Wednesday 25 April 2012

CONSIDER YOURSELF... By Eleanor Updale

The other day, I went to a singalong screening of Lionel Bart's Oliver! and what a joy it was.  Such good songs, and how lovely to belt them out under cover of darkness (if slightly shaming to discover that I knew all the words).  I had never seen the film (released in 1968) on the big screen.  The quality of the cinematography is stunning.  It was a marvellous afternoon.

But the reason I am writing about it here is my astonishment at the level of historical accuracy in the film.  Don't get me wrong.  I know that cheery chimneysweeps and well-scrubbed milkmaids didn't dance around pristine London squares singing 'Who Will Buy?' -- but amidst all the inevitable flim-flam of a musical there was real attention to the intricacies of costume and ambiance.  For a couple of hours I really believed I was in Dickens' world.

Now, is that because I was in a good mood; because the director, Carol Reed really got things right; or because my idea of what Victorian London was like was shaped by the same filmic traditions out of which Oliver! was born?  However hard I try, I will never shake from my DNA the mutations brought about by exposure, Sunday by Sunday throughout my childhood, to BBC dramatisations of classic stories set in the past, and black-and-white film such as the David Lean classic Oliver Twist (1948).

What I'm getting at here is that our view of the past is coloured by (at least) two things:

1. The reality - actual facts, which can be ascertained (or at least got close to) through research on primary sources.
2. The generally accepted view of what things were like - which may not be the same at all, but which may be so strongly engrained in the national consciousness that to challenge it is to ask for trouble.

I thought of this again a few days after my trip to the cinema, when I was reading a student essay on  Barbarella (also released in 1968). That film is a sci-fi comedy sex romp, directed by Roger Vadim, starring Jane Fonda.

The essay discussed whether or not Barbarella is a feminist film.  What interested me most were the assumptions the young student made about women, and their attitudes, in the late 1960s.  We were, apparently, semi-conscious clones, unaware of our enslavement to men, and completely lacking in aspiration, sex drive, or a sense of humour.

Now, I was there.  I know that wasn't so,  But it was apparent to me that my view of the time carried little weight, because the rival picture was endorsed by respected 'academic' writers, and shared by the tutor for whom the essay had been written - who was probably not much older than the student.

This was mildly annoying, but I didn't stay irritated for long, because I realised that at the same age I made exactly the same mistake. In the late 1960s, I bought in to a popular depiction of the women of the early twentieth century which was similarly patronising and censorious.  It's only now, through reading their letters and diaries (and novels) that I have come to admire the women who lived through the two World Wars.  OK, so their economic horizons were limited (Oh how my generation benefitted from exposure to schoolmistresses who these days would be running hedge funds, publishing houses or government departments) but they were no less clever, funny and diverse than us.

That generation still isn't fully rehabilitated in the public mind, but things may shift -- for images can change, and often it's one particular book, exhibition or film that starts the shift.

Take, for example, the popular view of the First World War. When I was young, it was discussed only in terms of international diplomacy and military tactics -- softened occasionally by a consideration of the works of the (male) war poets.  Then, in 1979, the BBC dramatised Vera Brittain's diary Testament of Youth

and, almost simultaneously, Lyn Macdonald published her account of the front-line nurses The Roses of No Man's Land.  

A new narrative was born. By now, perhaps, it's even a new cliché  -- but that's a matter for another day.

Back to Oliver! and a couple of random reflections:

Isn't it always the hairstyles that give away when a historical drama was made?

It's a bit worrying to realise that in 1968 we thought Harry Secombe was fat.  Now, even done up as Mr Bumble, he looks smaller than most of the men at the bus stop.

Have we lost the art of hiding smut in songs like Oom Pah Pah (or radio programmes like Round the Horn)? Can anyone think of a something filthy that's happily peddled to children these days either with confidence that they won't understand it, or without any awareness on the part of some adults of what it actually means?


Ms. said...

delicious review and clever weaving of the themes through three points. Yes,feminism is still struggling to make itself known, especially amongst scholars working in the Arab world, where women continue to be without the freedom "Spring" once promised, and where that Arab Spring has gotten muddied with the struggle for power of the religious right (as it has in all the countries of our world to one degree or another). Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian Columnist was on NPR this morning ( shining light once more on the problems we are still confronting. These discussions are never as much fun as the movies, as in the WW1 romances, the facts are darker than the shiny, soft focus surface, but crucial to keep in mind lest we become the neglected debris of history. None of us were truly "Barbarella's", even Jane Fonda when she played the part.

But, of how I wish there was a local NYC movie palace doing sing-a-longs. What a romp, and relief in these troubled times...and "Oliver" DID have the most glorious songs, even if the Dickens illumined truth of the matter was hardly so very technicolor bright.

H.M. Castor said...

A wonderful post - thank you. So much food for thought, but here - between stops on a train - I only have time to say what a great point you made about all those terrifically talented women who would all (or nearly) have been teachers in the past, & now are spread among many different professions (teaching included, of course).

JO said...

Great post.

I was in Nepal recently and met a young British doctor, talking about the lack of health care in the mountains. 'It must have been like that in Britain 50-60 years ago,' she said. Er - no. I remember it well. But it's interesting that young people make huge assumptions about people of their grandparents' generation. (And yes, I did remind her about the creation of the NHS in 1948.)

Sue Purkiss said...

Very interesting post - I do think we make the most crashing assumptions all the time about what life used to be like. Someone makes the same point in the new Radio Times, about the series on the 70s which is on at the moment. I haven't seen it, but apparently Jason Wyngarde in some programme I don't recollect at all is glibly declared to have the image young men were aspiring to. Absolute piffle... and I suspect we fall into similar traps, despite our best efforts.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

The hairstyles - oh yes, the hairstyles give it all away! And to a lesser extent, the women's make-up. Brilliant.

adele said...

Yes, a truly wonderful post, Ellie. And you are so right about those teachers of ours. I would love to go and sing Oliver in the dark, too. I know most of the words too. Lovely.

Geri, The History Lady said...

Hair, make-up AND voice/accent. We try harder in films today to make the accents a little more authentic (vice BBC English of the day).

But let's not forget costume either. Films all play fast/loose with costumes - bear in mind that chemical dyes were not in use much prior to 1900 and so the brilliant colors we see on the screen are not so authentic.

None of this of course can take away from a really good script, well-acted.

Catherine Johnson said...

Lovely post Ellie, I know that feeling well, it's funny getting used o having lived in so many other people's pasts.

Eve Edwards said...

On your children and smut point - I think 'Sorry I haven't a clue' is a hold out in that tradition. My kids laugh but I don't think the youngest one gets the Samantha/Sven joke and the middle one (teen boy) hopes I don't understand as mums are obviously pure as the driven snow. I wonder what they would make of 'Are You being Served?'...