Goodbye, Christopher Robin

I’ve written before about my love of A.A. Milne’s books, and how significant they were in my development as a reader and book collector (of sorts) – I still read him relatively often, and it was with eagerness that I awaited the release of the film Goodbye Christopher Robin. Mostly because I wasn’t sure how accurate it would be, and I was ANXIOUS, y’all. The anxiety was not helped by the release of the trailer…

Thankfully for me – though perhaps disquietingly for those expecting something else – the film was nothing like as twee as this trailer made it seem. Yes, it includes the development of the children’s books that we all associate with A.A. Milne, but they aren’t a panacea for the world’s ills, and this isn’t a fairytale.

The film shows the period between A.A. Milne leaving WW1 and Christopher Robin fighting in WW2. Domhall Gleeson looks remarkably like Milne, and there is a plausible narrative about PTSD being one of the reasons that he needs to move to the countryside, and affecting his relationship with his young son – Christopher Robin, known to the family as Billy Moon. Whether or not he had PTSD, I don’t remember – and I don’t imagine anything like it would have been diagnosed as such in the 1920s. But it gives the film a gritty coherence. Gleeson handles it very well, although the script is a little unsubtle about it at times; it is also more or less the only plotline, other than the simple movement through time, as Christopher Robin et al grow more and more famous.

The nanny (Kelly Macdonald) is also focal, with some of the more twee and/or impassioned scenes – and an extremely moving moment towards the end – and she, as with all the cast, works well with the exceptional Will Tilston, who plays the young Christopher. He is cherubic and wide-eyed, which the role calls for, but also gets the emotion of more difficult scenes.

Margot Robbie plays Daphne, Milne’s wife, and it was exciting for me to see somebody from my much-loved Neighbours who has made good. I know she’s a big star now, but this is the first film I’ve seen her in (except for a few scenes in About Time, also with Gleeson). Their marriage is a bit of a mystery, but the film is probably accurate in showing the cracks as they want very different things. Ann Thwaite wrote that Daphne was like AAM’s whimsical characters – the problem being that he wasn’t.

Ann Thwaite looms large in this adaptation, I am thrilled to say. She was historical advisor, and it is clear throughout that her biography of Milne was a great resource for the scriptwriters Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan. Time and again, I recognised moments that could only have come from there, complemented (I imagine) by Christopher Milne’s excellent autobiographical series and A.A. Milne’s It’s Too Late Now.

I went expecting inaccuracies, but I only noticed a few (Tigger turns up too early; he was bought between the books. Christopher’s bear wasn’t actually the model for E.H. Shepard’s illustrations – those were Shepard’s own son’s bear; Peace With Honour is mentioned a long time before it existed) and a few misleading omissions (Peace With Honour flashes up at the end, but War With Honour – Milne’s corrective, as it were – isn’t mentioned; the four children’s books are more or less whipped into one, without any sense that Milne became a famous children’s writer before the Winnie the Pooh stories). Etc. etc. But it is only one film, and I couldn’t have expected them to do a roll call of all I know about Milne.

It’s a beautifully shot film, and it’s definitely a tearjerker. And I feel like I can brief a sigh of relief that, after all, AAM has been well served by Goodbye Christopher Robin.

3 films I’ve seen recently

In 2016, I saw three films at the cinema. Somehow, I’ve seen the same number in the past week – all of which have been great, albeit very different. Here is a quick round up, in the order I saw them…

Dunkirk

Dunkirk

Probably the one that’s going to get the most accolades, but maybe my least favourite of these three – even though I still really liked it. I wasn’t sure I would. War films bore me, and Christopher Nolan is a very bombastic director – but somehow I was swept away. On paper, it shouldn’t work for the discerning cinema-goer: there’s no character development, no plot, and basically the whole thing is “people escape Dunkirk”. Which obviously is what happened, but there’s nothing more in the way of development. But it’s somehow great nonetheless. Harry Styles is much better than we had any right to expect, and it’s got the most shameless use of Elgar ever.

Kedi

Kedi

Guys, this film is about CATS. It’s a documentary in Turkish (yes, I watched subtitles) about the stray cats in Istanbul. I went because I love cats so much, but it’s also a gentle, interesting story about the people who feed the stray cats – looking at those who find it restorative, or grudgingly enjoyable, or simply something that just seemed to happen to them. It’s also, in the background, about the changing landscape and lifestyle of Istanbul, as markets are torn down for tower blocks. But mostly it’s cats being their beautiful, characterful selves; I saw it in an independent cinema full of Cat People, and we awwwed and ahhhed together.

The Big Sick

The Big Sick

A truly awful title – particularly for British audiences – but a really excellent film; my favourite of the three. It stars Kumail Nanjiani in a loosely altered version of himself (called, yes, Kumail) – he wrote it with his wife Emily Gordon, and it’s about their relationship. Kumail (both character and actor) is a Pakistani stand-up comedian, born in Pakistan and now living in America. He falls in love with Emily, a white American, while his parents continue to try to find a suitable Pakistani Muslim girl to be his arranged bride. Everything changes when Emily gets sick, and Kumail must convince her parents that he should stay in the picture. The film is very funny, very moving, and entirely successful at combining the two. Romcoms have a bad name now, and hardly any seem to be released anymore, but this is one not to miss.

 

From one Cunningham to another

I’ve been reading quite a lot of non-fiction at the moment – I’m in one of those moods where fiction isn’t working as well as it should be – and I decided to extend that to films too.

Bill Cunningham New York

I haven’t watched a lot of documentaries, but one of my all-time favourite films is a documentary (Life in a Day, which I wrote about here), and I’ve really enjoyed others like Stories We Tell and The September Issue. So I looked through an article on the best documentaries available on Netflix in the UK (this article, since you ask) and settled on a couple: Catfish and Bill Cunningham New York. Both were well-worth watching, but I’m not sure I have all that much to say about Catfish. All of my thoughts about it would hinge on whether or not it’s fake, and the internet jury seems to have remained out on that one. If any of y’all know the answer, lemme know.

But I did want to bring Bill Cunningham New York to your attention, if you don’t know about it, because it turned out to be rather lovely. It came out in 2010, when Bill Cunningham was 81 and still working full-time as the photographer for two pages in the New York Times – ‘On the Street’ (street fashion) and ‘Evening Hours’ (charity social events). With admirable restraint on the part of the director, Richard Press, the film largely skews towards looking at the former – which gives rather less opportunity for gratuitous shots of socialites, but is clearly where Cunningham’s passion lies.

I hadn’t heard of Cunningham before seeing his name in this list, but he is so extraordinary that a novelist would have to event him if he didn’t exist. For decades he has cycled the streets of New York, taking photos of everyday women, men, and dogs, and bringing together pictorial features on a certain trend that he sees a lot of – whether that be a colour, a style, or even people walking gingerly through piles of snow. He doesn’t use a digital camera, and still takes his films into a shop to be developed. His old-fashioned nature extends to manners: he believes all the people he photographs to be beautiful, and is horrified at the idea of using street photography to criticise others – indeed, he has resigned from magazines when they re-wrote his copy to mock.

You might expect Cunningham to be an aesthete himself. No such thing. He wears the same style of blue smock everyday – a cheap workman’s outfit. His apartment, in Carnegie Hall at the time of filming, is filled with ugly filing cabinets, with a bed lying alongside them. Cunningham’s one joy is other people and the clothes they wear.

Press’ documentary is not quite a hagiography, but it is refreshingly willing to allows its subject to be good. Only one prurient moment, asking about Cunningham’s relationships (he has had none) feels out of kilter with the tone of the piece; most of the time, the film looks at Cunningham’s unique work and place in the fashion industry. Interviewees include Anna Wintour (fun fact for fact fans: I lived next door to her son at Magdalen), Iris Apfel (soon to get her own documentary), and lots of people I hadn’t heard of from the fashion industry. Oh, and his neighbour – Editta Sherman, then a 96 year old photographer (who has since died, at the age of 101), who spent most of her time of film putting on hats and pouting at the camera or complaining that the documentary wasn’t about her instead. And she definitely warranted one.

The film is certainly celebratory, and it is rare to see somebody so completely nice and contented on film. At the same time, he remains rather distant from most people, and his past is still something of a mystery that the film didn’t exert much energy into uncovering. We see one or two snapshots of his youth, but hear very little about father or mother, or even how he sustains himself considering he refuses to accept money for jobs: he has a horror of being ‘owned’. A sub-plot (as it were) about Carnegie Hall residents being evicted is intriguing, but not particularly concluded – and certainly isn’t exploited in the sensationalist way it might have been in some hands.

Yet, somehow, a documentary that isn’t invasively curious about its subject works unexpectedly well. Bill Cunningham New York is interested in the man’s legacy and contribution to fashion and photography, and in one moment in time. It is rather joyful to watch, with enough poignancy to avoid being mawkish. I’d heartily recommend it.

And, now I’m on a documentary spree, I’d love some more recommendations. I’m intending to watch ActressFinding Vivian MaierDear Mr Watterson, and Life Itself at some point…

My Sister Eileen: the film

A while ago I blogged about the lovely book My Sister Eileen by Ruth McKenney, which I heartily recommend. And in the latest meet-up for Simon and Andrea’s Film Club, we watched the film – well, one of the films. It turns out this unassuming little collection of childhood and adolescent memories had quite an afterlife – although mostly focusing on the few chapters dealing with life in a New York basement.

All the posters I can find seem to think Janet Leigh’s legs are the star.

There was a play, a 1940s film, a stage musical (called Wonderful Town), and this film – from 1955. I think the script might be similar to the play and Wonderful Town, but they couldn’t get the rights to Leonard Bernstein’s music – and so new music was written (and, so the Wikipedia entry informs me, even had to appear at different stages of the narrative – so as to avoid possible suing.)

I thought it would be fun – but I hadn’t realised how great it would be. I really love this film!

The sisters are played by Janet Leigh and the remarkably Betty Garrett (Eileen and Ruth respectively); they do indeed live in a basement flat, just about the subway, and Ruth is trying to make it as a journalist. That’s about where the similarities with the book begin and end. (Oh, except for the introduction of the Brazilian Navy – which is quite out of keeping with the rest of the film, though still great fun, and seems too far-fetched, despite being true.) In the film, Ruth is the plain-Jane to Eileen’s beauty (and, while Betty Garrett is hilariously dry and feisty, in her early 20s she ain’t). They both meet eligible young men – one of whom is Jack Lemmon; the other of whom is choreographer Bob Fosse (who plays a complete sweetheart, in Frank Lippincott; Jack Lemmon’s character is rather creepier by modern standards, but is – I believe – intended to be romantically forceful in the ’50s.)

Alongside their sororal relationship is the bedrock of the film, it’s actually rather a lovely ensemble piece. Special mention must go to charming Dick York, their rugged, friendly neighbour, who pops in to do their ironing (although he won’t do sewing; ‘that’s woman’s work’) and protect them from unsuitable suitors. We spent the entire film thinking he was called Rick (in a Noo Yoik accent), but it turns out he actually is called the Wreck – his wrestling nickname. Sure, why not?

My favourite songs were the two frenetic, cheery ones – ‘I’m Great (But No One Knows It)’, and the superb ‘Give Me a Band And My Baby’, in which the four participating characters pretend to be playing various instruments. And the dancing! Leigh and Garrett aren’t terrible, but it’s Fosse and Tommy Rall who dazzle and amaze – particularly in a tap-dancing scene. Indeed, Rall’s character (a romantic rival for Frank L) seems to be there simply to give Fosse a dancing partner of equal talent, but I’m not complaining.

I don’t really know why a film as joyful, funny, engaging, and beautiful as My Sister Eileen – with great songs and exceptional dancers – ever fell out of favour, but I certainly hadn’t heard of it until lately. And is Betty Garrett known? Wikipedia tells me she was blacklisted in the US during MacCarthyism. She is so brilliant in this – delivering a withering line like nobody’s business, and remaining entirely sympathetic throughout.  Janet Leigh is also good fun, and an able comedian. It’s basically all a delight – which is fitting, given what a delight the book is.

Amusingly, Andrea and I spent some time musing on the fact that the song ‘Why-oh-why-oh-why did I leave Ohio’ (or whatever it’s called) would have been a good fit, and kept wondering if it would turn up – only to discover later that it’s in Wonderful Town, and thus would have been a very good fit!

Do track down the DVD – and enjoy this poor quality video of ‘Give Me A Band and My Baby’ as an introduction:

My Name is Julia Ross

How do people feel about me writing film reviews? Is that something people would be in to? I tend just to post about the things I want to (witness: Song for a Sunday) and sometimes that turns into something unexpectedly popular (I never imagined anybody would want to read the Bake Off recaps, and now strangers – strangers plural, mind – come up to me at parties – party singular, actually – and tell me they like that.) But I guess the worlds of film and book review aren’t miles apart, only I would consider myself something of an expert about books (if anything at all) and wouldn’t about film.

Enough preamble. I’m going to write about My Name is Julia Ross, and we’ll take it from there. By the by, a nice man called John writes a very book blog called Pretty Sinister Books which has regular film reviews, and he has written about My Name is Julia Ross here. But I actually came across the film when scrolling through the IMDB page for Dame May Whitty, seeing what else she had made.

My Name is Julia Ross is from 1945, and I watched it with my friend Andrea as part of the aptly-named Simon and Andrea’s Film Club. The whole thing is available on YouTube (at the bottom of this post), although a DVD might still be available for all I know. It’s based on a novel called The Woman in Red by Anthony Gilbert, whom I’ve never heard of (have you?) and is about Julia Ross (Nina Foch) who takes on an appointment as a secretary, and is drugged and kidnapped. When she awakes, she is in a clifftop house, and people are calling her Marion Hughes, claiming she is the wife of Ralph Hughes. They have recently moved to the village, and all the villagers know that Ralph’s wife has suffered a breakdown, and doesn’t know what she’s saying…

The rest of the film documents Julia Ross’s attempts to escape from the house – attempts that are repeatedly foiled, of course – and the viewer slowly learns why Ralph and his mother (the mother being played by Dame May) have brought Julia there. In the background, back where Julia was living in penury, are the rather lacklustre romantic hero Dennis and the rather wonderfully snipey housemaid.

To the modern viewer – perhaps even to the 1940s viewer – the actual plot is something of a cliché. It is interesting to see a drama where nothing grimmer or more inventive is needed than repeated unsuccessful escape plans (notes thrown through gates, sneaking into the back of cars, etc.). I don’t know enough about film history to know how unusual this scenario would have been at the time, but it really isn’t all that important. Of course she isn’t going to escape half an hour into the film. What does matter is how it’s shot – and it’s really striking.

There are quite a few things in My Name is Julia Ross that make me think of Hitchcock – not least the looming out over the clifftop; the bedroom window is right on the edge. The setting is so stunning, and dramatic, and the film-maker (dir. Joseph H. Lewis) puts this to the best possible use.

Nina Foch is a very likeable heroine, if a little over the top at times, but it is the eerie calmness of Dame May Whitty that makes the mystery at the heart of the film so tense – not so much ‘what will happen?’ but ‘why has it happened?’ It might have been a more psychologically complex film if we hadn’t seen the drugging – if we hadn’t known whether or not Julia was right; if she could, in fact, be Marion – but even without this element, it’s rather gripping.

I love watching films from this period – unsurprisingly, really – and it’s interesting to find a thriller to watch alongside the Brief Encounters and Mrs Minivers with which we’re already familiar.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding: the film

First off, I should let you know that tomorrow I’ll be posting an exclusive Q&A with the scriptwriter of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, Mary Henely Magill – so, look forward to that!

I saw the film last week (incidentally, it is now available on DVD), and I’ll confess that I was a bit nervous before I went.  As quite a few of us said in the fab discussion we had here, the novel (novella?) felt quite unfilmable.  And the reviews weren’t all hugely positive… although mostly they seemed upset that it wasn’t Downton Abbey.  (Why on earth should it be?)  One even complained that it wasn’t very cheerful, and irony exploded.  Well, I’ve got to say – with one or two reservations, I thought it was really good.  I’d definitely recommend getting hold of the DVD, if you can’t get to a screening.

I’m going to assume I skip a synopsis, because you can just read the novel review above, if you don’t know what’s what.  So instead, because I don’t really know how to structure a film review without a synopsis, I’m going to give you my thoughts in bullet points… just below the film trailer.

1) As you can see from the trailer, the film is beautifully shot.  That’s usually a damn-with-faint-praise comment, but I don’t see why it should be.  Every frame was sumptuous, whether interior or exterior.  A golden, hazy spring day was as strikingly gorgeous as a sharp winter’s morning in a bedroom.  Even if the script and acting had been appalling (which they certainly weren’t), it would be a delicious film to watch.

2.) Felicity Jones was the Big Name for the film, and she was good, but I think the best people were Ellie Kendrick as Kitty, Elizabeth McGovern as Mrs. Thatcham, and Fenella Woolgar as Nancy.  Let’s look at them one by one…

3.) Ellie Kendrick was so wonderful as Anne Frank in a TV series about her a while ago, and she was equally wonderful here.  Her Kitty was precocious, spontaneous, affectionate, and witty.  The most engaging character on screen, for my money.

4.) We all know Elizabeth McGovern for her Downton performance nowadays, but she was signed up for Cheerful Weather for the Wedding first.  On the page, Mrs. Thatcham is unbelievably absent-minded.  McGovern brings that across, but also makes her realistically stern and single-minded.

5.) I don’t remember Nancy in the novel, but the dynamic between her and husband David were a wonderful part of the film.  Fenella Woolgar is so brilliant at the brisk barbed comment or sardonic murmur.  A total joy.

6.) From the main trio – James Norton’s Owen was as much a nonentity on screen as on the page, but that’s the way it should be.  Luke Treadaway was fantastic as Joseph, in both impassioned and frivolous scenes, and Felicity Jones put it in a thoughtful performance as bride-to-be Dolly.

7.) I loved how, from the opening notes of the score onwards, the film captured the hysterical madness of the narrative.  Especially in the first half, the frenetic, overlapping conversations and muddled characters was done really well – with the right level of detachment from genuine emotional concerns.

8.) The flip-side of this are the extended flashback scenes, and a deep-and-meaningful between Joseph and Dolly on the day of the wedding.  I know opinions differ on this, but for my money, the characters in Julia Strachey’s novel aren’t intended to be sympathetic.  It doesn’t really matter what they think and feel, because they’re all grotesques, and the point of the book is to be a madcap romp through events.  Which meant I didn’t buy the emotional scenes between Dolly and Joseph, which seemed to dilute the tone of the film.  You can’t really have your cake and eat it – either it’s a surreal comedy, or it’s a poignant one.  I think it would have been better to avoid making the characters at all sympathetic (same goes for the film of Angel), although I understand that that would make it harder to pitch or market.

9.) It *is* a really funny film.  The cinema was filled with laughter on many occasions.  The trailer goes a bit slapsticky, but the film itself isn’t, and most of the humour came from dialogue and facial expressions.

10.) The socks weren’t emerald green!  My favourite bit!  But that is something I asked Mary… come back tomorrow to find out her answer to that and other questions…

Another Year

I don’t love films in the way that I love books – I enjoy seeing them, but find my short attention span is usually a bit bored by the end, and it’s only the odd one or two that have give me the feelings I get from my favourite books. Usually these are adaptations of novels (I Capture the Castle) or films about authors (Finding Neverland) or both (The Hours). Occasionally a 1930s film will do it, but yesterday I watched a film that moved me and amused me and enthralled me in the way that my favourite novels do. And that film is Another Year, directed by Mike Leigh. The only other Mike Leigh films I’ve seen are Vera Drake, which I thought brilliant, and Abigail’s Party, which works better on stage. I know he uses the same actors many times, and picks those who excel at improvisation – whatever he’s doing, it works.

I saw the trailer a while ago, and thought it looked poignant and well-observed, and it is definitely both those things – but trailers rarely do justice to a film, and the one posted below is no exception. Having not seen it in November, when it was released, I was pleased to spot that it was showing at my favourite cinema in the world – the Ultimate Picture Palace. It’s a one-screen cinema from the 1960s or 1970s, and still very much has that feel. But it’s also incredibly friendly and quirky – they were selling mulled wine and mince pies last night, which were lovely – and shows interesting films, including older ones. Last year I saw Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes there, for example.


Another Year, like so many of the novels I love, is difficult to describe because not much happens. It shows a couple nearing retirement – Tom and Gerri (ho ho) played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen – going through a year of their life, and the lives of their friends. Gerri and Tom are a quietly contented married couple, happy and comfortable with each other, and I have never seen a more realistic portrayal of a normal marriage in film. Their lives are centred around work (Gerri is a counsellor [thanks David!]; Tom is a engineering geologist), the allotment, their son visiting at the weekends, their friends, and being together. There may be a rug waiting to be pulled from under my feet, and perhaps in many films they’d be shown up as smug or too middle class, but Mike Leigh seemed to have the sense simply to show them as they are.

In and out of their lives wander several friends, each slightly dysfunctional, but only in the way that people can be. Nothing unduly zany or far-fetched. Of these characters, although the film is indisputably an ensemble piece, one does stand out – in fact, she is in some ways the heart of the film. That is Mary, played brilliantly by Lesley Manville. She is a 40-something divorcee, lonely and clingy, only just self-aware enough to realise how unself-aware she is. Another Year is clever, though – at first Mary seems simply a chatty, flirty, slightly uncontrolled woman. Only as the film develops does her pain unravel, and manifest itself in bitterness or trying too hard to be the life and soul of a gathering. And yet she is a warm woman, and it is impossible to dislike her – but entirely possible to see how Gerri and Tom could grow weary of her.

Writing about Another Year is as difficult as writing about a finely-written novel, because every statement feels like a broad sweep, missing the subtlety of Mike Leigh’s writing and direction, or the acting of an astonishingly good cast. It felt so ‘real’ – not a euphemism for gritty or unpleasant, as the word ‘real’ is so often used, but naturalistic and vital. The relationships were all believable, sometimes painfully so. Only Mary occasionally went a little too far, a little too ‘drama’ rather than ‘life’, but this was so occasionally that it couldn’t mar a superb performance.

All this makes Another Year sound gloomy – and it is true that the lingering feeling is sadness. But whilst it was showing there were many moments where the cinema rang to the sound of audience laughter – some exceptional observational comedy – and some beautifully warm and touching moments. Like life, I suppose.

Oh, and you know when Judi Dench won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for a few minutes of screentime in Shakespeare in Love? Well, if there is any justice in the world, Imelda Staunton will win one for her part as a depressed insomniac patient of Gerri’s. Sadly, she only appears for a few minutes, in the first handful of scenes – but my friend and I both spent the rest of the film longing for her to reappear. Every tiny movement of her face was transfixing. Any aspiring actor should have to sit and watch her performance – so restrained, but so informative.

All in all, as you can see, I was very impressed! Do go and see it if you have the chance, although it’s probably not on in many places now. If you live near Oxford, you’ll be able to go to the Ultimate Picture Palace – otherwise pre-order the DVD!

Which other Mike Leigh films would you recommend? I’ve gone and ordered All or Nothing and Happy-Go-Lucky, which are now winging their way from Amazon…

The Lady Vanishes


My favourite cinema in Oxford – nay, in the world – is The Ultimate Picture Palace on Cowley Road. True, it’s not especially palatial, and the uncharitable might comment that it’s only ultimate in the sense that you might die there – but it’s head and shoulders my favourite cinema. It even has its own website, but that is its only concession to modernity. That and electricity. I don’t know when it was built, but it has an aura of the 1960s about it, inside. I would say they’ve not updated it since the 1960s, but only yesterday they seemed to have changed the seating. It still feels old.

The first time I went was to see Vera Drake in 2005. I’d spent my first term at Oxford believing it to be boarded up, but discovered that this was in fact simply their decor choice. My friend Phoebe and I went, we were the first people there… we entered this dark, old room – painted inside entirely in very dark red – and it felt rather like something from a horror film. Towards the end the film simply stopped in the middle of a scene – I thought perhaps it was a clever arthouse comment on the film’s theme of abortion, but it turned out that the reel had come unstuck, or something.

I love everything about this cinema – from the raffle-style ticket they give you as you enter, to the entire lack of machinery, to the friendly amateur style of those who run it, to the fact that the whole exterior somehow resembles a railway station. If you’re ever in Oxford, do try and see it – it holds loving cult status amongst Those Who Know.

And all this is just the charm of its aesthetic. The films it puts on are equally wonderful. The Ultimate Picture Palace does play some recent films, a couple of months after they hit big chain cinemas, but also does a great line in old films, foreign films, and old foreign films.

And so yesterday I went to see Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938). I hadn’t seen it before – though I have seen the 1979 remake, on television years ago – and have wanted to for a while. The ticket cost me more than the DVD would on Amazon, but the UPP is such an experience. Only 7 of us were at the screening – perhaps they thought it was The Lady Varnishes, which would be like watching paint dry [a quick credit to my library colleague, another Simon, for that witty quip].


Perhaps everyone has already seen The Lady Vanishes – if not, I recommend you do so. Despite loving 1930s literature, I find it difficult to track down 1930s films with the same success, so it’s wonderful when they are available. The plot was taken from Ethel Lina White’s novel The Wheel Spins, and is summed-up in Hitchcock’s choice of title. A young woman called Iris befriends an old governess in an hotel, and gets onto a train with her – shortly after having been hit on the head by a flower pot. The old lady, Miss Froy, looks after Iris – gives her tea, sits with her in the compartment. The blow which Iris sustained to her head gives her concussion and she drifts off – when she awakes, Miss Froy has vanished – and everybody else in the carriage denies that she ever existed. Is Miss Froy a hallucination, or is something altogether more suspicious going on? With the help of cocky Gilbert (Michael Redgrave in the role which made him a big name) Iris is determined to work out what’s happened.

I was delighted to see Dame May Whitty – who was rather wonderful in Mrs. Miniver and is another who’d make an admirable Miss Hargreaves – as the Vanishing Lady in question. The rest of the cast is wonderful, including Margaret Lockwood and Googie Withers, and a wonderful pair of characters called Charters and Caldicott. These very English gentlemen watch proceedings with a no-nonsense, cynical eye, more concerned about the cricket they’re missing than the woman who’s missing. Exploring Wikipedia, I discovered that the characters, played by Nauton Wayne and Basil Radford, were so popular that they popped up in another two films and several radio broadcasts. The actors also played very similar double-acts in a further sixteen films and radio serials. The days of established double-acts in films, appearing as different characters but always together, seem to have gone.


And, of course, Alfred Hitchcock isn’t a bad director either. Some stunning moments – I especially liked one where the train travels over a viaduct, really beautifully shot. You can forgive the opening pan across a toy train and some plastic figures…

I’d love some recommendations for other 1930s, ’40s and ’50s films to watch. I love Mrs. Miniver (as long as you don’t think about the book), Went The Day Well?, and, of course, Brief Encounter. Others in a similar vein, please…