Christmas DVD’s

December 21, 2021

By Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA

At this time of the year, it is the writer’s pleasant task to write about films and TV programmes of the past that have brought him the most enjoyment over the past year. DVD’s have the vital role of providing an alternative to some of television’s Yuletide fair for 2021. Without sounding like Alastair Sim before Michael Hordern visited him, and subjective though these matters are, there are many shows more diverting than Mrs. Brown’s Boys or Strictly Come Dancing.

And, so to my first choice, The Fast Lady. This film will be the subject of a 60th birthday blog next year. All that needs to be said here is that Leslie Phillips is one of our finest light comedians and that the final reel chase scene is, to some connoisseurs of cinema, more entertaining than The Italian Job.

As to my second, it has to be Gideon’s Way. The 26 episodes made between June of 1964 and May of 1965 reflect changing attitudes to the police in the mid-sixties as much as the later Edgar Wallace or Scales of Justice second features. As with the Merton Park films, Gideon’s Way usually featured the police arriving in their black Wolseley of Justice, but deep-rooted problems that transcend upholding the law confront John Gregson’s eponymous Commander. It is a London where parents neglect their children, where fascists march and where sad broken men commit crimes of revenge. Indeed, the antagonists of George Cole in The Firebug and David Collings in The Prowler are as memorable as in any British film noir.

Thirdly, we have the Look at Life box sets. Between 1959 and 1969, the Rank Organisation’s Short Films Unit produced over 500 travelogues shown in 1,200 British cinemas, plus 33 overseas territories. They served as alternatives to the Pathé Pictorials of their ABC rivals, and each feature contains a myriad of incidental details. Brylcreemed commercial travellers at Smithfield market dine on expense account rump steak and chips, and Daimler DC27 ambulances overtake duffle-coated cyclists learning the taxi drivers’ “Knowledge”. Virtually every adult seems to be smoking, including when servicing a lorry or inspecting food, while every other car appears to be a Hillman Minx.

Rank ceased making Look at Life the year I was born, and so they provided a fascinating window to the world of my parents, a time when the last days of steam locomotives co-existed with a brave new world of flyovers and Morris Mini-Minors. The street scenes are especially memorable, with so many of the men resembling Sam Kydd, while women wear Mary Whitehouse glasses and headscarves. These are faces less of “Swinging London” mythology and more of a Britain not so far removed from Bert Hardy and Picture Post.

The Look at Life films also represent the twilight of the complete picture house bill, for such travelogues were once as much a part of an evening at the local Gaumont as the B-film and the A film. As late as 26th November 1966, Rank proudly informed Kinematograph Weekly that some 87% of cinemagoers believed Look at Life ‘added to the evening’s enjoyment’. As you eagerly awaited the main feature, the velvet tones of Tim Turner would enthuse how planners dreams were turned into concrete. Progress is a dominant theme, and 1959’s The Market (with guest commentator Sidney James in full Hancock’s Half Hour guise) has street traders juxtaposed with a new supermarket. It is a world that now appears almost as remote as the Victorian era – and one of endless interest

Finally, we have The Strange World of Gurney Slade. I have already written about Anthony Newley’s masterpiece, but watching the first episode on Channel 4 nearly twenty-eight years ago was immeasurably helpful to a young, as yet undiagnosed, autistic. So many of us have films and television shows to which they owe a vast debt – mine is Gurney and his adventures with the surreal banality of suburbia. And that is why I shall be rewatching it over the holiday.

Merry Christmas to one and all.

Order The Fast Lady

Order Gideon’s Way

Order Look at Life

Order The Strange World of Gurney Slade

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