Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Ealing Studios was worried about bombsites by 1950

The Magnet, a minor Ealing comedy, used to be rarity, but it now turns up on Talking Pictures TV fairly regularly.

Last time I watched a bit of it I noticed something relevant to my interest in the treatment of children and bombsites in British films. And by some miracle just that scene can be found on YouTube.

Before we get to the exchange that interested me, let's not that the film's young star is an 11-year-old James Fox, billed under his real name William Fox, and that you can see a train on the Liverpool Overhead Railway at 00:30.

Then, at , 02:40 we get this exchange (if I have transcribed it correctly):
I know, there's that bombed house in Bangkok Street.

No, he wants to keep out of bombed houses. That's how my brother got pinched.
When I first blogged on the subject I gave some examples from other Ealing films:
In Ealing's Hue and Cry (1947), a damaged London belongs to errand boys and the film celebrates their independence and resourcefulness.

In Mandy (1952), the final scene of liberation, where the little deaf girl goes out to play with other children, takes place on a bombsite.

Last night I watched Passport to Pimlico (1949) last night and it proved a little more equivocal.

The local bobby visits a woman whose husband is always making models.

"It's an idea for that dump out there," she tells him, meaning a bombsite. "Give those kids somewhere decent to play."

He looks out at the small boys scuffling in the dirt and replies: "They seem to be doing pretty well as it is."

She replies: "I'd have something to say if I was their mother."
The Magnet was made in 1950 and the screenplay was by T.E.B. Clarke, who also wrote Hue and Cry and Passport to Pimlico.

Clarke seems to have been on a journey. Though the exchange above from The Magnet reads well, as delivered by the young actor it sounds almost like something from a public information film. You sense he was telling the younger member of the audience to stay away from bombsites.

As I noted in my blog post, by the early 1950s bombsites had become places were terrible things befell small boys who played on them.

Were there tragedies that have been forgotten, or, as I suggested, did this anxiety arise from a feeling that the nuclear family needed to be reinforced as the collectivist wartime era receded?

It may be relevant that people in the 1950s did not congratulate themselves on living in an era with low crime rates but worried about juvenile delinquency. And bombsites were places outside adult authority,

One final point: the boys Fox meets do not sound particularly Liverpudlian to modern ears. The one who does is the Chinese boy played by Geoffrey Yin, and the exchange with his mother is still funny after 70 years,


A Rambling Ducky said...

As a small boy in the 70s I used to long for a decent bombsite to play on! We had cliffs and disused quarries and derelict barns, the occasional building site, and even an old car disintegrating quietly in the corner of a field, but no bombsites. There was an official playground next to the council houses in a nearby village, but the sharp rusty edges on the roundabouts and swings made them seem far more dangerous than cycling along the cliff top. I'd seen bombsites in Hue and Cry and and the like, and they looked like wonderlands.

Perhaps there's a link between changing adult attitudes to bombsites and the post-war growth of planning. Housing, industry, shopping, all in their designated zones, and the same for play. I also get the impression that this was the same time that school uniforms became more insisted upon - certainly until the 50s a lot of school photos and films seem to shew kids in a variety of clothing.

I still rather fancy finding a nice derelict corner of a town or city, somewhere unimproved, unregulated, a no man's land.

Phil Beesley said...

Top level planners have determined that land in urban areas has to be accounted. Brown field land (i.e. something which has not been previously protected) is just building land. And the small green spaces between homes, too small to make a big concern, are convenient building plots.

Derelict land -- the place where mammals mate and higher primates tryst -- are places which councils should protect. Don't muck around with them. As teenagers, we lived and enjoyed those non-adult spaces.

If we want to build houses and homes, we need to incorporate loads of random green space -- or something like a bomb site -- which are not controlled by adult imagination.
There's a 15 minute hypothesis in the news, a 15 minute walk (work, rest and play) for middle class adults to manage their needs. I'm not sure how children fit with the model.