Category Archives: Film

Working class culture was not all strictly ballroom, chapels and brass bands – what about the Halls?

English: The Royal Court Theatre Sloane Square...
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In a recent programme on the BBC about class and culture  Melvyn Bragg explores the relationship between class and culture between 1911 and 2011 and how it has shaped modern society. His introduction to the series warns that it is ‘inevitably selective.’ He tends to concentrate on the elements of culture that have most resonance today such as ballroom dancing and cinema. One of his omissions is one of the most important forms of mass entertainment of the period – the music halls.

Mass consumption didn’t just start with the ballrooms and cinemas. Before these, there were the music halls – hot beds of mass entertainment, comedy and sedition right up until after WWI. The halls were turned into cinemas as popularity of cinema increased and that of traditional variety declined. But don’t forget that the comedy acts of the music halls have a direct influence on those of today – take Monty Python‘s silliness or the one line gags of comedians like Frank Carson (RIP) and Tim Vine.

Pantomime, variety and music hall were the bedrock of popular entertainment in Britain from the middle of the 19th Century up to the end of the First World War. This was also the bedrock of popular TV right up until the 1980s. Many of the clowns and comedians, novelty acts, tumblers and acrobats, singers and dancers who toured the inns and taverns, then the music halls that evolved from them started in the circus.

Tracing ancestors who performed in the circus, the halls and theatres can be challenging. Performers were itinerant, often changed their names, married and re-married. Many, however, kept photos and memorabilia. Growing up I was surrounded with boxes of old photos, albums, letters, datebooks playbills and programmes. The photos were of grand parents, cousins, uncles and aunts and of the acts they were in, the shows they did and stills from their films. Using this material as a basis, then searching family records and census data put the history of my family and popular culture in those years into context.

The Poluski Brothers

Sam and Will Poluski Music Hall

My great-grandfather was William Nelson Govett (1854 –1923). His brother was Samuel Thomas Govett (1866 – 1922). Together they were The Poluski Brothers, a popular music hall comedy double act from the 1880s up until the First World War.

They started as tumblers and musical clowns with Duffy’s Circus, touring Britain in the 1870s. Belfast shoemaker Patrick James Duffy started the circus in England in the 1840s. In his memoir, Patrick Duffy’s grandson John Duffy – known as the Irish Barnum – wrote:

I was born in a caravan in Over, Cambridge on October 1 1875. When I was born, my parents, who were circus artistes were out of work and had no money. When I came to town one of the artistes, Sam Poluski, managed to scrape up sixpence and he walked five miles to Cambridge to buy a feeding bottle for me. Sam Poluski and his brother Will (who were apprentices to my Grandfather) in later years turned out to be two of London’s greatest comedians, and commanded a big salary. 

By 1884 The Poluskis were at the Trocadero and Eden Theatre, Great Windmill Street, Haymarket in a ‘Monstre Entertainment.’ Also on the bill were The Sisters Waite. Harriet Waite was later to marry Will Poluski.

In 1885 they were performing at Gatti’s Palace of Varieties, Lambeth, in its Whitsun entertainments, billed as ‘Will and Sam, eccentric comedians and acrobatic marvels’. And in 1892 they were touring the halls, appearing on the same bill as Vesta Victoria at the Empire Palace Theatre in Edinburgh. Vesta Victoria sang Daddy Wouldn’t Buy me Bow Wow and Waiting at the Church. Other variety acts on the bill included The Craggs; ‘the most wonderful acrobats the world has ever produced;’ Vento, ‘ventriloquist, humourist and mimic’ and the Forget-me-nots – ‘the smallest song and dance artistes on the variety stage.’

The Poluskis staged a sketch entitled Late on Parade’ using a row of dummy soldiers. Sam was Captain Blazer. Will was Corporal Spottletoe, made up in the ordinary dress of an officer, while Sam’s make-up was an ‘extraordinary conception, as grotesque as it was original.’  Two of the doll-like dummies were on springs which, on being struck by either of the Poluskis, rebounded to give a knock-down blow in return.

The Poluskis toured this act for years even taking it to the Tivoli in Sydney, Australia in 1898, where they appeared in Harry Rickard’s variety show. Back in the UK they appeared in Howard and Wyndham Ltd’s pantos including Aladdin at the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool. 

They’d come a long way from the their humble circus origins by 1914 performing in a royal matinée for King George V and Queen Mary at The Palladium in aid of the Chelsea Hospital for Women sharing the bill with George Robey.

Popular variety acts like The Poluskis took advantage of the new phonograph and cinema to reach wider audiences. Will and Sam recorded on the Columbia label including sketches entitled Misunderstood and The Village Blacksmith, recorded in 1912.

Sam Poluski also made some silent films between around 1911 and 1915. An example was Nobby the New Waiter (1913), made by the Ec-Ko Film Company and directed by WP Kellino. Sam played waiter Nobby who gets a new job but quickly gets the sack. He smokes on duty, flirts with the cook and roller skates. Two customers evade paying by engaging Nobby in a game of ‘Blind man’s Bluff’. The film drew on routines Sam performed with Will in their double act.

Will Poluski had four children: Charlotte, Winifred, Sam and William junior, who married Rosetta Wood (aka Rosie Lloyd) singer and sister of Marie Lloyd, famous for tunes like My Old Man Said Follow the Van and I Sits Among the Cabbages and Peas. Sam Poluski was best man to Alec Hurley at Marie Lloyd’s wedding in 1906.

Winnifred’s daughter Polly Ward (also known as Bino Poluski) starred alongside George Formby and Max Miller in a number of films and was a singer and dancer in many pantos including Babes in the Wood, Aladdin, Dick Wittington and Puss in Boots.

Bullitt to bedtime

Detective Bullitt spins his tires for the chase.
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There is nothing like a good movie to get your pre-teen boy off to bed. A sleeplessness – brought on by pencil-case swapping anxiety – was causing a few problems with family evening quietude.

Reading was no good. He had already been through Diary of a Wimpy Kid – Roderick Rules and was in no mood to hear my dulcet tones. I was watching nothing in particular on the idiot box when he plonked himself down on the sofa and declaimed that he couldn’t sleep. There was only one thing for it.

I got down my DVD copy of Bullitt (1968). Despite its 15 certificate, there isn’t much here that will cause problems for a 10-year old. The film contains what is probably the best movie car chase of all time. Steve McQueen turns the tables on two mob assassins and pursues them and their Dodge Charger through the streets of San Francisco  in his Ford Mustang before forcing them off the road and into a petrol station forecourt where they crash and burn.

The grinding of metal and gears and smoke give the chase a visceral reality lacking in many other movie car chases. The editing is top-notch – continuity notwithstanding. The VW Beetle appears several times along the way but fails to detract from the quality of the scene.

By the denouement we were both ready for bed.

If we have the same sleep problems tomorrow it will be time for The Italian Job (1969).

Get Carter is 40

Michael Caine in "Get Carter"
Image by mrrobertwade (wadey) via Flickr

George Melly once described one of my favourite movies of all time as a “bottle of neat gin swallowed before breakfast.”

And this March marks its 40th anniversary.

The original Get Carter was lauded as the ‘Best British Film of All Time’ by Total Film. One of the most popular cult classics certainly, the best British film of all time – not sure, but Mike Hodges’s directorial debut delivered a classic 70’s thriller and captured Michael Caine in one of his finest performances.

Adapted from Ted Lewis’ 1968 novel Jack’s Return Home, Get Carter follows hard as nails London gangster Jack Carter‘s (Michael Caine) return to Newcastle for his brother’s funeral. Suspecting foul play, Carter’s quest for the truth about his brother’s death leads to a complex trail of lies, deceit, cover-ups and backhanders played out against the haunting backdrop of the gritty North East.

“Newcastle will be one of the stars of the film,” proclaimed producer Michael Klinger in 1970, prophesying that Get Carter would do for Newcastle what Bullitt had done for San Francisco!

Unfortunately it took over 20 years for Klinger’s prophesy to come true. On its original release in 1971 Get Carter was not a critical success. Many journalists weren’t comfortable with Hodges’s vision of a violent criminal underbelly. Consequently the film spent two decades in the critical wilderness. It was not until Get Carter was re-released in 1999 that it took its rightful place among the pantheon of British cinema classics.

Michael Caine told Loaded magazine in February 1999: ” Quite often, you only realise how good a film is in retrospect. Then years later, a whole new generation picks it up and hails it as a classic!”

There will be a series of anniversary events in the North East to mark the anniversary. It’s a shame that key locations like the Trinity Square multi storey car park in Gateshead have gone. It was here that Carter uttered the immortal line: “You’re a big man but you’re in bad shape. With me it’s a full time job. Now behave yourself,” before throwing Cliff Brumby, played by Bryan Mosley, off the top of the car park.


Selznick and Scorcese: The Invention of Hugo Cabret in 3D shoots in Castor

Nene Valley Railway - Castor
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Driving home last night a bright light suspended in the sky caught my attention. From the top of Love’s Hill it looked like a UFO hovering over Normangate field. Further investigation revealed that it was a large flood light illuminating a section of the Nene Valley Railway at the bottom of Station Road.  The railway and the trees and brush either side of the track were thrown into stark relief against the moonlit night.

Villagers out and about over the past few days have  spotted a film crew in the area. It turns out that they were setting up to film parts of Martin Scorcese’s new 3D adaptation of Brian Selznick‘s Hugo Cabret. That’s what the flood lights were for.

Rumours that Jude Law is in area have been rife.  Sorry to disappoint. According to a spokesman at Nene Valley Railway, the crew was only filming technical shots of moving locomotives and rolling stock for the movie. None of the film’s stars were involved in the shoot, he said. Two wagons from the railway have also been taken down to Shepperton Studios where they have been used in filming on set.

The movie should be something to look forward to. The screenplay is by John Logan – who wrote screenplays for films including Gladiator (2000), Sweeny Todd (2007), The Last Samurai (2003), Any Given Sunday (1999) and The Aviator (2004) and is producing the screenplay for Bond 23. It is adapted from the children’s story The Invention of Hugo Cabret by author and illustrator Brian Selznick. Directed by Martin Scorcese the film has a stellar English cast including Jude Law, Emily Mortimer, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee, Ray Winstone, Richard Griffiths and Sacha Baron-Cohen. It is due for release in December and with a production team and cast like that on board it can only be a hit. Surely.

Anyway, it’s just another moment of stardom on the silver screen for Castor. See the post Pierce Brosnan Drank in my Local from 26 June 2010.

Hammer Queen Ingrid Pitt dies

Countess Dracula
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Hammer House of Horror Queen Ingrid Pitt has died suddenly.

I can’t help feeling a sense of loss at the news in spite of the fact that I have never met her. Part of my adolescence has gone with her. You see, Ingrid Pitt, along with other Hammer regulars like Britt Ekland, Stephanie Beacham, Kate O’Mara, Martine Beswick and Veronica Carlson, was fuel for the teenage fantasies of many boys growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s – mine included.

She appeared in 1970s Hammer classics like The Vampire Lovers, Countess Dracula and The Wicker Man and the erotically charged scenes were pretty steamy for late night TV.

The Hammer films of those decades were pretty tame by modern standards – despite being given X certification by the Board of Film Censors – but they were and are great fun and much more entertaining than the modern torture porn movies like The Saw franchise. I’d much rather watch Christopher Lee camping it up as Dracula – pursuing some nubile virgin with a heaving bosom through a wood in the Home Counties (sorry, Transylvania) – than I would some unknown Hollywood ‘D’ lister chewing off their own leg to get out of some sadistic trap only to have their head blow up.

Ingrid Pitt, RIP.

Read all about it – war is hell

Cover of "Matterhorn: A Novel of the Viet...
Cover of Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War

I’ve just picked up a relatively new novel on the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes. Matterhorn already looks like a classic and I’m only six pages into it. And it’s quite a tome – running to nearly 600 pages – reportedly taking Marlantes 30 years to pen.

He describes war in authentic and minute detail. The time Marlantes has taken on this epic has ensured he has crafted a truly accurate depiction of the horrors, futility and sometimes boredom of war and what it must be like to endure combat. After all,  a graduate of Yale University and Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, Karl Marlantes did serve  as a Marine in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for valour, two Purple Hearts, and ten air medals.

No doubt Matterhorn will be adapted in to a film to rival Apocalypse Now, which was based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness.

There have been other novels about the Vietnam war, including Go Tell it to the Spartans (Daniel Ford) and Meditations in Green (Stephen Wright) but none seem to have achieved the status of true classic, which I’m sure Marlantes’ book will.

Even in the opening few pages the reader gets a good indication of what Bravo Company has to deal with to stay alive. Marlantes sets his themes out early. It’s not simply the enemy, or the suggestion that it is present that engenders fear. There is the natural world around them, the monsoon rain, the mud, the jungle and the leeches – not just on the body but in it. One Marine gets a leech stuck in his penis.

Marlantes’ protagonist, 19 year-old 2nd Lieutenant Waino Mellas,  is also contending with fear, boredom, routine drudgery and racial tension amongst his men. All this is common to fighting men throughout the major conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries from WWI to the current conflict in Afghanistan.