Brooklands

Brooklands

Brooklands race course was an institution in interwar England. Opened in 1907 in Weybridge, just south of London, it was the world’s first purpose-built, permanent racing circuit. Coinciding with the rise of car manufacturing in England, Brooklands was used to test out and perfect new car models. Like greyhound racing and horse racing, Brooklands races became a popular entertainment. Each race held the potential for injury and death, which piqued the audiences’ interest.

Still from Death Drives Through (1935) which was shot at Brooklands

The Brooklands track could be shaped into different configurations, but was mostly used as a long oval lap, made of concrete, and concave, so that the outer edges of the track were higher than the middle (like a modern indoor speed cycling circuit). Footage shot in 1928 shows how cars started on a flat section, and how drivers were positioned outside their vehicle at the start of a race. Pit stop booths were available for technical check-ups during the race. Although the cars in this particular footage look fairly similar to normal road cars, there were plenty of racing cars being developed also.[1]

Examples of these racing cars are on display in the 1935 film Death Drives Through, directed by Edward L. Cahn. Most of the action of this film is set in and around Brooklands, as the main characters of the film are two rival race car drivers. Kit Woods (Robert Douglas) is an up-and-coming driver who built his own race car and used to drive on local tracks before being talent-spotted and contracted to appear at Brooklands. Once he arrives there, established racer Garry Ames (Miles Mander) does everything within his power to destroy Kit’s reputation, including causing accidents on the race track. Death Drives Through features a staged crash at Brooklands which ends in the death of a driver, highlighting the potential for danger which was contained in each race.

A 1938 Gaumont newsreel features footage of a real Brooklands crash. Because the driver in that instance survived the accident, the newsreel commentator can play the incident up as thrilling entertainment, which was ‘filmed exclusively by Gaumont British News’.

‘Mr Clayton was flung out into the trees….miraculously he escaped death although he was seriously injured…his car was reduced to wreckage…below the banking outside the track it was a crumpled mess…hardly to be recognised as a car.’

The newsreel as a whole is titled ‘120 M.P.H CRASH AT BROOKLANDS’, making no bones about the fact that the crash, rather than the overall race, was what was expected to be of interest to audiences.

Racing drivers became celebrities, to the point that by the mid-1930s, their endorsements were featured in Castrol car oil adverts. Drivers not only competed in England, but also participated in European competitions which potentially increased their profile even more.[2] The British Government gratefully used the fame and prestige of some drivers in its own ‘Safety First’ campaign, launched in 1934. The purpose of this campaign was to increase road safety. In the absence of any formal driving test, racing driver the 5th Earl of Howe patiently explains to viewers how to indicate and overtake, and advises against canoodling with a lover whilst driving a car. Although none of the regular traffic rules would apply on a race track, the audience is still asked to presume the Earl to be an expert adviser, both due to his title and his status as a racing driver.

Racedriver John Cobb endorsing Castrol XXL – Front page of the Daily Express, 11 August 1934

There were plenty of women racing at Brooklands too – like aviation, car racing was a sport in which technical skill, rather than physical strength, were paramount. Despite initial opposition, from 1932 onwards women were allowed to compete in the same races as men. One of the most famous female drivers, Kay Petre, appears in the 1938 video showing a crash, referred to above. There are plenty of stories about other female drivers available on the Brooklands Museum website.

A final note on the audiences to these races. The 1928 footage referred to at the top of this blog shows an audience apparently exclusively made up of middle-aged men in three-piece suits and top hats. By 1938, the audience is much more mixed both in terms of gender and (judging by the clothes) social status. There are plenty of men visible in flat caps, or even, no hats at all. There also appears to be a much larger crowd than ten years’ prior.

This change reflects the overall change to car ownership which happened in parallel, away from the race track. Whereas car ownership had started off as something exclusive and only available to the very wealthy, by the end of the 1930s cars were affordable to most middle-class families. This greater exposure to car driving likely also increased interest in car racing. Although most racing drivers came from privileged backgrounds (if not from the actual aristocracy, then at least from wealthy families), there was always the possibility for a ‘regular’ person with technical knowledge and talent to establish him- or herself. Death Drives Through pandered to this fantasy, as Kit is exactly the kind of enterprising and plucky hero whom audience members could relate to. The tracks of Brooklands become not just a space for thrills and entertainment, but also a site of dreams of social mobility.


[1] Bart H. Vanderveen (ed), British Cars of the Late Thirties, 1935-1939, (London: Frederick Warne & Co, 1973)

[2] Bernhard Rieger, ‘Fast  couples’:  technology,  gender  and  modernity  in  Britain  and  Germany  during  the  nineteen-thirties”, Historical Research, vol. 76, no. 193 (August 2003), 370

Fascination (1931)

Fascination (1931)

Three years after his directorial debut, the silent film The First Born (1928), Miles Mander tried his hand on two sound films. The first, The Woman Between, was an adaptation of his own stage play ‘Conflict’. The second, Fascination, was based on another writer’s script. Unlike some actor-directors, like Tom Walls, Mander decided to restrict his duties to directing only and did not appear in either film.

Fascination’s main attraction for modern audiences is the starring role of future ‘Hitchcock Blonde’ Madeleine Carroll, appearing here four years before her famous role in The 39 Steps opposite Robert Donat. According to the DVD sleeve notes, only one 35mm copy of Fascination survives in Britain, of which the sound and image quality leave something to be desired. It is, however, eminently watchable, not only for Carroll’s performance, but also as an interesting counterpoint to The Divorce of Lady X which was released seven years later. Both films deal with marital fidelity, but whereas the later film treats infidelity as a comic subject and accepts its existence as a matter of course, Fascination is much more moralistic on the subject.

Madeleine Carroll as Gwenda Farrell in Fascination

Fascination opens with a scene in a children’s playroom, where a little boy and girl are playing with a toy train set. They are Larry and Vera, the protagonists of the film. Mander’s directorial style comes across immediately in the close-up shots of various toys, which give an emotive impression of the room from a child’s perspective. He shuns any establishing shot of the space. In foreshadowing of Larry and Vera’s later troubles, the toy train runs of the rails and Larry, in trying to fix it, breaks the tracks altogether. However, the children quickly make up and a third boy, who had been playing in a corner, orders that they should be ‘married’; a mock ceremony ensues.

The film then briefly moves to Larry and Vera’s courtship as young adults (Larry is ‘in his last term at Oxford’ studying to be an architect) before moving on to a time three years into their marriage, when the main action of the film begins. Vera and Larry have been established as a devoted couple, who laugh and play together and commit to a series of ten ‘commandments’ of marriage, which include ‘telling the other everything that matters’ rather than the more traditional expectation for the wife to obey the husband.

Vera and Larry courting in Fascination

Three years into the marriage, there are no children yet (more on that later) but Larry has established himself as an up-and-coming architect/interior designer and Vera is a content housewife. Larry has received a request to do the interior design of an apartment for a famous stage actress, Gwenda Farrell, who is currently starring in the hit play ‘Fascination’. Gwenda, of course, is played by Madeleine Carroll. Reeling from a recent break-up, Gwenda is taken by Larry and he is smitten by her. The reasons for his attraction to Gwenda are never explained; the audience is asked to assume that it is inevitable for a happily married man like Larry to fall in love with another women based on her looks and glamour alone.

After an initial meeting in a cafeteria, ostensibly to discuss the business of the flat, it is Larry who suggests that they go out on the river for the rest of the day and have a picnic. Once outside, he starts flirting with Gwenda and she calls him a ‘silly boy’ and tells him not to ‘spoil things’. However, she immediately follows this up with an invitation to supper in her flat – and as if the audience needs reminding, Mander here inserts a shot of a sign in the adjacent pond which announces ‘Danger’.

Although Larry is clearly an active and willing participant in the affair, it is no surprise that Gwenda is presented as the primary guilty party, as she reciprocates his attention and moves the relationship along. At the night of the supper (where we can assume the relationship is consummated), Vera is starting to get upset with Larry’s frequent absences from home. Her suspicions are confirmed when Gwenda sends Larry an intimate letter which Vera reads. But even here Vera has not done anything illicit or objectionable: Larry has eye trouble and asks Vera to read his letters out to him, even encouraging her to open the one marked ‘Personal’. Vera does not reveal to Larry what she has read and burns the letter without him being any the wiser.

Larry visiting a very modernist optician in Fascination

Although Larry by this point is starting to feel very conflicted about his affair and wants to end it, Gwenda ostensibly still has too much of a hold on him to enable him to break things off. Thankfully for him, his wife has found a solution. Vera writes to Gwenda under false pretences and invites the other woman to her marital home. Here, rather than having an argument, Vera explains that she loves Larry and wants to protect her marriage, so she is happy to silently consent to his affair with Gwenda. In Vera’s reasoning, if she were to cause a big fuss, Larry would be driven into Gwenda’s arms more.

Before Gwenda has a chance to respond to this proposal, Larry comes home – Vera hides Gwenda quickly behind a curtain. Larry confesses his affair to Vera, begs her forgiveness and offers to write to Gwenda immediately to break off the relationship. Gwenda decides to reveal herself and explains to Larry that Vera, in her generosity, had agreed to him continuing the affair just to keep her marriage intact. She insists on ending her relationship with Larry now that she has met Vera.

Vera warmly says goodbye to Gwenda in Fascination

Fascination ends with the contrast of Gwenda, smoking alone in her dressing room and forcing herself to get ready for yet another night’s performance; and Vera and Larry, cuddled together in a chair where Vera reveals to him that she is pregnant.

Larry and Vera happily reunited at the end of Fascination

Unlike in The Divorce of Lady X, then, divorce is an impossible outcome in Fascination. If Vera had opted to divorce Larry, she would have had to stand the shame and exposure of the divorce court, with a famous actor cited as co-respondent in the case. Clearly, for a respectable middle-class woman this was not really a route to contemplate, even without the added complexity of pregnancy or children. Her willingness to allow the affair to continue, then, is perhaps less magnanimous than the film presents, and more pragmatically her only option.

Yet, by perpetuating the narrative that single women ‘steal’ husbands away from faithful wives; and faithful wives should accept this and allow husbands to come back in their own time, Fascination clearly sides with patriarchal norms. Vera’s ostensible agency is in fact non-existent- something also stressed by a scene where she visits Larry’s office to ask him for household money. Fascination presents marriage as the route to a woman’s happiness, and independence and professional success as poor substitutes. Despite the increasingly progressive position of women in British society by the early 1930s, this film demonstrates that cultural texts often still expounded traditional viewpoints.

Pa Puts His Foot Down (1934)

Pa Puts His Foot Down (1934)

With the rapid increase of car ownership in interwar Britain, it is no wonder that car production companies started to produce high-end advertisements to persuade the public that their cars were superior to all others. In 1934, Zoltan Korda, brother of Alexander Korda, produced a 15-minute advert for Daimler subsidiary company BSA cars. As with other adverts produced in this period, this film would have been shown in cinemas as part of a mixed programme.

Pa Puts His Foot Down starts with several high-angle establishing shots of Piccadilly Circus. There are few road markers and vehicles are seemingly randomly moving around the roundabout. By 1934, the majority of vehicles on the road are motorised: double-decker buses, private cars, taxis, and trucks. Closer shots of traffic, however, also reveal cyclists, bike couriers and the occasional horse-drawn cart. Pedestrians do their best to avoid traffic as they cross the road. These shots are clearly taken on location in Central London.

We are then introduced to Pa and his daughter Betty, who are standing on a pavement trying to cross. For the shots in which the characters are talking, they are clearly on a sound stage mocked up to look like a pavement with a series of shop-fronts. Betty tries to persuade her father several times to cross the road. Each time the shot of her stepping off the pavement in the studio is followed by a shot of a vehicle rushing close by, clearly shot on location. This gives the illusion that the actors really are in Piccadilly Circus.

Betty tells her dad he should ‘just cross over’, after which he starts grumbling about the dangers of modern traffic. It transpires that Pa used to drive a car in the past but now is too nervous to drive. Rather than owning up to his fear, he pretends that modern cars are too expensive, which of course gives his daughter the opportunity to tell him (and the audience) that ‘good cars are quite cheap nowadays’ and ‘the best people drive themselves nowadays’.

After this exposition dialogue which has placed the notion of cheap, reliable cars in the audience’s mind, Pa tries to cross the road himself. In quick succession we see Pa stepping off the pavement; a police officer directing traffic; a close-up of a car; the daughter shouting at Pa; the police officer looking alarmed; Pa’s hat on the asphalt; a female passer-by screaming; and Pa gathering his hat off the road. The final shots are overlaid with the sound of a car horn honking. Korda effectively conveys the illusion of a near-miss without having to stage a stunt or even have any of the actors get close to a moving vehicle. Although Pa Puts His Foot Down is a sound production, this sequence is heavily indebted to silent cinema conventions.

Once Pa is safely back on the pavement, a car pulls up and a young man jumps out, who immediately greets Betty in a very familiar way. She explains to Pa that they met ‘at a dance somewhere’ and that the man has a ‘good job in the motoring business’. The young man promptly offers to drive the pair to their destination – home in the country, 30 miles outside of London. Pa gets bundled in the back seat whilst Betty sits next to the driver.

Immediately after they set off, the young man starts explaining to the daughter that his Daimler BSA has gears but no clutch, because of the Daimler Fluid Flywheel. With a rather dreamy voice, the man starts talking about this innovation, at which point the image cuts away to a diagram demonstrating to the audience the inner workings of this novel gearbox. The Daimler BSA essentially was halfway between a car with a manual clutch and an automatic car. It still had gears, but rather than having to manipulate the clutch pedal and gear change at the same time, the driver could ‘pre-select’ the next gear and then press the clutch pedal at their leisure.

After a minute and a half of diagrammatic explanation, we cut back to the trio in the car where the daughter asks some more detailed questions about how the gearbox works in practice. After several more minutes of explanation, the man invites Betty to try it for herself. Although she previously stated quite confidently to her father that she drove cars, she now minimises her abilities by hastening to add she drives ‘very little’. Naturally, this is no impediment to her being able to drive the Daimler BSA with ease. When Pa wakes up and is alarmed to see that his daughter is driving, the man says it’s quite alright, as ‘this car would be safe in the hands of a child’. The fluid flywheel is so successful that even Pa is starting to get interested in its operation.

After a few more demonstrations of gear changes and brakes, the trio arrive at their destination. While the daughter invites the man in for a drink, Pa subjects the car to a closer inspection. Over a drink, Betty states she is determined to raise the money to get herself a Daimler BSA car. The man immediately ups the ante by suggesting they get engaged. Although Betty quite reasonably counters that they hardly know one another, she falls in with the plan quite readily. Clearly half an hour’s conversation about fluid flywheels has convinced her of the match.

When the couple try to find Pa to get his consent, they realise that he’s driven off with the car and is driving it round the common. When Pa returns he tells the man ‘I thought, if you go off with my daughter, I’ll go off with your car.’ He follows it with saying that he’d always heard the pre-selector gearbox described as an ‘effeminate thing’ but that this was ‘utter rubbish’. When Betty asks him if she may get engaged to the man, Pa jokes that he won’t ‘find her as easy to control as the car’ and then suggests a ‘bargain’: ‘You take the girl, I take the car’.

At this, the end of the advert, both car and woman are commodified and put on equal footing with one another. At the same time, the advert has taken great pains to portray the BSA car as both easy to handle for inexperienced / female drivers, and robust and ‘masculine’ enough for male or experienced drivers who wanted to show off their driving skill. The diagrammatic explanation of the flywheel may appeal to technically-minded viewers, whilst the subsequent practical demonstration demonstrates its benefits to a less specialised audience. Rather implausibly, extensive talk about car technology is also presented as the way to a woman’s heart.

Pa Puts His Foot Down can be viewed on the BFI Player (UK only)

Emlyn Williams

Emlyn Williams

George Emlyn Williams was born in the tiny Welsh village of Pen-y-ffordd in 1905. As a Welshman with dark colouring and an unusual name, Williams appeared very different from popular interwar actors such as Laurence Olivier and Brian Aherne, both of whom performed in West End theatre at the same time. Unlike that other famous Welshman of the period, Ivor Novello, Williams steered clear of musical theatre and nightclubs in favour of writing and performing in plays exploring murder and criminal psychology.

After attending grammar school and undertaking some schooling in France on a scholarship, Williams won a scholarship to Oxford, where he became involved with the Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS). Williams was supposed to graduate in 1926, but instead of studying for his exams he wrote a play, Full Moon, which was put on at the Oxford Playhouse under the management of J.B. Fagan. Williams decided to move to London without completing his degree when Fagan offered him a small walk-on part in the production And So To Bed, in which Edmund Gwenn and Yvonne Arnaud appeared as the principal players.[1]

This modest role marked the start of a long West End career, in which Williams combined acting with writing and directing, regularly casting himself as the lead for his own productions. In his autobiography, Williams presents the years from 1926 to 1935 as ones in which he finds his feet both professionally and in his personal life. After numerous failures and some mild successes, the book ends with the first West End performance of his play Night Must Fall, which Williams credits as his ‘first solid success’[2] – it ran for a year and a half before transferring to Broadway for another 64 performances.

Night Must Fall is based on a notorious murder case of the interwar period, the ‘Crumbles Murder’ case of 1924. Patrick Mahon, a charming Richmond-based salesman, struck up an extramarital affair with typist Emily Kaye. Kaye fell pregnant, and Mahon led her to believe that they would travel to South Africa to start a new life together. Instead, he murdered her in a cottage on the Sussex coast and dismembered and destroyed her body so thoroughly that very little of it was found during the police investigation. What particularly spoke to the public’s imagination is that, less than 48 hours after the murder, Mahon picked up another woman and spent a few days at the cottage with her, whilst Kaye’s partly-dismembered body was in the next room.[3]

Williams combined this story with the equally notorious murder perpetrated by Sidney Fox, who in 1929 killed his own mother by strangling her and subsequently set her hotel room on fire to cover his tracks. In Night Must Fall, Dan, a charming man (modelled on Patrick Mahon) strikes up a friendship with a rich but cranky old lady and her niece Olivia. Whilst the niece suspects that Dan is a murderer, she still falls in love with him and helps him stay out of the hands of the police. Eventually, Dan murders the old lady and steals her money – although Olivia wants to help Dan escape, the play ends with him being arrested.

In his autobiography, Williams states that he had initially been interested in adapting the story of Fritz Haarman, a German serial killer who murdered at least 27 boys and young men in Hanover, in 1924. Williams was bisexual and identified with Haarman’s young victims: poor or homeless men, in some instances selling sex for money, lured back to Haarman’s flat with promises of food and shelter. ‘Yes, it could have happened to me’, acknowledges Williams. Although the story is clearly close to his heart, British theatre censorship laws absolutely precluded the depiction of a homosexual, paedophilic murderer.[4]

Alongside this career as theatre author and actor exploring the darker side of life, Williams also appeared in films. One of his first appearances was as the comic best friend to the protagonist in the Oxford comedy Men of Tomorrow (1932). Although the film was a commercial failure, it did bring Williams exposure and he was voted the most popular British actor by the readers of Film Weekly, ahead of Leslie Howard and Jack Hulbert.[5] This in turn landed Williams with a contract at Gaumont-British, where he wrote as well as acted. His first gig with them was writing the dialogue, and starring in, Friday the Thirteenth (1933). He subsequently worked on the Jessie Matthews vehicle Evergreen and supplied dialogue for the 1934 Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Although his contract with Gaumont was not renewed beyond 1935, Williams stayed active in film for the remainder of the interwar period, and beyond. As well as adapting Night Must Fall for the screen, he also acted in a range of genres such as the comedy Night Alone and the thriller They Drive By Night (both 1938). In 1936, he was cast as Caligula in Joseph von Sternberg’s unfinished I, Claudius, opposite other such greats at Charles Laughton, Flora Robson, and Merle Oberon.

Later in his career, Williams toured with an innovative one-man theatre show called Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens, in which he delivered parts of Dickens’ novels in a manner similar to how Dickens himself toured in the 19th century. He remained interested in murder, and wrote a book about the Moors murders in 1968. Williams continued to be active as a writer and actor until close to his death in 1987.


[1] Emlyn Williams, Emlyn: A sequel to George (London: Penguin, 1976), p. 13

[2] Ibid., p. 449

[3] Colin Evans, The father of forensics: the groundbreaking cases of Sir Bernard Spilsbury and the beginnings of modern CSI (Thriplow: Icon, 2007), pp. 140-147

[4] Williams, Emlyn, pp. 213-221

[5] Ibid., 319

Careers for Girls (1927)

The interwar decades were a fertile period for non-fiction books that provided advice and guidance on how to self-improve your life. As well as health and fitness books and books on how to take up new hobbies or learn DIY skills, publishers also put out a steady stream of books that purported to help readers establish a new career. In 1927, George Allen & Unwin publishers produced Careers for Girls, a practical guide written by one Eleanor Page.

Careers for Girls was part of a series of self-help books. The book’s opening sentence immediately set out its purpose:

This work has been compiled to assist girls who have to earn a livelihood to choose a sphere of work suited to their individual gifts and temperaments, and by which they may earn a happy and comfortable living; and for the more favoured girls anxious to develop any talent they may be endowed with, so that they may take their rightful place in the scheme of things.

Immediately the book distinguishes between two types of ‘girls’ (really, young women): those who have to earn a living, and those who have some private income to rely on but have a drive to make a contribution to society, based on their skills and talents. Almost all the career paths covered in Careers for Girls are registered professions, which require formal schooling and certification, which in turn require financial investment to pay for classes and examination fees.

Although most of the roles described in Careers for Girls don’t appear to be particularly exclusive to a modern reader, in the interwar period compulsory schooling stopped at 14. Secondary schools charged tuition fees; the only way for a child of a working-class family to attend was through obtaining a scholarship. Only 14% of all teenagers went on to a secondary school; and only a fraction of those went on to University.[1]

Whilst women were allowed to attend university and could now even obtain a degree, the overall proportion of female students remained very low.[2] So when Careers for Girls advised that to become a librarian, you could complete on-the-job training as long as you had a secondary school diploma, this career would not be accessible to 86% of the population.[3] To become a musician was even more difficult: a qualification at either a University or the Royal College of Music/Royal College of Art would be expected.[4] When the book’s opening therefore distinguishes two types of ‘girls’, it wholly ignores the vast majority of young women for which the pursuit of a skilled profession was completely out of reach.

The rest of Careers for Girls is divided up in chapters, each of which covers a different area of work. Teaching and nursing – two roles traditionally associated with women – make an appearance, as do accounting, civil service, journalism, social service and many others. By 1927, Britain suffered from a surplus of women, as the impact of the Great War, and the thousands of young men who had died on the front, continued to be felt.

Guides like Careers for Girls gave young women ideas to an alternative to domestic married life. The pursuit of a career rather than marriage would have been a necessity to many. Tellingly, a number of the advertised professions, such as nursing and teaching, generally came with room and board. These roles provided a solution to the single woman who had no family members with whom she could, or wanted to, live.

Careers for Girls also gives estimated salary expectations for all posts. One of the more lucrative careers included is the top rung of the Civil Service, the “Administrative Class”. In order to obtain a position here, a woman had to meet the standard criteria for all Civil Service positions, namely be a British subject with a British father, unmarried, at least 5 feet tall and of certified good health.[5] “In the highest branch of the Service – the Administrative Class – candidates must be twenty-two to twenty-four years of age. The standard of education for examination is equal to that for a University Degree.” After meeting all these criteria (and remaining single, as the Civil Service operated a Marriage Bar), Careers for Girls stated that a woman could enjoy an annual salary of up to £550. However, in reality, Administrative Class posts in the Civil Service were only theoretically open to women – no women actually penetrated to this level of work.[6]

The jobs that appeared to give the young woman the chance of the highest salary, without requiring extensive or expensive training, were those in the distinctly modern fields of media and advertising. Eleanor Page claims that ‘Good positions, with salaries from £500 to £2,000 a year, are open to the woman advertising expert. (…) a university degree or large amount of capital are not required.’[7] Both marketing and press firms ‘prefer to take girls from school and train them to their own methods’, making formal qualifications a hindrance rather than a help.[8]

Similarly, it is telling which careers appear to be not for ‘girls’: glaringly absent are, for example, doctor or surgeon – although Elizabeth Garrett Anderson qualified as both in 1865. Women can train to become secretaries, but not board members; chief assistant librarian but not head librarian; a staff manager, but not the head of the business. Ultimately, Careers for Girls provided a small sub-section of British women with suggestions for professions that were acceptable for them to pursue within the prevailing social norms of the period. The book likely allowed some women to plan out a career trajectory, but for many more its advice would have been so far removed from their day-to-day experience that it was no help whatsoever.


[1] Deirdre Beddoe, Back to Home and Duty: Women Between the Wars 1918-1939 (London: Pandora, 1989), p. 34

[2] Francesca Wade, Square Haunting: Five women, freedom and London between the wars (London: Faber & Faber, 2020), pp. 93-94

[3] Eleanor Page, Careers for Girls (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1927), p. 85

[4] Ibid., p. 81

[5] Ibid., p. 38

[6] Beddoe, Back to Home and Duty, p. 83

[7] Page, Careers for Girls, p. 14

[8] Ibid., p. 73 and p. 14

The Divorce of Lady X (1938)

The Divorce of Lady X (1938)

Just as the end of the 1920s saw the introduction of sound film in British cinema, by the time the 1930s drew to a close, a new innovation was introduced: Technicolor – or more correctly, three-strip Technicolor. Earlier versions of ‘two-colour Technicolor’ had been used in Hollywood since the First World War, for example for segments of Carl Laemmle’s 1925 The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney. Three-strip Technicolor gave more realistic colour images, and is the process which is famously used in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Technicolor required financial investment, so it took some years to bring it to Britain. The first British Technicolor film was Wings of the Morning, made in 1937. It was followed hot on its heels by a film of Britain’s most lavish film producer, Alexander Korda. A Hungarian by birth, Korda moved in Britain in the early 1930s, when he’d already worked in Hollywood and various European film industries. In 1933, he had a huge success on both sides of the Atlantic with The Private Life of Henry VIII, a lavish period piece that depicted Henry Tudor belching and stuffing his face with food at regular intervals. The role of Anne Boleyn is played by Merle Oberon, in one of her first substantial screen roles.

Korda cast her again as the female lead in The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1934, and also in The Private Life of Don Juan in the same year. By 1939, the pair were married, although the marriage only lasted to the end of the Second World War. During their courtship, they made The Divorce of Lady X (1938), in which Oberon stars opposite Laurence Olivier. This comedy, with its frank discussion of divorce and extramarital relations, shows how ‘propriety’ became less important in Britain towards the end of the interwar period.

The Divorce of Lady X is a re-make of a 1933 film, Counsel’s Opinion, which Korda also produced. Both films are based on a play by Gilbert Wakefield. The 1933 film, whilst favourably received upon its release, is no longer extant. The Divorce of Lady X, by contrast, was syndicated for TV release in the US in the 1940s, and is widely available on DVD and online.

The story of The Divorce of Lady X centres on that favourite trope of British interwar cinema: a man and a woman, who are not married, are forced to spend a night together in a (hotel) room. Nothing untoward happens, but everyone assumes the couple must be having an affair. A similar trope is used in Night Alone, as well as numerous Aldwych farces, such as A Cuckoo in the Nest, Rookery Nook, and Lady in Danger. In The Divorce of Lady X, Leslie Steele, a young socialite, and Everard Logan, a divorce lawyer, are thrown together due to an impenetrable fog, which leaves them both stuck in the same central-London hotel. Leslie talks Logan into sharing his suite with her – her sleeping in bed, him on a mattress in the adjacent sitting room.

Laurence Olivier as Everard Logan, getting ready for an
uncomfortable night on the floor in The Divorce of Lady X

During the course of the evening Logan incorrectly assumes Leslie is married. The next day, a member of his club, Lord Meere, comes to Logan’s office and asks him to arrange for a divorce from Lady Meere, as the latter spent the previous night in the same central-London hotel, with a man in her room. Logan assumes that Leslie, who has not given him her last name, is Lady Meere, and that he unwittingly has become both the barrister and the co-respondent in Lord Meere’s divorce suit.[1]

Logan continues to court Leslie, telling her he does not care that his career will be ruined, as long as she will marry him after she’s obtained her divorce from Lord Meere. Leslie continues to play along, although she herself has also fallen in love with Logan. Eventually, Leslie meets the real Lady Meere, and the two women concoct a plan to reveal the truth to Logan. Logan is initially embarrassed by being taken for a ride and he storms off to France, but Leslie follows him onto the boat and manages to change his mind.

Leslie (Merle Oberon) nursing a sick Logan (Laurence Olivier) on the boat to France

Right from the outset of the film, it is made clear that Logan has had multiple affairs – when Leslie comments that his pyjamas are hideous and he should dump the woman who buys them for him, he shoots back ‘we parted six months ago!’. At the same time, he rings up another woman to apologise for not being able to see her that evening, due to the fog. Although Leslie is not explicitly shown to have any lovers of her own, she is very confident and flirts with Logan in a way that makes it unlikely that he is her first love interest. The real Lady Meere, moreover, is repeatedly quoted as having had four husbands and several ‘episodes’ with other men, and at the end of the film it is made clear that she is cheating on Lord Meere. Crucially, none of this is depicted as wrong or objectionable; although all characters admit that four divorces is perhaps a bit much, Lady Meere is also shown to be a sympathetic and attractive woman. When Logan admits to his assistant that he (as he thinks) has fallen in love with a married woman, it is a matter of amusement rather than embarrassment, and divorce is depicted as largely normalised.

Lady Meere (Binnie Barnes) and Leslie (Merle Oberon)
plotting on how to break the truth to Logan (Laurence Olivier)

This representation of marriages as likely not lasting nor monogamous clearly presents a challenge when the central relationship of the film must also fulfil narrative convention. For the audience to be invested in the relationship between Leslie and Logan they must believe that it will end in a happily ever after, not a marriage that will quickly dissolve because one or both parties are conducting affairs.

To resolve this, The Divorce of Lady X uses the trope of the woman-as-saviour: Leslie, for all her modern manners, is essentially a respectable girl. When she first meets Logan, he is extremely cynical about women, due to his experience in the divorce court. This cynicism reaches a high point during a withering closing-arguments monologue in one of his divorce cases, which Leslie witnesses from the public gallery. ‘Modern woman has disowned womanhood, and refuses man’s obligation!’ he thunders. ‘She demands freedom, but won’t accept responsibility! She insists upon time to “develop her personality”, and she spends it in cogitating on which part of her body to paint next.’

Laurence Olivier as Everard Logan, spouting against Modern Woman in court

Little wonder that Leslie is not impressed after hearing that speech! But no fear – her steadfast conviction that she is the one to save and reform Logan is rewarded in the end. When she follows him onto the boat to France at the film’s close, the choppy waters give her a chance to mother and nurture Logan. Her triumph is crowned by a final scene in the divorce court, in which Logan’s speech is the opposite of his earlier outburst. Appearing now as the defence of the woman accused of divorce, rather than as counsel for the husband, Logan gushes that his client is ‘a woman – that unique and perfect achievement of the human species (…) especially evolved for the comfort and solace of man.’ The message is clear: Leslie has managed to persuade Logan that married life is, after all, best. The open discussion of, and jokes about, divorce that form the backbone of The Divorce of Lady X point towards the ‘permissive society’ of post-War Britain; but its resolution of the protagonists’ story in a traditional marriage shows that in the 1930s the stability of conservative traditions still held sway.

The Divorce of Lady X can be viewed on the PBS website.


[1] In British divorce law, a co-respondent is a person cited in a divorce case as having committed adultery with the respondent ie. the half of the couple not initiating the divorce.

Co-operette (1938)

Co-operette (1938)

The Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), now the Co-operative Group, has had a presence in Britain since 1863. From its foundation, it set itself apart from other grocers with the notion of ‘dividend’: members who purchased goods from the business would also get a share of the profits – the more goods purchased, the bigger the dividend returned. In the interwar period, the CWS was a wholesaler supplying goods to a range of local co-operative grocers, particularly in the north of England.

In 1938, CWS produced Co-operette, a substantial advertising film for the company’s products. A version of the film is available to watch for free on the BFI player, (for those based in the UK). The BFI copy of the film lasts around 15 minutes, and appears to be incomplete. Nevertheless, the available footage gives a great insight into British advertising films of the late 1930s. A film like this would be shown as part of a cinema screening, which at the time usually comprised of a combination of feature films, educational films, cartoons, trailers, and advertisements.

Like a shampoo commercial produced two years’ previously, Co-operette is framed around the deceit of being ‘on set’ whilst the advert is being filmed. The first shot after the opening credits is of a shooting script, which describes the opening credits we have just seen, and the announcer we are about to see – although the shot ‘close up of shooting script’ does not appear.

Close-up of the shooting script in Co-operette (1938)

The announcer tells the audience who will be featured in the film: comedian Stanley Holloway, band leader Debroy Somers and his band, comedian Harold Walters, and the ‘Six Co-operettes’: a dancing troupe of young women in skimpy outfits. (The fact that the famous and popular Stanley Holloway barely features is an indication that this may not be the full film). The next sequence moves us on to a film set, where Debroy Somers and his band are set up on a sound stage, ready to be recorded. In the set’s lobby, a Co-operette walks past whilst chatting to a man dressed in native American costume, to heighten the effect that this is an active film set on which multiple productions are being shot. Harold Walters plays Sam Small, a character in fact developed by Stanley Holloway who by 1938 would have been very familiar to audiences. Throughout the fifteen minutes, Sam Small serves as the comic relief character who creates confusion on the set.

When filming of Debroy Somers and his band is about to get started, Co-operette serves up a series of close-ups of crew members on the set shouting for ‘QUIET!’

This over-emphasis on the need for absolute silence on the set make the inevitable disruptions of the hapless Sam Small onto the set’s operations even more impactful. The close-up shots are sharply angled, lending an unexpectedly expressionist air to proceedings which is not repeated at any other point in the film.

As Debroy Somers and his band get going for their first song – on a beach set with some women in swimwear decorously arranged in the foreground – the band’s trio of singers start a Co-op-themed song to the tune of ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’:

There is a Co-op in the town
And there, my true love sits her down
And well she knows each penny she could spend
Will go towards her dividend

At this point the scene changes to a shot of a young, fashionably dressed housewife, who is pointedly unpacking her CWS-bought groceries, taking care to position the labels carefully towards the camera.

A housewife unpacking Co-op goods in Co-operette (1938)

This song seamlessly blends into the next one, in which the singers describe the various customer types of the Co-op in catchy rhymes accompanied by visual representations of these customers: a retired couple (“Charles and Jane live all alone/in a four-room flat they call their home”); a young man buying his wedding suit (“Lovely fit/I must admit”); a young woman who cleverly saves money on day-to-day purchases so she can still dress fashionably (“She knows the way to shop/where value is the top”); a young married couple of whom the husband always tries to eat everything in the larder immediately after the wife has done her Saturday shop at the Co-op.

Despite the inclusion of the young groom, women are firmly established as the Co-ops main customer base. They are pithily categorised and visualised as ‘maid’, ‘widow’, ‘flaunty extravagant queen’ and ‘housewife that’s thrifty’. These four women are then shown to harmoniously share a pitcher of lemonade, drinking ‘to the health of CWS.’

From left to right: ‘housewife that’s thrifty’; ‘flaunty extravagant queen’; widow; maid

This section takes up about half of the fifteen-minute video. It is followed by a dance sequence of the six ‘Co-operettes’, after which the most surreal part of the film is launched: the ‘Carrot and Onion dance’. Against a set of three larger-than-life tins (Vegetable Soup, Butter Beans, and Carrots) two female dancers emerge. One is dressed in an orange suit that covers her entire body with a green head-dress; the other in a green, short-skirted dress.

Onion and Carrot emerging for their dance

As Carrot and Onion they dance a graceful pas-de-deux in which they overcome the difficulty of Onion’s smelly leaves. Their performance is followed by more work by the Co-operettes, this time tap-dancing. The final minutes of the film include more comic relief by Harold Walters, and a final song by the Debroy Somers band:

In every town there is a store
You pay much less, you get much more
For CWS has goods galore
For you, fair maid

Remember, remember
From January to December
There are always goods in store
For you, fair maid

The film ends with a title card reading that ‘All the goods featured in this film are CWS products’ – but hardly any goods are featured with any prominence. The first housewife featured is shown unpacking products, and there are some shots of a full larder, but in either case it is not possible for the audience to easily identify what the products are. The only packages that are really clear are the three enlarged cans used as the set for the ‘Carrot and Onion’ dance. No foodstuffs are mentioned by name in any of the songs.

Instead, the focus of the whole film is about the customers who shop at Co-op, and how the organisation caters to what the film presents as the full range of different women. In what is an early example of customer segmentation, women are primarily distinguished by their marital status (unmarried, married, widowed). However, whilst the film may be presumed to target women as the primary shoppers, the repeated display of the ‘Co-operette’ dancing troupe instead suggests a male target audience. During these dance sequences, the deceit and comedy of the sound stage set is dropped in favour of a more straightforward attempt at Hollywood glamour.

Co-operette shows how a British firm used cinematic conventions to create an advertising film that was much more about selling a concept than about selling specific items. The overall effectiveness of the film is, perhaps, somewhat reduced by its attempt to provide comedy, catchy songs, stage performance, and the Carrot and Onion dance which appears to be in a genre all of its own. Despite the overt messaging in the film implying that only women are the CWS’ customers, the film’s varied format indicates that it tries to appeal to all audience groups in the cinema, including men and children.

Co-operette can be viewed for free on BFI Player, for readers based in the UK.

Alastair Sim

Alastair 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.

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