Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Gnome Thoughts ... 4 (What A Crazy World)



Have just refreshed my memory of What a Crazy World. Very enjoyable and - unlike Three Hats for Lisa, much as I love it - rooted in a very specific time. There's a lot of resentment from the parents, the father in particular (Harry H Corbett, who made his name at at Stratford East), about how much an office boy is earning these days.

Diversion: Which reminds me that a former boss who'd grown up in the sixties told me that you could have an argument at your work and storm out, certain in the knowledge that you would be fixed up with another job that same afternoon. So you could have as many arguments as you felt inclined, seemed to be the message. Unfortunately, by the time of our brief work acquaintance in the mid eighties I got the impression he was surprised and angered about where he'd ended up in a game of career musical chairs which had come to an abrupt halt. Luckily, I was only passing through his world. But that's another story - a play, even. Now all I have to do is rewrite to make it GOOD.

Sorry, that's my problem, I'll deal with it. (Or not.) To return to the film: although the title song mocks the parents for their negligence ("No one seems to notice me"), preferring bingo and betting to quality family time, there's a counterbalancing song shared by the mother and father, surrounded by their mates at the bingo hall and dog track (below) respectively.



This song essentially says their supposed entertainments are not, you understand, about having a good time but rather about desperately trying to win a bit more money to buy their lucky, privileged kids the possessions and gadgets they were never able to afford in their own youth. Their cronies are clearly of the same mind in both cases, and the film cuts between the two environments and the same message of a constant, wearying struggle to support their families and keep up with everything their materialistic children demand as a right:
They want a new TV set,
So you buy a new TV set.
To pay off the HP debt,
You go out and place a bet.
They need a new pair of shoes,
So you buy a new pair of shoes:
They know that you can't refuse -
Whatever the odds, you lose!
And they reach the state
Where you can't hesitate
To keep up with each pa-assing fad,
You just keep on buying
And you never stop trying
To give them all the things we never 'ad.


[...] You follow the bunny
Hoping you'll make some money
To give them all the things we never 'ad
[...] You pay your 'alf crown
And from then on it's "Eyes down!"
To give them all the things we never 'ad.

What's interesting is you can't quite tell if we're meant to take this as straight self-delusion or think they have a point. (Both, probably.) What is very clear throughout the film, however, is that young and old haven't found a way of communicating with each other, and that isn't resolved by the end; all that has happened by the climax (discounting the non-event of the playing of Alf's record)  is that the grievances have been loudly aired, and the finale has everyone singing part of the title song, so that it no longer belongs to the Joe Brown character, the young complaining about the old, but allows everyone to have a go.




 But here's the odd thing:  there's a kind of joy about the exhuberance with which they all let rip (location filming in the exterior of an actual council block) at the end. This message of non-communication and dissatisfaction ought to be a downer, but the music seems to urge you to accept, or even celebrate, the contradictory nature of things - maybe it's even saying that all we need is a right good old moan at each other and then we'll all feel a whole lot better: primal therapy, East End style, as it were. That doesn't mean this musical is a social commentary without bite but it's not exactly urging affirmative action, either, just calling attention to the mess, the whole, er, crazy world.

I'd forgotten the details of the scene where Alf plays his record to his family. He puts it on, and immediately his parents complain about how loud it is, then his dad goes ballistic when he learns Alf has chucked in the errand boy job in order to make it as a songwriter. But it ends on a close-up of Joe Brown giving a rueful smile, as though accepting the situation.



 What a family, eh? Tchah! I dunno, etc. So the story is essentially cyclical, both sides seeing themselves as wronged and underappreciated, but the smile at the end suggests an affection, however exasperated, so the suggestion is they will survive as a family.

Though it's true Joe Brown's character may also be smiling because there is at least the possibility of success and escape from this hell-hole with his music, the film stops well short of confirming it. Before he plays the record to his family there is an old-fashioned whirling newspaper-type montage of newspapers showing that his song has gone to number one, but I think we're meant to read that as an extension of Alf's daydreaming the previous evening, as it is preceded by a song in which, walking Susan Maughan home, he declares that "I'm gonna to be somebody some day, just wait and see." Her cautious response at the end is: "Let's wait and see, eh?" - which seems to apply both to his dreams of success and their on-off relationship.

It's quite charmingly shot, that song, because they're walking through a patch of waste ground, and throughout the song the reality of their environment is a counterpoint to Alf's imaginings. When he talks about the big garden they're going to have, we see a rubbish tip, and when Alf talks about TV stardom, he picks up a toilet seat to grin through by way of illustration: 



There is also a neat payoff for the Michael Ripper character earlier in the evening when the couple are at the pictures. Ripper, as mentioned earlier, features throughout the tale as the Common Man, usually a worker of some kind, often exasperated by the "bleedin' kids" but frequently looking on with kindness and affection.


 He is always in the background, at the back of the bus or wherever, when Joe Brown and Susan Maughan have their tiffs, but when, happy that they are getting on better in the cinema (he is sitting directly behind them), he makes an approving comment rather than just beaming silently, they instantly round on him as a dirty old man - so suddenly someone we accepted as a device, a choric figure, becomes a real-life annoyance to the characters. (Well, it amused me, but maybe you have to watch it for yourself.)



It's also worth mentioning the supporting cast. In minor roles are Michael Robbins (later to find fame as Arthur in On the Buses) and Fanny Carby (Avis Bunnage's bingo partner, above), who also appeared in a bit part in On the Buses and even briefly in Crossroads - in fact, a lot of On the Buses actors came from Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop. Stephen Lewis, aka Blakey, wrote and appeared in Sparrers Can't Sing, later filmed with a de-Cockneyfied title.


 There was also an interesting moment earlier in the film which only struck as I watched it again today. As mentioned, Freddie and the Dreamers appear in a dancehall sequence - oh, and actually I ought to apologise for describing the Klein-penned Sally Ann as innocuous earlier; in the film it prompts a sort of stately communal dance, part parading, part decorous twisting. But what I wanted to say was that I'd forgotten that Marty Wilde's character, Herbie, starts a fight there with someone who'd been "screwing" him - which in this context appears to mean looking at him funny. (It can also mean stealing.) The apparent weakling gets his heavy friends involved and it all kicks off; Herbie and Alf eventually escape by way of a toilet window, then go to their local caff to tell everyone about it:



I don't know whether the stage production would have depicted the fight itself but, as we've just seen it onscreen, the song they sing about it in the caff has the effect of self-mythologising: "Oh, wasn't it an 'andsome punch-up" - and even those gang members who (for plot purposes) were at the pictures, not the dance hall, join in, joyfully reenacting a playful version of the violence which is pretty dangerous in itself, what with cutlery being thrown around the place.



But as with the scene in the labour exchange (described in part 2 of this ever-expanding series) there is a kind of innocent exhuberance about the whole thing as they embellish the event:



There was chains and knives and knuckledusters,
And bottles flew across the floor -
Oh wasn't it an 'andsome punchup
Till somebody called the law!
 Although there is eventual retribution of a sort, for the gang, the attitude to the violence seems to be essentially celebratory, but then the blame is loaded on the shoulders of the Wilde character's family who are much worse than Brown's - though the full-throated music hall singing style of Herbie's description of them seems more boast than complaint:


Me father's doing five years,
Me grandad's doing ten,
Me cousin came out just last wek
Now he's back in again;
Me uncle just got six months
For petty larceneee -
Oh what a familee!

Me sister runs a teenage gang
With members by the score
And they all use our cellar
As an 'ideout from the law!

Me brother goes out screwing
In his big flash car,
He sure knows what he's doing
Cause he ain't been caught so far!
He's 'is mother's pride and joy
And a real 'ard nut is 'e -
Oh what a familee!
Though it's worth mentioning that the hard nut is raised up and his head bumped on the ceiling when mentioned, so you can't help joining in the fun, a bit like the onlooker at the end of Graham Greene's short story The Destructors. (Wonder when that was written?) Anyway, Herbie and his pals go off to do a job, and although Alf cadges a lift he is more interested in checking up on who Susan Maughan has gone bowling with than assisting. But you get the feeling he would help out when they were busy, as it were. We don't see the mini-heist but Mary Wilde and his cronies come back at the end to tell us, as part of a communal reprise of the title song, how it went:
The law caught me out thieving,
Took me down the nick,
The sergeant made out his report
And he laid it on real thick:
He said "I'll fetch your parents,"
I answered with a grin,
"Save yourself the trouble, mate -
You'll never find them in."


And it's worth noting that Herbie's verse is incorporated into the song when it's recorded as a solo by Brown the pop star, further blurring the distinction between Alf and Herbie.

Not a musical that points the finger in a single direction, then. And you don't really want Herbie and his pals to be banged up. Though it's worth mentioning we don't see the crime, whatever it was, enacted. Once the gang drop Alf off at the Bowling Hall, that's it. If they had to cosh anyone, we don't wanna know. That would make it real.

The film was made around the same time as Sparrows Can't Sing (as the film was called), part of which was shot in the Kentucky Club, owned by the Krays, and - well, I was going to say that Marty Wilde and his pals are proto-Krays, but that's not really true. At present, they are mischievous children more than anything, for whom a punch-up is a bit of fun, and the verve and energy they exhibit is in stark contrast to the parents, worn down by the responsibilities of work and family.

They are also undermined at times: Herbie obviously reckon's he's the bee's knees, but girls scatter in all directions when he makes to join a group at a table.

But maybe the attitude of the author is most accurately reflected in the bemused but affectionate response of Michael Ripper as cafe proprietor, doorman, etc. There is one scene where he picks up two forks mangled together by one of the youths and looks at it with a kind of pride. Maybe the implied message of the whole film is something like: here is all this misdirected energy, now what are you, the viewer, going to do about it?

And it's an important film because the old are not, as in every shlock pop film from Alan Freed's Rock Rock Rock onwards and probably well before, old grouches only onscreen for the purpose of being eventually won round to this new music, and the young are neither the threatening forces depicted in such films as Violent Playground (with notional rock'n'roll written by that well known Chuck Berry disciple Paddy Roberts)  nor neutered as in Cliff Richard films. And it stops before all the success or failure.

So really it's a peepshow, a look at a world with generational conflicts rather than merely being a vehicle for pop stars, and all the better for it.

That said, here are the pop members of the cast out of character, presumably published at the time to reassure anxious fans that Marty Wilde hadn't really become a tearaway, though I suspect he still has Herbie's hairstyle under that titfer:


And the place chosen for location filming was real enough. You can find out more about Islington's now-demolished Beaconsfield Buildings, where the exteriors were filmed, in an account of the area by William Perrin, here (pdf file).There is also a website with photos and a forum, here;, where you can even watch the opening credits of Cry From the Streets, a film starring Max Bygraves shot there a few years before What a Crazy World. Below is a screengrab from the opening:


Built in the 1870 by the Victoria Dwellings Association as "New Model Dwellings" to combat overcrowding, the Beaconsfield Buildings were known as the worst slums in the area by the time the GLC acquired them in 1966 and began clearing them. They were demolished around 1969/70, and the site is now a park and adventure playground. "Absolutely fascinating lesson, " says Perrin, "of how state of the art social housing can go bad, in this case very bad." One contributor to a thread on the Knowhere site says:
I remember my father telling me that the Beaconsfield Buildings were quite the project when they were first built. I just remember them as being the dingiest and darkest buildings and being very scared walking up those dark stairs.

The above is an image from the Illustrated London News, presumably from the "quite the project" period.  The most substantial entry on the thread is from Louisa, who gives a full account, here, of living conditions. A particular detail may help put in context the bitterness of Harry H Corbett's character about the ingratitude of his children:
PM Macmillan was able to say in 1957 that "most people never had it so good." As far as I remember, most people were working (both my parents included) and that was the best they could get.
And as though shedding the film's comic trappings the final shot cranes upwards from the cast ...



 ... to show the buildings' real-life 1963 residents, surviving somehow.


Full details of cast and crew can be found at the imdb website here. Special mention must be made of the cinematography of Otto Heller; it should be stressed that the above screengrabs were taken from a poor quality DVD copy in order to illustrate this post and offer only a hint of the film itself.

To finish, a photograph taken mid 1969 when all the flats had been cleared, not long before demolition. Find more pictures of Beaconsfield Buildings on English Heritage's viewfinder website, mostly taken around the early sixties, here.


Alan Klein interview, including a discussion of how the film came about, here.

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