Tagged: Ealing Studios

The Proud Valley (UK 1940)

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Goliath and David wrapped into one

I knew nothing of the background to The Proud Valley but the swerve towards propaganda at the end felt tacked on; as it transpired to be because war was declared whilst the film was being made. Until then the subversive aspects of the film were particularly interesting and I wasn’t surprised to learn that the scriptwriters Alfredda Brilliant and Herbert Marshall were members of the left-wing Unity Theatre. In addition, having a black hero (the incomparable Paul Robeson) nailed the film as progressive. Apparently Robeson was friends of the husband and wife writing team.

Although Robeson’s acting skills are limited he only has to sing eradicate any problems with his presence. He ends up in a Welsh mining village where, because of his singing voice, he is embraced by the choir. Racism, fortunately, isn’t ignored but the ‘problem’ of his colour for some characters is glossed over quickly. Instead, this man-mountain represents workers’ solidarity, particularly in the face of the mine’s owners who are happy not to reopen the pit after an accident. Such was the lot of the working person in those days . . . still is of course.

Originally the end featured the community reopening the pit on their own however the start of war meant the film became the first of Ealing Studio’s ‘war effort’ productions and the characters march to London to petition the bosses to open to help with the conflict. Benevolent ‘Sir John’ agrees to give it a go and all ends well; except Robeson’s character sacrifices himself when they are reopening the mine. ‘Bosses and workers’ pulling together was undoubtedly the propaganda message required at the time but it isn’t necessary today. So I wonder why scriptwriter Anthony McCarten felt he needed to add a fictional scene to Darkest Hour (UK-US 2017) where Churchill rode the London Underground to consult ‘the people’? Worse, ‘the people’ included an Afro-Caribbean man with whom he appears to bond through quoting Shakespeare, so eradicating Churchill’s racism!

I also wonder about the ‘necessity’ of David Goliath’s (Robeson) sacrifice. The romantic interest in the film, as it was unlikely there’d be the odd black woman lurking in the Valleys, is taken by white characters so there could be no happy romantic ending for David; indeed he sacrifices himself for the couple. It creates an emotional ending, but the celebrations for the pit reopening do follow hard behind his death in order to ensure the happy emotion. Couldn’t he have continued just as a member of the community or didn’t he belong after all?

Maybe I’m being over-critical, after all the film is progressive in many ways. As entertainment it struggles; Robeson sings little but there is some sparkling dialogue. It is, however, a testament to Robeson whose connection to Wales continued for many years after the film.

Against the Wind (UK 1948)

Eagle-Lion’s US poster

This rather neglected Ealing drama is interesting for several reasons even if its poor box office performance might suggest otherwise. It is a relatively early post-war attempt at a resistance film and one which uses the possibility of location shooting in Belgium. In this sense it can be grouped with other British pictures of the period which attempt to deal with issues such as the ‘displaced persons’ in camps after the war and their back stories of wartime experience (e.g. The Captive Heart (1946) Frieda (1947), Portrait from Life (1949) and later The Divided Heart (1954)). This loose group of films focuses on social issues which are the consequences of war. Against the Wind is about action during the war, but the personal struggles and anguish it explores will have effects for a long time afterwards.

Simone Signoret

As well as the location shooting, Against the Wind, features a European actor who would go on to greater things. Simone Signoret plays an SOE (Special Operations Executive) operative in the first of her four British films. She had worked in bit parts in French cinema under the German Occupation (her part-Jewish background meant she couldn’t get an actor’s permit) and she was only just beginning to establish herself in lead roles in French films after the war. She had worked alongside Françoise Rosay in 1946 on the French feature Back Streets of Paris. Rosay had appeared in two Ealing films in 1944-5 and perhaps she made the connection with the studio possible? Simone Signoret was following Mai Zetterling who played a German young woman in Frieda and again, later,  in Portrait from Life as a European actor giving more authenticity to roles in British films made partly in Europe. Simone Simon appeared in a Georges Simenon adaptation, Temptation Harbour in 1947. The other two French-speaking roles in Against the Wind are played by the French-Canadian Paul Dupuis (in UK films since 1943) and the French actor Gisèle Préville, another occasional visitor to UK film productions.

Robert Beatty as the priest meeting James Robertson Justice as the Head of Section

The film’s story came from J. Elder Wills, adapted by Michael Pertwee and final script by T. E. B. Clarke who continued his partnership with Charles Crichton from Hue and Cry (1947). The story enables one of Ealing’s familiar ensemble films. Top billing goes to Robert Beatty who plays a Canadian Catholic priest who has a ‘mission’ in Belgium (in Brussels, so in a predominantly French-speaking city). At the start of the film we see him arriving at the National History Museum in South Kensington on his way to reporting to the Belgian section of SOE where he meets James Robertson Justice as the section chief and a number of both new and experienced agents, principally Max (Jack Hawkins), Michèle (Signoret), Picquart (Dupuis), Julie (Préville) and Emile (John Slater). The leader of the group is Andrew (Peter Illing) and the explosives expert is Duncan (Gordon Jackson). The film helps to establish what are now the familiar conventions of ‘secret agent’/commando films.

Michèle (Signoret) meets Duncan (Gordon Jackson) who shows off his sabotage gadgets

The first half of the narrative involves training and team bonding and the second half is taken up by a major mission which involves all the group members (except Robertson Justice who as ‘head of the training school’ is presumably looking for the next group). The first half probably condemned the film in the US where the reviewers of the New York Times and Variety find it dull, waiting for the action to start. They might be right in that an early action sequence could work to engage the audience, but I found the script interesting in these early scenes. I do wonder if there is any influence of Rossellini’s war films involved here? The most obvious model would be Paisa (1946) with its narratives about the combined work of Allied agents and Italian partisans. Since Paisa didn’t get a UK release until late 1948 this seems unlikely but perhaps the long shots favoured by Rossellini to show partisan action were known. Lionel Banes, or perhaps a second unit cinematographer, employs the long shots in the final action sequences including an attack on a train. This immediately brings to mind La battaille du rail (France 1946) and the later The Train (France-US 1964). Ealing had good co-operation from the Belgian authorities but their action sequences are on a smaller scale. Even so, I think they are impressive. The long shot technique does help to emphasise collective action. We do get to see closer compositions for each of the characters as their individual narratives reach a climax but we are always aware that they are part of a team.

The key aspect of the film is perhaps its relative lack of sentimentality. With two women in the group, it seems obvious that a romance will be explored. There are already emotions and fears in the group about traitors. But the film’s message for the agents is “never let your emotions take over”. “Look after yourself rather than give yourself away. Your allegiance is only to the group and the mission.” Michèle proves she has the temperament for this work with her actions, dealing with the traitor in the group and remaining calm when one of the others is arrested. Simone Signoret shows all her acting ability in this film. She is a star even after only a few key roles.

John Slater (Emile) and Jack Warner (Max) ready for their parachute jump into Belgian territory

Why did the film fail at the box office? The general view is that the film was both too late and too early. It was too late as a screening after the war when its collectivist ideology and lack of sentimentality were seemingly not what the austerity audience of the 40s in the UK were looking for and it was too early for a film which might have picked out Michèle as a more conventional heroic figure or one with a more pronounced romance narrative. Michèle is an assertive young woman who teases Duncan by allowing him to think she is inexperienced as an SOE operative when in fact she knows as much as him. She is in some ways a more familiar figure from the 1960s/70s when sexism began to be challenged more directly. Bob Murphy in his book British Cinema and the Second World War (2000) contrasts the film with Odette (1950) and Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) which focus on the real stories of the two best-known women in SOE, Odette Sansom and Violette Szabo. He also notes that Against the Wind‘s realist take on wartime exploits was matched by the rather different approach by Powell and Pressburger on The Small Back Room (1949) and neither film clicked with the public. In retrospect they seem to me to be among the best British films of the period.

Perhaps the best example of the tone that makes Against the Wind so out of time is the observation that of the seven operatives who are parachuted into Belgium, only three survive, though they do complete the mission and rescue their leader held by the Nazis. One of the seven was a traitor who is calmly dispatched, one dies in an accident. The other two die as a result of a failure to complete a task properly. It’s a tough story. The other interesting referent is the lack of equally ‘realistic’ French films about the résistance in the 1940s and ’50s and the irony that Simone Signoret stars in one of the greatest of all résistance films L’armée des ombres (Jean-Pierre Melville 1969). (There were French films about the resistance in the 1940s but they failed to represent the real issues. Against the Wind failed at the French box office because it was seen as unrealistic, whereas in the UK it was arguably seen as too close to representing issues the audience at the time wanted to put to aside.

The Magnet (UK 1950)

Gladys Henson as a nanny accuses Johnny of acquiring the magnet by nefarious means

The Magnet is an unusual film from Ealing Studios. I don’t remember coming across the film properly until I read that it used a great deal of location footage of Merseyside. Thanks to Talking Pictures TV, increasingly the TV channel of choice for the discerning audience in the UK since the lockdown began, I was able to watch it soon after having started a ‘Liverpool films‘ page on this blog. As it turns out, the film is partly set in New Brighton and Wallasey Village (?) but there are Liverpool sequences as well and the photography by Lionel Banes is a very good reason to watch the film.

The magnet, an object to covet

In genre terms The Magnet is something of a hybrid. It is a story from a child’s perspective that is part adventure, part comedy and part a kind of moral tale. The original story was by one of the best-known Ealing writers, T.E.B. (Tibby) Clarke and it was directed by Charles Frend. The most obvious reference is to Hue and Cry (1947) written by Clarke about boys whose environment is the bombsites of Central London around St. Pauls and who become investigators of a crime because of their love for comic book adventures. In The Magnet the location has shifted to Merseyside and the focus is a single boy, although he does interact with others. As far as director Frend’s background was concerned he’d been responsible for A Run For Your Money in 1949, a comedy about two Welsh miners in London having misadventures.  But Frend had earlier been responsible for The Lives of Joanna Godden (1947), a period drama, but one using location photography to capture the unique environment of Romney Marsh. Finally, we might link the film to the serious drama of the Ealing problem picture/family melodrama Mandy (1952) in which a young hearing-impaired girl and her mother respond to a specialist teacher with new ideas played by Jack Hawkins. It may seem likely that with these kinds of possible connections, The Magnet should turn out to be a confused mess. I can only say that I enjoyed the film and that some discerning audiences have also done so – though many of them might have been looking specifically for a ‘Merseyside story’. The scholarly chronicler of Ealing, Charles Barr in his Ealing Studios book dismisses the film in a paragraph and concludes: “The magnet is a toy at the centre of an elaborate whimsical plot which resists economical summary and does not merit a full one”. Not for the first time, I find myself disagreeing with Barr. The film has flaws certainly, but it is too interesting in what it is attempting to do to dismiss it in this way.

Jonny steals bread from a garden to give to a dog

Johnny Brent (played by William Fox, later to become well-known as James Fox) is a 10 year-old schoolboy in a middle-class part of Wallasey on the Wirral. His father (Stephen Murray) is a psychiatrist with a practice in Liverpool and his mother (Kay Walsh) is what was then referred to as a ‘housewife’. Johnny’s (private boarding) school has had a scarlet fever scare and the boys are at home in quarantine before they go back to Kirkby for the last three weeks of term. Johnny is a bright and lively boy with a sense of mischief and has no doubt been frustrated by his quarantine experience. He acquires a large magnet by questionable means and though he enjoys using it, he feels guilty about how he got it. He starts seeing police officers everywhere. He ends up ‘donating’ the magnet to a man who is building a mock up of an iron lung for a campaign to raise money to buy such equipment for a local hospital. Harper, the campaigner, (Meredith Edwards) later decides to use the story of Johnny’s ‘donation’ as part of his public appeal, embellishing the story of the poor boy who gives up his magnet without leaving his name. His funding campaign goes very well and Johnny becomes an interesting mysterious figure for the local newspaper. While Johnny feels guilty about what he has done, he can’t tell his parents and becomes anxious about the mystery of his identity. He is further upset when he overhears something that might mean he has caused the death of another boy. His father the psychiatrist diagnoses a condition that is fanciful. His mother is much more sensible. When, by accident, Johnny is spotted by Harper, he runs away and a chase ensues taking Johnny to parts of Liverpool he doesn’t know and where he meets a gang of boys his own age. With this gang he will have a further series of adventures which will end with an act of bravery that will complete the circle and allow Johnny to be ‘redeemed’ in a generally happy ending.

Johnny sees the iron lung in a workshop

This is Barr’s ‘whimsical plot’. What is interesting is not so much the mechanics of the plot, though it does allow the viewer to enjoy a many of the local sights. The beach, the pier, the amusement arcade and open air baths in New Brighton, the Mersey ferry, the Pierhead and the overhead railway, the docks and the Anglican cathedral are all in evidence (and many, especially in New Brighton, now no more). It’s not the plot but the way that Clarke’s script attempts to use the concerns of the period that I’m interested in. There are jokes about ration cards and the hospital is not yet part of the new NHS. Scarlet fever and polio were still dangerous diseases and there were outbreaks of both in the 1940s and up to the 1960s. Iron lungs were expensive (though cheaper designs appeared in the 1950s). The first ‘auction’ of the magnet for the campaign takes place at a bathing beauty contest, a particularly popular seaside event in the 1950s (see also The Entertainer in 1960). The narrative is from the child’s point of view and at times it made me think of various children’s films, including possibly those of the Children’s Film Foundation. It’s not that unusual for an imaginative boy to become anxious and to see police officers everywhere and think that they are looking for him (and there were many more ‘bobbies on the beat’ in 1950). On the other hand, some of the visual gags are feeble by modern standards and Stephen Murray seems miscast as Johnny’s father. The script presents him as pompous and generally attacks his ideas about psychiatry. The strongest part of the film is the last section when Johnny finds himself by the cathedral with a group of local lads. These are non-professionals and they have a sense of ‘authenticity’ about them. One has Chinese heritage (the cathedral isn’t too far away from Liverpool’s Chinatown). The boys also have familiar forms of Liverpudlian speech. But there is still a lingering sense of ‘Ealing on location’. Most of Ealing’s films seem to have a London base or they are set in part of the UK where there is a sense of the romantic/fantastical. The location work in The Magnet is as cleverly used as in Pool of London made around the London Docks at roughly the same time. I wonder what made them choose Merseyside for The Magnet? And was there any connection to the production of Waterfront which saw another Rank film, based at Pinewood, also shooting on location in Liverpool around the same time?

Out with his Dad, Johnny discusses the shipping in the Mersey estuary

Lionel Banes is an Ealing cinematographer I hadn’t noticed before. He is credited as ‘FRPS’ rather than ‘BSC’ and I had to do some digging to find out more. The Magnet was actually his fourth Ealing picture as DoP and earlier he had shot Passport to Pimlico (1949). He had in fact been in the business for a long time by then, originally joining Gainsborough at Islington in 1930 as a ‘photographer’. He worked his way through the apprentice roles and became an expert in special photographic effects. He joined Ealing to work on Next of Kin (1942) and for several years worked as an operator, second unit cinematographer and model work specialist. The link above is to four oral history files about his career. My view is that Ealing employed some of the best creative cinematographers and camera crews anywhere in the world in the late 1940s/early 50s. The Magnet is only 79 minutes and I think it is certainly worth watching for the representation of Merseyside and for its perfectly serviceable narrative about a 10 year-old. (See where the film was shot on Reelstreets.)  Contemporary critics thought it was too ‘moralistic’, but it didn’t bother me in that way. My only real gripe is that it would have worked better if Jonny had been lower middle-class rather than middle-class. I think the father’s role could have been written differently too. It struck me that Johnny could have been a young John Lennon living in his Aunt’s house.

Here’s a clip from the scene near the Anglican Cathedral:

The Foreman Went to France (UK 1942)

Fred and Anne with the machines in the French factory

The programming on Talking Pictures TV coupled with the availability of Ealing Studios titles in Network’s ‘Rarities’ DVD series now makes it more possible to trace the rapid changes in approaches to British propaganda films during the early part of the Second World War. It’s a very long time since I’ve seen The Foreman Went to France and I’m very grateful for this recent broadcast.

Ealing boss Michael Balcon had a distinctive attitude towards supporting the war effort, represented visually by the end credits of Ealing films in 1942 which proclaimed their national identity against a full screen image of a fluttering Union Jack. Balcon did take into Ealing two of the most significant members of the 1930s documentary movement, Alberto Cavalcanti and Harry Watt, but the others went to Pinewood. Up to 1942, the Ealing films that attempted to be supportive of the war effort were still imbued with the 1930s middle-class, ‘West End theatre’ ethos (with the exception of Pen Tennyson’s The Proud Valley (1940) or conversely with the comedies featuring first George Formby  and then Will Hay. Cavalcanti’s first input was to the transitionary film The Big Blockade (1942) directed by Charles Frend in his first directorial role after ten years as an editor on a string of important films, The Big Blockade was a move in the right direction but is still an uncomfortable film to watch. It deserves a post of its own on the blog. Frend followed it up with The Foreman Went to France. It was from this point that realist elements began to figure more prominently in Ealing’s output. Cavalcanti was ‘Associate Producer’ with an onscreen credit. Also notable about the production was the editing of Robert Hamer, Wilkie Cooper’s camerawork and music by William Walton.

The Foreman Went to France is inspired by a ‘real’ character, Melbourne Johns. The film begins in 1942 with an onscreen date (the release date was April 1942) and a munitions factory about to experience an air raid. While the workers are sent to the shelter, the shopfloor foreman (‘Fred Carrick’ played by Clifford Evans) decides to go up to the roof and watch the raid. When the searchlights reveal that a German raider has been downed by a British nightfighter he comments to the fire watchers that it was likely that the cannon shells came from the factory below. The rest of the narrative is then one long flashback to June 1940 when the foreman, as he then was, went to France largely under his own initiative to bring back three new machines for manufacturing shells that the company had lent to the French.

Fred and Anne and Anne with the two squaddies, Tommy and Jock

Evans had been a theatre actor in the 1930s and had appeared in several major films, headlining with Deborah Kerr in Love on the Dole (1941) and Penn of Pennsylvania (1942). He’d made just one Ealing film before, The Proud Valley. In 1943 he disappears from film credits. I believe he was a conscientious objector and perhaps he joined the Non-Combatant Corps? He returned to the screen in 1947. He didn’t seem to mind using a gun in this film and I thought he was very good in the role, marking the Ealing shift to more ‘capable’ men (in this case Welsh) rather than the effete officer class of the earlier war films. Fred has to use his wit and charm to find the factory in Northern France and then to find a means of transporting the equipment to the coast. He finds an American woman still in the factory after its evacuation by the French in the face of the German advance. This is Anne, played by Constance Cummings who had been in the UK since 1934. Anne speaks French and knows what’s what. Fred also discovers a pair of squaddies from the RASC (Royal Army Service Corps) clearly lost with a lorry and a consignment of curry powder. These two are played by the Cockney comedian Tommy Trinder (an Ealing contract player and the ostensible star of the film) and a young scot (Gordon Jackson in his first credited film role – he would go on to become an Ealing regular). Before this quartet can get to know each other they have to skedaddle as local French fascists led by the mayor (Robert Morley) are also after the machines.

The rest of the narrative follows the quartet as they try to reach the coast. In their way are large numbers of refugees blocking the roads, more ‘Fifth Columnists’/local fascists, the remnants of the French Army and the Germans.  It was the journey that I remembered from viewings forty years ago. I thought the quartet worked well together. The presence of Gordon Jackson and the developing relationship between ‘Foreman Fred’ and the American woman summon up the successful later film about munitions factories, Millions Like Us (1943) with Eric Portman as the foreman and Anne Crawford as the upper middle-class factory worker. Jackson plays a young airman who marries Patricia Roc, the lower middle-class factory girl. JB Priestley, the Bradford novelist wrote both original stories so perhaps it’s not a surprise. Trinder stands out against the other three in The Foreman went to France and Charles Barr in his book Ealing Studios comes down on Trinder and isn’t that impressed with Evans either. Trinder does have a different register, but it worked for me and I’ve already praised Evans. It’s also worth noting that Diana Morgan had a supporting role on the script and this was partly an inspiration for the recent under-rated Their Finest (2016) with Gemma Arterton as a wartime screenwriter.

The film was mostly shot in Cornwall doubling for the terrain of Western France and the credits acknowledge the help of the Free French Forces. The attacks by German fighters and dive bombers on the refugees on the road remain the most impressive scenes for me and the increasing realism of the major sequences is carried through in the succeeding two films of the loose trilogy of hard-hitting ‘warning films’ about loose talk and Fifth Columnists, Next of Kin and Went the Day Well.

Here are two short clips of the quartet (uploaded as two scenes with Constance Cummings smoking!):

Mandy (UK 1952)

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Mandy at Hammersmith bridge in bomb-torn London

Mandy was Alexander Mackendrick’s only non-comedy Ealing film and by my reckoning it is one of the great films of British cinema. A highly intense melodrama, the film focuses on a congenitally deaf girl, played brilliantly by Mandy Miller, whose middle class parents fight over how best to care for her. Terence Morgan’s dad, Harry, is a typical male who wishes to hide from difficult choices whilst Phyllis Calvert’s mum, Christine, refuses to give up on their daughter. Jack Hawkins plays his usual stiff upper lip hero, a teacher who cares deeply for his charges.

The script, by Nigel Balchin and Jack Whittingham (based on Hilda Lewis’ novel The Day is Ours), parallels Mandy’s disability with the failure of communication between the adults, including the repressed Harry’s parents. If my description of Hawkins above sounds disparaging, I don’t mean it to be as when he agonisingly starts to fall for Christine his pain is apparent. He has to fight Ackland, a trustee who cares more about appearances than the children, who plots his downfall. This man’s hypocrisy is subtly portrayed through his secretary with whom he’s clearly having an ‘affair’. (Funnily enough the actor playing the role, Edward Chapman, reminds me of Brexiteer Tory MP and entirely unself-aware idiot, Mark Francois).

It’s designed to be a tear-jerker and Mackendrick’s direction intensifies this further; even the act of a child slipping their hand into an adult’s becomes laden with emotion. He uses expressionist devices sparingly but with devastating effect. As Mandy peers out of her backyard, a (almost) choker shot (cutting her off at the neck) emphasises her pained loneliness. Shadows veil characters as repressed emotions threaten to break out. A close-up of the back of Mandy’s head signifies her deafness. At one point the sound disappears to mimic Mandy’s experience and the silence is devastating.

There’s a educational element in the film that never feels contrived: a new teacher struggles to deal with the children and the etiquette of ensuring deaf people can see a speaker’s mouth is seamlessly integrated into the narrative. Charles Barr, in Ealing Studios, suggests the film is about childhood in general in the post-war era and certainly the old fashioned characters, Harry’s parent and the wing-collared trustee, are shown to be in the wrong. Presumably this was the time that ‘children should be seen not heard’ was at last being challenged as compulsory education to 15 extended childhood.

The scene when Harry hits Christine for her stubbornness reminds us that domestic violence was (almost) acceptable. A lawyer even suggests that although women often deserve it the courts frown upon it. That Christine later accepts she deserved hitting is doubly chilling and is not something that the film vindicates.

Mackendrick directed only a few films and this, and Sweet Smell of Success, deserve the appellation ‘great’.

Get Cracking (UK 1943)

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George Formby always has the last laugh

George Formby was the top box office star in the UK every year between 1938 and 1944 – an unequalled achievement and, I was surprised to see, Get Cracking stood up very well to viewing beyond nostalgia. The plots of his films were mere vehicles for Formby’s brand of gormless humour where it always ‘turns out nice again’ – his catchphrase. In fact he starts Get Cracking with it, a testimony to how well known he’d become. It’s no stretch to say that Get Cracking has avant garde elements with several minutes at the start featuring a voiceover that, he says, is reading the script and has a conversation with George.

Formby, and massive ’30s star Gracie Fields, both had working class backgrounds and were from Lancashire. No doubt they were seen as fresh in comparison with the Received Pronunciation that infected much of British cinema at the time. There are plenty of regional accents on show though George’s love interest, played by Dinah Sheridan, has unnerving cut glass pronunciation.

Much of the humour, derived from Music Hall, consists of slapstick and daft line, that never fail to tickle me, delivered absolutely straight:

“He has to be on guard on Thursday to stop the Germans if they invade.”
‘What! On his own?”
“No there’ll be six of us.”

Irene Handl (uncredited) is great as a character that’s even more dim than George. The sexual politics of the film isn’t too bad: Vera Frances, a child actor who made her last film in 1948 and is still with us, plays a teenage Cockney evacuee who works in George’s garage and she’s one of the brightest characters in the film.

No doubt people needed cheering up in 1943; as we still do in the UK now.