Thursday 31 October 2013

Guilty Pleasures, by Lydia Syson

There’s something about watching a film ‘for work’ which always feels too good to be true.  I tend to wait for an evening or weekend to indulge, as though settling down with a DVD during a working day, even notebook in hand, is somehow unjustifiably frivolous. 

But if you’re trying to capture the period spirit for a book that’s set in the twentieth century, a film made at just the right time can be an absolute goldmine.  I first cottoned onto this while I was writing A World Between Us.  I spent many hours at the Imperial War Museum Sound Archive listening to International Brigade volunteers talking about their memories of the Spanish Civil War.  Even voices recorded in the 1980s had the accents and vocabulary of a vanished era.  But not quite.  And these were formal interviews.  They didn’t really convey a sense of dialogue.

Then I watched David Lean’s This Happy Breed, made in 1944 and based on a play written five years earlier by Noël Coward.  John Mills, Celia Johnson and  Stanley Holloway are among its stars.  I’ve just found the notes I scribbled at the time, a list of little phrases that struck me because you simply never hear them any more:
‘Strike me pink!’
‘Queer ways of enjoying themselves…’
‘Thanks very much, I’m sure…’
‘Right ho!’
‘She goes on about the same…’
‘A nice way to behave’
‘Now listen here…’
‘If you must know…’

Can you hear those voices?

But this kind of research is not just about vocabulary, or speech patterns.  In fact, an obsession with period language can be positively dangerous.  That way lies caricature, even comedy – intentional or otherwise.  Mood in movies is just as important.

My new book, That Burning Summer, is set on Romney Marsh, Kent, in July and August 1940, when the Battle of Britain raged overhead and invasion was a constant and genuine threat.  This was also a time when going to the cinema – for both news and entertainment – was so central to life that even in a small town like Lydd, the programme changed two or three times a week.  Of course I wondered what kind of films my characters might have seen.  Being something of a Powell and Pressburger fan, I was delighted to discover the tongue-in-cheek espionage thriller Contraband was released at just the right moment.

Contraband played to my themes to perfection.  It was called Blackout in the United States, a follow-up to The Spy in Black, released in 1939, which also starred Conrad Veidt.  (Remember Major Strasser in Casablanca?)  And any lingering worries I had about overdoing the spyfever in That Burning Summer were quickly laid to rest as I watched Cottage to Let(Anthony Asquith,1941) - injured Spitfire pilot John Mills parachutes into loch and is ultimately revealed as leader of dangerous German spyring; Went the Day Well? (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1942) – a brilliant and moving adaptation of a Graham Greene short story about the great British nightmare of the time, an English village taken over by Nazi paratroopers; and The Next of Kin (Thorold Dickinson, 1942), which features this immortal exchange:

‘I’ve always thought if I wanted a nice cushy job, I’d come to England as a German spy,’ says a man in uniform, after asking a passing Army vehicle for directions to Brigade HQ.
‘I thought you were with the Brigades, Sir.’
‘Well, I’m not.  For all you know I might be a German agent.’

The history of The Next of Kin is particularly fascinating.  It was a box office hit that started life as an Army Instructional Film, hammering home the Home Front message that ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’. ‘A patriot can easily do as much harm as a traitor,’ remarks another character.  It’s said that Churchill wanted to ban the film, concerned that its impact on morale might outweigh its effectiveness.

When it comes to the curious overlap between documentary, drama and propaganda so peculiar to World War Two, one film stands out:  Humphrey Jenning’s magnificent Fires Were Started, released by the Crown Film Unit/Ministry of Information in 1943, which records a day and a night with the Auxiliary Fire Service in London.  The characters, all fictional, are played not by actors but real firefighters, and it was filmed during the terrible winter/spring of 1940/41, at the height of the London docks bombings.  Lindsay Anderson described Jennings as ‘the only true poet of the English cinema.’  He was also ‘the man who listened to Britain’, one of the founders of Mass Observation…but that’s another story, for another time.  The good news is that the BFI has produced a complete two volume DVD collection of Humphrey Jennings’ films. I defy your eyes not to glisten at ‘Words for Battle’ (1941).

I’ll leave you with a final viewing recommendation: Dangerous Moonlight (Brian Desmond Hurst, 1941), a huge wartime hit whose music, ‘The Warsaw Concerto’, ultimately became more famous than the film itself.  Told in flashback, Dangerous Moonlight is the story of a Polish pianist turned pilot, Stefan Radetzky, played by the gorgeous Anton Walbrook.  Radetzky escapes internment in Romania after the Nazi invasion of Poland (not to mention the Russian one, though if I
Anton Walbrook
remember rightly, this is glossed over!) and ends up in America, giving concerts for the Polish Relief Fund.  He falls in love and marries an American reporter he first met in Warsaw.  Tortured with guilt, he soon leaves the US to join one of the Polish squadrons fighting in the Battle of Britain.  And I shall reveal no more… 

Once again, fact and fiction blurred in the making of this film.  It was shot at two RAF aerodromes near London, some of the non-speaking parts were taken by real Polish pilots, and many of its thrilling aerial combat scenes came from official footage.

There.  Writing this has assuaged my own guilt. Watching these films, and thinking about them now, has made me reconsider the relationship between truth and storytelling, and the power of fiction to affect reality.  More food for thought about exactly what I’m trying to do with the history in my own books.

I wish I could say I’m just off to watch another film.  But my current work-in-progress is set just a few decades before the birth of moving pictures.  Near the dawn of photography, as it happens…



sensibilia said...

I agree that watching films made in the 40's and 50's, during or shortly after WW11, is very instructive. The language, the emotions and the backdrops are all history. Fortunate that these are still available. (Esp when, for example, holocaust deniers rear their ugly heads).

Joan Lennon said...

Thank you - makes me want to re-watch the ones I knew and watch the ones I didn't! Especially This Happy Breed - what a movie!

Lydia Syson said...

So glad you both agree..and yes, isn't it wonderful that these films are becoming ever easier to track down.

Australia Business News Online said...

I'm interested to read That Burning Summer after reading this post.