Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Holiday Camp

The very title of Holiday Camp gives you a good idea of why it's prime Mounds and Circles material. Directed by Ken Annakin, it 's a production of Gainsborough Studios - in terms of its cultural pretensions essentially ITV to Ealing's BBC, which made it well-placed to make a film about post-war working class entertainment.

Holiday Camp depicts the stay of a diverse group of holidaymakers Boddy's Holiday Camp in Farleigh, Yorkshire (in reality Butlin's Holiday Camp in Filey, Yorkshire).  The individual storylines are disorientatingly different in tone, with comedy, soppy romance, poignant drama and brutal sex murders rubbing shoulders as uneasily as the camp's guests.

At the heart of the film are working class Londoners the Huggetts: hearty dad Joe (Jack Warner), nervous mum Ethel (Kathleen Harrison) and their grown-up kids Joan (Hazel Court) and Harry (Peter Hammond).  As well as her brassy friend Angie (Yvonne Owen), Joan's brought her baby son with her on holiday.  It's an interesting twist that she's a single mum (although obviously it's due to being widowed in the war rather than anything more scandalous).  The young Hazel Court (probably my favourite actress whose name sounds like a block of flats) looks astonishingly beautiful, and is a worthy winner of the camp's Bathing Beauty contest, the award presented by special guest star (and Gainsborough contract player) Patricia Roc.

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The Huggetts' adventures are genial light comedy stuff, with Joe called on to beat a pair of professional gamblers who've taken Harry to the cleaners at their own game, and Joan striking up a typically tempestuous romcom relationship with lovelorn sailor Jimmy Hanley.

Optimistically competing against Joan in the Bathing Beauty contest is Elsie Dawson (Carry On regular Esma Cannon), a chirpy but ultimately pathetic middle-aged barmaid whose attempts to appear youthful have led to an extremely ill-advised blonde perm.  Elsie holidays at the Farleigh camp every year, each time convinced she'll meet the man she's going to marry.  "Do you think man is still the hunter?" she asks her chalet-mate, Esther Harman (Flora Robson).  "I'm afraid I don't know much about that sort of thing," Esther shyly replies.

The quiet, genteel Esther's also a spinster, but she couldn't be more different to Elsie.  She's come to the camp for the first time since her mother's death, to make a change from their traditional trips to Devon, and she immediately feels out of place against the raucous, enforced jollity of Boddy's.  Initially intimidated by the endless announcements issuing from the camp's control tower ("Control tower - it sounds like a prison camp," she says to Elsie, half-joking, half genuinely disturbed.  The cheerful reply "That's right - only we're the prisoners!" doesn't help matters), she becomes increasingly obsessed with them, convinced she recognises the voice as that of the only man she ever loved, who disappeared during World War One.

Esther's heart-breaking story is the best-executed part of the film, largely thanks to Robson's near-unbearably poignant performance.  Eventually Esther ascends to the top of the tower and discovers that the camp announceris indeed the love of her life... but he lost both his sight and his memory in the war (he's played by Esmond Knight, who was blind in real life).  Not only is he unable to either see or remember Esther, but as a further kick in the teeth, despite his problems he's happily married with children and has led a much richer and more fulfilling life than Esther has.  Her last remaining dreams in tatters, Esther leaves the control tower comprehensively destroyed.

If that wasn't depressing enough, there's an even worse fate in store for Elsie.  The man she's got her eye on is Binkie Hardwick, a suave but clearly caddish RAF officer.

But Binkie's far more than just a cad, as we discover when he unpacks, revealing a mysteriously bloodstained garment in his suitcase...

Initially Binkie's dismissive of Elsie's less-than-subtle attentions, being far more interested in Angie - until Elsie reveals she knew him before under a different name, when he used to drink in a pub where she worked.  Binkie concocts a story about being a Scotland Yard detective on the trail of the brutal Mannequin Murderer, which the credulous Elsie happily swallows - though the glamour of being with a detective means she's even less inclined to leave him alone.

Binkie, of course, is the Mannequin Murderer (the reason for the name's never explained, making it all the more sinister) and has Angie lined up as his next victim.  When this plan falls through at the last minute due to Joan unexpectedly turning up, he picks the nearest alternative at hand - poor old Elsie.

Elsie's terrible fate is kept discreetly off screen, but the way Binkie roughly grabs and kisses her as the image fades out gives us some grim idea of what's in store.

The next day, as Binkie prepares to leave the camp, the police catch up with him.  "I said I'd have a week, and by George I've had it," he chuckles.  "You've had it all right!" says the inspector, cheerfully.  I'm not entirely sure it's appropriate for the apprehension of a murderer and rapist to be such jovial, and it shows how Holiday Camp struggles to reconcile its darker elements with its pervading carefree atmosphere.

Of course, Holiday Camp's greatest point of interest is as a historical document.  To eyes accustomed to families having far more individualistic holidays, the collective entertainment of the holiday camp looks weird and - with bowler-hatted men popping up from nowhere to jolly along anyone who looks like they're not having the time of their life - almost sinister.  The mass hokey-cokey that occurs halfway through the film looks almost like a surreal religious ceremony (the words "that's what it's all about" take on a new resonance when considered like this).

At the film's climax, as our various holidaymakers' stay comes to an end, all the occupants of the camp march through it in a giant parade.  It's a truly bizarre spectacle.

Holiday Camp was an enormous success, and led to three spin-off films featuring the Huggetts - well, two of them: Joan and Harry are mysteriously replaced by three daughters, including a teenage Petula Clark (confusingly, Peter Hammond returned, now playing the boyfriend of one of the new Huggetts).  They're fun in a featherbrained sort of way, but none of them returns to the murky waters that Holiday Camp takes a dip in.

I'll leave you to ponder on special guest star Cheerful Charlie Chester:

1 comment:

  1. Is Charlie actually saying "where's me washboard"?