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|
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 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|
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|
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...|
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"|
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|
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|
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|
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.