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Laburnum Grove (1936)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laburnum Grove is available on DVD from Network On Air.


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

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

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

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

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