Friday, 31 May 2013


In 'Libel', the British film going public got not one but two Dirk Bogarde's: one shy, honourable, staidly heterosexual; one temperamental, devious, camp as a row of tents. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which one better reflects Sir Dirk’s true nature.

The story concerns Sir Mark Loddon (let’s call him Dirk One), a quiet, sensitive, grey haired aristocrat who is happily married to Olivia De Havilland. Well, he’s sort of happily married, as Sir Mark has an awful lot on his monogrammed fine china, and this makes him shout a lot, particularly when he’s tired (I’m much the same). The problem is that he is still traumatised by his experiences in the War, experiences which his battered psyche has tried to suppress but still swirl around in frustratingly dark and out of focus flashbacks. His main day to day issue is that there are alarming lapses in his memory, and he demonstrates this on live television when he stumbles over a fairly basic question during an interview with Richard Dimbleby.


The interview is being watched by Paul Massey, who immediately understands why his old army chum Sir Mark can’t remember the details of his own life: he isn’t Sir Mark at all, but an imposter, a sleazy bit part actor called Frank Welney who, by an incredible coincidence, is Sir Mark’s double. The three met whilst incarcerated in a German prisoner of war camp and, during an escape, one of the Dirk’s was seriously injured, presumed dead. Up until now, Massey believed it had been Welney who was left behind – now he firmly believes Welney did Sir Mark in, then swapped uniforms and took his place.


Evil Dirk.

Welney (Dirk Two) is a brilliant essay in seediness – boastful, sneaky, insincere, vain – and with ever watchful, greedy eyes that take in every detail. Welney makes no secret of his desire to be Sir Mark, and is even caught impersonating him in front of a mirror, arching his eyebrows (a very Dirk gesture) just to show what a bounder he is. Massey would put nothing past him, including murder and fraud, so goes to the papers and tells them what he thinks has happened.

Geoffrey Bayldon; Robert Shaw; Olivia de Havilland.

What follows is a big court case for, yes, libel. Robert Morley represents Sir Mark and a spectacle less Richard Wattis is the Judge, respectively, which is fun. They simply don’t make actors like that, anymore. Naturally, Mark’s amnesia is something of an issue when it comes to telling the whole truth and nothing but and, after a few days of him putting up a less than convincing argument, things look pretty bad for his chances of winning the case.

Judge Wattis.

Doubt creeps in...
The penultimate day of the trial features an unexpected guest: the man who was left behind during the escape, the man who might be Frank Welney or the real Sir Mark. He didn’t die, but was left horribly disfigured and brain damaged. He has been looked after since the War in a Dutch mental institution where he is known only as Number Fifteen. When this sad, shattered wreck of a man is brought into the court room he stares pointedly at Sir Mark, who reels back in abject horror. It looks pretty bad, and Sir Mark’s wife, previously his staunchest supporter, now begins to doubt him.

Devastated, Sir Mark goes out to throw himself in the river, only to suddenly have a massive flashback in which the truth (and the proof) of his real identity are revealed to him. Phew. He goes back and wins the case, and gets his wife back. Result. Number Fifteen shambles back to Holland, poor sod.

An effective rather than spectacular drama, ‘Libel’ is saved from tedium by good performances, particularly from Dirk, although we really don’t see enough of his arch, snidey Frank Welney. The appearance of Number Fifteen (Dirk 3, sort of) is a rather ghoulish climax, and although the make up isn’t that great, it conveys enough of the real ravages of war to quietly nag at you after the film finishes.
One (well, two / three) of a number of interesting roles in not massively interesting films which Dirk undertook in order to try and move away from his image as a matinee idol, his assured turn(s) in ‘Libel’ attracted the avaricious attention of Hollywood, who immediately flew him over to play Franz Liszt in the risible ‘Song Without End’ and a terribly noble Catholic priest opposite Ava Gardner in rotten Spanish Civil war pot-boiler ‘The Angel Wore Red’.  
Returning to England, Bogarde’s next role was in the ground-breaking and, to a certain extent for Dirk, mould-smashing ‘Victim’ (‘My God, Margaret, did someone just use the term ‘homosexual’?), a brave move that would herald an interesting and rewarding second phase of his career.  

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Sheer Shire

Every day I feel a little bit sad that I wasn't christened Cadbury Lamb.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Miss Muscle

Kate Williams (1875-1946) was a Welsh strong woman who was at the peak of her powers in the Edwardian era. Inbetween winning medals, stopping runaway horses and lifting loads of really heavy stuff, she had six kids with her business partner, William Roberts (better known as Atlas - not the Atlas, of course or, indeed, Charles Atlas). They never married, and they spent their professional lives pretending to be brother and sister.

Kate has an interesting footnote in criminal history: she was the person who went to the Police and reported that Dr. Crippen's wife was missing. Oh, and best of all? Kate's stage name was --


I added the exclamation mark. Looks good, though, doesn't it? 

Monday, 27 May 2013

Joanie Loves Unmann-Wittering

I had a dream the other night in which, amongst ever things, I appeared to be married to Joan Rhodes. Joan was a wrestler, actress, stunt woman and muscle lady, an 'iron girl in a velvet glove' who could tear telephone books in half, bend iron bars with her pearly whites and lift up two fat blokes without getting a single wrinkle in her foundation. The above picture was taken in 1958, and perhaps gives a flavour of what life with Joan might have been like. Tidy.

Just don't get on her nerves, that's all.

Here she is looking very glam and singing a song which will link into a short film about the correct way to lift and carry heavy objects. There are numerous shots of her pulsating inner thighs. I love the Doctor at the end, he's the most self-conscious man I've ever seen, he looks like a stunned carp.

I have written a poem to this great, late (she died in 2010) Amazonian lady.

O Joan - 
heavy lifter,
sofa shifter
now that you have taught me
that the heart is a muscle, too
please don't throw me over 
I beg of you.

At least it was short.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Jim Lesson

Longman's Bridge Series consisted of popular books with the language simplified for learners of English as a foreign language.  The Bridge version of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim dates from 1963.  There's a great deal of period charm in William Burnard's illustrations,and even more in the glossary thoughtfully provided for those who get stuck on some of the more obscure English phrases.

Other titles in the series included the expected classics (Dickens, Austen) alongside more unusual choices like books by crime writer Michael Innes and Sir James Jeans' introduction to physics The Mysterious Universe.  Most intriguingly, there's also an anthology called Stories Grim, Stories Gay.


                  Five shots of Caroline Munro as a hostess on 3-2-1 in 1986.






Friday, 24 May 2013

Bitter Harvest

I'd urge any Patrick Hamilton fans reading not to get too excited: this standard road-to-ruin tale set in pre-swinging 60s London bears only the most rudimentary resemblance to his sublime trilogy about the city's lowlife between the wars.  Bitter Harvest owes far less to Hamilton than to its screenwriter, Ted Willis.  A ubiquitous figure in British film and TV of the 50s and early 60s, Willis created Dixon of Dock Green and specialised in scripting hand-wringing films about the social problems of the day.  Produced in glorious colour by Julian Wintle and Leslie Parkyn's Independent Artists (responsible the same year for Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life, with some of the same cast), Bitter Harvest is probably the glossiest of Willis's problem pictures.

The film opens with an orgy of destruction, as a very drunk young woman (Janet Munro) returns home to her flat and sets about systematically smashing it up, and chucking a wardrobeful of expensive togs out of the window, before tearfully collapsing in front of her own reflection in the bathroom mirror.

Through the magic of the flashback we return to Jenny Jones' (for that's her name) past life working in her dad's shop in a dead Welsh mining village, before a series of events set her life on a very different path.  The first of these is the appearance in the shop of a businessman from London (Terence Alexander).  To us he's clearly an old sleazeball, but to Jenny's untrained eyes he's an impossibly suave symbol of the glamour of the big city.

The next significant event occurs that evening as Jenny babysits for a well-to-do local couple.  In quintessentially early 60s fashion, Jenny's entranced by the television set her family can't afford, particularly commercial TV's promises of the good life through luxury products.  Hypnotised by a soap advert, Jenny immediately dashes upstairs to have a bath, where she's disturbed by the return of the man of the house (William Lucas).  This is where Jenny learns what men are willing to do for her, as she's offered a fiver to buy herself a sexy negligĂ©e (though, still an innocent at this point, she decides she'd rather have a new spring coat).

The next day Jenny visits her lonely old aunts in Cardiff (rent-a-crones May Hallatt and Mary Merrall),and learns to her horror that her dad intends for her to go and live with them.

Unable to bear the thought of ending up like these two, Jenny flees, and bumps into Andy, her businessman of the day before. He takes her for a drink,and in an attempt at appearing sophisticated she asks for Champagne.  What she gets is a 10 shilling bottle of fizzy plonk, but it's all the same to her.  After being plied with enough of this, she's easily encouraged on to the dancefloor.  There may be some subtle sexual imagery going on here, I'm just not sure.

Next morning, Jenny awakes to discover that not only has she lost her virginity, but she's stranded in London.  Andy fails to show up for a rendezvous at the King and Queen pub (the Midnight Bell of Hamilton's book), but Jenny finds a new admirer in kind-hearted barman Bob (John Stride), who she repays for being kind to her by telling him she can't return home as she's pregnant.

Bob brings Jenny back to his lodgings to stay - much to the disgust of landlady Thora Hird, until she realises he's willing to pay double.  They start off with Bob sleeping on the floor, but it's not long before they're sharing the bed - an unexpected glimpse of Janet Munro's nipple slipped in to fully justify the film's X certificate.

Believe it or not, this is the shot which the beginning of Bob and Jenny's lovemaking fades into:

If that wasn't ridiculous enough, Bob and Jenny's temporary happiness is conveyed to us with a montage of them larking about around London landmarks (perhaps not as much of a cliché in 1963 as it would soon become).

But after a while the life of a barman's kept woman isn't enough for the increasingly cynical Jenny.  She wants the glamorous lifestyle she sees others living for herself, and, in Willis's main theme here, she's thoroughly corrupted by the media. She's determined to be a model, just like those she sees in the magazines: "Look at her! Is she any better than me? Is her bust any better than mine?"

One of Bob and Jenny's neighbours is a seedy TV bit-part actor (Colin Gordon), and Jenny wangles her way in to a showbiz party with him, convinced it'll be the making of her career.  Which indeed it is, though perhaps not how she originally intended.

At the party Jenny encounters sinister impresario Mr Denny (Alan Badel), who quickly takes an interest in her, though not necessarily in her modelling talents.

Even when Jenny returns home drunk and makes it quite clear her interest in him's destined to be short-lived, Bob's too much of a simple-minded pillock to realise what's going on...

...until, that is, Jenny spells it out to him at a party at Denny's place ("I've got something they want, and they can have it!"), casually dropping in the information that she's not really pregnant after all.  He doesn't take the information well.

Denny and his lackeys break up the contretemps and send Bob on his way.  Then Denny calmly takes possession of Jenny, informing her he'll set up with some new clothes, a place to live, a car...

The flashback finishes, and we learn that while it was going on Jenny died of an overdose of sleeping pills.  Surveying her smashed-up flat, strewn with presents given to her by various men whose photos litter the floor, Inspector Nigel Davenport can do little more than tut.

It's a weirdly abrupt ending to the film, leaving us with the feeling that Jenny's story's only been half told, and an unpleasant sense that once someone's life's drifted into the direction hers did the rest goes without saying.

Bitter Harvest could be an almost laughably heavy-handed treatment of the slightest and most antiquated of plots if it wasn't for the conviction in Janet Munro and John Stride's performance, and the fact that the film was made in the year of the Profumo scandal lends it a fascinating resonance.  As an adaptation of Hamilton it barely registers at all, with the relationship between barmaid Ella (Anne Cunningham, Elsie Tanner's daughter in Coronation Street) and her persistent admirer Mr Eccles (Allan Cuthbertson), one of the main strands of Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky only featuring as the most minuscule of subplots.

Ella's main role in the film is as a sympathetic listener in unrequited love with Bob. The film concludes with a cut from the flat where Jenny ended it all to Bob and Ella,who now appear blissfully happy with one another.  Presumably it's meant to be a happy ending but actually it just seems more than a little callous.