Category Archives: British

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

I can think of quite a few films that deal with the subject of leading a secret homosexual life, but not so many that deal with the problems facing lesbians. BBC’s The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister is based on a real life woman (1791-1840), a young Yorkshire woman living with her uncle and aunt at Shibden Hall when the film begins. Anne (Maxine Peake) is often in the company of lovers and friends Mariana (Anna Madeley) and Isabella ‘Tib” (Susan Lynch) and the three young women enjoy a great deal of freedom in each other’s company. This all comes to a screeching halt when Mariana is married off to elderly widower Charles Lawton (Michael Culkin). Up to this point, Mr Lawton’s presence, and his obvious hunt for the next Mrs Lawton, have provided the raw material for jokes.

Anne is heart broken and begs her lover Mariana to call off the marriage, but Mariana, who clearly knows what society expects of her, refuses. Anne wears black to the wedding, and afterwards tries to move on to a new love. Tib tries to console Anne, but the spark isn’t there.

Years pass and a few communications pass between Anne and Mariana. They swear a solemn vow to be true to each other, and Mariana assures Anne that her elderly husband is inching, daily, towards the grave. Meanwhile Anne, capable of great sexual passion, records her loneliness in coded diaries. She longs to share her life with the woman she loves and seeing Mariana under various pretenses just isn’t enough.

Set against the beautiful countryside of Anne’s home, we see how Anne progresses through her life. While Mariana calls Anne, “Freddy,” she also has the nickname of “Gentleman Jack,” and after Anne refuses to marry a local landowner, his spite makes sure that the rumours spread.

Anne, Tib and Mariana are allowed quite a bit of freedom, which included sharing beds with one another. But all this was approved of in the context that these young ladies were doing exactly what society expected them to do–and that included taking the husbands arranged for them and ‘doing their duty.’ (Sex and children). There are clues that some people were quite aware of Anne’s sexual orientation, but either chose to ignore it or else they imagined that it would pass once she found a suitable husband.

It’s interesting to note that no-one is suspicious of the sexual orientation of Anne’s aunt and uncle. The uncle is a substantial landowner, but there’s no mention of a wife, and of course the sister acts as a housekeeper. But they are passed the age of sexual queries. They may both be gay for all we know, but it no longer seems to matter to society. Also of note in that while the mingling of the single sexes was monitored and scrutinized by polite society, two or three girls alone together was …. well no big deal until one of them refused to marry a suitable husband.

As the film, which cut out some of the most interesting parts of Anne’s life, continues, we see Anne become increasingly masculine in dress and behaviour. There’s one scene when her hair has been curled and it looks god-awful, yet still the femininity garners compliments.

A lot more could have been done with the subject matter, but it’s well casted, well acted and pretty to look at. Sally Wainwright’s Gentleman Jack is currently posted preproduction on IMDB

Director James Kent

Writer Jane English

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Filed under British, British television

Caravan (1946)

You’ll oblige me by keeping her ladyship out of that dirty mind of yours.”

Based on a novel by Eleanor Smith, Caravan, a costume drama from Gainsborough Pictures is set in the 19th century and features versatile Stewart Granger at his swashbuckling best. Granger plays Richard Darrell, a penniless author who hopes to make his fortune in order to marry his childhood sweetheart, Oriana Camperdene (Anne Crawford). Darrell, the son of an English country doctor and a Spanish mother has no fortune of his own, but he’s not without talent. His childhood was spent brawling with the gypsies, poaching on the land of the wealthy,  and picking up various survival skills. One of Darrell’s significant childhood relationships is with Oriana, but he has competition in the form of wealthy Francis Castleton. Francis is a sneaky underhand boy who grows up to be a cruel womanizer who will stop at nothing to possess Oriana. Flashback scenes from Darrell’s childhood establish his early rivalry with Francis over Oriana’s affections.

When the film begins, Darrell, eyeing a window full of succulent food, contemplates using his last coin to buy supper, but fate intervenes when Darrell comes to the aid of wealthy Spaniard, Don Carlos (Gerard Heinz) who is robbed. Darrell not only fights the two men who are attempting to rob Don Carlos, but he also returns him, wounded, to his home. Don Carlos, a dealer in precious jewels, is grateful to Darrell, and arranges to get his book A Way Through the Woods published. Then he employs Darrell to deliver a priceless necklace which once belonged to Queen Isabella back to Spain. Darrell takes the mission because it will help fund his writing career and enable his marriage to Oriana, but at the same time, he doesn’t want to leave her.

While Oriana and Darrell see their separation as the necessary precursor to their marriage, Francis (a dastardly Dennis Price), sees Darrell’s trip to Spain as an opportunity to rid himself of his rival. Darrell’s departure leaves Oriana unprotected as her father has recently died, and since he gambled away most of the estate, she is left with a 100 pounds a year on which she must live. Francis sees Oriana’s penury and isolation as the perfect setting to manipulate her into marriage, and with Darrell off to Spain, Francis plots the destruction of his rival using his evil sidekick, Wycroft (Robert Helpmann),  and he also leads Oriana into believing she is in his debt.

If this all sounds like great melodramatic romance and exotic adventure, well it is. We have the star-crossed lovers, Oriana and Darrell who become separated by circumstance–some planned and some caused by fate. The exotic sets are mostly just that–studio sets, so don’t expect much authenticity here. In fact, the film’s glaring weaknesses are apparent in the opening credits when we see the back of man with  a guitar who is supposedly serenading a woman up in a balcony. Apart from the fact that if he is singing, the song goes on for far too long, he never moves, so the opening creates a wooden artificiality while the opening was supposed to set the scene for romance. With Caravan, you have to accept the fake stuff to enjoy the fun of the story which is over-the-top at times. Caravan is basically a 1940s version of a bodice ripper, and there are plenty of allusions to what goes on behind bedroom doors including a libidinous husband who promises not to demand his rights and then immediately reneges on the deal. The marvellous Jean Kent plays Rosal, a hot-blooded gypsy girl who makes her living as a dancer, and this involves banging a huge tambourine and stamping the floor from time-to-time. The passionate, wild,  and jealous Rosal is in complete contrast to the very correct British Oriana. Both women love Darrell of course, and here he’s cast as an Errol Flynn type character with all of his physical abilities on bold display: boxing, horse riding and even whipping. The film’s best scenes include Francis and Oriana–although there’s another marvellous scene involving  a group of London prostitutes who meet Oriana.

Dennis Price is deliciously evil as the dastardly Sir Francis, and he has the best role and the most memorable lines in the film–some of which refer to Ariane’s sexual incompetence, suggesting at some points that she could learn a few things from prostitutes and that she needs to start delivering the goods. Due to its sometimes over-the-top moments, Caravan does have its camp factors, so just sit back and enjoy the show. The story is great fun–believable or not.

“You see my dear, I suffer from an exaggerated sense of property and having gone to the trouble of getting something, even though it may be rubbish, I have the awkward habit of hanging onto it.”

Directed by Arthur Crabtree

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Filed under British, Period Piece

Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945)

Food for my son, you cheap slut!”

Implausible but utterly delightful, the 1945 film Madonna of the Seven Moons from director Arthur Crabtree and based on the book by Margery Lawrence was one of the era’s successful Gainsborough costume dramas. Its story appealed to a female audience for its issues of escapism and the double life led by the film’s main character, Maddalena (Phyllis Calvert). So cast aside your skepticism at this story of Italian passion acted by a British cast whose upper class accents drum up visions of empire, and just enjoy this unlikely costume drama.

Maddalena is raped by a gypsy as a young girl, and she never discusses the incident. Finding relief in religion at her convent school, she’s horrified by the idea of marriage. Fast forward to Maddalena as the wife of successful wine merchant Guiseppe Labardi (John Stuart) as they await their only daughter’s return to Rome from boarding school in England. Angela (Patricia Roc) left as a child and returns five years later as a budding young woman who–to her mother’s horror–wears short skirts and travelled home alone with a young diplomat. While Angela’s father can accept the changes in his daughter, Maddalena cannot, and she overreacts rather dramatically to her daughter’s dress and actions. Since we are in on the fact that Maddalena was raped as a teenager, we understand what motivates her, and mainly it’s a concern that the same thing doesn’t happen to her daughter.

The plot thickens when Maddalena wakes up one night with a different identity. Stealing her own jewels, she grabs a train to Florence and disappears…

Labardi reveals to Angela that Maddalena has disappeared three times over the course of their marriage–the first time was right after the ceremony (so we can guess what that was about), the second time was when Angela was at boarding school, and now this disappearance makes the third time. Angela is determined to find her mother and tracks some of the missing jewelery to Florence.

Meanwhile Maddalena has returned to her old haunt in Florence. With no memory of a former life as the wife of a wealthy wine merchant, she knows herself only as Roseanna, the jealous, passionate mistress of Nino (Stewart Granger), the leader of a band of petty crooks. Maddalena returns to Nino’s life, throwing out his current mistress Vittoria (Jean Kent) with threats of violence. It’s great fun to see Phyllis Calvert morph from the neurotic pampered wife to sexually liberated gypsy.  Since Maddalena/Roseanna has been in and out of Nino’s life three times in almost 20 years, the story has some plausibility problems–not to mention the fact that it’s entirely possible for Angela to be Nino’s child, but the film doesn’t sail those dangerous waters, so instead Maddalena as Roseanna picks up where she left off.

Angela’s hunt for her mother is complicated by the fact that she trusts slimy gigolo/thief/con-man Sandro (Peter Glenville) to help her find her mother. Straining the coincidence factor, Sandro also happens to be Nino’s brother….

Ok, so it’s implausible, but I love these old Gainsborough films. Can’t help myself–although I think the best of the lot has to be The Wicked Lady followed by The Man in Grey. These costume dramas were designed to make the audience forget their real-life problems and provide the glamour that was glaringly absent during the austerity of WWII. Given that these films were tremendous box-offices successes in their day, I’d say that the studios achieved their goal, and for classic film lovers, these Gainsborough Pictures are gems to watch.


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San Ferry Ann (1965)

San Ferry Ann, the title of a 1965 silent British comedy film, is a play on words and refers to the French phrase ça ne fait rien. If I’m translating it correctly–it means it doesn’t matter. The French phrase became bastardised by the British during WWI and ended up as San Fairy Ann–similar to murky buckets (merci beaucoup). San Ferry Ann is a further bastardisation and refers to the ferry that ships British holidaymakers over to France. My impression of French cinema that explores the behaviour of the French on holiday is that the films provide opportunities to the fictional characters to reshape their lives amidst philosophical discussion. At the same time I’ll admit this impression is drawn mainly from watching the films of Eric Rohmer. But when it comes to exploring the British on holiday, the emphasis seems to be on the worst sort of bad, boorish behaviour accompanied by an adverse reaction to foreign food–well a resistance to anything foreign. And of course the underlying question is why go abroad in the first place if you want everything to be the same?

The film follows the exploits, trials and tribulations of a handful of British holiday makers in France, and the plot taps into a number of British and French stereotypes, but it’s all great fun and the comic gem makes for a pleasant 55 minutes of nostalgia with a lot of familiar faces of British comedy.

The film begins with the British tourists in line to board the ferry to France. There’s a camper van with husband (David Lodge) and wife (Joan Sims). They bring along a set of parents, Grandad (Wilfred Brambell) and his Mrs. There’s an amorous honeymoon couple (Rodney Bewes and Catherine Feller) and a couple of hitchhikers (Barbara Windsor and Ronnie Stevens).

Since this is a silent film (apart from a few unintelligible phrases), the comedy is strictly visual. There’s boozing in the ferry’s duty-free pub, seasickness, driving on the wrong side of the street, and more than a few hassles with a French gendarme and a bicycle-riding Frenchman wearing the stereotypical onions around his neck. French toilets also come in for some ribbing. Grandad Wilfred Brambell is one of the best characters is the film–he strips off to sunbathe, finds every excuse to ditch his boring family, and strikes up a hilarious relationship with a former German soldier he meets in a war museum. 

Of course, since the subject is British tourists abroad, there’s more than one scene in a restaurant, and Joan Sims’s disgust at French cuisine had me in stitches. She’s only happy with a pint of beer and a plate full of chips. Keep an eye open for Warren Mitchell as the snotty maitre d’.


Filed under British, Comedy, Silent

The Admirable Crichton aka Paradise Lagoon (1957)

The Admirable Crichton aka Paradise Lagoon from director Lewis Gilbert is a wonderful film which skewers the British class system, and if you’re a fan of classic British film, The Admirable Crichton most definitely deserves a look.

The film is set at the beginning of the 20th century. Suffragettes are on the march in England, and Lord Loam (Cecil Parker), the aristocrat who owns a lavish country estate has definite ideas about equality. He does, however, draw the line at the idea of equal rights for women. Lord Loam is a bit of an eccentric, and when the film begins, we see a typical day in the Loam household. The house is basically run by the butler, Crichton (Kenneth More), but he runs the place so smoothly and tactfully that Lord Loam is left with the illusion that he’s the one really in charge.

Lord Loam decides to put his notions of  class equality to the test by inviting (in reality ordering) all the domestic servants to participate in tea with the family members. This is an occasion of embarrassment and awkwardness for the servants, and disgruntlement for Lord Loam’s two daughters, Lady Mary (Sally Ann Howes) and her younger sister Lady Catherine (Mercy Haystead). Lady Mary is particularly annoyed by the forced social engagement with the servants as she is about to become engaged to the horribly snobbish and strait-laced Lord Brocklehurst (Peter Graves)–a man whose horribly domineering mother, Lady Brocklehurst (Martita Hunt) does not approve of equality on any level whatsoever. She believes that the ‘lower’ classes should be kept in their place and that to contemplate otherwise is a very dangerous thing. 

 The youngest daughter, Lady Agatha (Miranda Connell) goes to London to watch a suffragette march with her fiancé Ernest Wolley (Gerald Harper). She’s supposed to be there observing only, but she gets mixed up in the protest and causes a family scandal. As a result of this event, Lord Loam, at Crichton’s suggestion, takes his daughters and a few indispensable servants on a cruise aboard his yacht. Things go horribly wrong, however, when the yacht is caught in a storm….

The Admirable Crichton explores exactly what happens when rigid class rules are transposed to a desert island. One of the most important characters in the film is Tweeny (Diane Cilento)–Tweeny (which basically means that she is a maid who works [between] several floors) discovers that her currency soars when beauty and culinary skills are valued more than bloodlines.

This film is essentially a comedy about hypocrisy, and we see that Lord Loam may have ‘enlightened’ views about equality with his fellow man, but these are just intellectual ideas that he really has no intention of actually altering his his lifestyle for. The first notion of hypocrisy comes in the film when Lord Loam mouths his beliefs about equality with the servants but then refuses to countenance the notion that women are equal to men. While Lord Loam may experiment with a tentative tea which he controls in his own household, he is ill prepared for a full-scale upheaval. On the desert island, there are no innate privileges, and instead survival skills become the most valuable skills of all. Just what happens when members of the upper class are forced to cohabit with their servants makes for great entertainment.

One of the notions here is that the class system may be enforced legally and socially, but it is also absorbed by all those involved. Thus we see Crichton as the ultimate snob with the other servants and a pragmatist when it comes to realising his humble position.

The Admirable Crichton is based on a play by J.M. Barrie , and here Barrie creates a very different alternate world from the fantasy world he created with Peter Pan, but it’s a viable alternate world, nonetheless.

There are two other film versions of this play: We’re Not Dressing (1934) and Male and Female (1919).


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The Man in Grey (1943)

“Has anyone ever told you what a slut you are?”

I read somewhere that the 1943 film, The Man in Grey is a bodice ripper. This unfortunate description does not accurately describe this excellent period piece film set in Regency England. The Man in Grey isn’t pure breast-heaving romance–although it does contain elements of romance. It’s also a tale of innocence and skullduggery that explores the treacherous relationship between two very different women. The film is based on one of the novels written by Eleanor Smith (also known as Lady Eleanor Smith).  Eleanor Smith is now almost completely faded into the shadows, and that’s a shame as she was a great storyteller. Think along the lines of Jamaica Inn and that’s the sort of high drama/romance/adventure that you typically find in the novels of Eleanor Smith. She also had a great passion for gypsy lore, so it should come as no surprise that a gypsy appears in a signficant role twice in this film. A number of films were made from her novels: Caravan (1946), The Man in Grey (1943), The Men in Her Life (1941), Gypsy (1937), and Red Wagon (1933).

The film is a frame story, beginning and ending in WWII Britain with an auction at the Grosvenor’s Square home of the Marquis of Rohan. The last marquis in the line has been killed in action at Dunkirk, and so the contents of the house (and possibly the house itself) are up for sale. A brash pilot, (Stewart Granger) introduces himself to a young woman in uniform (Phyllis Calvert). He tells her that he’s connected with the Rohan family in a vague way, and as it turns out she’s Clarissa Rohan, the last of the Rohans. The pilot is at the auction to bid on an item, and the first few moments focus on a Regency era portrait of Lady Rohan (also played by Phyllis Calvert) and the contents of her trinket box.

Then the film segues to Regency times–specifically to Miss Patchett’s School in Bath. The pupils are young ladies from the higher echelons of society who are expected to marry well, but there’s a new arrival Hesther (Margaret Lockwood). Hesther is well-aware of the humiliations of being the object of charity, and when the kindest pupil, Clarissa tries to befriend her, Hesther initially rebuffs her attempts. Eventually the girls part ways and Clarissa is introduced to the Marquis of Rohan (James Mason). Rohan, a notorious rake and duellist is required to produce an heir, but as one of his acquaintances notes: “I wouldn’t give him a dog I cared for.” This doesn’t bode well for Clarissa, but she agrees to marry him to please her guardian. Rohan doesn’t love his wife, but since he has to produce an heir, he does so with as little fuss, and affection, as possible.

Years pass with the Rohans leading separate lives in their Grosvenor Square home. Clarissa doesn’t love her husband, and she has no illusions that he loves her. But at the same time, she seems to be aware that her life is empty. She’s never experienced love or romance and that lack, of course, makes her vulnerable. Fate brings Hesther back into Clarissa’s life once more. At this point, Hesther is scraping a living as an actress with a troupe of traveling actors. She claims to be a widow, and Clarissa, struck with pity and terribly lonely, urges Hesther to return with her to London.

To quote the Marquis de Sade: No good deed goes unpunished.

The Man in Grey is full of marvellous performances from its stellar cast. Character and fate play substantial parts in the story that develops, and we see that human nature is immutable; the good characters cast into lives where they brush up against wickedness do not change due to the experience, and neither do the wicked improve from their proximity to decency. Included in the cast is Stewart Granger as the dashing actor Peter Rokeby and Nora Swinburne in a small role as the Prince Regent’s mistress, Mrs. Fitzherbert.

The film doesn’t overdo it with its portrayal of the wicked Marquis of Rohan. We know he’s a cad due to a scene that takes place between the Marquis and his mother, and we see glimpses of cruelty when he arranges a dog fight. Clarissa doesn’t see this side of her husband, and for a great part of her life, her innocence serves as a protection. The Marquis is attracted to Clarissa’s friend, Hesther, and under other circumstances, they’d be made for one another and would very likely bring each other only misery. When the Marquis tells Hesther, “I could cherish a wicked woman,” she takes that comment entirely too seriously.

The costumes and the settings are marvellous, and it’s intriguing to see Clarissa and Hesther together. Clarissa looks innocent, kind and good, and Hesther manages to look like a Regency tramp. There are some great scenes from Lockwood as she flips into her personas of the caring, supportive friend and the slutty mistress. In one great scene, Hesther says she “doesn’t like sugary things,” and that comment, of course, is directed towards sweet Clarissa. The film’s best scene, however, takes place when Hesther visibly wrestles with her conscience.

On the down side, the film includes a white child actor (who plays Clarissa’s page) blackened with make-up so that he appears to be black. It’s appalling, and no less so as one of the scenes depicts Othello with Rokeby in the lead role. There are also a few references to Rokeby’s “lost” estate in Jamaica, taken by “half-crazed savages.”

The Man in Grey is considered the first of Gainsborough Studios costume melodramas release, and if you enjoy it, then I recommend a companion film The Wicked Lady with the same stars (Lockwood and Mason), and the same director, Leslie Arliss.


Filed under British, Period Piece

The Wicked Lady (1945)

“How could I fail to love a man as rich as he is.”

I first saw the 1983 remake of The Wicked Lady starring Faye Dunaway as the deliciously nasty female whose need for excitement  is satisfied by a life of crime and a highwayman lover. The remake is a bawdy romp and it worked beautifully for its 17th century setting. This 1945 version directed by Leslie Arliss is subject to the censorship of the times. As a result, it’s tamer, but it’s still an excellent film for fans of period pieces or of the film’s stars, Margaret Lockwood, Jason Mason, & Patricia Roc. Apparently critics hated the film, but it was a huge box office success at the time. It’s not hard to see why.

The Wicked Lady begins with 19-year-old Caroline (a very squeaky clean, healthy-looking Patricia Roc) riding with Sir Ralph Skelton (Griffith Jones)–her guardian. They are going to be married, and it’s a marriage of convenience for staid boring Sir Ralph, but for Caroline, it’s a love match. This discrepancy in feelings sets the stage for the trouble ahead as Sir Ralph admits to Caroline that he doesn’t love her but that he’s “very fond of” her. Turns out he’s marrying her–more or less—for her housekeeping abilities.

Enter Caroline’s cousin glamorous Barbara (Margaret Lockwood) who arrives at Skelton Manor to be Caroline’s maid-of-honour at the upcoming wedding. Caroline is sweet-natured, but Barbara is bold, beautiful, and as it turns out quite bad. The two cousins haven’t seen each other in five years, and while Caroline’s lived quietly in the country, Barbara has been brought up by her merchant uncle. Barbara has all sorts of notions about men and marriage and brags that “a clever woman can make her husband do what she likes.”

The chemistry between Barbara and Sir Ralph is instantaneous and obvious to everyone except innocent Caroline. Soon crafty Barbara manipulates a compromising moment with Ralph and she swiftly stages a drama that allows her to steal Caroline’s fiance. This act is, in essence, her first crime–at least the first one we see–although Barbara later admits in a rare moment of frankness: “All my life, I’ve cheated to get what I want.”  Caroline’s very ‘niceness’ contributes to the situation as she does the noble thing and sacrifices her desires to Barbara’s wishes. These early scenes reveal Barbara’s corrupt nature to the viewer–again most of the characters remain oblivious to her designs. Henrietta (Enid Stamp-Tayl0r), the wife of Sir Ralph’s friend is an exception, and a bitchy exchange takes place between Henrietta and Barbara during the wedding celebration. In this great scene, Barbara, flush from all the dancing gushes about the traditional kiss claimed by the male partners at the conclusion of each dance. Henrietta cattily suggests that Barbara ask Caroline to pitch in:

“After all you two have  shared so much.”

But Henrietta isn’t a match for Barbara’s spite, and Barbara, who’s just finished dancing with Henrietta’s husband excuses Henrietta’s behaviour with the barbed comment:

“No woman can bear it if her husband finds another more attractive.”

Once married Barbara quickly discovers that life as Lady Skelton is boring, and she begins to compensate by taking to the highways as a masked highwayman. While Barbara’s life of crime begins as a lark to repay Henrietta, she soon becomes addicted to the thrills of her secret life. The roads around the Skelton Estate are the hunting ground for infamous highwayman Captain Jerry Jackson (James Mason), and Barbara finds that the notorious highwayman makes an exciting and dangerous lover. Over time, Barbara even commits murder, and she seems to grow even harder and crueller with each crime.

The film juxtaposes some great scenes. At one point, Caroline says that Barbara might as well have her wedding dress since she’s taken everything else, and after Caroline storms off in tears, Barbara smirks and says she “wouldn’t caught dead” in Caroline’s dress. The next scene shows Barbara in a much flashier gown looking quite satisfied with herself as she sits in a carriage on her wedding day. At another point, one scene shows Barbara flagrantly unfaithful to her husband while Caroline and Ralph decide against adultery. In yet another comparison, faithful, trusting servant Hogarth (Felix Aylmer) is dying in bed, and the next scene shows Barbara ‘prostrate’ with grief taken to her bed too. But perhaps my favourite scene sets Barbara in the arms of the highwayman Jerry Jackson as they lock in a passionate embrace before a fire. You can’t miss the symbolism of the fires of hell.

Some of the lines are quite risqué for the times (“an armful of hungry passion for my leisure hours” ), and the costumes are sumptuous. Underneath the scandalous story, the film shows that the plight of single women is not an enviable one. Two dotty old maids, the interchangeable Aunt Moll and Aunt Doll (Beatrice Varley & Amy Dalby) and also cousin Agatha (Martita Hunt) all live on Ralph’s charity. Their aimless lives seem to add to their general dottiness, and the film seems to proffer the idea that women’s lives aren’t full of choices. At one point, Barbara rails against her fate as if she can’t quite understand why her life is so dull:

“I’ve got brains, looks, and personality. I want to use them instead of rotting in this dull home.”

Barbara’s plight is not entirely unsympathetic (marrying for the life she thinks she wants–only to discover she lives in a gilded cage), and the intervention of  fate emphasizes that things might have been different.  Based on the book The Wicked Lady Skelton by Magdalen King-Hall, is supposed to be based on the real life story of a highwaywoman, (speculated to be Lady Katherine Ferrers). The film also stars Jean Kent as Captain Jackson’s doxy and Michael Rennie as Kit.

Jerry Jackson: When I’m with you, it’s like a giant meal prepared by the gods. I eat and I eat until I can’t face another morsel.

Barbara: And then?…

Jerry Jackson: And then I look at you again and before I know it, I’m clamouring for another helping.

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Ladies Who Do (1963)

“The bourgeois and the proletariat blood will mingle in the Charing Cross Road before they get rid of us.”

Ladies Who Do is a wonderful British black and white classic comedy which features some of the era’s best-loved stars. This is a good-natured tale of the underdogs who fight back against corporate growth and gentrification.  

The film’s heroine is the formidable Peggy Mount who plays practical-minded char woman/office cleaner, Mrs. Cragg. Mrs. Cragg works in the offices of developer, James Ryder (Steptoe and Son‘s Harry H. Corbett), a slippery, insincere character whose accents shifts according to his company. Ryder’s flashy lifestyle, which covers his upbringing in the slums, has almost bankrupted him, but he still maintains a posh office, a large staff, and a flash car. Ryder and his business partner are desperate to seal a new deal that involves the purchase of the homes on Pitt Street. Ryder plans to demolish the homes and then construct new office buildings in their place.

The trouble begins when Mrs. Cragg inadvertently transports a stock market tip  from Ryder’s office to her other employer, Colonel Whitforth (Robert Morley). Using Mrs. Cragg’s information, Whitforth subsequently makes a large sum of money, but Mrs. Cragg’s working class sensibilities cannot accept the idea that the stock market is an honest mechanism. She intends to give Ryder her share of the profit, but this plan, however, is abandoned when she discovers Ryder’s plans for Pitt Street. Mrs. Cragg lives on Pitt Street and has no intention of moving.

At this point, Mrs Cragg mobilizes her fellow char-women to unite against Ryder and his plans. He sees the residents’ refusal to sell as “a couple of old bags being difficult.” The consequences are hilarious and culminate on Pitt Street with various monkey-wrenching activities. Ryder, his workers and even the British police are no match for the cleaners–working class women who know just how to deal with the men who want to seize Pitt Street for their own ends.

Harry H. Corbett is perfectly cast as the slightly slimy, conniving (but not devious enough) Ryder. He meets his match in the charwomen, and of course the underlying message is that these women are invisible to their employers and so they can get away with a great deal more than the average person. The charwomen are hilarious and include Miriam Karlin as Mrs Higgins–a woman who’s tired of waiting for the Revolution, gormless Mrs. Merryweather (played by Dandy Nichols from Till Death Do Us Part), and nervous Emily Parish (Avril Elgar) who lives with her elderly mother. Elderly Mrs. Parish becomes a useful tool in the Battle for Pitt Street. Fans of British classic comedy, don’t miss this one. From director C.M. Pennington-Richards


“Would you close in a bit brothers. We have a spy on the outskirts of our little community.” (Workmen)

Take more than a bulldozer to put that old battleax under the ground.” (Ryder talking about Mrs. Parish)

“What do they want a teabreak for? They haven’t done anything yet.” (Ryder about workmen)

“Oh she loved the Blitz. She was very happy when the bombs were falling. She’d look out the window and shake her fist.” (Emily Parish discussing her mother to Ryder)

“You couldn’t have a derogatory effect on her heart if you ran her over with a bulldozer.” (Ryder talking about Mrs. Parish.

“I’ll have them out of there before you can say bulldozer.” (Ryder)

“You know the British workman. Loses every battle except the last.”

“What’s legal can’t be dishonest.”

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Criminal Justice II (2009)

Well it had to happen. After getting some great entertainment from Criminal Justice I, I decided to watch Criminal Justice II even though some of the reviews weren’t quite as glowing. This is a 5-episode made-for-British television series released on a 2-DVD set.

Criminal Justice II begins with a prominent barrister Joe Miller (Matthew Macfadyen) nailing a murder conviction in court. With the case over, he meticulously stores his wig and gown, goes for a stress-releasing jog and then returns home to his family–wife Juliet (Maxine Peake) and 13-year-old daughter Ella (Alice Sykes). The film does an excellent job of setting up ambiguity through these initial scenes. Joe attempts to call his wife several times on his cell phone and then a very harried, flustered Juliet dashes in the house only to miss the call. She takes a speedy shower and then cleans up (or tries to) all evidence of this. Does Joe call to tell Juliet of his success or is something else sinister afoot? What is Juliet afraid of? What is she trying to cover up?

And then there’s the Miller house. It’s immaculate–blacks and whites like some sort of designer home from a magazine, but there’s also a sterility to it. This could be a lab for all the lifeless within these walls.

The evening ends with Joe stabbed and rushed off to the hospital while a bloodstained Juliet wanders the streets, eventually ending up at the emergency room too. She’s arrested and taken off for questioning. It looks like an easy conviction with no real doubt that Juliet was responsible for stabbing her husband. The big question is why?

Criminal Justice II is strongest in its depiction of the relationships between the characters involved in the case. There’s Anna Klein (Zoe Telford), the defending barrister who is backed up by Juliet’s intelligent, sympathetic, savvy, solicitor, Jackie Woolf (Sophie Okonedo). Detective Chief Inspector Faber (Denis Lawson) finds himself troubled about the case–in spite of the overwhelming evidence against Juliet, and married detectives Chris and Flo Sexton (Steven MacKintosh and Kate Hardie) find themselves on opposite sides of the moral divide as the case stretches out. Then there’s Ella who is left with no parents, but she does have a godfather Saul (Eddie Marsan) whose idolisation of Joe is a bit unhealthy. Dedicated social worker, Norma (Nadine Marshall) frequently oversteps her bounds and is accused of being “too involved,” as she becomes bound up in Ella’s fate.

Criminal Justice II, while ostensibly a police case, is much more about the muddy morality surrounding the crime, and it’s an emotional issue that ripples out to everyone involved and creates strong feelings on all sides of the fence. Juliet used to be an outgoing, happy person, but now she’s a neurotic, pill-popping mess. Was Joe a devoted, caring husband, or was he a control freak who robbed Juliet of her identity?

Criminal Justice II is at its weakest in the case itself. As the court date approaches, no one has asked Juliet WHY she did what she did, and then it seems to suddenly occur to Klein and Woolf that there’s no “story” for the courtroom. At that point, the pressure builds, but it seems a little forced when the story eventually trickles out as part of the courtroom drama. It’s all so well-acted and well-cast, however, that it’s still very entertaining in spite of its flaws. Some moments carry a  powerful resonance. Juliet, at one point, for example, expresses the opinion that she wishes that Joe had hit her as physical violence would have been irrefutable proof that he was an abuser while mental abuse is so much more elusive, difficult to prove, and hard to understand.


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Criminal Justice (2008)

“They come up with their story. We come up with ours. The jury gets to decide which story they like the best. The best story wins.”

It was with the introduction of Ralph Stone (Con O’ Neill) that I knew I was going to really enjoy Criminal Justice, a 2008 BBC mini-series. Up to that point, Criminal Justice seemed to heading into fairly familiar crime territory, but Stone’s appearance got my attention and kept me focused. This is not a tale of a crime and its solution (although that does happen along the way)–rather this is a story of how the criminal justice system works, and how those wheels grind on when someone becomes caught up in a web of crime.

 The story begins with a young, thin asthmatic man called Ben Coulter (Ben Whishaw) playing football and scoring a goal. Hyped up and feeling good, Ben goes out for the night to meet a friend. When his car doesn’t start, he doesn’t hesitate to ‘borrow’ his dad’s taxi. Ben finds it funny that he can’t disable the taxi’s “for hire” sign, but then when he stops, a young girl, Melanie Lloyd (Ruth Negga) jumps into the back seat of the taxi.

With Ben’s friend cancelling their plans, Ben has nowhere to go, but Melanie, who’s so obviously the stronger, more dominant character of the two, suggests they go to the seaside. They enjoy each other’s company and end up spending the night together. The next day Melanie is dead. Given the weight of the forensic evidence, it looks like an open and-shut case with Ben, who couldn’t possibly look any guiltier, rather pathetically trying to clean up the crime scene and then even fleeing the scene.

Stone, the duty solicitor reeks of the ambulance chaser. His clothing is rumpled, his hair could do with a good wash, and to top it all off, one of his feet is wrapped in bandages, but we can still see the naked irritated skin which oozes with eczema.  If Stone showed up to defend me, my heart would sink, and it doesn’t help Stone’s image that he almost immediately tells Ben to “shut up” and that he doesn’t want to “be stuck with the truth.” Stone has a point. Yes he may be a nightmare when it comes to image and confidence-building, but and here’s one of the best points of this mini-series, he’s intelligent, cunning, and a brilliant strategist. Stone really can’t be bothered with the truth. It simply doesn’t matter. He understands that all he has to do is create a reasonable doubt in order for his client to walk, and that is Stone’s intention.

There are five episodes to this mini-series. The plot delves into alternate strategies tackled by Ben’s barristers, the snooty, autocratic  Alison Slaughter (Lindsay Duncan) and the inexperienced Frances Kapoor (Vineeta Rishi). While Ben’s case builds to the courtroom scenes, Ben’s life inside jail is a major part of the story. Ben becomes friendly with cellmate Hooch (Pete Postlethwaite) who offers advice on learning to live in the joint. Meanwhile, Ben racks up enemies. Freddy Graham (David Harewood), the con who runs the jail, owns a piece of everyone, and his attention settles on Ben.

When the story began, I expected the plot to become a police procedural, and that probably says quite a bit about the formatting of films. After all the murder is committed, the suspect is arrested, so now the hunt is supposed to begin for the person who is responsible. But Criminal Justice doesn’t immediately take that well-worn path. It’s a nice twist to Criminal Justice that Ben screams suspect so loudly that the police think they have their man. And perhaps they do. While some reviews state that Ben is appealing, I did not feel that way. Under Ben’s frailty, there’s something a little odd. But does that make him a murderer?

On the positive side, the script included good and bad prison guards (a nice mix) and then an entire range of those who work within the criminal justice system–those truly interested and concerned, those who just want to get the job done, and those who get too involved. The courtroom parts were excellent, and we see witnesses who can be led, those who can be bullied, and those who do not stand up well to cross-examination.

On the negative side, and I think this was the poorest part of the film, the plot went a tad overboard on the jail scenes. Hooch was well…not to spoil the plot, but a character who was developed in an unfortunate way…

On another note Criminal Justice has a nice underlying thread which reveals the class system at play. Stone feels the class barrier between him and the barristers, and there’s a great scene in which the investigating officer, “talented oppressor”  Box (Bill Paterson) and Slaughter assume that lowly PC Jeary (Sam Alexander) cannot speak French and patronise him accordingly.

At almost 4 hours, this was great entertainment except for part of episode 5 which went too sentimental in its Lone Ranger bent, but the final shots were a pleasant blend of what was lost tinged with a muted and stained optimism.

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