Saturday, 28 November 2015

Emeric alone… Miracle in Soho (1957)

It’s 1957 and the greatest team in British cinema history has reached the end with Ill Met by Moonlight; Michael Powell will go on to make Peeping Tom and leave for Australia eventually finding Helen Mirren and James Mason on a beach. But what of Mr Pressburger, the man who contributed at least as much to put the arch in The Archers?

Miracle in Soho was directed by Julian Amyes from a script Pressburger had originally written in 1934  it does actually feel like half of a P&P film in spite of the contribution from two of their main collaborators: cinematographer Christopher Challis and composer Brian Easdale (not to mention Cyril Cusack). That doesn’t make it a bad film though; it’s a very interesting film even if, at this remove, it’s hard to tell how authentic the Soho in the picture was: when did the pet shops and Salvation Army get replaced by “models” and clip joints?

A glimpse of your actual Soho and then on set
The film is a celebration of multi-cultural London written by a Hungarian Jew who had only arrived in this country a few years earlier. Had he been welcomed or was he, in the manner of A Canterbury Tale, calling for a jot more tolerance by evoking the natural inclusivity of “Britishness”? There’s redemption for everyone by welcoming in others to help, supporting each other, solidarity with mates and a church that not only holds family together but can also summon convenient ruptures in the water supply…

Entirely British
Lead character Michael Morgan (John Gregson who’s nicotine-stained hand reveals perhaps a far more anxious character than the one he is playing) is very much an island; picking up and discarding girlfriends in every street he works and moving on relentlessly not wishing to be tied down by the responsibility of genuine affection.

The negative impact of this is seen in the opening scenes as firstly a vengeful husband arrives to deck one of the workmen, also called Michael, in the mistaken belief that he’s the man who was making merry with his Suzie. Then a young woman called Maggie (a youthful Billie Whitelaw – so classy at any age) arrives in search of Michael, who tells her she’s misunderstood their relationship “this is the way it was with us…” he says, man-splaining (as my daughter would say) his dispassionate view of their open engagement, one purely based on the location of his work and nothing more… besides, he’s already got his eyes on the tight sweater of barmaid Gladys (Barbara Archer).

Billie and Babara at the bar
Michael is part of a group of workers called in to relay the tarmacadam on St Andrew’s Lane, a made up street in a studio-bound Soho. The massive sets, designed by Oscar-winner Carmen Dillon, evoke a London of time just past – lots of familiar brands in the pet shop but with long gone beers in the pub: you’ll have to go to The Coach and Horses on Greek Street to see still-extant advertising for Double Diamond and other lost ales.

Cyril Cusack looks over The War Cry to disapprove...
It’s a street full of the new influx of immigrants who helped build Britain from the thirties onwards, who opened restaurants, hairdressers, dance studios and shops of every type to bring vibrancy to the streets. There’s a harmony in the film’s Soho that may not have been entirely matched by contemporary reality but Pressburger wasn’t just an optimist he had been welcomed by this country as had many others and – surviving from this time there is still the French House, Bar Italia and Maison Bertaux (from 1871 actually).

Cyril and Rosalie Crutchley
Michael sets about hammering the old road up and befriending his workmates whilst arranging to view Gladys’ sweater in closer quarters. He has to make a quick exit as they are interrupted by the arrival of her boyfriend Filippo Gozzi (Ian Bannen) an intense young man who manages a wine merchant's and is intent on marrying Gladys.

Filippo is part of an Italian family whose father (Peter Illing) plans on moving them all to Canada to find a new life. Daughter Mafalda (Rosalie Crutchley) is the eldest and resolved to marrying a convenient man whilst youngest Julia (Belinda Lee) is still to be disappointed by life – she is not ready to compromise.

Belinda Lee's belting smile floors John Gregson
Working his way up the street as either postman or Salvation Army “captain” is Sam Bishop (Cyril Cusack – who masters a lovely high-pitched busy-bodied tone throughout), who acts as a one man Greek chorus.

Around them are bit parts from well-known faces as expectant husbands, blondes in need and sagacious watchmen… there’s a lot of life in this street.

The actors ignore the distraction of all those ancient brands...
Naturally Julia catches Michael’s attention and the question will be whether she will be just another “best girl in the street” for the itinerant Romeo or whether he’ll finally be brought to ground and, even if he is, will anything stop her joining the family exodus to Canada?

Miracle in Soho is a gently compelling film given extra intimacy by the unreality of its camera-angled sets. There are good performances from Crutchley, Bannen and Cusack as you’d expect whilst Belinda Lee is charming enough to anchor any wanderer’s affections.  John Gregson pushes the envelope on his natural likability and, whilst his Irish accent frequently deserts him he’s spot on as decency takes hold.

The family that sings together...
With far grittier kitchen sinks just around the corner, the film looks back rather than forward but still has a cosy charm all of its own and the magic realist tone you would expect from its author and producer. Brian Easdale also delivers a nuanced score – he knew where to find the buried meanings in Emeric’s words.

The film is available at reasonable price from Movie Mail and Amazon – probably not entirely essential but if you love The Archers you will like this.

The old man prefers his tea from the too!


  1. Nice comments on a film I discovered a while back, as I like Belinda Lee, shame she died so young, in a car accident aged 25 in 1961.

    1. She's really good in this film and such a shame she died so young. This has only just come out on DVD and it's interesting to see the Pressburger without the Powell.

      Thanks for reading. Best wishes. Paul

  2. We loved this review so much we shared it with our other London friends. Keep up the good work Arthur.

    1. Thank you young man! London is diversity and freedom! Arthur