Tag Archives: Yorkshire film

Ken Loach: Black Jack (UK/France 1979)

Jack and Tolly look for some evidence. (Image from DVD Beaver)

Black Jack is one of the least known of Ken Loach’s early films, appearing as the only cinema feature between Family Life (1971) and Fatherland (1986). During that long period, when Loach should have been establishing himself as a major international filmmaker, he was confined to television and then in the early 1980s almost kept off screens of any kind (as he would be again in the late 1980s). The television years were by no means wasted as John Hill points out in Sight and Sound, October 2011 and Days of Hope (1975) was, I seem to recall, shown on cinema screens in France.

So how did Black Jack come about and why was it generally forgotten for such a long time, only recently appearing on a BFI DVD? The DVD includes a Loach commentary and he has also spoken about the film in Graham Fuller’s book, Loach on Loach (Faber 1998). He explains that although the second of Kestrel Films’ releases, Family Life, had been a flop in the UK, it had attracted attention in France. Tony Garnett, Loach’s partner in Kestrel Films, thought that with the right property another film release could exploit this French interest. However, the UK film industry in the 1970s was in dire straits and the prospects of finding investors for a feature production were poor. Then Garnett discovered that a ‘children’s film’ stood a chance of attracting public funds via the National Film Finance Corporation. Kestrel Films were then able to embark on an adaptation of a novel by Leon Garfield that Loach knew from his own children’s reading. The story was changed in two crucial ways. First, ‘Jack’ was made into a Frenchman and second the location was shifted from Sussex to North and East Yorkshire. Clearly the casting of Jean Franval was supposed to help the film in France, but I haven’t been able to find any evidence of French money in the production – or whether or not the film played in French cinemas. The film did appear at Cannes where it won the Critics’ Prize and it is listed with various alternative titles suggesting that it went to both North America and across Europe – I suspect that a subtitled version might have worked well.

The story is set in the 18th century, 1750 to be precise. 12 year-old Bartholomew (‘Tolly’) finds himself unwittingly helping a giant Frenchman, ‘Black Jack’, escape the hangman’s noose and is then forced to accompany him in fleeing from York. On the road Jack and Tolly become involved in rescuing a young girl, Belle, who is being sent to an asylum so that her unseemly behaviour will not threaten the marriage arrangements of her elder sister. Eventually, the three companions end up travelling with a fairground troupe with Belle’s fate being fought over by her father, the men who run the asylum and a blackmailer, all determined to get her back.

When the film was released (by a small independent distributor, Enterprise Films) I’m afraid that, despite being a Loach fan, I stupidly dismissed it as a ‘children’s film’. I should have known better. Watching the film now, three points are clear. First, it looks terrific and demonstrates just how well cinematographer Chris Menges’ approach fitted in with Loach and Garnett’s vision. Second, it is clearly part of the overall ‘project’ of Kestrel Films and the broader spread of Loach’s work – and it also relates to other radical attempts to rethink ‘period drama’ during this period of British Cinema. Third, wonderful though it is, it doesn’t quite hold together – or perhaps it just has a couple of problems. But it’s still absolutely worth seeing.

The main problem, as Loach admits, is that there just wasn’t enough money to re-shoot scenes or to spend the necessary time on aspects of post-production. The sound mix is certainly a problem – at least on my old TV – but DVD Beaver (the bible on such matters) says it is OK. Loach tells us that the mix was done one weekend and there really wasn’t enough time. In casting the film, Loach and Garnett relied on the local performers that they had found in South Yorkshire around the time of Kes and who were subsequently used on other Barry Hines scripted projects. Some critics have objected to the ‘modern’ working-class accents of South Yorkshire being used by characters from rural North and East Yorkshire in the 18th century, but the accents worked for me – I simply couldn’t hear them well enough in the mix.

It is the hesitant speech of what I take to be mostly non-actors which coupled with Menges camerawork (using natural light, I think) that gives the film is naturalistic qualities. The interiors were shot on 35mm and the exteriors on 16mm and this works well. As with Kes, Menges brings to the image something that is simultaneously ‘realist’ but also ‘magical’ and perhaps ‘romantic’. Certainly it feels different compared to the more observational, but ‘immediate’, style of Barry Ackroyd seen in most of Loach’s later films in the 1990s and 200s. I was pleased to go back and discover a paper I’d forgotten about by Deborah Knight entitled ‘Naturalism, narration and critical perspective: Ken Loach and the experimental method’ (part of the collection edited by George McKnight, Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach, Flicks Books 1997). Knight tries to rescue Loach from the critical attacks from both right and left. The attacks from the right are not surprising and shouldn’t really trouble us, but Loach certainly deserves to be defended from Colin McCabe and those Screen theorists who held to the notion of the ‘classical realist text’ and how it is inevitably a bourgeois form. This isn’t the place to discuss that debate in detail but it’s interesting that Knight traces the development of naturalism back to the novels of Emile Zola with their direct exposition of social ills in the industrial regions of North East France and how they influenced British novelists like Arnold Bennett and George Meredith. She then traces the influences through to the so-called ‘Angry Young Men’ of 1950s writing in Britain and the New Wave films of Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz. Loach, she argues is in this tradition. What McCabe sees as a weakness – the the influence of the realist literature of the late 19th century – she sees as a strength and she argues that it is one of three distinctive features of British ‘naturalist’ drama. It’s partly that the realist novels discussed contemporary social issues, but also that they focused on working-class and lower middle-class characters – ordinary people living through social changes. Secondly she picks out the emphasis on dialogue in British Cinema, partly influenced by the theatrical tradition, but also by the celebration of regional voices through various forms of popular entertainment. And finally she emphasise the importance of location shooting. This latter has always struck me as related to a general enthusiasm for documentary in the UK since the 1930s.

The attempt to offer a more socially-committed historical drama ties Black Jack to films like Comrades (dir. Bill Douglas 1986) and Culloden (dir. Peter Watkins, 1964). In terms of literary adaptation it follow Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963) and precedes Michael Winterbottom’s radical take on Jude (1996). In terms of British genre cinema it has links to Witchfinder General (dir Michael Reeves, 1968) and Rob Roy (dir. Michael Caton-Jones, 1995). All of these films, set at different times from the 17th to the 19th century, represent the rural regions of Britain in interesting ways and to some extent offer the possibilities of the picaresque and action-adventure found in American genres like the Western. Black Jack stands out because, despite the title, it has a pair of twelve-year-olds at its centre. Whether this makes it a ‘children’s film’ I’m not sure. I think that contemporary audiences of children would need some support in engaging with the story, which is very loosely structured, but the younger characters are both entertaining and affecting. The social commitment in the film resides in its drive to expose the conditions of the asylum and its central role for the ‘marginalised’ in society, e.g. the travelling fairground people. ‘Authenticity’ is always a tricky issue with historical films, especially those that suggest a form of realism. Black Jack features a pair of highly literate young apprentices (with no suggestion where they may have learned to write quite sophisticated letters, although Tolly does have an uncle who captains a ship). It’s the relatively large sums of money that are quoted that struck me as odd but perhaps this is intended to make it easier for audiences without the historical knowledge to follow the plot points easily.

Overall, Black Jack is well worth exploring. It’s perhaps surprising that Loach has not made other films set in the 18th or 19th centuries – periods of enormous social change and various forms of radical politics. He has made 20th century historical dramas of course, not least The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and we’ll try and look at some more of these in due course.

A Boy, a Girl and a Bike (UK 1949)

Sam (Patrick Holt) and Sue (Honor Blackman) out riding with the Wakeford Wheelers.

We aim to be both ‘global’ and ‘local’ so no excuse for selecting another Yorkshire-based film. Like Holiday Camp, A Boy, a Girl and a Bike is a Gainsborough picture and as if to prove that British studios ran on genre/stock company lines in the late 1940s the same actor (Frank Martin) plays a card sharp/petty criminal duping young men just as he did in Holiday Camp. Diana Dors also has a minor (but now at least speaking) role and this film is now being marketed as part of the ‘Diana Dors DVD Collection’ – not quite a breach of ‘trade descriptions’ but pretty close. In fact the stars of the film are John McCallum and Honor Blackman. McCallum was an Australian actor working for Rank who starred opposite Googie Withers in two Ealing pictures, The Loves of Joanna Godden and It Always Rains on Sunday (both 1947) – and then married her. Honor Blackman has been a fixture on UK TV for more than fifty years and is probably best known as the first star of The Avengers (Mrs Cathy Gale 1962-4) and then as ‘Pussy Galore’ in the Bond film, Goldfinger (1964). It’s an indictment of the Rank ‘charm school’ for young female ‘starlets’ that they never really gave Blackman the chances she deserved in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In this film she is beautiful, intelligent and altogether devastating. (She still looks pretty good in her more recent appearances at 80 and beyond – see the numerous tributes on YouTube).

John McCallum and Honor Blackman

The title of the film follows the Ronseal advert and offers what it says on the tin, though there are several girls, several boys and a lot of bikes. (I’m guessing that Jean-Luc Godard was not thinking of this film when he made his famous comment about a girl and a gun.) The film features two of the main leisure activities for young working-class Brits in the late 1940s – dancing and cycling (the other was visiting the cinema). It’s surprising that there aren’t more films featuring the two activities (they do come together again in Ealing’s Dance Hall the following year). The setting is a fictitious Yorkshire mill town called ‘Wakeford’ and the principal characters are all members of the ‘Wakeford Wheelers’. Sue (Honor Blackman) and Sam (Patrick Holt) are informally engaged to be married but haven’t found anywhere to live. One day David (John McCallum), son of a local bigwig, drives arrogantly past the Wheelers on a country road and then meets Sue again. Smitten with her he joins the club and pursues her in earnest – to the dismay of Sam. This is an age-old British plot line, especially in Northern English stories – Sue is after all a ‘mill girl’. Blackman does a reasonable accent for a Londoner but she is rather glamorous. There are several sub-plots. One deals with a road race (entitled the ‘North British Road Race’ – only a southern scriptwriter could have come up with that as the ‘North British’ are the Scots and this should have been the North of England Road Race), another involves the club secretary and a war widow with teenage children, and a third involves an Army deserter. The widow’s son (played by a young Anthony Newley) is the youth duped by Frank and his story involves a minor crime. The script is actually by Ted Willis who would go on to become one of the most prolific writers of film and television drama in the UK through the 1950s until the 1980s. The cast includes several other well-known names from British Cinema including Leslie Dwyer, Maurice Denham (as the villain), Megs Jenkins (as the widow) and Thora Hird as Sue’s mum.

For me the pleasures in the film are two-fold. One is undoubtedly the location footage which seems to be mainly shot in Calderdale, around Hebden Bridge (where the film has been screened several times in recent years, I think), but also in upper Wharfedale and around Malham (the very distinctive limestone pavement is a giveaway). The second pleasure is in the celebration of collectivism in the form of the cycling club – working together to help each other. If only it were possible now to see such a celebration of organised working-class culture. Cycling clubs were a key part of British working-class culture, especially in the labour movement as this archive feature about the Clarion clubs established in the late 19th century reveals – I didn’t know that Sylvia Pankurst was once in the Manchester Clarion Club. ‘Wheelers’ was the common name of most of the non-political clubs which were, and still are, a feature of Northern towns and cities. My nearest club was founded in 1929 and the famous Manchester Wheelers Club was founded in 1883.

A Boy A Girl and A Bike works well as an entertaining story with a resolution satisfyingly true to the optimism of the period. The location photography is a major bonus and the playing is generally very good. If a new audience gets to see the film because of the Diana Dors tag that’s fine and I hope that they enjoy a film from the high point of the British film industry as a commercial venture.

Holiday Camp (UK 1947)

1947 was the year after the high point of cinema attendance in the UK and arguably the highest ever admissions figures per head anywhere. A UK population of around 50 million clocked up over 1.5 billion admissions – that’s over 30 visits per year for every man, woman and child. Holiday Camp was one of the most popular films of the year so it stands as an important document in terms of a shared experience of filmgoing if nothing else. Perhaps because it led to a later series of comedy films about the adventures of a working-class family, ‘The Huggetts’, it has been overlooked as an important social document of its period. Just like the later ‘Carry On’ series in the 1950s and 1960s it provides study material for the changing mores of British society.

This first film featuring the Huggetts was produced by Sydney Box at Gainsborough, one of the most successful British studios during the war and in the immediate post-war years. (But Gainsborough was shut down by Rank in 1951 as part of the company’s re-organisation). From an idea by Godfrey Winn and written by Sydney and Muriel Box with Peter Rogers (who went on to produce the Carry On films), Holiday Camp was also a first feature for director Ken Annakin, then a young man from East Yorkshire who must have known about the film’s main location.

The film was shot on location at Butlin’s Filey Holiday Camp with interiors at Gainsborough’s Lime Grove studios in London. Filey, on the Yorkshire Coast south of Scarborough, had a newly-built camp that was taken over by the RAF early in the war. When it opened in 1945 the new camp began to attract large numbers and had its own railway station. From the 1930s through to the 1960s, holiday camps were very popular offering an inexpensive holiday for families and groups of young people. Accommodation was in chalets and all catering and entertainment was on site and included in the price. The film offers a number of interlinked stories featuring the members of the Huggetts family and some of the other characters they meet.

The film begins with the arrival of the ‘holiday special’ train at the camp’s own railway station. I was immediately struck by the similarity to the opening of another Gainsborough Picture Millions Like Us (UK 1943) in which young women from all over the country arrive at a hostel where they are billeted in pairs for the duration of their training and subsequent factory work making aircraft parts. The star of that film, Patricia Roc, makes a fleeting celebrity appearance in Holiday Camp as herself judging the camp beauty contest. Arriving by train at a camp also has much darker connotations of course and although these aren’t raised in the film, references to wartime and austerity are never too far away. The young Huggett boy (Harry) finds himself in a chalet with a young sailor (Jimmy Hanley) who has just been jilted and who reacts by making himself ill eating all the chocolate bars he had saved for his girlfriend. Rationing was central to people’s lives at this point and the ‘waste’ of food in this way was shocking. Fortunately the sailor meets the Hugget’s daughter Joan (Hazel Court) who was widowed in the war and has a small boy who seems to disappear conveniently (the camps provided baby-sitting services). ‘Ma and Pa’ Huggett are played by Kathleen Harrison and Jack Warner. Though their banter is mainly played for laughs they are also allowed a poignant scene on a cliff-top.

Flora Robson appears in her traditional role as Esther, a spinster who becomes involved in ‘saving’ a young middle-class couple who find themselves ‘in trouble’. He is a would be great musician who is playing the piano in a camp ballroom and she is a genteel impoverished girl living with her stern aunt (Beatrice Varley) who has come to the camp to be with him. Robson has loved and lost as a young woman in the 1914-18 War and she is deeply disturbed by the ever-present voice over the tannoy giving camp announcements – giving rise to a comment about being in a prisoner-of-war camp. Is this the voice of the man she lost? The announcer is played by Esmond Knight who in 1947 also joined Robson in the cast for Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. The meeting between Esther and the announcer ends with an interesting sequence in which we see the camp’s mass parade – a celebration of the collectivist spirit that is often represented in the wartime propaganda films such as Millions Like Us. Esmond Knight’s speech in this sequence makes me think of the J. B. Priestley adaptation They Came to a City (1945). The parade sequence is one of several shot in Filey (the camp in the film is called ‘Farleigh’ – I’m not sure if this was intended as a joke about an affected pronunciation) which are blended into the studio scenes quite well.

The final major character is played by Dennis Price, like Robson somewhat typecast, as a ‘bad egg’ – clearly masquerading as a Squadron Leader but with a hard edge that occasionally comes to the surface. This is a familiar character from the period along with the two card sharps but overall I thought that this was the weakest narrative thread and its eventual outcome unbalanced the closing of the film. Although billed as a comedy, Holiday Camp is perhaps better described as a comedy drama. It’s not difficult to see why the producers decided to spin-off ‘The Huggetts’ for later films and a radio series, but their family adventures are only part of what Holiday Camp has to offer. In some ways its mix of elements prefigures the successful soaps on British TV from the 1960s.

For the mass audience of the time Holiday Camp was certainly a star-studded affair. As well as the main cast, the film includes Charlie Chester as himself on stage in the camp theatre and Gary Wilmott, again as himself, as compere of the beauty contest. Future stars are in small roles such as Susan Shaw as the girl who wins Harry and Alfie Bass as a ‘red coat’. The 15 year-old Diana Dors is in the background of one scene making a strong impression on the dancefloor.

Holiday Camp is being screened in Filey on September 23rd as part of a festival of ‘Made in Yorkshire Films’.

The opening of the film:

. . . and a short by the ‘Butlins Photo Service’: