Category: British Cinema

Blinded by the Light (UK-US 2019)

An iconic British image composed in relation to the Motorway sign. Eliza (Nell Williams), Javed and Roops (Aaron Phagura)

Blinded by the Light is Gurinder Chadha’s eighth feature film, placing her alongside Sally Potter as the most prolific female director in British cinema since Muriel Box in the 1950s/60s. But I don’t think Chadha gets the credit she deserves for popular films which tell important stories. The early signs are that her latest film might be subject to the same criticisms that were aimed at some of her other features (‘feelgood’ doesn’t have to mean a ‘bad’ film). So I’ll just state from the off that I thoroughly enjoyed Blinded by the Light. I hope it reaches the widest possible audience and that Gurinder Chadha’s skills as a filmmaker are properly appreciated.

The intriguing aspect of her new film is how much it follows the same kind of narrative as that of her most successful film Bend It Like Beckham (UK-Germany 2002), yet Blinded by the Light is a form of biopic, very much the autobiographical story of Sarfraz Manzoor even if Chadha and her partner Paul Mayeda Berges have shaped it for an international release. Perhaps it isn’t so surprising. Manzoor was born in Pakistan and brought up in Luton and Chadha was born in Kenya and brought up in Southall. They might be ten years apart in age but their experiences of being ‘British Asians’ in the Thatcher years with their more overt manifestations of racism will have been similar. Chadha has said that the reappearance of racism and fascism on the streets following the Brexit referendum was one of the factors driving this production. Just to make the point clearer that the stories are similar, Chadha includes a sequence in which the Manzoor character Javed takes his sister to a ‘day-time night club’, the only way young South Asian girls could get to a dance in the 1980s (because of parental restrictions) – and a cultural phenomenon Chadha included in her first groundbreaking documentary short, I’m British But . . . (UK 1990).

Javed in full Bruce mode and inspired to write

Blinded by the Light offers Bruce Springsteen in place of David Beckham and a 16 year-old boy instead of an 18 year-old girl and, because it is Sarfraz Manzoor’s own story, it’s a ‘period drama’ set in 1987/8 rather than West London in the Blair era. A brief prologue introduces us to Javed as a young teenager with his only close friend Matt and we get an early sense of how isolated and trapped he feels in Luton (for overseas readers, Luton is a large town 30 miles NW of London and in the 1980s best known for the Vauxhall (GM) car factory).

The main narrative finds Javed, now 16 and moving to Luton’s Sixth Form College. Here he meets another British Asian, Roops, a Sikh who gives him a Springsteen cassette, explaining “Bruce is the Boss – he knows how you feel”. Though it takes Javed time to appreciate that Bruce definitely does speak to him about the things that matter – getting out of Luton and following his dream – he soon becomes a follower and embraces Springsteen’s lyrics as inspiration for his own writing. Javed’s dreams mean defying his father (he is studying English not Economics and wants to become a writer, not an accountant). When his father is made redundant by Vauxhall, Javed’s obsession to be a writer is in danger of causing a family rift. They need him to make money and to support his father. This is based on a true story so we know Javed will become a journalist (Sarfraz Mansoor is a successful journalist and radio and TV personality) but to do so he needs the support of an inspiring English teacher (played convincingly by Hayley Atwell) with her contacts. Will Javed get to America and visit Bruce’s home town? Will he get a girlfriend and will he learn to respect his family? Well what do you think?

Javed’s family with Dad (Kulvinder Ghir), Mum (Meera Ganatra) and Shazia (Nikita Mehta)

The narrative itself is certainly not original (and some of the college scenes are over-familiar) but Chadha includes two elements which give it a difference. Firstly, she doesn’t shy away from the racism on the streets including the National Front marches. Javed may himself draw back from confrontation with the racists and fascists at first but he can’t ignore the threat towards his family and his embrace of Springsteen gives him confidence to stand up and be counted. The other ‘difference’ is the way in which Chadha uses the Springsteen songs.

Bruce Springsteen liked Sarfraz Manzoor’s book and he gave Chadha free rein to use his songs. Because Javed is a writer and responds to Springsteen’s lyrics, Chadha decided to emphasise them in various sequences where Javed sings along to the songs on his Walkman and the lyrics appear on screen bouncing around Javed a line at a time. I remember Danny Boyle using a similar technique in Slumdog Millionaire where the subtitles escaped their usual position across the bottom of the frame.

Examples of the creative visual use of Springsteen’s lyrics

I enjoyed the use of the songs. I’m not an obsessive Springsteen fan but these are mainly the well-known songs from the period between ‘Born to Run’ (1975) and ‘Born in the USA’ (1984) so they worked for me. However, I did wonder if the balance of songs to dramatic scenes would be right for those least familiar with Springsteen. The key question may be how the film plays to younger audiences. I suspect that the film skews more towards a 35+ audience but I would hope Javed’s story appeals to younger audiences and especially to young British Asians. On its first weekend in the UK, it made No 4 in the chart and it also made it into the North American Top 10 this weekend. But both weekends were relatively ‘soft’ in terms of screen averages for wide releases. If the film does skew older, the midweek figures may be healthier but the effect is arguably less so in the summer holiday period. The film had made £2 million in the UK after eleven days and $4.45 million in the first three days in North America.

All the performances in the film are strong and mostly from newcomers playing the youth roles. I want to pick out the redoubtable Kulvinder Ghir as Javed’s Dad and the cameos by Rob Dryden as Matt’s Dad, Sally Phillips as the Sixth Form College Principal and Marcus Brigstocke as a Tory parent bemused by Javed’s appearance as his daughter’s boyfriend. All four actors are veterans of UK TV comedy. I also want to commend the cinematography by Ben Smithard and all of the design team re-creating 1980s Luton. Springsteen’s music is to the fore, but having A. R. Rahman responsible for the overall score makes Blinded by the Light a winner.

Malta Story (UK 1953)

Malta Story screened on Talking Pictures TV a few weeks ago. I don’t remember seeing it before and I found it an intriguing watch for several reasons. The early 1950s fascinates me as a much-derided period of British filmmaking, but also a commercially successful one for some studios and a time when British audiences preferred British stars to Amnericans. The war films of the period have become the most derided by many film scholars and, perhaps not coincidentally they also appear to give comfort to the Brexiteers. Malta Story is a particularly strong example of a film celebrating the bravery and resilience of the Maltese people and the heroics of both the RAF and Royal Navy. It was one of the most popular films at the British box office in 1953. Sue Harper and Vincent Porter (British Cinema of the 1950s) report that the idea for the film came originally from the Central Office of Information under Labour (presumably in the late 1940s) as a propaganda film supporting the three armed services. This version would have been directed by Thorold Dickinson and written by William Fairchild. The project was eventually funded as a production of ‘British Film Makers’ a joint operation between Rank and the National Film Finance Corporation (NFFC). Nigel Balchin developed the script and Brian Desmond Hurst took over as director for a production based at Pinewood with location shots on Malta and access to archive footage of air and sea battles in the Mediterranean. (The Talking Pictures print still announces the film as a ‘Theta Production’ – the company set up by Dickinson and producer Peter De Sarigny.)

Bartlett and Ross as anxious Spitfire pilots

As a child in the 1950s I was aware of the powerful mythology associated with ‘Faith’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Charity’, the three Gloster Gladiator bi-planes which defended Malta in 1940 in the early months of the war. But Malta Story deals with the later period when the island’s strategic importance made it the target for both German and Italian bombers, attempting destroy its defences for an invasion that would then allow the Axis powers to guarantee their own supply route to North Africa. One of the two lead roles in the film was taken by Jack Hawkins as the senior RAF officer, Air Commodore Frank. It is his responsibility to maintain the the airfields and the dwindling numbers of Spitfires for long enough to allow the RN to bring in reinforcements. He faces a Catch-22 situation since his aircraft are vulnerable on the ground or in the air in facing Luftwaffe superiority of numbers. But if he can’t protect the convoys carrying the reinforcements, they may be lost as well. The ‘inciting moment’ of the narrative is the arrival on the island of a reconnaissance flyer en route to Egypt. Frank gets permission to keep the flyer on Malta and to use him to monitor Italian ports and railways for an invasion build-up. The flyer is F/Lt Peter Ross, played by Alec Guinness. Ross has a double function in the narrative. First he provides the mechanism by which Frank can gain intelligence on enemy troop/shipping movements. Second, he can ‘personalise’ the story by falling for one of the young Maltese women, Maria (Muriel Pavlow) working in the RAF ops room. Maria’s family headed by her mother (Flora Robson) will also provide a secondary narrative about a possible spy in the shape of Maria’s brother.

Jack Hawkins (centre) as Air Commodore Frank, flanked by Bartlett (Anthony Steel) and Maria (Muriel Pavlow)

In 1953 Jack Hawkins was at the peak of his popularity with British audiences. 1953 was also the year of his naval Commander in The Cruel Sea and his ex Army officer in The Intruder and the year before he had been in The Planter’s Wife resisting Malayan independence fighters. In 1952 he’d also had a senior RAF post in Angels One Five and the pioneering head teacher in Mandy. It’s difficult to think of another star actor who carried the same sense of authority and gravitas, but who could also be affable and avuncular and, when necessary, ruthless. I think Hawkins has tended to suffer in retrospect from charges of ‘stolidity’ but for me he is the outstanding male actor of 1950s British cinema. There is much more to him than the ‘stiff upper lip’. The top-billed actor on Malta Story is Alec Guinness but I confess I’m not always a Guinness fan. It seems he angled for the part of Ross as ‘something different’ and he does create an interesting character, the almost unworldly Cambridge archaeologist who had done some aerial photography pre-war. His courtship of the beautiful Maria is sometimes uncomfortable to watch because of his awkwardness but this is resolved in the final scenes which I did actually find quite moving, especially in Muriel Pavlow’s performance.

I’m wondering how much of the original script survived the ‘front office pressure’ of Rank’s John Davis and executive producer Earl St John. Balchin was both a celebrated novelist as well as a top scriptwriter of the period. My suspicions are raised by the relatively minor role played by the relationship between Anthony Steel’s Wing Commander Bartlett and Renee Asherson as another of the women working in the Ops Room. Steel is third-billed on the film’s poster and Asherson is billed alongside Muriel Pavlow but neither role seems to contribute much to the narrative development. Steel’s Bartlett should be the representative of the Spitfire pilots on the island (i.e. those defending the base) but because the role isn’t developed, the twin axis of the narrative is the ‘high command’ and Maria’s Maltese family headed by Flora Robson with what I assume is meant to be a ‘Maltese’ accent. Visually the film is dominated by the location shooting amongst the ruins and across the harbour skilfully edited with archive footage. Similarly in 1952/3 there were still wartime aircraft available to complement the archive footage. (Although because of the rapid development of marques during the war, the Spitfires are mainly later models than those of the 1942 Malta siege.) I didn’t particularly notice the use of model work on my TV screening but others suggest it is extensive in the film.

Maria and Peter Ross (Alec Guinness)

It isn’t easy to make a film with real narrative drive about a siege lasting several weeks. There is always the risk that the spectacle of aerial dogfights will overtake the drama faced by civilians on the Home Front and the military personnel on the ground in the harbour and on the airfields. There is also a danger in trying to tell too many stories and the 1969 Battle of Britain film fell into both traps for me. In this respect, Malta Story is strengthened by the drama of Ross trying to find a German convoy on its way to support Rommel at El Alamein. If he can do this, the struggles of everyone on Malta will have been worthwhile because the new British bombers which have eventually got through to the island will then be able to attack the German supply line. The irony is that Ross, the Cambridge archaeologist, should be the man whose single mission becomes so important. Several years later, Guinness played ‘Aircraftman Ross’, the assumed name of T. E. Lawrence in the RAF in a 1960 play by Terence Rattigan. Without the family, Malta Story might have become another 1950s war film showing the British middle classes winning the war through good management and strength of character. Ordinary people and ‘the lower ranks’ were important in the 1940s but in the 1950s establishment values were being re-asserted – or at least that is what several film scholars have suggested. History however, records that the ‘people of Malta’ were awarded a collective George Cross for their resistance in 1942 and this is included in the film. Later still Malta gained independence from the UK in 1964, became a Republic in 1974 and joined the EU in 2004. I wonder what the Brexiteers think of that?

If… (UK 1968)

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What you find in a public school’s cellar

I first saw If…, rather bizarrely, at school as part of an English lesson. Presumably the whole year (4, I think – 10 in ‘new money’) was seeing it as there was a buzz about the ‘sex’ scene. Unfortunately our teacher stopped it at the point Malcolm McDowell and Christine Noonen wrestle naked, explaining to us that we wouldn’t understand the symbolism. It was an all boys class and we weren’t interested in the symbolism. I’m not sure why they showed us the film and don’t remember any follow-up lessons; maybe these comprehensive  school teachers (though we were a Secondary Modern year having failed our 11+s) were being subversive. This would have been 1976-7 so nearly ten years after the film was released; I guess it had recently been shown on TV and recorded to videotape. My only other memory was puzzlement about the ending, but then I did live a life ‘sheltered’ from any sense of the Swinging Sixties and Punk which was getting going at the time.

40+ years on If… has lost none of its power; if anything, its relevance has returned given the extreme public school bozos currently in office in the UK. In recent years a few victims of the ‘public school’ system, such as George Monbiot, have gone public about the trauma they suffered whilst being educated. Certainly the beating McDowell’s rebel Mick takes is grotesque, but it is the mental cruelty the system imposes that has a greater impact. I remember when we went to secondary school the rumours were we would have a head put down a toilet; in If… it happens.

The self-perpetuating oligarchy, seen in the ‘old boys’ network’ and employment practices of many influential institutions (such as the Press) is so damaging to the life chances of those outside the ‘gilded circle’ and the country as a whole. The Othering of anyone not like themselves allows the ruling classes to create such obscenities as the Universal Credit in the belief it is the right thing to do.

Lindsay Anderson is an interesting director who made few feature films; I notice he directed some of the TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-60). His filmic roots were in Free Cinema, where the representation of working class life was less patronising than mainstream productions of the time. This fed into the ‘gritty realism’ of the British New Wave, though my memory of This Sporting Life (1963), Anderson’s first feature, is that it has expressionist elements as well. By the time of If…, his second feature after the short The White Bus (1967), surrealism had become integral to the narrative; it’s present in the short too.

Anderson had taken This Sporting Life to the Karlovy Vary film festival, in Czechoslovakia, where he met director Miloš Forman and cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček who were shooting A Blonde in Love. Anderson invited Ondříček, who with Forman fell foul of the censors after The Fireman’s Ball (Horí, má panenko, 1967), to shoot in the UK. Ondříček told Anderson he couldn’t guarantee the colour consistency in the chapel scenes of If… so they were shot in black and white. Ondříček also shot The White Bus which also mixes film stock.

Capriciously Anderson decided to shoot other scenes in monochrome too and this adds to the decidedly Eastern European new wave look of the film; something that also is accentuated by the surreal moments. The first of which is the aforementioned ‘sex’ scene where the characters are suddenly naked and roaring like tigers; apparently McDowell suggested to Anderson they do the wrestling naked and Anderson said “Okay if Noonan agrees”. Of course McDowell put the suggestion to Noonan as Anderson’s idea . . . Some commentators seem to think the sex scene is ‘real’: Mick’s mate, Wallace, places a saucer on the coffee to keep it warm while it’s happening. However, I think that act is motivated by Mick putting Missa Luba on the juke-box (as played by Les Troubadours du Roi Baudouin in an arrangement by Father Guido Haazen) which he seems obsessed by. Wallace knows that Mick’s going to be absorbed in the music for its duration; the naked wrestling is the fantasy he has while listening.

Whether the wrestling happens or not is immaterial, but ‘the Girl’, as she is known in the dismissive ‘sixties’ way, is clearly a fantasy figure. Her second appearance is through a telescope leaning out of her window which cannot possibly be in Mick’s view. She turns up at the conflagration at the end too. In this film calling her ‘the girl’ works because she is a figment of imagination.

The marginalisation of women in the film is understandable given its milieux. Mary McLeod plays the apparently buttoned-up wife of housemaster (Arthur Lowe at his lugubrious best portraying ineptitude) is seen wandering around the boys’ quarters naked whilst they are all watching a rugby match. It is a brilliant scene emphasising the repression of women, both sexually and as individuals, in the school..

The surrealism highlights the ludicrousness of the public school rituals of fags and ceremonial beatings. These probably appear more ridiculous now than they would have at the time (you could get caned at the school I attended) but Anderson clearly has nothing but contempt for the ‘system’. It certainly chimed with the zeitgeist as it was a box office success, coming out in the year of youthful rebellions across the world as the forces of reaction met an end game. Unfortunately the right has been in the ascendent since the ’70s and is having to be fought again.

McDowell’s Mick reappeared in Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982).

The Deadly Affair (UK-US 1967)

Dobbs (James Mason) with his wife Ann (Harriet Andersson) and wartime agent Dieter (Maximilian Schell)

Talking Pictures TV triumphed again with a screening of this neglected title. Here’s a film packed with talent that received good reviews at the time but failed to make money and seems to have been forgotten, at least until 2017 when the DVD/Blu-ray label Indicator brought out a new dual format package stuffed with extras. There is indeed a great deal to say about a film which raises several questions about British cinema and ‘British Hollywood’ during the final days of cinema as mass entertainment in the UK.

The place to start is perhaps with ‘Swinging London’ – that strange concept, largely created by journalists and especially TIME magazine. There were a handful of films that seemed to catch a particular moment around 1966 but since then many more have been ‘claimed’ as examples of something that didn’t really extend much beyond a limited area of West London. The Deadly Affair ignores the ‘scene’ altogether and in fact ignores youth completely. Instead it becomes one of several films made in London by North American directors for Hollywood studios which invested heavily in British productions for several different reasons. It was the second British picture for director Sidney Lumet following The Hill (1965) and he would go on to make four more, The Sea Gull (1968), The Offence (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Equus (1977). Lumet was joined in British production by Otto Preminger directing Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), Canadian Sidney J. Furie who made The Ipcress File (1965), Stanley Donen with Arabesque (1966) and Martin Ritt directing The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965). Furie and Donen had both been in the UK making films since 1960 but left for the US when the American investment in the UK declined at the end of the 1960s. The titles listed above from these North Americans were all crime or espionage thrillers.

Mason as Dobbs with Harry Andrews as Inspector Mendel

The Deadly Affair was adapted from John le Carré’s first novel Call For the Dead (1961). It was preceded by Martin Ritt’s film of the third le Carré novel for Paramount in 1965. Paramount bought the rights to both the novel and the character name ‘George Smiley’ and so Lumet’s lead character became ‘Charles Dobbs’ as played by James Mason in this adaptation for Columbia Pictures. ‘Dobbs’ is an interesting name. It reminds us of Humphrey Bogart’s character in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and the sound of the name suggests a solid, downbeat character. As played by Mason, Dobbs does seem on the edge of losing his status as an intelligence officer with a long service career. He is quite different from the ‘George Smiley’ portrayed by Alec Guinness in the BBC TV series. Mason’s performance alone makes the film worth watching, but the overall cast and crew of the film is remarkable.

The complex plot sees Dobbs charged with checking out a senior civil servant in the Foreign Office who is suspected of leaking documents to East German agents. When this character commits suicide, Dobbs is suspicious, especially after meeting the man’s widow played by the magnificent Simone Signoret. When Dobbs is removed from the case he decides to pursue his own investigation with the help of a retired police inspector (Harry Andrews) and one of his intelligence colleagues (Kenneth Haigh). Carré’s interest in Smiley seems to have been in the moral questions he faces. Here ‘Dobbs’ has a young wife (Harriet Andersson) typed as promiscuous who he discovers is entertaining one of his wartime agents (Maximilian Schell) who has recently popped up in London. The starry cast also includes Roy Kinnear and Max Adrian. Lumet was always interested in the theatre and he includes in this narrative two sequences, one a rehearsal for a production of Macbeth and the other a performance of Marlowe’s Edward II by the Royal Shakespeare Company directed by Peter Hall. These feature a host of leading stage actors of the period including Michael Bryant, David Warner and Timothy West as well as Lynn Redgrave as a bumbling stage manager (a comic performance, immediately recalling her role opposite James Mason in Georgy Girl (1966)). Corin Redgrave also has a small role. I suspect that there might be some ‘intertextuality’ in the choice of these plays but I don’t know Edward II well enough to work through them. In the main the sequences serve as a kind of Hitchcockian machine to enable plot development and suspense.

One of Freddie Young’s nighttime compositions in South London

The other creative inputs match the stellar cast. The script is by Paul Dehn who began by winning an Oscar for his work on the Boulting Brothers’ Seven Days to Noon (1950). Another spy/agent film in 1958 was followed by Goldfinger (1964) and then a run of prestige /’quality’ pictures up to his final credit in 1974 for Murder on the Orient Express, again for Lumet. The run included The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Quincy Jones produced the score for the film with a ‘themes song’ by Astrud Gilberto. The extraordinary ‘look’ of the film was the product of the experienced John Howell as Art Director, the similarly experienced Thelma Connell as editor and the superlative work of Freddie Young as cinematographer. Lumet had wanted to make the picture in black and white but Columbia refused. Young ‘pre-flashed’ the filmstock on some set-ups and managed to drain out much of the colour. The film also features many interior scenes and night-time scenes on London streets. For me the use of locations was a highlight of the film. In some ways the film is a reminder of location shooting in 1950s London films such as Sapphire (ph. Harry Waxman, 1959), but with the more subdued colour. Lumet, thankfully, ignores all the tourist scenes and takes us into the ‘non-swinging’ parts of Chelsea, to Battersea in South London and down the Thames, reminding us of all the British films noirs which used London so well (e.g. the ending of Night and the City (1950)). Unfortunately there are only a few locations shots from The Deadly Affair online.

The magnificent Simone Signoret as Elsa Fennan

I moved to London in 1967 so this might explain my fascination with this representation of the city. This representation is much more the ‘real’ London I remember than the tourist London that featured in later Hollywood films. But I enjoyed the performances just as much. I must return to my recording of the film to study the interchanges between Mason and Signoret. Sidney Lumet has often been praised for his work with actors and I realise there are many of his films I haven’t seen as well as others I should re-visit. I’m not really a fan of Le Carré’s novels (I admire them, but I’m less keen on the style) but this film adaptation won me over. I think the performances help make this more of a melodrama about trust and honour. The narrative has a dark resolution. It’s a film to be savoured by adults and an antidote to James Bond escapades.

I urge you to look out for the DVD/Blu-Ray from Indicator. There is some confusion about both the initial release date of the film and the timings of the film. The BBFC archive suggests that the film was submitted for certification in October 1966. Wikipedia gives this as the release date but it seems more likely that IMDb’s February 1967 date is accurate. On the other hand, IMDb and Wikipedia give a UK runtime of 115 minutes but the BBFC quotes 106 minutes and ‘No cuts’. The Blu-ray appears to confirm this.

Here are the credits and a short scene: