Saturday, 2 February 2013

Wake up call… Hindle Wakes (1927)

Estelle Brody
You’ll have to forgive me if sometimes I’m a little behind… as a late-converter to the on-going viability of silent film, I was probably too busy chasing down the latest Pedro Almodóvar movie (or changing nappies)  when Maurice Elvey’s Hindle Wakes was revived by the BFI in 2000.

Well, 12 years on I’ve just staged my own revival and having raved about Asquith and Hitchcock’s silent work I now have a third British silent director to rank alongside them.

John Stuart, Humberston Wright, Peggy Carlisle and Estelle Brody
Based on the controversial 1912 play by Stanley Houghton, this was Elevy’s second go after a 1918 effort which also included some of the same actors.

It’s a disarmingly frank story of sexual freedom amongst working-class Lancastrian factory workers and, most surprisingly, shows one of the girls completely in control of her choices in spite of all around trying to force her to follow social norms. These were our grand-parents and, in my case, my Nan, was so powerfully in favour of her own right to decide she went as far as to take out an injunction to prevent the kind of parental control attempted here. She wasn’t alone.

Dark and satanic
This was the period of accelerated development of the labour movement whilst the Great War had brought women to the commercial fore as they worked the men’s jobs in factories and mills… it became harder to deny their importance and their equality.

This story must still have been a shock in 1927, hard to imagine how the play went down in 1912.

The Wakes were a regular tradition in the North when the mills would close down for a week and the workers had a week-off (unpaid) to enjoy a bit of freedom.

Get your clogs off
For many in Lancashire, then as now, the glittering possibilities of Blackpool were hard to resist. With three piers, dozens of music halls and a tower to rival Paris, it remains the UK’s ultimate seaside resort… if a little brash for some tastes.

But it is here that the younger workers head for their week of “ecstasy and freedom”. There are two young mill girls, Mary Hollins (Peggy Carlisle) – with her short, sharp haircut suggestive of a more earthy nature than her considerate and cautious friend Fanny Hawthorn (Estelle Brody).

Blackpool's Pleasure Beach
They meet up with two of their social betters, Allan Jeffcote (John Stuart) the son of the mill owner, and his mate, George Ramsbottom (John Rowal). It seems George has the better chance as Mary seems all together more forward with Fanny initially refusing to hold hands.

There are some fantastic scenes of the fun to be had on The Golden Mile especially on The Big Dipper (built in 1923 and still going strong) as Elvey’s camera bravely follows the actors up, down and around in a vertiginous display. But the director doesn’t overplay the location and keeps the emphasis firmly on the characters.

I want to see the bright lights tonight...
When it comes to evening’s end Mary goes home alone, repulsing her partner’s advances on the door step and it is Fanny who falls…

The next day she confesses all to Mary and reveals that Allan is to whisk her away to Llandudno. I’ve seen some reviewers be dismissive of this jewel of the Welsh Riviera but, having lived there, I can confirm that it is a cut above most resorts in the North West with a fine Victorian front and some excellent hotels (you can just glimpse the Grand Hotel where PM Macmillan once stayed and where I worked during two university summer breaks a long time ago…). Elvey takes his crew out to Wales and it’s good to see a brief glimpse of the Great Orme (home to the oldest copper mine in Europe) and the elegant bay that stretches around to the Little Orme (see what they did there?).

Llandudno, "Queen of the Welsh Resorts"
It is indeed the kind of place a well-to-do young man might take a working class woman and hope not to be recognised…

But Fanny’s plan to have her tracks covered by a postcard posted from Blackpool goes awry with the untimely drowning of poor Mary. Her friend’s death is almost secondary though, as the full “scandal” of her week with Allan is revealed and their families become concerned about the necessary “consequences”.

Peggy Carlisle and Estelle Brody
Fanny’s mother (played with bitter decisiveness by Marie Ault) want nothing less than marriage. Old man Jeffcote (Norman McKinnel, who also played the part in Elvey’s earlier film) is similarly-minded, even though it means he cannot unify his business with that of the Mayor, Sir Timothy Farrar (Arthur Chesney) who’s daughter Allan was engaged to marry.

Mrs. Jeffcote (Irene Rooke) has an altogether more pragmatic take and doesn’t see why her boy should have to marry beneath himself for this indiscretion. Whilst Fanny’s father  Chris, (Humberston Wright) – a man physically broken by a combination of his dedication to work and timidity – fears most for his daughter’s happiness. Long ago he could have taken shares in his mate’s enterprise but he was too risk averse… he doesn’t want his daughter’s life to be lived with the same compromises and the same regrets.

John Stuart and Gladys Jennings
All have different motivations and overlayed on this moral maze is the confused romance between Allan and Beatrice. It’s hard to take to Allan who, so close to his wedding, was happy enough to indulge in a week with Fanny and then, when faced with the consequences, expects to walk straight back to where he was. Beatrice (Gladys Jennings) does at least have some moral backbone, refusing to forgive Allan and insisting that he should make Fanny an honest woman.

Such sensibilities are not too difficult to relate to even over this distance. Class remains a massive issue in the UK and we still struggle with the idea that women can enjoy sexual freedom in the same way as men. Then as now the “moral” standpoints of various characters can be nothing of the kind, most are out for what they can get and are only trying to use convention to advance their own cause or to ignore the inconvenience.

Estelle Brody and John Stuart
Ultimately you side with Fanny’s father and his old friend Jeffcote: he may be a workaholic business demon but he recognises Fanny’s strength of character just as much as he despairs of his own son’s.
This is no black and white melodrama but a complex tale that defies expectations even over a century after it was written.

I’ll not give away the ending as this film deserves to be watched without preconception. The performances are exceptional especially from Norman McKinnel and Humberston Wright. But Estelle Brody gives a performance “out of its time” with naturalistic subtlety taking the plaudits: honestly, she’s far too good fer the likes o’ ‘im!

Elvey’s direction is inventive and sure footed with some sublime moments following the masses slowly whirling around Blackpool Tower Ballroom the spotlights playing across them as confetti falls almost in slow motion from the ceiling. The disorientation of a good night out… you can have your fun but mistakes can be made…

I watched the excellent Milestone DVD which comes with a very effective modern soundtrack from Sheffield band In the Nursery along with a more traditional piano score from Philip Carli. It's curious that this very British production is only available from the United States but they've done us proud.


  1. An excellent review, Arthur! My parents (from Warrington) honeymooned (neologistic verb?) In Llandudno. Apparently, the landlady of the hotel took some persuading that they really WERE Mr & Mrs Smith... old habits die hard! !!

    Sir Gawain of Herts

  2. A fine choice! My parents retired there and so I spent my student years working summers at the Grand Hotel and reading history textbooks in The London Arms... a pint of mild, some crisps and E.J. Hobsbawm.