Wait For The Moment When…

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…Noel Coward (Dr Christian Faber) and Margaret Leighton (Leonora Vail) slope out of a crowded West End theatre in THE ASTONISHED HEART (1950). Off they go to dance the samba (a notorious celluloid euphemism)¤ and drink “Stingers”¤¤ as a “prelude to adulterous criminal intimacy” – as the Divorce Courts reports used to say. The fleeting but triumphantly lascivious look on Leighton’s face as she makes sure of Nolly’s sexual infatuation is one of the few authentic reactions in a film of almost total glittering artifice. In a certain mood – perhaps slightly inebriated or incubating flu – THE ASTONISHED HEART is diverting if ultimately unsatisfying, but it was a disaster with post-war audiences on both sides of the Atlantic who at this period wanted grit not gloss.

The huge appeal of BRIEF ENCOUNTER in 1945 inevitably led to attempts by its creators to duplicate its success. That movie’s director David Lean achieved another – unaccountably neglected  – masterpiece with THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS (1949), while Coward developed the screenplay of THE ASTONISHED HEART from his own one act play of 1935. Noel sacked Michael Redgrave after several days’ filming, and took over the role of the tragic hero, the sexually obsessed suicidal psychiatrist Chris. He admitted later that he was unconvincing¤¤¤ but blamed this on the inadequacies of the part – which after all he’d written himself. Ironically one can imagine the tortured and twitchy Redgrave making rather a hit of the part whereas Noel is far too smug, stiff and middle aged in quite the wrong sort of way. He never for a moment forgets that he is The Master, relishing self-indulgent lines that enable him to enunciate words such as “grotesque” and “cataclysmic crisis” like an ENSA impersonator of himself. He and everyone else appear to live on a diet of cigarettes and cocktails: no wonder that the wonderful Amy Veness – as Alice the cook – although third-billed has her role cut to 2 lines.

The cast are Coward friends, lovers, pensioners and regulars; all great names but (especially boyfriend Graham Payn) rather strained and jumpy, not quite at their best, maybe on account of the sudden Redgrave departure and consequent presence of “Ole Nole” (Nancy Mitford’s soubriquet) amongst them on the studio floor. Leighton was initially shy of Celia Johnson, and Joyce Carey was dependent on Noel for all that she had.  Yet the sheer abundance and extravagance of star quality and star “turns” in this frivolous and perhaps silly little movie is what makes it nevertheless so interesting and entertaining. A bad film but superbly done. As Coward remarked years later, they had all needed a stronger director than Anthony Farnborough to keep them in check: he would have preferred the iron hand of Carol Reed. (Or so he said in safe retrospect).

As so often Coward uses the rivalry/friendship of two women as the axis of the plot. Chris Faber’s sensible wife Barbara (Johnson) runs into an old schoolfriend, the flighty and unhappily divorced Leonora (Leighton) in a London hat shop: “Darlingtons, in the Fulham Road” – you know. Over their subsequent tea – “no biscuits, Madam” –  Leonora becomes immediately, obviously and entirely unconvincingly fixated on the as yet unseen character of Chris, determining to seduce, dominate and possess him. She succeeds all too well, ruins him and he jumps to his death (not instantaneous) from the roof of his very ugly Park Lane apartment building (“70 Chester House”).

The theme of sexual obsession – “The Lord shall smite thee with madness and blindness and the astonishment of heart”¤¤¤¤ – is (according to that durable star Joan Blondell, who should have known) the only plot in the movies. Margaret Leighton is – as usual – quite extraordinary and one can almost believe in her driving a “plain straightfoward alienist” nuts. Leighton’s current Wikipedia entry celebrates her sense of “exquisite grandeur and refinement”. It’s a good line – and one of the reasons why she always seemed years older than her true age (she was 28 in THE ASTONISHED HEART, looking and behaving like a glamorous 65 year old). Robert Stephens, who worked with her, described her in his memoirs as screamingly funny and common beyond belief. In private life she had terrible eating problems: she was also unusually tall* – 5’10” – in a profession of the tiny, and the height accentuates her sometimes alarming thinness. There are scenes in THE ASTONISHED HEART where her sumptuous and heavy Molyneux satin evening gowns seem to be falling off her, and her poor chest bones stick out alarmingly. Leighton has an alluring and varied repertoire of mannerisms and tricks to keep the viewer’s eye on her – a vertical butterfly flutter of her right hand, a slurring of her r’s as though tipsy, the word ‘extraordinary’ pronounced with at least seven syllables and ‘my’ said as “m’ . It’s all supremely actressy but perfectly suited to her character and put across with brio. Leighton is unrivalled at playing self-absorbed manipulative neurotic beauties with tragic secrets in their past**

And Celia Johnson, very crisp & snappy – though not above some rather rich eye rolling – is a perfect foil for her. Certainly Johnson is the most adroit of the three leads at suggesting the bleak tragedy of the situation behind the cocktail party banter and tomfoolery.  THE ASTONISHED HEART, BRIEF ENCOUNTER and THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS have certain curious tropes in common: a flight from a stale chilly marriage,  adultery-as-escapism, illicit sex as a cure for ennui. This risky game of make-believe is counterpointed and emphasised in each instance with rendezvous in the furtive scented darkness of masked balls, cinema balconies or theatre stalls *** plus real or imagined flight to exotic holiday locations in the guilty footsteps of Vronsky and Anna Karenina: Venetian canals, palmy tropical islands, Alpine lakes. And each film relies on a elaborate structure of flashbacks: these distance the guilt and enhance the fantasy, which is perhaps why we tend to forget in a casual review that all three pictures culminate in an attempted or successful suicide – and showy “public” suicides, too: under trains (Karenina, once again) or jumping from high places. The species of self-destruction that amateur psychologists say springs from a deep loathing of the human race.

But – for Heaven’s sake! – to happier thoughts. Coward was highly sensitive to smell and a born lover of perfume. It was an essential part of the theatrical act and celebrity persona. One of his short stories is entitled “Ashes Of Roses” and he famously makes extensive reference to Caron’s Narcisse Noir in his early shocker “The Vortex”. A later personal Coward favourite was Guerlain’s Vetiver. In the saucy tale “Me and The Girls” he pithily describes a nightclub – “the name of the joint was La Cumparsita & it smelled of fresh paint and piddle…”. In his only novel “Pomp and Circumstance” he memorably describes one Ursula Gannet as looking “…like an only slightly effeminate matador…her eyes…had an intense, almost hypnotic quality, and she’d put on a little too much ‘Arpege'”. Throughout his life, reporters and friends noted that, when receiving, Noel was as invariably surrounded by scent bottles as by cigarette holders, cocktail shakers and a piano. Actress friends in clinics were showered with flowers and perfume. Elaine Stritch remembered Coward giving her a nearly empty flacon of parfum as a first night gift: Noel told her it was so delicious he’d used most of it himself. Despising anything relating to ‘The Method’, he would douse himself before going on stage in his favourite scent of the moment : a habit other members of the cast might find off-putting, as when he played the working class patriot and pater familias Frank Gibbons in “This Happy Breed” drenched in Chanel. “Get on with it!” was his only response to tentative objections. As his friend the Queen Mum used to say,” And why not?”. Perfume, like life, is for the living.”

¤ just as “dance hall proprietresses” are not always quite what they seem.

¤¤ “brandy and creme de menthe, mixed”.

¤¤¤ his mother, with bland maternal candour, told him she hated the film and that she thought he looked hideous in it.

# Coward regretted that the alienist is not shown at work: on the contrary, Dr Faber is presented in a succession of scenes with a variety of patients discussing their complex, lurid and eminently distressing sex lives

¤¤¤¤ “Deuteronomy 28… I think”. Noel’s text for his important lecture on Jung’s concept of the inferior function. Guess who’s gazing up from the floor with huge soft-focus swimming eyes?

* in long shots with Noel she wears large flat shoes which look strange beneath those opulent couture gowns.

** maybe most effective of all as David Niven’s sociopathic but fatally irresistible wife in CARRINGTON V.C.

*** with the concomitant opportunity for sly parodies of various genres.

Empress of India

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At some point before her marriage in 1925, my paternal grandmother – the one I never knew – took ship with friends for India (‘P.O.S.H.’) on a visit of evidently some months. The strange thing to me is that nearly every detail of this romantic rite of passage was so rapidly all but lost in family tradition. We do not know even whether Phyllis Elliott took her trip before or after the Great War; I suspect it was most likely post-1918 as at the very end of the Edwardian era my grandmother is supposed to have been working as nursemaid in the Scott household, looking after baby Peter, the future ornithologist, while his father sailed south to the fatal Antarctic wastes. By the time I met Phyllis’s surviving fellow-traveller in the 1970’s, that old lady could recall not a thing about the whole enterprise except that all their purchases and acquisitions¤ were smashed to pieces on the voyage home during a violent storm in the Bay of Biscay. I visualised exotic splinters and fragments of sandalwood, ambergris, nacre – “peacocks, apes and ivory” – all over the inner cabin floor. All that survived were a few Benares brass ashtrays (probably originally made in Birmingham for export as was then the eccentric custom) and a tiny stool inlaid with mother of pearl, beside which my infant father was photographed in 1928.

And maybe it was Phyllis who brought home the sari which we discovered in her widower’s house when he died in the early 1960’s. A strange roll came to light, wrapped in brown paper and cellophane bags, emitting a penetrating odour of damp – and of patchouli, India’s own natural moth deterrent. But it was the old-style patchouli, which seemed to give out a much thicker, oilier, sweeter fragrance of that of today: modern patchouli is infinitely more sophisticated – airier, drier, more rarefied  – but not so dramatic nor emphatic and certainly not as pungent. I daresay it is all to do with the process of refining, extraction and what have you. Anyway, we unpacked this bundle and out rolled yard after yard of exquisite cream raw silk, bordered in whorls of emerald green and silver. I remember it cascading down the front stairs from top to bottom, a rippling river of colour and scent, like a flowery meadow in spring. The only thing was, none of us really knew what it was. It was some time before its destined use dawned upon me. And by then it had gone, as things tended to do in our house – “melted away like butter in the sun” as my mother always said.

I learned about the lore of the sari from what was then called a “novelty act” on a popular television programme of those days, a talent show by the name of Opportunity Knocks hosted by the egregious Hughie Green¤¤. A very pretty Indian lady came before the cameras in her petticoat and proceeded to put on her sari, while singing the complicated sartorial instructions as she dressed. I recall now only the single line:

“You wrap it very tightly
Round your you-know-what…”

The act brought the house down with the studio audience, but “you, the viewers at home” did not, alas, vote for the lovely lady’s return the following week. I thought then that the sari was the most romantic costume ever devised for woman and this was even without the benefit of colour television.
I was told later how tricky it can be to wear – easy to trip, hard to manipulate, a little warm if you’re not used to all those bunched yards of fabric. I heard about the variations in arranging the sari, in the styles of different India states – the Gujerat draping for energetic movement or dancing; the gracious formal pleats of Bombay for more sedate occasions.

The sari stores of Leicester began then to fascinate me as they still do today: the huge windows light up rainy days and dark winter nights with glorious waterfalls of gathers, sweeps, draperies and veils in beautiful buoyant bursting colours – turquoise, gold, viridian, flame, oyster, lime, copper, chocolate, scarlet, crimson and of course sugar pink – Diana Vreeland’s celebrated “navy blue of India”. And then the silks and satins, chiffons and taffetas are all over-embroidered and stitched and beaded with thousands of brilliants, metallic threads, sequins and rhinestones. A gorgeous hatch-out of Indian butterflies against the sobrieties of “Brentford Nylons”, “C & A” and the Co-Op.

The other day I saw quoted in a book of grammar¤¤¤ an exciting line from Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister – “She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight”. Some image to unlock the imagination! All the legends and factoids of India come spilling out – and all the scents. The Kashmiri lakes and their palatial houseboats; the fragrant sandalwood and ghee of the burning ghats; the gem mines of Golconda; those “pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar”; the Jewel in the Lotus and “The Jewel In the Crown”; George V and Queen Mary sweltering and gleaming at the Delhi Durbar; “The Mountain of Light” monster diamond kidnapped to become a radiant if unlucky star of the British royal regalia.

I am thrilled by my friend Mr Singh’s memories of peacocks as numerous as crows screeching in the trees on his parents’ Punjabi farm; and progress reports from his Leicester garden flourishing and fertile with chilis, native herbs and spices. Expatriate Indians tell me of tuberoses and mangoes growing back home like weeds in suburban Calcutta back yards. Of the delicate dry fresh smell of Darjeeling tea plantations and the stronger redolence of Assam. Of the addictive mouthwatering spiciness of tuli, the sacred medicinal Indian basil, and of huge garlands of living flowers slung around the necks of visitors; and of ‘cus cus tatis’ – woven blinds of vetiver grass, soaked in water and hung at the windows to repel heat and insects while cooling and perfuming the interior of the house.

The now forgotten but much-filmed & once lauded American novelist Louis Bromfield (“The Rains Came”) wrote of coming into Bombay by ship in the late 1930’s, and of the odours wafting out into the bay from The Gateway To India:

” He sniffed and became aware of a smell he knew at once – a curious mixed smell faintly dominated by the smell of drying fish…’Bombay duck’…but there was more…the compounded odours of spice and woodsmoke, of jasmine and marigold and of dust and copra and cow-dung smoke…(And) the strange excitement of memories: a dangerous smell, but deliciously exciting…there was no smell in the world quite like it.” ¤¤¤¤

That fleshy musky indolic jasmine; the carnal sensuality hidden in tiny white stars – and the flamboyant bitter faint sickliness of the fluorescent orange marigold.

And thus this hidebound old westerner Lemon Wedge imagines, pictures and smells India in his own mind. But now, take heart! we all have the privilege of having our noses indulged and our brains expanded by the olfactory treasure house of NEELA VERMEIRE, newly arrived at LES SENTEURS and as gloriously varied and nuanced as Mother India herself. Why not pop round? You are only a dream away.

¤ which did not include husbands. I don’t know whether the search for a spouse had been one of the original intentions of the voyage out. In those days of the Raj, the “fishing fleet” of wise and foolish British virgins made regular sailings to India in search of suitable matches. In the event, my grandparents first met back in England on the occasion of my great grandmother’s funeral procession becoming jammed in a narrow Leicestershire lane. Phyllis was a lovely mourner, pale and interesting in black crepe; Mr Craven was young and dashing on his motor bike.

¤¤ dramatically & posthumously revealed to have been Paula Yates’s secret father.

¤¤¤ “The Elements of Eloquence” by Mark Forsyth. A stimulating read.

¤¤¤¤ “Night In Bombay”, first published 1940.

In the Day Room

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LW has had a run of room themes over the past month. Maybe it’s because I tend to live outdoors if at all possible during the summer season, and so ponder more objectively on the rarely used shuttered interiors – and smell them more intensely when I come inside. And then of course each roomy reverie leads into another, in a dream-like enfilade of memory and reflection. Feeling decidedly unwell last week, and running a slight temperature, I Iay down during the morning¤ and my burning head and mild weepiness involuntarily took me back to schooldays in the late 1960’s. Does being ill always fill you with a sort of sick nostalgia? Does this connect, I wonder, with the idea of ultimately “Going Home” at “End of Retirement”?

Fifty years ago, away at boarding school, the business of Being Ill¤¤ was hedged around with a certain ceremony. You felt something “coming on” – hoped, imagined, or feared that it was coming on – and took yourself up the lane, past the staff garages and the Art School to the San. This was a great stark redbrick Victorian building, most of which stood vast and unused except in times of epidemic. Several boys were supposed to have died in there over the years; there was a small mortuary in the yard. (Or did we just say it was a morgue? I cannot remember, but I seem to recall the fatal letters spelled out in decorative brick). Anyway, you pushed open the heavy oaken front door and passed through the veil into Sister’s frostily antiseptic clinic, full of such unlikely accessories as forceps, and kidney bowls awash with witchhazel.

There was a resident doctor and two or three nurses at any one time. Sister – in decent blue & white with starched apron and cuffs – would listen with sceptical briskness to your recital of symptoms, in my case almost invariably headache. Then, with any luck, a glass of water and a pill would be proffered: you were closely observed as you swallowed the drug to make sure you hadn’t pouched or otherwise concealed it. If then Sister’s professional instincts misgave her – for who knew whether she might not have the first case of scarlet fever or influenza on her hands? – she would pronounce dryly:

“You had better lie down in the Day Room – for now…”

Off you shuffled, down the twilit linoleum-lined corridors, through a couple of swing doors and into this room at once so welcome a refuge and so tearfully dreary. They kept it very hot to make it as much like a real hospital as possible, and obviously it would not have done to have had it too welcoming. I don’t think I ever saw the curtains at the long windows open: what I remember best is the feeling – rather like that of the child Jane Eyre – of walking into a chamber filled with a thick prickly vermilion mist. A dozen black iron bedsteads were made up with red blankets. You took off your shoes and lay fully dressed on or under these covers, all itchy-scratchy, in a fever of heat and relief, sometimes even infection. And oh, the smell! A fog of hot wool, bleach, Dettol, warm bodies, embrocation, institutional cleanliness (never a cosy odour), floor polish, distant cooking (for the resident patients lying upstairs) and radiators. Do you remember the redolence of those heavy old radiators? Very singular – especially if coated with gloss paint which used to soften enough to encourage the peeling off of strips by the bed-bound in a stupor of ennui.

I don’t believe meals were laid on – we were after all being observed for germs: we were not yet formally initiated into San life. But, every once in a while, a genial orderly named Carlos would push a soft dry mop over the bottle green lino and under the beds; then he would offer one a cup of tea, served with a Rich Tea or Digestive biscuit in the saucer. Another evocative aroma, for the tea came strong and rich in tannin: it always had (like all school tea) a definite but never identified chemical note to it, smelling of a peculiarly raw sort of disinfectant. People said this was bromide: to keep us calm, d’you see? But we were none of us calm in those years.

By late afternoon, after a couple of naps, one was often feeling much better and even disposed to chat (strictly forbidden – “you are SUPPOSED to be unwell…”) with the shadowy lump writhing or prone on the next bed. The whispery gloom encouraged intimate confidences: you’d remember these revealing conversations for years – “I was in the Day Room with him in 1968 and he confessed that…”. Around 5 pm the doctor was brought round in pomp with the power of life and death in his hands. This meant either admittance to the wards: “Go and fetch your things” – or instant discharge: “Go and have your supper”.

And nine times out of ten, that was that! Off you scurried, headache gone, all ready for a warmish nourishing meal of macaroni cheese with fried bread and cocoa; or meat balls in a strangely coloured sauce served with chips. Plenty of bread and marge to it. School days were absolutely exhausting – mentally, physically and emotionally – and there’s no doubt that eight hours lying down did much good. My parents used to say “You were always SO CROSS when you came home at the end of term….” but none of us at the time, experts in tiredness though we all became, correctly diagnosed this at the time as terminal fatigue.

¤ just like Elsie Carr on Mrs Worrett’s purple ‘lounge’ in ‘Katy’.

¤¤ “Go away! I’m being ill!”

WAIT FOR THE MOMENT WHEN: Muriel George…

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…blinds a Nazi invader with pepper, then splits his skull with the kindling hatchet in WENT THE DAY WELL? (1942). She’s Mrs Collins, postmistress at the idyllic village of Bramley End; he’s one of a German unit who have infiltrated the place during the Whitsun weekend (May 23rd – 25th) of 1942. They’re in British uniforms and all speak & understand English … save one. If that situation rings a bell then you’re probably thinking of Jack Higgins’ THE EAGLE HAS LANDED filmed 36 years later. Graham Greene wrote the story for this one, it was produced by Michael Balcon and artfully directed at a gallop by Cavalcanti. Music by William Walton.

I discovered this movie about 20 years ago and was amazed by the atmosphere, the extreme violence, the pace and the infinite subtleties of the propaganda. The film in told in flashback. A framing talk to camera by Mervyn Johns, showing us German graves in a rural churchyard – “they wanted a bit of England and this is all they got”, emphasises that we are looking back at trauma from a position of security “after the war was over and old Hitler got what was coming to him”; after a living nightmare broke out in a toy village which learned to grow fangs and claws. Thus reassured – for when WENT THE DAY WELL? was first released in 1942 the outcome of WW2 was very far from certain – contemporary British audiences were taught a number of salutary lessons. Recently this film has much revived and discussed, the consensus being that it was designed essentially as a morale-boosting exercise showing all sections of society (in a time still obsessed by class) seamlessly bonding to defeat the invader. I see something very different.

For WENT THE DAY WELL? seems to have been intended – under a thin veneer of roses round the door cosiness, and even comic touches – to frighten the life out of everyone who saw it. Imminent danger of invasion had passed in 1942 but was by no means gone, and it is never explained how the outfit of 60 Germans have penetrated Middle England: “the forces of evil” have come like a thief in the night or like Dracula, manifesting in a mist. A terrifying almost uncanny mystery in brilliant summer sunshine: all we know is, that they are here – now.

The film is a brilliantly paced series of show ‘n’ tell lessons as clear as a medieval morality play. It can be highly subversive in its attitudes: roses have thorns; the sacred hospitality extended to strangers is unwise and likely to be abused; trust animal instinct and intuition, not common sense; don’t be afraid of making a fool of yourself. Take Mrs Collins and that axe. By killing the invader she is atoning for her slackness and want of vigilance earlier in the picture: losing telegrams, ignoring her feelings that something’s strangely amiss. However, as her billet lies dead in the wreckage of the tea table (like all Nazis he’s been filling his greedy face at someone else’s expense*) the camera zooms in on his fallen revolver. The heroic but disorganised postmistress (ultimately responsible for all national communications) foolishly fails to retrieve the vital gun for future use. So that, although she tries to phone for help, she is consequently defenceless when the fallen man’s comrade bursts in and then and there atrociously bayonets “the old woman” to death +.

Nearly all the villagers who are seen being wilfully careless, lazy – (“it’s probably a Czech or a Pole…We’ll let sleeping dogs lie..”) – or heedless of official home front procedure are killed off by the scriptwriters. The deaths of these defaulters are given a final heroic gloss in this expert piece of public information – they are after all British, and native casualness beats heartless totalitarian efficiency hands down – but nonetheless it is made clear why they have to die. The Home Guard are wiped out because they ignore the tolling of the church bell** – “… couldn’t have. That’s the signal enemy parachutists have landed”. The village policeman*** fails to check the invaders’ credentials upon arrival – he’s more concerned with the pointless etiquette of being surprised while shaving – and is subsequently and aptly stabbed in the back by the quisling, Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks). The lady of the manor though full of politically correct platitudes (“you mustn’t waste food in wartime”) loftily brushes aside everyone’s all-too-well-founded fears – “it’s all right, don’t worry, it’s all right”# – and is blown to bits by a hand grenade; although she’s allowed to meet her end in an act of self-sacrifice which saves the local children. What’s more she’s played by national treasure Marie Lohr: all the faces (English AND German characters) in this film are carefully chosen as well-known & loved by contemporary British audiences, as though to ram home the message that this horror could happen to us all. ANYONE might turn out to be a Fifth Columnist or his victim. Familiar and beloved does not necessarily mean trustworthy.

The children, however, the future of postwar Britain, are all calm, resourceful and alert: “you ought not to tell!” Young George¤, the cheeky Cockney evacuee who eventually raises the alarm and calls in the British troops, despite being shot in the leg, is one of the few unqualified heroes of the picture. There’s a sharp point here, too: it’s a village outsider – ” we always call them foreigners round this way” – who brings about the downfall of the true aliens, the Nazis++. It’s also George who is posed the question “Do you know what morale is?” The succinct answer is so outrageously racist by today’s standards that I dare not repeat it here. It’s still to be found on film, though – for now.

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The other unblemished hero of the piece is Nora (Valerie Taylor)¤¤, the vicar’s middle-aged spinster daughter – “my dear! Another cup!” – who we see from her first appearance is practical and patriotic: “a very good citizen”. She has instructions for dealing with a gas attack pasted up in the hall cupboard and thinks that as the French “let us down so abominably …they deserve to suffer for it”. It is Nora and George, already suspicious, who make the key discovery that the German commandant billeted at the vicarage sleeps in “posh pyjamas” and what’s more ( stupidly and gluttonously – as you’d expect from a Nazi) he keeps Viennese chocolate in his kit bag. Now, Nora has a crush on the traitor Wilsford who to the viewer has all the marks of a degenerate about him: florid ties, flowery scarves and an oily manner. Bloomsbury-style frescoes adorn the walls of his cottage. Initially beguiled by these arty affectations, Nora nonetheless sets aside her affections, formulates her suspicions and ultimately shoots Wilsford dead in a quite extraordinary sequence of such verisimilitude that I wonder whether Valerie Taylor was not given a real gun on set and let rip, kickback and all. “Each man kills the thing he loves”…

Thora Hird also keeps a level head as the sharp-shooting land girl Ivy (“I once won a bottle of scent at Blackpool”): here expectations are again reversed, for the character is trailed as a man-mad featherhead but Northern nous comes to the fore and in the final shoot-out Ivy has a go as a cool-headed killer. Her house mate is played by Elizabeth Allan whose dad was golf partner to Lemon Wedge’s grandfather. Miss Allan was said to have been an intimate of Dietrich so there’s a cute (and faintly risque) in-joke as she and Thora attempt to smuggle out messages pencilled on eggshells under the nose of their guard – “Go on, Marlene, do your stuff!”¥

So, what do we smell in this curiously compelling film? The stink of treachery that’s for sure; the smell of “the lowest of the low”¥¥ and the corruption which breeds the reek of blood, cold steel and bashed-in heads. But more movingly, there’s the magical pervasive fragrance of an idyllic English early summer, all the more beautiful for being in danger of being lost for ever under the heel of the invader. Despite, or maybe because of the black and white stock, evoking an instant nostalgia even in 1942, “the darling buds of May” were never more profuse nor so heavily scented. The exteriors were shot on location in the impossibly olde worlde village of Turville in Buckinghamshire. The camera dazzles the eye with leafy lanes, carefree cyclists, cornfields, windmills, flocks of sheep, dream cottages and church towers while nesting birds sing like mad on the soundtrack. The delicious aromas of freshly baked bread, roasting Sunday joints, plum tart, apples and cider fill the village kitchens: the smells of England, home and beauty. Jars of wild & garden flowers decorate every studio interior. Oliver Wilsford offers Nora a rose from a vase: the traitor’s symbolic snitching of England’s national flower. The climactic battle for Bramley End takes place in the exquisite water gardens of the Georgian manor house. As the marauders are gunned down amid the ponds and lilies we recognise another neat bit of dramatic foreshadowing: Hitler’s crossing of the Channel waters will end, we are told, equally disastrously. Smoke from the smashed-up manor rises with that of shells, rifles and grenades but also from priceless antiques piled up as barricades: the land girls throw a great clock – “grandfather!” – on top. Now is the hour of youth & renewal. A new downsized Britain will rise from the ashes: full of vigour, ruthlessness and raw courage to atone for the stale smug appeasement complacency of the old generation. The house’s mistress lies gloriously dead within her home, like a Valkyrie on her funeral pyre. Ambiguous ironies to the last!

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“Went the day well? We died and never knew,
But, well or ill, freedom we died for you.”

* “I don’t know when they’re more unpleasant: when they’re dead or when they’re guzzling our rations” . Nazis also boast a Fascist disregard for decent conventions: “I am not married but I have 2 fine sons who will soon be old enough to fight”.

+ Her dopey assistant Daisy – the village Holy Fool, played by future TV comic heroine Patricia Hayes – is smashed in the face by a Nazi: “Obey orders in future”. The shock of all this brutality is compounded by it’s being so totally unexpected in a British picture of this era. This is how everyday life will be, post-Invasion!

** there’s also a hint that the Home Guard are over-prodigal in food consumption – too many packed sandwiches for lunch. Later on, references to the Siege of Paris in 1871 remind audiences with grim facetiousness of the extreme straits of wartime starvation – “Rats were quite a delicacy apparently. I wonder which is the best end of neck of giraffe… “. Meanwhile drunken Nazi sadist David Farrar messily wolfs down an eclair.

*** Johnny Schofield: indispensable and adorable character actor of the period. Expert in under-playing soldiers, batmen, barmen, coppers, next-door- neighbours, landlords and waiters.

# and this after the vicar is gunned down in his own church.

¤ Harry Fowler: as an adult he has a moment in THE NANNY as the angry milkman seen off by Bette Davis (1965).

++ could George (the King’s name of course – and Washington’s) be an extended metaphor for the arrival of the USA on the side of the Allies? And an embodiment of the spirit of Blitzed London?

¤¤ better known for her stage work. Her final film role was as Mme Denise in Polanski’s REPULSION (1965).

¥ German-born Marlene Dietrich renounced her nationality in protest against Nazism, was proscribed by Hitler and fought gallantly on the side of the Allies.

¥¥ Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s laconic definition of a traitor.

Blossoms in the Dust

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“For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” As I get older I find that the Adam and Eve story is easier to believe, makes more sense, than the fascinating but baffling intricacies of evolution. Take this new planet they just found out about; maybe a simulacrum of our own Earth but 1100 light years away and so (surely fortunately?) impossible to contact. And then apparently the science faculty “has now proved” that we humans are, in the final analysis, indeed “frail children of dust” created essentially from the atmosphere in which we frolic and into which we eventually fade and blend once more. So, after all, it is just as the Book of Genesis tells us – and before that, the Egyptian myth of the great god Khnum moulding the human race from Nile mud on the potter’s wheel. Quite comforting, really.

“Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney-sweepers come to dust”

No wonder then that dust has often had a supernatural feel about it: from the belief that the motes spinning in a sunbeam are dancing fairies or angels, to Sooty scattering “oofle dust” over Sweep and Soo to animate his conjuring tricks. If these minute particles of matter really are the working materials of the divine and the residue of mankind to date then they must all be pregnant with intense magical possibility. This links up with the old Western belief that the crumbling powder of ancient Egyptian mummies had terrifically efficacious properties in the cure of all ills. Countless bodies were excavated, exported and then sold off to be pulverised to dust by quacks, alchemists and apothecaries. The miraculous quality of dried corpses imbued with the arcane knowledge of a lost civilisation was intensified by the traces of redolent oils and resins used in their preservation. Papillon Parfums’ extraordinary ANUBIS, currently exclusive at Les Senteurs, gives an idea of the dizzy psychotropic power of such ancient perfumes as styrax, bezoin, frankincense, saffron and myrrh.

“I will show you fear in a handful of dust”.

There’s a romance in the dust that colours a butterfly’s wings; in a dusting of flower pollen; smelled in scented powder on the skin; even in the red dust, kissed by the sun of Africa, that sometimes blows up from the Sahara to coat London cars and windows with fine grit. But then there’s the old use of the word as a euphemism for faecal detritus: the original ‘dustmen’ were no more interested in collecting fairy particles than are our modern waste collectors. They spent their nights clearing the streets of human and animal filth which might then be recycled at great profit for use in the agricultural, chemical and above all the tanning industries. (This in turn explains why old fine leather had always to be heavily scented: in Tudor times most fashionably with the lavender oil which made Queen Elizabeth so sick).

The average modern householder is principally concerned with the fine grey stuff that clings to a yellow duster. As regular readers will know, I’m currently having a major clear-out at home – and wondering whether Mr Crisp can possibly have been wrong: maybe the dust really does get worse after five years. Perhaps I haven’t left it long enough: there are areas on the top of bookcases where it seems very thick and still drifting, like grey snow or soft feathers – grainy swansdown from a doll’s grubby coverlet. Open London windows are very inviting of street and traffic dust but every so often a disconcerting hygiene specialist comes on the radio or TV to assure us that most of this residue comes from our own bodies as skin naturally and continually sheds like the sloughing of snakes.

Dust has a hot powdery tickly smell, unclean and chokey but not dirty, exactly. It absorbs additional odours from individual atmosphere. The rooms of heavy smokers are dark with particles of tobacco and ash; think of the scented cosmetic dust of theatre dressing rooms or department stores; the electric energies of the meter cupboard. Nearly 60 years ago we used to take holidays in a tall narrow house on the East Coast which was full of light and of the dust generated from chronic wet and dry rot. In my mind now, I can push open the damp-swollen front door and inhale all the exciting stuffy fug. Wet sandy shoes and the dry sour smell of faded cotton indigo & saffron bedspreads; the hot sun-bleached chintz curtains; the overpowering reek of soiled nappies (that, said my father, was the wet rot) in the first floor back.

My own tiny room was reached via the bathroom so it smelled cosily of Wright’s Coal Tar soap, hot water and thick green Vosene shampoo. It looked over the garden and the mud flats beyond: wafts of salt and stagnant marsh water came through the sash windows, along with an even riper aroma from the cess pool in the thicket of fuschias at the end of the lawn. There was a utility dressing table with nests of fascinating drawers lined with faded sheets of waxed paper and full of forgotten oddments such as extinct lavender bags, coloured pins, Halma counters and bits of broken jewellery. Green and gold painted papier mache trays were dotted about and had their own bitter papery-varnish scent – and taste. I was a great one for tasting smells when I was a child.

There was an attic floor, too, with crumbling parchment roller shades over the windows and a huge boxed-in water tank: if you climbed up on this you could see rather too much of the empty haunted marshland and the grey North Sea for the inner comfort of a five year old. I hadn’t of course then heard of Great Expectations, but later when I saw the David Lean film at school (and everyone screamed the place down) I didn’t half empathise with Pip out on those terrifying wastes.

I appreciated Miss Havisham’s ultra dusty aura too, “the death in life”: I am learning that we can fight dust but never conquer it for “to this end we must all come”. We’d best to keep it in check but ultimately (as with so much else in these funny old days) learn to embrace the dessication.

WAIT FOR THE MOMENT WHEN: Googie Withers…

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…puts her head in the gas oven at the climax of IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY. Not that the act itself is shown – not in 1947 – but we see the well-known dreadful preparations, so that for years I believed I had actually seen Mrs Sandigate kneeling on the kitchen floor and resting her head on a shelf. It was the much-whispered-about preferred method of suicide in my childhood: my grandmother talked about people making their last minutes more comfortable with a velvet cushion on the rack and trying to take the family pet with them – “but the cat jumped out”. There’s just such a cushion in Googie’s kitchen.

Unluckily for her, poor Rose Sandigate is discovered in time: she’s been found out sheltering her convict ex-lover in her husband’s house and now faces two years’ hard labour for aiding and abetting as well as prosecution for the suicide attempt. It’s a bleak ending only partially softened by the sop of having the cuckolded George (Edward Chapman)¤ sitting supportively by her hospital bed (” how are we’re going to get along without you?”) – but the uncompromising closing shot of the Tube station grille superimposed on her face reminds us of Holloway looming. We saw this railing before, at the start of the film: all the hapless denizens of Bethnal Green are caught like rats in the tightest of traps.

Googie is, as usual, superb with her magnificent Marie Antoinette profile, rich roughened contralto and heaving bosom. She was thirty but plays at least ten years older with the aid not of make up but with an air of quiet dark desperation which turns to panic when Tommy Swann¤¤ turns up soaked and starving in the Anderson shelter. Her hoarse laconic grimness (“What’s for breakfast?” “Haddock” ) is contrasted by a short flashback showing her in the old days as the flowery blonde barmaid at “The Two Compasses” who slips on rotter Tommy’s undoubtedly stolen engagement ring. Then he’s nabbed for a smash and grab, flogged to “a lump of raw meat”¤¤¤ and banged up. Rose marries an elderly widower, takes on his two teenage daughters (one nice, one nasty) and has her own son, Alfie, who has to sleep in the parlour. Nowadays I think she’s faute de mieux enjoying the “How To Become a Virgin” syndrome outlined by Quentin Crisp: a Madonna and Child hangs over her marital bed, while through the partition the girls’ walls are pasted with snaps of Larry Olivier, Bing Crosby and the like.

This is the East End at the nadir of post-war austerity; everything’s on the ration and everyone’s on the make. “A dose of salts or a good hiding” is the answer to any domestic difficulty. The house seethes with frustrated female sexuality as Vi (Susan Shaw) comes home “stinking. Fella took me to a road house……didn’t get back till after 3!” She falls into bed in her dance frock, but is later up to paint her toenails in the kitchen. “Tarting yourself up to meet your boyfrends – nice way to spend a Sunday morning” snorts her stepmother. Indeed. And, by a horrid irony, in the very next shot Rose discovers her own lover lurking in the shelter. Whereas George – presumably impotent – sublimates himself in pub culture, food and darts: and, of course, the only time he scores a bullseye Rose is not there to see…

It Always Rains on Sunday

Other innuendoes are not so subtle. There’s a memorable exchange of rudery between Sidney Tafler as the saucy saxophonist – “the man with sax appeal” – and Susan Shaw who’s in want of a record*: “You come round to the shop in the morning and I’ll give you one….”. (The censor asleep again and much sniggering in the one and nines). Hermione Baddeley** indulges in a showy piece of bottom-scratching-acting as Mrs Spry, doss-house madam: worth noting because we see Maureen Delaney use exactly the same shtik in ODD MAN OUT (also 1947). I wonder which lady thought of it first.

The contemporary trailer for IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAYS is lurid in its implications to a degree, and of course once Tommy Swann is smuggled out of the shelter and up to the bedroom it is only a matter of time before Rose has sex with him. This is implied only by a lingering kiss, a fade out and the high-lighting of a sateen eiderdown. But then comes the poignancy of Rose bringing out that old cherished engagement ring and offering it to Tommy to fund his getaway. In a heartbreaking exchange reminiscent of Joan Fontaine’s fantasies in LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (1948) Tommy fails entirely to recognise the ring or its significance:

“Nice stone – oughta fetch quite a bit. Where’d you get it?”

“Had it given”

Director Robert Hamer (an old hand with Googie) and producer Michael Balcon (Daniel Day Lewis’s grandfather) pile on the detail almost too richly in this uniquely British flim noir/cinema realiste, the influence of which, I suppose, finally dwindled down to TV derivatives such as Queenie’s Castle, Dixon + East Enders. But British postwar cinema was able to surpass any of these for cold grimness and the blackest humour. A subplot about stolen roller skates has Tommy Handley beating an avaricious old fence** to death – his false teeth fly shockingly and comically into a puddle with the violence of the blow: the murderer is hauled off to begin the inevitable passage to the gallows. The terrible and wonderfully lit scene# in the shunting yards as Tommy Swann tries to decapitate himself under a rolling truck is strong meat. Two abortive suicide bids, the failures of the failed: neither Tommy not Rose are allowed to escape the law by leaving life as and when they choose. The trap motif, once again: like the hutched rabbit fattening for the pot in the back yard of 26 Coronet Grove.

There’s a vindictive pansy newspaper reporter; and, anticipating Julian and Sandy by 15 years, we hear a bit of Polari from John Slater. Then IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY is also notable for its time in featuring explicitly Jewish characters, humour and and extensive expressive use of Yiddish to heighten the atmosphere. Youth Club organiser Bessie Hyams is the only character in the piece who seems to have any warmth for a Bethnal Green that everyone else is longing to get away from.

“What’s wrong with the East End anyway?”

“It smells”

“Certainly it smells – markets & fish shops & pubs….”

Of honest life and labour she means; and not of cheating, fleecing, dodging and fraud from infancy onwards. Sources of other odours are liberally scattered through the screenplay: the action takes place on March 23rd## so we see masses of daffodils which incidentally contribute to three plot devices. Roast beef (“bit overdone”) and Mrs Watson’s lamb (with mint sauce) are prepared for lunch; in her anguish, Rose leans too heavily on the pastry. Then there’s tea, coffee, bread & marge, cheese, Bessie’s strudel, sausage rolls, ham sandwiches, vegetables and gravy, beer, Guinness, Scotch, “rasher and bubble”: “just some grub, Rosie, that’s all I want”. 1947 audiences had not eaten well for eight years and were ravenous. We have talked already about the haddock. Imagine the redolence of that wafting through a damp bomb-damaged two-up, two-down on a wet Sunday morning.

“Greedy old bag!”

I’ll leave you with some more abiding olfactory images: the hung-over Vi crawling out of bed in that frock she’s danced and then slept in – and draping it on a hanger, ready for next time. (She washes her person and her undies in a bath in the kitchen). And then Sidney Tafler smoking and exhaling a cloud of tobacco preparatory to kissing Vi on the mouth. Finally, one can’t help think of George finding a very funny smell in his bed, what with Tommy having being in it all day after twelve hours on the run from Dartmoor and all that rain, sweat, sex and spilled gravy…

Disconcerting.

GOOGIE WITHERS 1917 – 2011

¤ once beaten up in a theatre dressing room by Olivier for slandering Gielgud.

¤¤ Australian actor John McCallum: Googie’s husband in real life. They were courted during filming, married in 1948 and died within months of one another in 2010 -11. Australia’s Golden Show Biz Couple – McCallum’s memoirs were endearingly entitled Life With Googie.

¤¤¤ it’s a nasty jolt to realise we were still giving prisoners a taste of the cat in 1947. More frivolously, McCallum’s naked torso as he shows off his scars reminds us very forcibly of a time when today’s universal gym phenonemon was entirely unknown.

* and guess what? When the credits roll we see this catchy tune is ‘Theme Without Words’, specially composed by Marlene’s old Berliner pal of the 1920’s, Mischa Spoliansky.

** the noisy maid in MARY POPPINS; the even noisier Ida in BRIGHTON ROCK.

*** the usually motherly Gladys Henson has a couple of lines as the victim’s tarty wife. She comes to the door on a Sunday afternoon in close-fitting satin and bracelets: hung with stolen jewellery.

#and the fabulous music by Georges Auric

# do you think there might be some Easter parable mixed up in this? There are certain clues…

You spoke of a room, a lovely room…

Jean Harlow - Bombshell Lola in bed

Which is your favourite room of the house? I was told many years ago by a woman in analysis that my preference for living in the bedroom was a Bad Sign. She took me to task for making it a retreat from life, an opting out, exacerbated by my bedroom being at the rear of the flat, looking out over gardens and remote from the world. I should have been in the sitting-room, gazing down on a busy street, my blood thrumming in harmony with the traffic: not lulled by Hungarian goose feathers and muffled by pillows, a bottle of cologne tucked under the coverlet.

Well, at least I wasn’t living in the bathroom as Maria Callas did in her final years. I delighted in defying all these Freudian strictures and still love to make a cocoon of my bedroom which I can arrange exactly as I choose with all my favourite things about me and all my perfumes stacked in a deep dark drawer. It’s good to come in and find a memory of your current favourite hanging in the air. I like the informality of a bedroom, in the manner of an C18th print: an artful dishevellment, a private laxity in a room where shoes are not worn – or never should be, though I am constantly amazed that when folk throw themselves on beds or sofas on tv or in films they NEVER remove the footwear which has trekked in the muck of the streets.

You can see from the makeover shows and the magazines (not to mention the estate agents) that the kitchen is now more than ever the heart of the house. I’m all for this, although in this eccentric world of ours it seems to me that the bigger and better the kitchen the less people use it to actually cook in. Kitchens should be full of delicious smells, not just of meals in preparation but of warmth, stored ingredients, spicy dry goods, flowering plants, cleanliness and fresh air. We still bottom through here, with mop and bucket – I always get a Pavlovian jolt at the clang of a metal pail and the hot tang of Flash (or Flash-type cleanser) which takes me back over 50 years. Flash used to come in powder form in a packet: sodden, gritty and lumpy, emitting a strong smell of damp cardboard and bleach. Nowadays it streams liquid gold, the colour and scent of lemons, full of citronella, easy-to-pour from the bottle.

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Kitchen windows: keep them open! Florence Nightingale was a a great one for stressing the importance of having rooms sufficiently warm for health but simultaneously well-aired at all times. Nowadays there is a pleasing vogue for aptly scented candles in the kitchen – mint, lemon, herbs ,woods all go good. Don’t – obviously- burn a candle in a draught or by an open window: it will flare and sputter and the wax will burn unevenly. But what you can do is, create a little protective niche away from the air flow and have your candles there, quite still and safe, while the outdoors streams in and blends in. The scent of a coming meal in a kitchen is a perfect heaven; the odour of one long gone is a most unappetising thing. And I have noticed that since ‘No Smoking’ became the rule even the grandest of fine dining eateries often smell dismayingly of old stale food: the staff no longer throw the doors & windows wide to sweeten the place as they were happy to do in the days of brimming ashtrays and cigar butts. Nowadays when I enter a restaurant what I first take notice of is not menu, decor or staff promptitude but the smell.

I wonder if all the above has something to do with my wariness of a dining room. This is the room I have always instinctively avoided in a house. When I was a tot, the dining room had an alien remoteness about it: children ate there only on Christmas Day; adults occasionally held mysterious dinner parties, heard from the stairs but never actually witnessed. Dinner parties announced by peals of over-excited laughter, fumes of drink and loud exotic perfumes floating upwards to the bedroom landings. One might find short-lived traces of strange feasts in the dining room next day – a bowl of walnuts; rich crumbly forbidden Roka biscuits in a sharp-edged blue and yellow tin which hurt small fingers (“it does serve you right: those are for your father”); muddied decanters covered in stars like the ones that go mad in “Alice”. Otherwise the room reverted to its chilly solitary state. We ate in the kitchen: the dining room was used an occasional study by my father’s typist, a storage space and, in the very early days, as a television room.

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So there’s an eye-opener! – and I remember other households like ours in the late 1950’s. A tv set was (with qualms) subscribed to, but – as something slightly shameful – was hidden away in the dining room for limited viewing. “We have it for the children”: the children who were reluctant to sit in that unwelcoming chamber – a room as unnatural, unfriendly and stiff as best clothes – to watch it. It was only when Coronation Street and That Was The Week That Was arrived post-1960 that the television was promoted to the sitting room and the old social contract crumbled. Meanwhile the dining room was left abandoned once more.

The gloom of this room has nothing to do with decor or lighting – I have known dining rooms flooded with sunlight through French windows, opening onto gardens and terraces, furnished in ice-blue satin or pink leather and hung with ivy-patterned chintz. Some of them lovely and elegant but few of them exactly welcoming or inviting one to linger. The ones that do work are what I’ll call supper rooms, intimate cosy snuggeries just by the kitchen. Does anyone have an unnatural aversion to a particular room? I think my dislike of state dining rooms has something to do with an over-solemn approach to food, a business that’s always irritated me. More practically, the dinner loses essential heat as it is trundled down the draughty hall. And maybe too there’s a essential tristesse about a room devoted entirely to eating and the sustenance of the body but lacking the creativity and bustle of the kitchen.

‘Shall we join the ladies?’