Shirley Valentine is an essential title for our list of Liverpool films. It’s also an interesting film in terms of its audience and the group of creatives who made it a big hit in the reviving British cinema of the late 1980s. The film might be described as a ‘feelgood’, nostalgic feminist comedy-drama – a strange and perhaps contradictory description. Looking at reviews, I was interested to see a number of US reviews which are in some ways quite distanced and critically acute, but also quite welcoming and celebratory. Pauline Collins who plays the titular lead was Oscar-nominated and the original play had been a hit on Broadway so the the US reviews do make sense. But the fact that the film is an ‘opening out’ of a successful stage play that doesn’t solve all the problems inherent in that practice and has tended to downplay the artistic achievement in the UK.
If you aren’t familiar with the play or the film, here’s a brief outline. Shirley Valentine was a bright grammar school girl with a rebellious streak who somehow became Mrs Shirley Bradshaw and the traditional stay at home mother of two living in a suburban street in Liverpool. One day, after the kids have left home, her long moans to her kitchen walls finally lead to action and she accepts the chance to go on holiday to Greece with a friend Jane (Alison Steadman). She hopes to rediscover her younger self and surprise herself with what might happen. Her sudden change in behaviour is prompted by her nosy neighbour across the street (Julia McKenzie) who puts on ‘airs and graces’ and her children Milandra (Tracie Bennett) and Brian (Gareth Jefferson) and her husband Joe (Bernard Hill) who have all long ago taken her for granted. The cast also includes Tom Conti with a moustache as a Greek hotel/bar owner and both Joanna Lumley and Sylvia Syms in cameo roles.
I remember enjoying the film in the cinema with my partner, who identified with Shirley just as many other women in the UK would have done at the time. We were also conscious of the Liverpool setting and the fact that nearly everything worth watching in the 1980s in the UK seemed to be set in Liverpool. Willy Russell was the playwright behind Shirley Valentine as well as the earlier Educating Rita which also became a major film, in 1983 (it was filmed in Dublin but at heart it remains a Liverpool narrative). Russell had many other theatrical hits as well as TV drama scripts throughout the 1970s and 1980s and one other film Dancin’ thru the Dark (1990) based on his earlier script Stags and Hens (1978). He was one of the most successful of the Liverpool writers in this period. His work tended towards comedy, music and working-class life whereas Alan Bleasdale had similar success with more politically edged material such as his TV serial Boys from the Blackstuff (1982). Bernard Hill as ‘Yosser’ Hughes in that production became something of an iconic figure of resistance to Thatcherism in the 1980s with his catchphrase “Gizza a job” (“Give us a job!”). Watching Hill as Shirley’s husband in 1989 was undoubtedly different for many audiences in the UK than it might have been for those overseas. Bleasdale and Russell were both trained as teachers in the mid-1960s (they were born in 1946 and 1947) and therefore they were around as teenagers and young men with the rise of popular music and football ascendency for the city’s teams. Pauline Collins was born in 1940, slightly earlier than the writers and her character Shirley might already have been married by the time the Beatles and the other Liverpool bands became so influential. Several of the successful Northern comedies in the 1970s and 1980s have that slightly odd feeling of being written a few years before they emerged as popular films – and therefore have a slight nostalgic feel.
Shirley is very much the central character of her own narrative as emphasised by her conversations with the kitchen walls and with the camera. This latter was also famously an element of an earlier successful film (by a Northern-based writer, Bill Naughton) Alfie (1966), another film adapted from an earlier play. The link between the two films is also through the director Lewis Gilbert. Gilbert (1920-2018) was a remarkably successful British director who succeeded in several different genres. He followed a series of wartime-based dramas in the 1950s with three James Bond films and then both Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine looking back to Alfie. Always seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’, his success directing Julie Walters and Pauline Collins led to the suggestion that he was good with these roles which saw women changing their lives and creating a different identity. The result was that in 1991 he was was hired by Paramount to direct an American version of another similar British play, Steppin’ Out featuring Liza Minnelli. This seems to have turned out slightly less well (like the remake of Alfie?). Although these adaptations each derive from stage plays my feeling is that their referents are mainly a certain kind of British television production.
Although Pauline Collins made a big impression internationally as Shirley Valentine, her UK profile has always been maintained by her theatre work and her TV stardom rather than by cinema and this is true for most of the actors in the film of Shirley Valentine. In 1989 the UK cinema audience had increased significantly but was still not much more than half of its 2019, pre-Covid figure. I think this TV focus explains partly why the film today feels nostalgic for a period before the late 1980s. To give another example, Shirley’s trip to Greece sees her meeting various British holidaymakers still reacting xenophobically to local food and culture. This was one of the points of criticism of the film and it reminded me of British TV sitcoms, particularly Duty Free (three seasons 1984-6) featuring Gwen Taylor and Keith Barron. One of my favourite Monthly Film Bulletin critics, Philip Strick, offers in MFB October 1989 what is I think a typical response to the film which he suggests works because of Willy Russell’s skill with one-liners. What doesn’t work, he argues, are Shirley’s pieces to camera and the whole opening out of the play and peopling it with the characters who in the stage version were mentioned by Shirley but who didn’t actually appear in the flesh. I understand this criticism, but I don’t have any problems with the ‘to camera’ monologues. I also feel that films work with audiences in many different ways and in this case I think I know Shirley and all the characters, because they are ‘typical’ for British social comedy rather than because they are rounded characters in a drama. But perhaps this does date the film and thirty years on it stands primarily for enjoyable nostalgia and for a fine central performance.
Talking Pictures TV showed another rare and intriguing British film this week with this strange offering from 1959, distributed originally by Renown, the company linked to TPTV. I’ve given both titles as the film was released in the US by Allied Artists and it stars two well-known Hollywood names from the period.
There are many strange aspects of the production. It is an adaptation of an A. J. Cronin novel. Cronin’s work was the basis for many films, most famously The Citadel (1937), The Stars Look Down (1940) and Hatters Castle (1942). These were UK productions, but other adaptations were produced in Hollywood and, I was surprised to discover, in various Indian language cinemas. There have also been several TV adaptations in territories around the world. Beyond This Place is an adaptation of a novel written in 1950 – when Cronin was resident in the US. It had already been adapted for US television with Sidney Lumet directing in 1957. All of this suggests that a Cronin adaptation should still have been a ‘prestige’ production of some kind, yet this 1959 film was shot at Walton Studios (once Nettlefold Studios and in the late 1950s mainly involved in TV productions) by an independent producer. It was made in black and white and presented in 1.37:1, almost as if was produced for television.
But though it may seem a low-budget production, there is a starry cast and some well-known creatives are involved. It’s the second directorial feature for Jack Cardiff, the celebrated cinematographer, and also an early outing for Ken Adam, listed as ‘Art Director’. The camerawork itself is in the hands of Wilkie Cooper, a major figure in British cinema since his first film as DoP on The Foreman Went to France (1942). The two American stars are Vera Miles and Van Johnson and the British actors include Jean Kent, Emlyn Williams and Bernard Lee.
The narrative begins in Liverpool with Irish migrant Patrick Mathry playing with his young son Paul in the park. The time appears to be early in the war when Liverpool was the second most-bombed city in the UK after London. We then see Mathry visiting a young woman, but he leaves angrily when the woman’s room-mate intervenes just before an air-raid. After the air-raid Mathry is arrested for murder. The story then leaps forward to the present when Paul Mathry (Van Johnson) arrives on a merchant ship from America. With four days leave he is determined to find out what happened to his father and he finds a helpful librarian Lena (Vera Miles). Paul discovers that his father was found guilty of murder but was not hanged and instead is serving a long sentence in HMP Wakefield. Shocked by his discovery (his mother had told him his father had been killed during the war and she and Paul had subsequently been evacuated to New York) he begins to investigate the murder case, helped by Lena.
This brief description should already raise questions. The murder was in 1941 so Paul should only be in his mid-twenties (in the novel I think he is a recent graduate, working on ships to see the world). Van Johnson was 42 when the film was shot in 1958. He was always a fresh-faced actor but it doesn’t make too much sense to cast him in the lead. Vera Miles, at the time under contract to Hitchcock after The Wrong Man (1956), would have been in her late twenties, possibly a little old for the part, but otherwise OK. The plot later reveals that she is Canadian, but her accent is not pronounced.
There is a considerable amount of location footage in Liverpool in the film and this is what originally attracted me. As in some other Liverpool set films, there are trips on the ferry, through the Mersey tunnel and around the waterfront and the docks. This latter location raises a set of questions about genre. A chase sequence through the docks at night is atmospherically shot, making great use of bright lights and dark shadows, reminiscent of John Alton’s late 1940s work. This sequence could come from a film noir – as could the delving into a past murder case and the character of the chief witness, the ‘other woman’ played by Jean Kent. But much of the rest of the narrative feels more like a family melodrama. Cronin was well-known as a writer of exciting dramas that often feature a crusading character and conflicts built around questions of social class, privilege and injustice. That’s the case here too. As Paul investigates it becomes clear that his father’s trial was a career breakthrough for both the prosecuting counsel and the senior police investigator. Lena is a potential romantic partner for Paul but she too has a back story that raises questions about social issues. When I watched the film I had the very strong feeling that I was seeing a film from 1950 rather than 1959. The Academy ratio and the noir lighting are probably the main reasons for this. Jean Kent became a star as a young woman in the 1940s often playing ‘good-time girls’, femmes fatales or darker characters in melodramas. A couple of years after Beyond This Place she played Queen Elizabeth I in ITC’s tea-time TV series, Sir Francis Drake (1961-2).
I enjoyed many aspects of the film despite its flaws. The Cronin story was adapted by Kenneth Hyde and the screenplay then produced by Ken Taylor. There are several changes to the original story and I get the impression that too much might have been crammed into the script. I found the film fast-moving but several commentators complain it is slow-moving. Perhaps this is connected to the confusion over genre expectations? The Liverpool setting works well in terms of location shooting but like those other Liverpool set films produced from London (e.g. The Magnet, 1950 or Waterfront, 1950), there are no genuine scousers, or at least actors with recognisable scouse accents, amongst the cast. I’m not sure the UK title helped the film – what does it mean? (The US title is more generic, but at least it offers something familiar.) I realise that I don’t really know the Cronin novels or the other film adaptations, though I have heard episodes of radio serials and of course as I a child I couldn’t avoid the BBC adaptation of Dr Finlay’s Casebook, which ran for 8 seasons between 1962 and 1971. Cronin (born in 1896) was Irish-Scottish by background (Paul in the novel of Beyond This Place lives in Belfast) and trained as a doctor. His medical training perhaps turned him away from religion to which he returned in the 1930s when illness and convalescence turned him towards writing which came to him very easily. Religion and medicine are both important elements in his stories. He was one of several popular novelists whose novels were adapted during the studio period of filmmaking. Some of that solid storytelling is certainly evident in Beyond This Place and I think I’ll now be more prepared to look at some other Cronin adaptations.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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: