Friday, September 16, 2022

Children and bombsites in post-war British films

Since writing this I have watched Innocent Sinners (1958), which puts a girl at the centre of a bombsite film and portrays the sites as providing its child protagonists with the privacy they lack in their inadequate homes.

As Andrew Ray discovers in The Yellow Balloon, terrible things happened to boys who played on bombsites in 1953.

And his friend’s death is only the start of his troubles. William Sylvester, who makes a beguiling and dangerous villain, blackmails him into stealing from his parents and taking part in robberies and then, because he was present in one that ended in murder, seeks to silence him for good.

So frightening is its finale, in which Sylvester hunts the boy through a bomb-damaged tube station, that The Yellow Balloon became one of the first British films to be awarded an X certificate. Until it was rescinded, this fouled up the distributor’s plans to market the film to families and meant that its young star was unable to attend its premiere.

Before the fall

It hadn’t always been like this.

Hue and Cry (1947), the first of the great Ealing comedies, was filmed in a bomb-damaged London and depicted it as a landscape that belonged to errand boys. Its screenwriter, T.E.B. Clarke, celebrated their independence and resourcefulness, even if they do have to be home for tea.

In truth the film is something of a Boys’ Own fantasy. It allows only one girl on to the bombsites: the wonderfully talented Joan Dowling, who was to marry her fellow cast member Harry Fowler and take her own life at the age of 26. But that was one more than most British films of the post-war era did.

Clarke allowed a more balanced and feminine view on the question of children and bombsites to be expressed two years later in his script for Passport to Pimlico (1949).

The local bobby visits the home of Stanley Holloway, the future prime minister of this urban village that declares its independence from austerity London, and sees a model of a lido he has built.

"It's an idea for that dump out there," Holloway’s wife (played by Barbara Murray) explains, meaning a bombsite. "Give those kids somewhere decent to play."

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

Murray replies: "I'd have something to say if I was their mother."


And by the time of his 1950 screenplay for The Magnet, a film now chiefly of interest because it stars a very young James Fox, he felt obliged to include what the amateur child actor makes sound very like a public safety warning.

Bombsites could still be made to look benign in 1952, as the final scene of Mandy proves. The little deaf girl’s liberation takes place when other children let them join in with their games on one.

But it was the comic plot of The Magnet pointed the way forward. James Fox (acting under his real name William Fox) thinks he has contributed to the death of another boy and goes on the run, just as Andrew Ray in The Yellow Balloon was to be blackmailed by a false accusation of murder.

Similarly, in The Weapon (1956) Jon Whiteley finds a gun on a bombsite, accidentally shoots a friends and runs away because he thinks he has killed him.

The spokeswoman for mothers now is the neighbour who calls on Andrew Ray’s mother to bring news of his playmate’s death:

Neighbour: That poor Mrs Williams. They can’t do nothing with her. They’ve just found her Ronnie with his back broke. 

Mother: Dear God! However did it happen?

Neighbour: In a bombed house in Kendal Street. He must have been playing there and fallen. Dead, of course. It’s a scandal, Emily, that’s what I say. These places ought to be boarded up. Time and again I’ve told my lot to keep out of them. I shan’t ever feel like letting the kids play in the street again.


Compared with the boys of Hue and Cry, with their jobs and long trousers, Ray and Whiteley seem infantilised. Ray is thrashed by his father when he steals money from the home to give to Sylvester, while Whiteley hides out in London dirty, scared and at the mercy of a villainous George Cole. 

By 1953 and The Yellow Balloon an American presence in a middling British film with ambitions was inevitable. Whether this ever produced the hoped-for ticket sales across the Atlantic I rather doubt.

The Yellow Balloon’s William Sylvester makes a believable villain. Sometimes you hardly barely his American accent and it’s easy to imagine him as a wartime deserter who has made a living in London’s underworld ever since. 

By contrast, The Weapon’s Steve Cochran is a knight in shining armour who leads the search for the boy, rescues him and catches the villain. To make him even nobler the police, and at first even the boy’s mother, are made to beremarkably relaxed about Whiteley’s disappearance from home.

The Yellow Balloon is a better film than The Weapon in every way, though you do remember one scene in the latter where Jon Whiteley is trying to hide in a street where every surface has been plastered with posters bearing his photograph.

David Hemmings in The Heart Within (1957) is more like the heroes of Hue and Cry in age and independence, but even he narrowly escapes a fatal fall when he goes on to a bombsite to escape his pursuers. His rescuer is Earl Cameron in this early and tentative treatment of race in post-war London.


By now the bombsites were being redeveloped, and the acres of urban desolation where Jon Whitely shot his friend became the Barbican Centre – you can see this process happening in the video for Unit Four + 2’s Concrete and Clay, which reached the top of the singles chart in 1965.

If you wanted urban desolation in the Sixties, you did better to seek out the streets being lost to the capital’s slum clearance programme – which gave rise to the observation that the planners were doing more damage to London than the Luftwaffe ever did.

And those slum clearance sites were allowed no redeeming features. Both This is My Street (1964) and Poor Cow (1967) have a scene near the end where a very young child is lost on such a site to the terror of their mother. (Don’t worry: both are found.)

The last example comes from 1970 and the redevelopment of St Katherine’s Dock, which you can see as the forerunner of the wholesale redevelopment of the Docklands a decade later.

You can watch a documentary about the project on the British Film Institute website, and in it you will hear a resident complains about there being nowhere for this children to play and about the dangers of an open lift shaft in an old tube station. The neighbour in The Yellow Balloon would have agreed with her.

The meaning of bombsites

So why this change in the way British films treated children and bombsites over the ten years from 1947?

It may be that there really were enough accidents on bombsites to alarm parents. More likely, the growing pace of redevelopment meant that children could no longer wander them as they did immediately after the war.

Or, to try a little armchair sociology, it may be that this fear of unregulated spaces was part of a wider fear about the threat to the family. We now think of the Fifties as stiflingly cosy, but the discourse of the time was full of worries about the increase in juvenile delinquency and the threat to the family.

The Yellow Balloon ends with father, mother and son hugging. The boy has been rescued from the dark forces to be found on the bombsites and brought back to his family.

Even if It is an odd family. His father is played by Kenneth More, who does not convincing as a working-class character and is almost as boyish as his son. 

But then I often struggle to understand More’s popularity as an actor - a heretical view for an Englishman. He makes me understand the attraction of the bombsites.

This post was written for Terence Towles Canote's 9th Annual Rule, Britannia Blogathon.

. I have also written a post looking at how contemporary newspapers reported on children and bombsites.


Ian Sanderson said...

The film 'The Blue Lamp' (1950) also includes scenes and location shooting set in west London bomb and constructions sites.

Jonathan Calder said...

Thanks, I'll watch it with that in mind next time it's on. I wonder how the bombsites are viewed?

And I'm sure there are more films to find,

Silver Screenings said...

Really enjoyed your essay. I never really thought about how bomb sites would be treated in post-war British films, so I was glad to read your thoughts.

Jonathan Calder said...

Thank you!

Terence Towles Canote said...

I knew that there was considerable concern about bomb sites in post-war Britain, but I never realized there were as many movies involving them as there were. I do find it interesting that attitudes towards the sites in the movies did change over time! Anyway, I enjoyed your post a lot. Thanks for taking part in the blogathon!