aberdeen Press and Journal review noted that ‘The Mayfair, Belgravia, and country house lot are shown to us as publicly engaged in whitewashing their own and their neighbour’s private lives’[8], other reviews consistently described the book as primarily ‘entertaining.’[9] Several reviews note that whilst the Victorian period had been extensively revisited by historians and novelists, the Edwardian period had received less attention due to it being overshadowed by the war.[10]

The immediate cultural impact of The Edwardians can be seen in a throwaway comment in the Daily Mirror. In a brief article about Ascot fashion, the journalist writes:

On the cover of Miss Sackville-West’s novel “The Edwardians” there is pictured a group of presumably select persons of that period. The “happy few” look now like a number of charwomen out for a beanfeast. And the question is: Will the belle assemblée at Ascot to-day look like that – a ragbag assortment – in fifty years’ time to those who examine our back numbers? Very likely. But was does it matter? They look nice now.[11]

Already, mere weeks after its publication, The Edwardians was referenced as a text with whom all Daily Mirror readers were expected to be familiar. Whether they enjoyed it for its lavish descriptions of upper-class life, or for its social critique, it is undeniable that the book resonated with many interwar readers.


[1] Kate Williams, ‘Introduction’, in Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians (London: Vintage, 2016), p. xv

[2] Ibid., p. x

[3] Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians (London: Vintage, 2016), p. 27

[4] Ibid., p. 193

[5] Ibid., p. 194

[6] Ibid., p. 184

[7] Ibid., p. 205

[8] ‘Book of the Week: A Novel of Edwardian Society’, Aberdeen Press and Journal, 9 June 1930, p. 6

[9] ‘Real Life Raffles’, Daily Mirror, 23 June 1930, p. 20; ‘Woman in the West’, The Western Morning News and Mercury, 10 July 1930, p. 3

[10] ‘Books of the Day’, Birmingham Daily Gazette, 5 June 1930, p. 8; ‘Woman in the West’, The Western Morning News and Mercury, 10 July 1930, p. 3

[11] ‘Ascot Fashions’, Daily Mirror, 18 June 1930, p. 9

Looking on the Bright Side (1932)

Looking on the Bright Side (1932)

By 1932, Gracie Fields was already a huge star. Although she’d only appeared in one film, 1931’s Sally in Our Alley, she had been a major stage star and popular singer since the mid-1920s. After the big success of her first film, it was quickly followed up with a second one which showcases both Field’s singing talent and her comic wit.

In Looking on the Bright Side Fields plays Gracie, first in a series of film roles in which her character have her name, to provide the illusion that she is essentially playing herself. Gracie is a manicurist who lives in a flat in a modern housing estate in London. Her boyfriend, Laurie, is a hairdresser in the same beauty parlour, and lives in a flat opposite Gracie. He is also a budding songwriter who is looking for his big break.

Directors Basil Dean and Graham Cutts make the most of the stage set with its symmetrical staircases running up the front of the building. During the film’s opening, all inhabitants of the estate sing along to Laurie’s newest song in a scene reminiscent of stage musicals. Laurie’s song is the titular ‘Looking on the Bright Side’ which reflects the particular brand of working-class optimism on which much of Fields’ stage persona traded.

Gracie and Laurie in their adjacent flats in Looking on the Bright Side

In the beauty parlour, where Laurie and Gracie work as a team on actress Josie Joy. When the couple tell Josie about Laurie’s new song, she offers to introduce them to her manager, Oscar Schultz. Gracie is sceptical but Laurie enthusiastically jumps at the chance to further his career. When Laurie’s song is a success with Schultz, Laurie gives up his hairdressing job and is swept off his feet by the attentions of Josie Joy.

Laurie doing Miss Josie Joy’s hair in Looking on the Bright Side

Gracie is left behind on the estate. She loses her job when the arrogant Josie Joy comes in for a manicure and Gracie is unable to treat her civilly. After briefly taking a job as a female police officer – a section of the film mostly used to showcase Fields’ comic talent – Laurie sees the error of his ways and he and Gracie reunite for a big singalong at the estate.

Fields’ celebrity persona was inextricably linked with her own, working-class Lancashire roots. She retained her strong northern accent throughout her career, and her films celebrate working-class community over individual fame and riches. The class conflict in Looking on the Bright Side is introduced when Laurie is first invited to play his songs for Oscar Schultz. When Laurie and Gracie arrive at Schultz’ suite at the Dorchester Hotel, a busy cocktail party is in full swing. The women present call each other ‘darling’ and use expressions like ‘it’s a scream!’ – expressions which the down-to-earth Gracie would never use.

After Laurie and Gracie perform their song, Schultz singles out Gracie and tries to persuade her to agree to a role in his next musical production. Although Schultz’ intentions appear to be honourable, his way of cornering Gracie and persuading her to drink another cocktail put her off, and she declines his offer. Laurie, in the meantime, is sitting at the piano surrounded by women and does not want to leave the party with Gracie. Instead he stays out till 3.30am, much to Gracie’s dismay.

Laurie’s dreams to make it big in showbusiness are portrayed as naïve and, to a certain extent, wrong. This is partly because his talent as a songwriter is limited; without Gracie, he struggles to write good songs and eventually Schultz sacks him. Gracie, on the other hand, is genuinely talented but is not interested in pursuing fame. Instead, she prioritises the community of the estate over individual ambition.

The sense of community is not only shown in the estate-wide singalongs that bookend the film, but also in Gracie’s relationship with her neighbour Hetty and Hetty’s young daughter Bettina. No explanation is given for Bettina’s absent father. Hetty works as a police officer and Gracie frequently looks after Bettina when Hetty is on duty. The very warm and natural relationship between Fields and the child actor provides a strong counterpoint to the vacuous lovemaking between Laurie and Miss Joy.

Fields acting with Bettina Montahners in Looking on the Bright Side

The section in which Gracie signs up with the Metropolitan Police has little relevance to the plot. Female police officers were still relatively rare in 1932, and they were certainly not regularly portrayed on screen. Predicably, the rigid enforcement of rules within the corps is used to set up some physical slapstick comedy situations for Fields. Although Fields quickly decides to leave the Police force, it is not the notion of female police officers which is rejected, but rather the idea that Fields herself would be suitable in such a controlled environment.

Looking on the Bright Side takes a reasonably meta approach to the business of song writing and song-selling, as the film itself was clearly a vehicle for selling records and sheet music of the songs it includes. At the same time, it obfuscates its own part in commercial song writing by presenting other careers and industries as more valuable and viable.

Listen to Gracie Fields sing ‘Looking on the Bright Side’

Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson was born in 1898 in New Jersey. He became an actor, singer, activist and athlete, and was one of the very few prominent black actors to appear in British interwar films. Robeson lived with his wife in London between 1928 and 1939, during which period he studied Swahili and phonetics at SOAS, University of London. In London he appeared on the West End stage as Othello (1930) – the first black man to play the role on the West End stage in a hundred years.

Robeson was a popular actor and singer, and a well-known figure in London society. When, in 1929, he and his wife were denied entry to the Savoy grill room due to their skin colour, the matter was reported in the national press. The Savoy, however, flat-out refused to admit that it operated a colour bar and provided no explanation why the Robeson’s were refused entry.

On British film sets, Robeson also encountered racial prejudices. After appearing alongside his wife Eslanda in the art-house Borderline (1930), Robeson’s first commercial role in British film was 1935’s Sanders of the Rivers, directed by Zoltan Korda. The film was based on a selection of short stories by Edgar Wallace, published in 1911. The Edwardian context in which the source material was written was scarcely updated for the film. Sanders, played by Leslie Banks, is a colonial administrator in Nigeria. He is presented as firm but just, and has a paternalistic attitude towards the tribes which live in ‘his’ part of the Empire. Robeson plays Bosambo, a trusted native who provides Sanders with intelligence. When warring breaks out between the tribes, Basambo helps Sanders restore the peace.

Significant parts of the film were shot on location, which the marketing material claimed lent an air of authenticity to the plot. However, as one viewer has commented, the film appears to have been shot in East Africa rather than Nigeria or elsewhere in West Africa – to the untrained, white, British viewer these two disparate regions apparently looked the same. The film features several African tribes in crowd scenes and performing rituals. Rather than providing an ethnographic account of indigenous culture, these scenes show ‘wild’ Africa as the white colonial gaze imagined it to be.

Robeson distanced himself from the film after it appeared, on the grounds of its sympathetic portrayal of colonialism. Yet he continued to find himself in the bind that the only roles offered to him as a black man were those which also included racist or patronising depictions of African culture. In his next British film, Song of Freedom (1936), Robeson plays a dock worker, Johnny Zinga, who has a powerful voice. This film, at least, allows Robeson to show off his considerable singing talent.

Johnny is catapulted to fame after he is heard singing in his local pub, in the predictable ‘rags to riches’ success story that so many British films of the period included. But Johnny does not simply get famous: he is also discovered to be the rightful king to an African island. Johnny travels to the island and tries to rule it as best as he can, but eventually decides to return home to his old life in the London docks. Life on the (fictitious) African island is depicted as primitive, with Robeson once more asked to don ‘traditional’ native dress for these scenes. It was no doubt titillating to white audiences to see the chest of the 6”3’ Robeson on display for their consumption. Additionally, the suggestion that the one black dockworker in London is also a member of a royal family further undermines the perceived differences between African culture, with its supposed multitude of royal families, and the British Empire, over which one monarch reigns supreme.

Paul Robeson in Song of Freedom (1936)

The following year, Robeson was once again cast in an adaptation of a popular fiction, this time the Victorian novel King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard. The novel appeared in 1886 and was one of the first British novels to be set in Africa. In the film, explorer and adventurist Allan Quartermain agrees to help a young Irish woman whose father has gone off into the African wilderness to find the fabled King Solomon’s diamond mines. Robeson plays Umbopa, a native guide to the party.

When Quartermain, Umbopa and the others get captured by a native tribe ruled by the despotic Twala and the witch-doctor Gagool, Umbopa reveals that he is in fact the legitimate heir to the tribe’s throne. Eventually, Quartermain and Umbopa manage to persuade the tribe to overthrow Twala and the party find the entrance to King’s Solomon’s mine, which turns out to exist. They find the missing father inside the mine and manage to escape before the mine is destroyed.

The portrayal of the native tribe in King Solomon’s Mines leans heavily on depictions of mystical rituals and supposed witchcraft. At the same time, their leader is styled a ‘king’ and the title appears hereditary in the manner of European monarchies. Umbopa is, in contrast, calm, educated and righteous. He is, however, treated as exceptional among his peers, a fact further underlined by his royal heritage. The overall depiction of indigenous African tribes in the film leans heavily on stereotypes of barbarianism and primitivism.

Robeson returned to the US at the outbreak of World War Two. His increasingly radical left-wing political views put him under government scrutiny, and he was denied a passport for several years, effectively trapping him in the US. Although he continued to record songs, Robeson stopped acting after 1942. Although he was a high-profile star during the 1930s, the racism pervasive in British society pigeonholed him into roles where he had to repeatedly act out white fantasies of indigenous cultures; and play characters who unquestioningly submitted to white colonial rule.

Hints and Hobbies (1926)

By 1926, cinemagoing was firmly established in Britain, and it was transforming from a working-class hobby to something rather more respectable. Super cinemas, which offered lounges and tearooms as well as screenings, were designed to attract middle-class women. Film historian Ina Rae Hark has argued that cinemas tried to draw in female customers by “attempting to create a dream home in which the woman could (…) enjoy complete freedom from responsibility for its maintenance.”[1] Like the department stores that appeared in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century, super cinemas gave women a respectable place to go when they were out in town: a female equivalent for male clubland.

Inside the screening room, audiences did not just see a single film, but rather a varied programme of features, cartoons, informational films and advertisements. In 1926, silent film director A.E. Coleby, who had previously directed morality tales such as The Lure of Drink (1915) produced a series called Hints and Hobbies. Twelve episodes of this weekly bulletin survive in the BFI National Archives and are available to view online for UK-based audiences. These amusing films provide insight to the range of topics which were deemed relevant and suitable to a largely female audience.

Each episode of the series is about fifteen minutes long and covers a series of topics for a few minutes each. The very first Hints and Hobbies starts with a ‘Pets Column’ featuring kittens and puppies, showing that a version of the cat video has been a crowd pleaser for over a century. It then moves to a woman demonstrating how you can make a large decorative vase out of cardboard – for the use of dried flowers only one presumes! It is introduced with the title: ‘An Interesting Hobby which can be made to help pay the rent (?)’ It is evidently not going to be the most effective way to earn extra cash, but this does show that the target audience for this segment are women who are not poor but still could do with some more disposable income.

The penultimate sketch included in episode one is clearly aimed at the same audience. Titled ‘If only husbands were like this!’, it shows a married couple at the breakfast table. The woman receives a number of bills for recent clothes purchases: £8 8s for two hats, £10 10s for a ‘costume’, and £21 for an evening dress. This was serious money in 1926, but the fictional husband is unperturbed. ‘Quite alright, darling’, he says, and even says his wife should have treated herself to a second gown. E.M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady, no stranger to the lure of the boutique and the subsequent bank overdraft, would no doubt have appreciated this scene.

Hints and Hobbies also reflected modern concerns of the time, such as road safety. As this blog has noted previously, the interwar period saw a huge increase in car ownership but little in the way of safety regulations. In lieu of driving licenses or instructors, poor driving was rife. The first episode of the series exhorts drivers to be mindful of others when overtaking one another; the second episode asks female drivers specifically to not be ‘Miss Kareless Kornerer’ when taking a left-hand turn.

Along with the household and cooking tips included in each episode, Hints and Hobbies also took the traditionally feminised profession of nursing and used it to teach first aid to a wide audience. Lady Superintendent Mrs Webb from the St John’s Ambulance Brigade was on hand to demonstrate how to dress a wound in the palm of one’s hand, or how to make a splint for a fractured leg. Seven years after many women had trained as nurses during the First World War, these segments taught a new, younger generation of women the principles of emergency care. Mrs Webb appears in her uniform, capably handling the tools of her trade to fix up male patients.

The penultimate surviving episode of Hints and Hobbies veered away from accepted femininity and treated its audiences to something rather more transgressive: jiu-jitsu for women. The alarmist intertitle ‘You never know when the following may happen to you’ is followed by a sequence showing a young woman being attacked by a male loafer, who tries to steal her handbag. Luckily for the victim, a capable female motorist steps out of her car, grabs the man, retrieves the handbag, and ends with throwing the attacker to the ground. When returning the bag to the first woman, she tells her ‘My dear, it behoves every girl to-day to be able to protect herself…If you will come to the address I will give you at 7 o’clock to-night I will give you a few hints.’

It’s no surprise that this particular episode of Hints and Hobbies has been embraced by some LGBTQ viewers as representing an example of ‘lesbian erotica.’ Dressed in short tunics and standing on mattresses, the two women demonstrate several self-defence moves on one another. This no doubt also gave straight male viewers plenty of ‘visual pleasure’ but the casting of the man as the villain rather than hero in this segment, and a final shot of the two women embracing and leaving the room with their arms around one another, give plenty of space for a queer reading.

Little else appears to be known about Hints and Hobbies – who decided which topics to include, which cinemas they were shown at, or why the series did not last. However, even without any additional information the series provides plenty of insight into what the producers thought would entertain and inform their mostly female audiences. The changing gender norms of the period are reflected in the content that veers from tips on how to remove ink stains from aprons to improvising fancy dress for your next flapper party.  

The full Hints and Hobbies series can be viewed for free by UK-based viewers on the BFI Player.


[1] Ina Rae Hark, ed, Exhibition: The Film Reader (London: Routledge, 2001), chapter 12, Ina Rae Hark, ‘The “Theatre Man” and the “Girl in the Box Office”, pp. 143-154 (p. 145)

Limehouse

Limehouse is a neighbourhood in London, situated east of the Tower of London at the North bank of the Thames. It is right next to Canary Wharf, which is these days one of London’s financial districts. Limehouse has accordingly gentrified – Google’s description of the area states ‘Limehouse is a regenerated former dockland area where housing in converted warehouses and modern towers lines the Thames and Limehouse Basin, which is also home to a yacht-filled marina. (…) Upscale restaurants and hip cafes sit alongside laid-back global eateries.’

Back in the interwar period, however, Limehouse had very different connotations. As the area housed docks, it had from the mid-19th century been mainly populated by seamen. More specifically, from 1860 onwards Chinese sailors had settled in lodging houses in the area.[1] A similar development occurred in Liverpool, which also had a big and busy port. Unlike the Liverpool ‘Chinatown’, however, Limehouse obtained a cultural significance that far outstripped the mere 5000 Chinese who lived in the area.[2]

The stereotypes and fears around the Chinese inhabitants of Limehouse centred around drugs, gambling, and interracial relationships. Being sailors, most of the Chinese living in Limehouse were single men, who often lived in lodging houses. Those who did decide to settle down often married white women, as there were few Chinese women living in London and they had little means of paying passage for women living in China. At a time when racism was rife and eugenics was still acceptable, the spectre of mixed-race children being raised in Britain was used to cause moral alarm.

Limehouse and the Chinese were also consistently linked to opium and other drugs. In the 19th century, Britain had introduced opium from India into China for financial gain. After millions of Chinese became addicted to the drug, the so-called Opium War took place between Britain and China from 1839 to 1842. So whilst opium came to be seen as a Chinese drug, it had in fact originated from the British empire and planted in China by British officials.

Until the First World War, opium could be fairly easily obtained over the pharmacy counter and it was used as a recreational drug.[3] During the war, the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) introduced widespread government powers to clamp down on anything from pub opening hours to press freedom. In the same way that DORA led to the rise of illegal nightclubs in the 1920s, it also facilitated the boom of ‘opium dens’ in Limehouse. Pushing opium use into illegality caused it to be more profitable for traders, and more tempting for users. Alongside opium, the possession and selling of cocaine was also banned in 1921.

The third aspect commonly linked to Chinatown in interwar fictions and reports is gambling. Betting on horse races, greyhound races and football pools was a popular pastime for the British working classes, and card parties often played for substantial amounts of money. The Chinese, however, introduced the casino-style games of Fan Tan and ‘Puck-apu’, a ‘lottery-like gambling game.’ A visit to Limehouse became a great opportunity for West End socialites to go ‘slumming’, partake in recreational drugs, gamble money, and flirt with the possibility of interracial relations.[4]

But beyond the actual activities of Limehouse, which ultimately consisted of a small Chinese community which mostly lived quietly and ‘respectably’, the idea of Limehouse was what really took flight in the interwar period. This started with fictional portrayals of shady Chinese master criminals, most notably Sax Rohmer’s ‘Fu Manchu’. The concept was then borrowed by crime fiction powerhouses Edgar Wallace and Agatha Christie.[5]

In Christie’s The Big Four (1927) Hercule Poirot hunts four criminal masterminds who are in league to take over the world order. ‘Number 1’, the ringleader and most dangerous criminal, is the Chinese Li Chang Yen. The Big Four is one of the weaker Poirot novels, pieced together from short stories to fulfil contractual obligations whilst Christie’s first marriage was ending. It is telling that during this time, when Christie did not have the capacity to write a brilliant novel, she fell back on the ‘Chinese mastermind’ stereotype – it had already become an easy shorthand for readers.

Cinema, too, used and abused Limehouse as an atmospheric setting. Possibly the most famous interwar film set in Limehouse is actually an American production, D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms starring Lilian Gish (1919). In Britain, E.A. Dupont’s 1929 film Piccadilly features the Chinese scullery maid Shosho, who works in an expensive nightclub in the West End, but lives in Limehouse with a Chinese companion. As noted above, in reality there were few Chinese women in Limehouse. Shosho (played by Asian American actor Anna Mae Wong) serves to fulfil white male fantasies about ‘Oriental’ women.

Piccadilly’s white male hero, Valentine Wilmott, falls for Shosho, or is seduced by her, depending on your interpretation. The film features extensive scenes of Shosho dancing in revealing outfits with unusual headdresses. She takes Valentine with her to a Limehouse bar, where other patrons use cocaine. Afterwards, Shosho invites Valentine to her house and bed – an invitation which he accepts. Although it was considered deeply inappropriate for a white woman to have a relationship with a Chinese man, Valentine is able to pursue Shosho without consequences. In fact, it is Shosho who ends up dead: she is shot by her Chinese friend Jim, who was secretly in love with her and kills her in a jealous rage. Piccadilly thus ultimately reaffirms stereotypes of Limehouse as a space of criminality and transgression.

During the Second World War the Limehouse docks were subjected to heavy bombing. After the war, London’s Chinese community mostly migrated to the town centre in Soho, which currently remains the city’s ‘Chinatown’. Soho has an enduring mythology of its own, of which Chinatown is a part, but in which it is not prominent. It is in Limehouse and during the interwar period where the stories of London’s Chinese community consolidated into something much bigger than its parts.   


[1] Yat Ming Loo, ‘“Mixed race,” Chinese identity, and intercultural place: Decolonizing urban memories of Limehouse Chinatown in London,’ Journal of Race, Ethnicity and the City, 2022,  3:1, 23-41 (p. 23)

[2] Annie Lai, Bob Little, Pippa Little, ‘Chinatown Annie: The East End Opium Trade, 1920-1935: The Story of a Woman Opium Dealer’, Oral History Journal, 1986, vol. 14, no. 1, 18-30 (p. 18)

[3] Ibid., p. 21

[4] For more on slumming in London see Seth Koven, Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004)

[5] John Seed, ‘Limehouse Blues: Looking for Chinatown in the London Docks, 1900-40,’ History Workshop Journal, 2006, 62, p. 58

Lady in Danger (1934)

Lady in Danger (1934)

Actor-director-manager Tom Walls was a popular comic actor on the interwar stage and screen. From 1922 onwards he produced and (often) starred in a series of enormously successful farcical plays at the Aldwych theatre. Many of these plays were turned into films in the 1930s, often with Walls directing. At the Aldwych, a steady cast of actors quickly formed, which took roles in each of the plays. Alongside Walls, the other male lead was Ralph Lynn; supporting roles were taken by Robertson Hare, Mary Brough, Winnifred Shotter and Yvonne Arnaud. The scripts were usually supplied by Ben Travers.

After sound film became a viable proposition in Britain, the Aldwych team recorded their repertoire for the screen at speed. Their first film, Rookery Nook, was produced in 1930. Then followed two more films in both 1931 and 1932, three films in 1933, another two in 1934 and the final one in 1935. After the supply of stage productions was exhausted, there followed another five films, based on original scripts, starring both Lynn and Walls (1935-1937). Both men also appeared separately in films during the 1930s, either with or without other Aldwych cast members.

One such film, associated to the Aldwych farcical tradition but not quite a part of it, is Lady in Danger. Walls plays the male lead opposite Yvonne Arnaud, an originally French actress who gave up a promising career as a pianist in favour of the stage.[1] Theatre remained her primary occupation throughout her career, but Arnaud also appeared in twelve films during the interwar period. Half of these were related to the Aldwych team.

Lady in Danger was written by Ben Travers specifically for Walls and Arnaud, although Travers initially intended it to be a play rather than a film.[2] The film plays on their strengths and their personas, which by 1934 would have been extremely familiar to their audiences. Walls plays a charmer and ladies man, as he does in most of his films (and indeed as he appears to have been in real life). Arnaud’s secret weapon was her enduring French accent and supposed ignorance of the nuances of English, which could be played up for laughs. After more than a decade of regular collaboration, Walls and Arnaud had a great chemistry and rapport which is clear on the screen.

Lady in Danger starts in the fictional European state of Ardenberg – a ‘Ruritania’ setting such as this was gratefully used by film writers of the period to add some foreign flavour to their films without getting bogged down in cultural or historical accuracy. Ardenberg is on the verge of a revolution, during with the royal family will be deposed. British businessman Richard Dexter (Walls) flies into the country to retrieve stolen bonds. Before he leaves, the leader of the Ardenberg revolution asks him to escort the Queen (Arnaud) to Britain to keep her safe. The Ardenberg King has found refuge in his Paris apartment.

Upon arrival in London, Dexter has to keep the Queen hidden to ensure her continued safety. It proves difficult to hide her in his London flat, particularly when his fiancée Lydia stops by. Dexter moves the Queen to a country cottage, where the sparks between the couple fly. Ultimately, however, the Queen decides to return to Paris and join her husband. It’s made clear that the King regularly enjoys affairs, which lessens the severity of the Queen’s transgression. The monarchy is restored in Ardenberg and Dexter returns to Britain and to Lydia.

As can be expected for a comedy, the plot of Lady in Danger is rather thin, and mostly there to provide Walls and Arnaud with opportunities for verbal sparring. Sample dialogue includes Arnaud, after getting settled in the cottage and unpacking her luggage, announcing: ‘I am ready now for bed – I have undone all my clothing!’ Travers’ writing had a reputation for these types of jokes which stayed just on the right side of the BBFCs censorship rules, and the Sunday Times noted that ‘Skating on thin ice is this author’s speciality, and the riskiness of some of the double entendres is astonishing.’[3]

For a modern viewer, the ‘risqué’ jokes ensure that Lady in Danger is still funny and watchable, even if the characters are concerned about things such as what the housekeeper may think about an unknown woman sleeping in Walls’ spare room. It is (still) refreshing to see an actress in her mid-forties play a part in which she unapologetically pursues an affair and then also decides to walk away from a charming man in favour of her professional obligations. Arnaud seems to thoroughly enjoy the role in which she gets to boss everyone around.

Although Lady in Danger is not one of the original Aldwych farces, and it does not provide the same brand of humour that films with both Lynn and Walls deliver, it is still very funny. It is less silly than some of the team’s other films, and may appeal to audiences who find farcical humour difficult to enjoy. It also showcases Arnaud’s comic talent and allows new generations to discover this renowned actress.

Lady in Danger is available to view on the Internet Archive.


[1] Mark Newell, Oh, Calamity! The Lost, Damaged and Surviving Films of the Aldwych Farces and Farceurs (Kibworth: The Book Guild, 2020), p. 255

[2] Ibid., p. 170

[3] Ibid. p. 171

Notorious interwar murders (part 3)

This blog post is the final of a three-part series on notorious interwar murders. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.

After the Thorne case, the 1930s started with two murder cases which were even more sensational. On 8 April 1930 Sidney Fox was executed for a crime which was considered even more heinous than murdering a pregnant woman and destroying her body: he was convicted for murdering his own mother Rosaline.

Matricide is rare in the United Kingdom, and Fox became notorious.[1] Fox was also the first person condemned to death since 1907 who did not appeal his conviction, which seemed to further prove his guilt.[2] However, like the Thorne case, the Fox conviction has continued to spark debate and recent re-examinations conclude that it is possible Rosaline died of an accident.

Fox and Rosaline lived a nomadic existence, travelling from seaside hotel to seaside hotel, and committing thefts and frauds to obtain money. In spring of 1929, under the instructions of Fox, Rosaline took out a life insurance policy that guarded against accidental death. The policy expired at midnight on 23 October. And on 23 October, in a hotel in Margate, Rosaline’s bedroom apparently caught fire at 11.40pm. Rosaline’s body was discovered inside, making Fox eligible for a life insurance pay-out.

The doctor attending the scene considered that Rosaline had died in the fire, and she was buried without further examination. However, Fox’s behaviour on the night, the fact of the life insurance, as well as the forensic evidence in the room led Scotland Yard to conduct further investigations. After Rosaline’s body was exhumed, Sir Bernard Spilsbury (yes, him again) concluded that she had been strangled before the fire had started.

The oratory power of Spilsbury, combined with the emotional horror of alleged matricide, Fox’s criminal past, and his homosexual inclinations, were enough to convince the jury to convict him. Not surprisingly, the Home Secretary did not use his executive powers to commute the sentence.[3] The Home Secretary usually only reprieved condemned prisoners if ‘popular feeling’ was in favour of the prisoner, which in this case it was decidedly not.[4]

The British public had barely recovered from the excitement of the Fox case when yet another murder case grabbed the headlines. Whereas the 1920s had seen husbands poisoning their wives and later, men killing their girlfriends, Alfred Rouse tried to fake his own death by killing another (still unidentified) man and setting his corpse on fire to make it unrecognisable. Contemporary commentators may have argued that the nefarious influence of Hollywood cinema had led to this spectacular crime!

Like Patrick Mahon, Alfred Rouse was a salesman; and like Mahon, Rouse also had many affairs with women and teenage girls which his wife was unaware of. These affairs often led to the women having Rouse’s children. Rouse always pretended he was single, and even went as far as to illegally marry several of his mistresses, to keep up the pretence that he was fully committed to them. Although he made a good salary with his job, it was not sufficient to secretly support these many women and children. Things came to a head in the summer of 1930, when two of Rouse’s longstanding girlfriends were both expecting marriage, and several of his past partners were demanding child support money from him.

Rouse planned his scheme carefully; he took out a life insurance policy in case of death in a car accident. He then found a man in a pub who claimed to be out of work and with no family or other support network, who also was of roughly the same height and build as Rouse. This was the perfect victim for his purposes. Rouse offered the man a lift to the Midlands on the evening of 5 November – Guy Fawkes night in England during which a lot of bonfires are traditionally lighted. Rouse hoped that the bonfires would provide cover for his plan.

It has never been fully clarified what exactly happened in the car, but Rouse got his companion drunk enough that he fell asleep. According to Rouse, he never found out the man’s name or any personal details about him. Rouse parked his car in a ditch off a country lane, doused it in petrol and set it on fire.

It is possible his plan would have worked, had he not been spotted emerging from the lane by two teenage boys who were walking home from the bonfires. Seeing a man in a suit (but without a hat!) clambering out of a ditch in the middle of the night was unusual enough, but when they found a car ablaze a few meters further they naturally warned the local constable.

By the time the fire was put out, the body was horrifically charred and unrecognisable. The car, however, was identified as belonging to Rouse. This was passed on to the newspapers, as well as an urgent call for the man without a hat to report as a witness to the police. Rouse in the meantime met up with one of his mistresses, who showed him the newspaper articles about his car. Although Rouse claimed the car was not his, the woman was sufficiently suspicious to alert the police. Rouse was arrested as he got off a coach at Hammersmith bus station.

At the trial, the jury once again took less than half an hour to find Rouse guilty. During the trial Rouse claimed that the unknown man’s death was accidental, but shortly before his execution he wrote a full confession to the Daily Sketch. The newspapers, which had played a material part in Rouse’s arrest, were also able to benefit from his execution. For a man like Rouse, the newspaper coverage of the case was not just a threat, but also one final opportunity to bolster his ego.

There are (many) more murder cases that could have been included in this series, from those which got ample newspaper coverage to those which were considered not newsworthy. Those which were sensationally described in the press, however, subsequently filtered into contemporary crime fiction and non-fiction books, and from there into that nebulous concept, the ‘public imagination.’ Newspapers were instrumental not only in helping solve the crimes, but also in building up a shared body of knowledge on what it means to commit a British murder.


[1] Playwright and actor Emlyn Williams refers in his autobiography to an acquaintance, whose own claim to fame was that he had known Sidney Fox. Emlyn Williams, Emlyn: A sequel to George (London: Penguin, 1976)

[2] Colin Evans, The Father of Forensics (Thriplow: Icon, 2007), p. 221

[3] ‘Margate Matricide: Death Sentence to Stand’. Evening Post, 7 April 1930. p. 9

[4] Douglas G Browne and E.V. Tullett, Bernard Spilsbury: His Life and His Cases (London: Harrap, 1951), p. 264