Well, just before the shennanigans of The Profumo Affair tumbled into the world (early 1963 to be precise) Babs Windsor was heading towards the premiere of the film she starred in Sparrows Can’t Sing.
This was before she became the pin-up of the Carry On series and if memory serves correctly Sparrows is a knockabout but fairly feet-on-the-streets slice of East End life.
It’s the tales that surround it that I love though.
Like those other East End “stars” The Krays organising the post-film festivities:
“I arrived in a Roller with my first husband, Ronnie Knight,” recalls Windsor. “There were thousands of people lining the Mile End Road, cheering and waving flags. Evidently Ronnie and Reggie had turned them all out of their houses, saying, ‘Let’s welcome our little lady. Let’s show royalty how we are.’”
And how did The Krays come to be involved? Well, aside from geographical similarities, over to Ms Babs Windsor again:
“I’d been going out with Charlie and Reggie. “Joan said to me that she wanted a proper East End club. I phoned Ronnie and Reggie up and asked if we could use their place. They thought it was fantastic. Ronnie told Joan he didn’t usually allow shooting at their club. They stuck two of their guys on the door during filming – Big Scotch Pat and Scar-faced Willy. Anybody who tried to get in while we were working had to contend with them.”
And then it’s only a hop-and-a-step to that sometimes other Afterhours Sleaze and Dignity inhabitant, Soho In The Fifties author Daniel Farson (see here):
“Do you remember Dan Farson, the art critic?” asks Windsor. “Well, he was responsible, for some unknown reason, for getting the extras. And he’d gone down the docks and he’d got all these extras who were effing and blinding and saying they’d like to screw this one and that one on the set. So Reggie got to hear of it and they took them aside – there was quite a fight – because they didn’t like all that swearing.”
All quotes are from Stuart Jeffries article Carry on up the East End.
Peruse Sparrows Can’t Sing here (where it also shares space with The Small World Of Sammy Lee – see here).
Well He Would, Wouldn’t He is a 2013 Radio 4 drama which tells The Profumo Affair’s tales from Mandy Rice-Davies viewpoint – indeed it is introduced and narrated by Mrs Davies herself and in many ways it feels like the alternate angle accompaniment to the 1989 film Scandal.
Although I have an utter soft-spot for the stories, shennanigans and shutterbuggery of The Profumo Affair, I’m also very aware of the voyeuristic aspect of that interest and that these were people’s real lives.
To hear this often told story voiced by one of its participants, particularly after her sad and quite sudden death was moving, informative and reminded me of the fact that this is/was historical fact not a dream-like fiction.
The photographs of her entering / leaving court during the Stephen Ward trial capture her playful defiance and intention to not be bowed by events, the expectations / morality of the then establishment or public opinion.
That was something that struck me when listening to the play - the sense of a woman who wasn’t going to be defined or restricted by this one – or two – sets of youthful dalliances and actions (admittedly ones that had somewhat larger ripples than such things generally do in your youth) and to live life fully.
(As an aside she described her life as ”one slow descent into respectability” and you could follow a line from these early high profile starts to cabaret singing, restaurant/nightclub ownership, acting, writing and eventual companionship with once heads of state).
Charlotte Williams wrote the play. Visit her moving comments about it, the events and Mandy Rice-Davies here.
Visit the drama at the venrable British Broadcasting here (and wander why, despite quite possibly paying for it via licensing fees, you can’t actually listen to it).
One of the things that struck me on a recent rewatching of 2005 film The Notorious Bettie Page is the way that society and culture can sometimes project its wishes, ideas and iconography onto a particular person or idea.
Take Bettie Page…
Her becoming an icon stems in part from how she looked, photographed and the curious ability she had in images to be both the playful cheesecake gal next door and also when required something a touch darker – sometimes in the same photograph…
…but still, from amongst many hundreds or thousands of women who posed for pin-up and the like photographs back when, over the years she has come to represent something more over and above her contemporaries – a pinnacle, focus or distilling of a 1950s pin-up dream and imagined culture.
Although it’s a fair while since I’ve read it, for further unearthing’s of the story The Real Bettie Page: The Truth About the Queen of the Pin-ups could well be a start.
Peruse the film here.
From afterhours wanderings…
Well, talking of 1920s prohibition era stores (see a brush, scrub and suave up)…
Not so long ago I watched the final series of Boardwalk Empire.
In some ways the earlier series could be seen to be a somewhat extended prelude to the main character Nucky Thompson’s full entry into a particular way of life…
The fifth and final series is a thoroughly entertaining, gripping, beautifully shot piece of work but what has stayed with me is the subtle but heavy, almost inescapable and palpable sense of a man who has had enough, who wants to walk away from the life he has built.
He seems tired and it has all quietly eaten away into him.
…in some ways, that balances the visual beauty of how this miscreant world is presented – the glamour (and I use that in both the more common place sense of attractive allure and also the connected but archaic sense of enchantment way) has a price and will have its way.
I think that’s one of the things I consider often when thinking of gangster/crime film, fiction and stories – yes, there is an excitement, glamour and escapism attached to them but the underlying stories from which they spring involve real lives and shall we say not quite up to par behaviour.
The byline for the fifth series is “No One Goes Lightly” but I tend to think of it as being nearer to “No Life Lived Like This Is Walked Away From Easily”.
It was good to see a uniquely British take on gangster history and one that was presented in a dramatically visual and cinematic style, with production values that equalled those from the other side of the pond (a lot of current drama from this side of the water doesn’t quite have a lived in look and there is almost a feel of it being children’s television in spirit and appearance somehow – I’m not sure if it’s to do with current film techniques and lighting but Peaky Blinders avoided such things).
The story of 1920s prohibition and misbehaviour in America has been told countless times in film and other form – but extra suave, dashing chaps from Brum on the make? Not such a commonplace story.
Apart from being a right rollicking set of entertainment and very particular eye candy, it also made you think and consider a set of social conditions, place, people and history that aren’t often considered amongst the well trodden tropes of crime drama; the mental and social upset that occurred post the First World War and how that fed into this (under)world, the abundance of firearms on the streets that had been brought back after the conflict, the sway of left-wing politics and uprisings…
…which was added an extra layer by what you were watching onscreen had its roots in fact and the history of an actual family.
This was rush home and make a date television – something that seems to be a rarity nowadays.
Peruse the releases of the series here.
The spiv, described thus (and rather succinctly) by Jon Savage in his book Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture; “A duck’s arse haircut, Clark Gable moustache, rakish trilby hat, drape-shape jacket, and loud garish tie … which all represented a deliberate snook cocked at wartime austerity.”
Along which lines…
Flash Harry, Arthur Daley. George Cole.
Although over a long career Mr George Cole has played a fair few roles and characters, I suspect the one/s that he is most known for are the two memorable, indeed archetypal, spiv characters Flash Harry from the St Trinians films and Arthur Daley from the television series Minder – gents who were separated by decades and maybe the love of a camel-hair overcat but who shared more than a little in spirit and enterprise.
Part of that spirit and the associated romanticism is that these are loveable rogues who never really did anybody any real harm.
Which brings me back round to and connects with my own Afterhours sense of the theatre of such things; an imaginary rogueishness rather than the actuality of such things.
Along which lines, The Firms Arthur Daley (‘E’s alright)* single from back when:
“The geezer with the bunny in the trilby ‘at
Reckons he’s legit but he ain’t all that
Arthur Daley, little dodgy maybe, but underneath,
Peruse Mr Cole’s memoirs of a spiv (and considerably more) here.
*Or Arthur Daley (He’s alright) in the “Posh” version of the song.
I’ve loved this photo by Steve Gullick of Gallon Drunk from 1991 (?) for a long time.
It seems to sum up the band, their world and early aesthetic in some way that I can’t quite put my finger on…
James Johnston’s youthful bequiffed brooding menace is part of it as is a sense of them being, as Cathi Unsworth put it ”the last gang in town”, despite them relaxing in deckchairs on the prom.
Although not a direct transfer, it also tends to put me in mind of Scarface as some kind of source for their style.
If you should not know the work of Gallon Drunk, their album From The Heart Of Town is a fine starting point and if I’m talking about summing up their world and aesthetic then this could well also do that; all West End/Camden swagger, suave and dissolution.
Gallon Drunk and an ode to a certain gent around these parts at Day #17/365a.
From afterhours wanderings…
I have something of a soft-spot for the 1995 film adaptation of Walter Mosley’s Devil In A Blue Dress gumshoe (almost) origin story – it’s a beautiful stepping into another time and place (Los Angeles in the 1948 to be precise), a pixel perfect recreation of another time…
…it was via the film that I came across the work of Archibald Motley Jr, who is considered to be a part of the Harlem Renaissance movement, which is a phrase used to describe a blooming of black cultural and related social activity from the end of the First World War until around the mid-1930s.
Archibald Motley Jr’s Bronzeville At Night painting (see top of the page) is used as the backdrop to the opening titles/sequence of Devil In A Blue Dress and it along with some of his other work captures a sense of the spirit of black nightlife and shennanigans – a kind of culturally specific, vivid and vivaciousness counterpart to the quiet and still of Edward Hopper’s work.
If the street life, bars and activity in Motley’s paintings aren’t speakeasies they sure as heck feel like they should be – something that is reflected in the film where one of the main nightlife dens is run as an unlicensed establishment by a former prohibition era bar owner who just found that he liked the speakeasy way of doing things after repealment and just kept on working like that…
…and a different time and place but also representing/capturing of such things in both Motley’s paintings and Devil In A Blue Dress is something that although it may be geographically more than a hop, skip and a jump from similar places and times in say Soho back in the day and maybe more overtly expressive but in spirit they are but on the next street corner…