“When things buck up”: Love on the Dole (1941)

“A decent provision for the poor is the true test of any civilization.” (Dr Samuel Johnson, 1709-84)

“They can take away our jobs, but they can’t take away our love, can they?” (Sally to her fiancé Larry in Love on the Dole)

In 1932, the year in which Walter Greenwood’s novel, Love on the Dole was accepted for publication by Jonathan Cape, the UK was suffering an economic Depression and unemployment topped three million. There were protests and riots against wage cuts and the deeply unpopular Means Test legislation in places as far apart as Birkenhead and Belfast. In October a demonstration in Hyde Park of 10,000 people from across the country had to be broken up by the police, with 40 people injured and 14 arrests. In December a Health Insurance Act led to the deprivation of pension rights to the unemployed. A Housing survey reported that 98,000 families in the UK of five or more were still living in two rooms or less.

Small wonder, then, that the appearance in 1933 of Greenwood’s novel about life in a Salford slum caused something of a literary sensation. It was hailed not simply as a powerful work of fiction but as an indelible social document of the time. It had behind it the authenticity of personal experience. Born in Salford in Lancashire in 1903, Greenwood had held at least a dozen jobs since leaving school at the age of 12, none of which had earned him a living wage. He had experienced life on the dole on three occasions and had been unemployed for three years at the time of the book’s acceptance. When he adapted the novel for the stage in 1935, in collaboration with Ronald Gow (whose wife, Wendy Hiller played the leading role of Sally Hardcastle in London and New York), it ran at the Garrick theatre in the West End for nearly 400 performances. It also enjoyed a national tour so successful that it was estimated more than a million people in the UK had seen the play in 1935 alone. The following year it had a successful run in America, playing for 129 performances at the Schubert Theatre in New York. Evidence of its impact can be gauged from an extract in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), when George Orwell described the shame felt by miners about being unemployed and their feelings of impotence and despair. “Everyone who saw Greenwood’s play Love on the Dole,” he wrote, “must remember that dreadful moment when the poor, good working man beats on the table and cries ‘O God, send me some work!’ That cry must have been uttered in tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of English homes, during the last fifteen years.”1

Continue reading ““When things buck up”: Love on the Dole (1941)”

  1. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (Penguin edition, 1962), p.77. 

Tribute to Network: Five British films

To the great sadness of genuine lovers of British film and television, the DVD and blu-ray company, Network, closed for business early in 2023. Over a period of 25 years, it had released (and supported with superb documentation) a vast array of vintage shows, dramas and films, some familiar, some relatively unknown. In so doing, it fostered a vital re-evaluation of British film and television culture. For this, and for the countless hours of entertainment it provided, researchers, scholars and ordinary viewers will be forever in its debt.

I had the pleasure of contributing booklet notes to around 30 Network releases. They were always a joy to do, not least because of the unfailing support, enthusiasm and knowledge of the Commissioning Editor, Steve Rogers. I can honestly say that none of the films disappointed. Some of them were comparatively well known but, in some cases, deserved to be better appreciated; others were barely known at all and warranted discovery. It became a labour of love.

The five films in the following collection came too late to be released but they seem to me representative of what Network habitually offered: an early vintage Michael Powell (The Phantom Light); a young Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson making their theatrical skills sparkle on screen (The Divorce of Lady X); a virtually unknown UK/Swiss co-production (The Village) which could scarcely seem more urgently relevant in its look at the plight of refugees and war orphans; an exceptional film from those legends of cut-price film-making, the Danziger brothers (Tarnished Heroes); and Peter O’Toole as Robinson Crusoe in Jack Gold’s imaginative rendering of Adrian Mitchell’s revisionist take on the Defoe original (Man Friday). An eclectic bunch certainly, but, in one way or another, all interesting, and all adding to our knowledge and appreciation of British film in sometimes unexpected ways. In other words, typical offbeat, provocative and stimulating Network projects. It will be sorely missed.

Neil Sinyard

Read Neil’s essays on these five British films here:
The Phantom Light (1935): read Powell before Pressburger: The Phantom Light (1935)
The Divorce of Lady X (1938): read “The anguish of humiliation”: The Divorce of Lady X (1938)
The Village (1953): read Orphans of war: The Village (1953)
Tarnished Heroes (1961): read Strictly Danziger: Tarnished Heroes (1961)
Man Friday (1975): read “I stood like one thunderstruck”: some reflections on Man Friday (1975)

Powell before Pressburger: The Phantom Light (1935)

“I’m a sucker for lighthouses. The lonelier and more inaccessible the better. And I love comedy thrillers. I said ‘Yes’ to this one right away and never regretted it. I enjoyed every minute. The less said about the plot, the better.” (Michael Powell)1

“Lummy, what a night!” (Gordon Harker as Sam Higgins, the Lighthouse Keeper, reflecting on his new job)


It is sometimes forgotten that, prior to teaming up for the first time with Emeric Pressburger on The Spy in Black (1938), a partnership that was to develop into the most creative and dynamic director/producer collaboration in the history of the British cinema, Michael Powell had already directed 24 films. Admittedly, they were generally modest, low budget affairs, but they proved a valuable training ground for a fledgling director whose talent was clearly discernible even amidst the limits of the material.

Of these early films, four were made for Michael Balcon’s Gaumont British Picture Corporation, the last and best of these being The Phantom Light (1935), a ghost story-cum-comedy thriller adapted from the play The Haunted Light by Evadne Price and Joan Roy Byford. It stood out as a cut above the standard British B-movies of that era. Variety described it as “a very strong melodrama, atmospheric to a marked degree.” Even Graham Greene, that most notorious denigrator of British movies of the time, was positive. Reviewing it for the Spectator he called it a “an exciting simple story of wreckers on the Welsh coast”; praised “some lovely use of Welsh scenery”; and only lamented the under-use of one of his favourite actors, Donald Calthrop in a relatively small role as the Harbour Master, whose main task is to tell the new lighthouse keeper that the North Stack Lighthouse, of which he is now in charge, is haunted.2

Continue reading “Powell before Pressburger: The Phantom Light (1935)”

  1. All quotations from Michael Powell are taken from his two volumes of autobiography, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography (Heinemann, 1986) and Million Dollar Movie (Heinemann, 1992). 

  2. Graham Greene, ‘St Petersburg/Paris Love Song/The Phantom Light’, The Spectator 12 July 1935, reproduced in Graham Greene (edited by John Russell Taylor), The Pleasure-dome: The Collected Film Criticism 1935-40 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972, pp. 6-7 or reproduced in Graham Greene (edited by David Parkinson), Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2007 edition [originally 1993]). The Phantom Light is discussed on pp. 7 and 9 respectively. 

“The anguish of humiliation”: The Divorce of Lady X (1938)

Everard: “When you smile at me, you’re as guileless and innocent as a child.”
Leslie: “That’s why I smile at you.”
(Laurence Olivier as Everard and Merle Oberon as Leslie in The Divorce of Lady X)

Lord Steele to Leslie: “What made you play the woman with a past?… The danger is that when the costume falls off, the young man may look at you and wonder what on earth he saw in such an innocent slip of a girl.”
(Morton Selten as Leslie’s grandfather, Lord Steele)


Released on 15 January 1938, Alexander Korda’s production The Divorce of Lady X was based on a play by Gilbert Wakefield, Counsel’s Opinion, which had first been filmed in 1933 under its original title. That film (now believed lost) had starred Binnie Barnes, who was to play the role of Lady Mere in the remake, as the heroine, Leslie; and was directed by the Hollywood pioneer, Allan Dwan, one of three films he made in England in the early 1930s, the first of which, Her First Affair (1932), had featured the screen debut of the fourteen-year-old Ida Lupino. When Korda decided on a remake, he probably calculated that he had three major assets to exploit: a glamorous leading lady who was already a Hollywood star, Merle Oberon (and whom he was to marry in 1939); two of the rising stars of the Old Vic stage, who were also making a career in films, Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson; and Technicolor. At that time, it was more usual to reserve Technicolor for action films, but it justifies its deployment here, at the very least, for the sight of Laurence Olivier’s orange pyjamas and for the startling transition at the beginning when Olivier steps out of a foggy night in London town and into the lobby of the Royal Park Hotel that is positively ablaze with light and colour coming from a Fancy Dress Ball. The film’s cameraman, Harry Stradling, was to become one of Hollywood’s ablest and to win Oscars for his colour cinematography for The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and My Fair Lady (1964).

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Orphans of war: The Village (1953)


Despite winning the Bronze Golden Bear at the 1953 Berlin Film Festival and being a Grand Prix nominee at the Cannes Festival of the same year, the UK/Swiss co-production, The Village has attracted little attention since its first showings. To say it has over been overlooked would be an understatement: you would struggle to find a single reference to the film, let alone a review, in any published history of British, European and World cinema. The only available online review is a negative one from Bosley Crowther in the New York Times at the time of the film’s US opening.1

This neglect is surprising, bordering on the inexplicable. After all, its technical credentials are impressive; and without mentioning The Village explicitly, one of the earliest of film historians, Paul Rotha, reckoned the team of producer, director and writer who were primarily responsible for it were “an underestimated European team that deserve more attention”.2 Moreover its basic theme – about the treatment and resettlement of displaced persons whose lives and homes have been devastated by war – was a continuation of the team’s earlier work.

The Pestalozzi Project

The film is dedicated to the teachers and children of Pestalozzi village in the Swiss Alps. Although it points out in the opening prologue that this is a story and not a history, it is clearly intended as a tribute to the values of international understanding that the village espoused. It was named after a Swiss humanitarian and social reformer, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827), who had dedicated most of his adult life in endeavouring to secure educational provision for the poor, the underprivileged, and those without any family support. He believed in “learning by hand, head, and heart”, which became a sort of mantra; and his subsequent influence on educational content and reform was huge. In 1947 the Swiss philosopher, Dr Walter Corti, had created a children’s village named after him and as a memorial to his ideals, and which accommodated around 200 children from across Europe who had been orphaned during World War Two. They were housed in small national groups where they could be taught in their own languages and cultures. (It was, incidentally, a humanitarian initiative that was to expand globally over the next decade, and beyond.) The film’s task was to encapsulate the spirit of the Pestalozzi enterprise in dramatic form.

Continue reading “Orphans of war: The Village (1953)”

  1. Bosley Crowther, New York Times, 23 September 1953. 

  2. Paul Rotha, The Film Till Now: A Survey of World Cinema , revised edition, Spring Books 1967, p. 752. 

Strictly Danziger: Tarnished Heroes (1961)

“You must be disgracefully bad not to have worked with the Danzigers.” (Geoffrey Bayldon, actor)

“When working on a film for the exploitation director/producer Harry Alan Towers, an actor was told to crouch down. Instructed to crouch lower, he protested he was as low as he could get. Came the voice of the cameraman: ‘You should be working for the Danzigers!’” (Leslie Halliwell)1


“Notorious” is the first word that appears in Wheeler Winston Dixon’s entry on the Danziger Brothers in Brian McFarlane’s Encyclopedia of British Film.2 By contrast, “legendary” is the word the actor Dermot Walsh used when recalling his work on several of their productions. For filmgoers who regularly populated British cinemas in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, the name “Danziger” was synonymous with a certain species of B-movie preceding the main feature, lasting around 6o minutes and offering entertaining monochrome melodrama of comforting modesty and reliable mediocrity. For film students and historians of that era of British film, however, they could now fairly be regarded as something of a cultural phenomenon. Leslie Halliwell referred dismissively to their production of “hundreds of second features and TV episodes” and remarked that “hardly any [were] worth recalling”.3 If the Danzigers’ emphasis was indisputably on quantity rather than quality, Halliwell’s judgment nevertheless seems harsh overall; and one of their features that is certainly worth recalling is Tarnished Heroes.

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  1. Leslie Halliwell, Who’s Who in the Movies, 13th edition, 1999. 

  2. Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Film 5th edition, 2021. 

  3. Leslie Halliwell, Filmgoers Companion

“I stood like one thunderstruck”: some reflections on Man Friday (1975)

“He was a comely, handsome fellow, perfectly well made, with straight strong limbs, not too large; tall and well-shaped; […] I made him know his name would be Friday, which was the day I saved his life: I likewise taught him to say Master and then let him know that was to be my name.” (Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe)

Crusoe: “I don’t look upon you as a slave.”
Friday: “Then what am I?”
Crusoe: “You’re an ignorant savage!”
(Peter O’Toole as Crusoe and Richard Roundtree as Friday in Man Friday)

Introduction: Footprint in the sand

It is one of the most famous moments in English literature: “It happened one day about noon going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen in the sand. I stood like one thunderstruck, or as if I had seen an apparition…”1 The sole survivor of a shipwreck a dozen or so years before and stranded on a deserted island, Robinson Crusoe had over time adjusted to his isolation and constructed shelters that would ensure his survival. It is a considerable shock, therefore, to discover he is not alone. The prospect petrifies him.

Published in 1719, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is recognized as a literary landmark: one of the first great novels to create a realistic imaginative world, tell a fascinating story, point a moral, invest an ordinary character with the stature of myth, and invest this fictional tale with the impression of autobiographical authenticity. (It is worth noting incidentally that, in the novel, the discovery of the footprint does not occur until halfway through the narrative and Friday does not make an appearance in the text until 50 pages and two years after that.) Luis Buñuel had made an impressive film adaptation, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954) with Dan O’Herlihy giving an outstanding Oscar-nominated performance as Crusoe. However, in 1973, the poet and dramatist Adrian Mitchell had the idea of writing a play which re-told the familiar story from the point of view of Friday. In some ways it was part of a literary vogue of the time where classics of the past were being reinterpreted from a different perspective: for example, Jean Rhys’s novel, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), had revisited the story of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre from the perspective of Rochester’s ill-fated first wife, Bertha, and Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead (1967), offered a new slant on Shakespeare’s Hamlet by seeing the drama through the eyes of two of its minor characters. Peter O’Toole had seen Mitchell’s play and liked it very much. With his production partner, Jules Buck, he had bought the rights for their independent production company Keep Films, securing additional funding from the television tycoon, Lew Grade. Jack Gold was assigned to direct.

Continue reading ““I stood like one thunderstruck”: some reflections on Man Friday (1975)”

  1. Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, Bantam, 1981, p. 136. Originally published in 1719. All page numbers in this essay are taken from this 1981 Bantam edition. 

A dangerous liaison: Stephen Frears’s Bloody Kids (1980)

“Over the years Frears has refined a magical instinct for just how long we want to see a face and how long a scene needs to be. If he could bottle this instinct, it could be called “Essence of Moviemaking”.”- Pauline Kael1

Interviewer: “Would you say that your films show a concern for people living on society’s fringes?”
Stephen Frears: “It would never cross my mind, but now you come to mention it…”

The opening

It is dead of night, and the sound of a crash is heard. Emerging out of the darkness, 11-year-old Leo (Richard Thomas) chances upon a scene of pure carnage, which, we will come to recognise, could stand as a symbolic representation of his vision of a broken-down grown-up world. A serious traffic accident has occurred, in which a lorry appears to have careered off a flyover and caused significant damage and serious injury below. The police, rescue workers and interested bystanders are already at the scene and getting in each other’s way. Amidst the chaos, no one pays much attention to the young boy moving between them or notice that Leo has spotted the cap of the chief inspector of police (Jack Douglas) on the back seat of his car and, while the inspector is otherwise occupied in trying to bring matters under control, has stolen it. When challenged about his presence on the scene, Leo has said he is on his way home; but, in fact, he pauses at the nearby police station and watches a young offender being roughly bundled out of a patrol car and taken inside. His curiosity being aroused, he stares in at the window as Inspector Ritchie (Derick O’Connor) is showing off the force’s new surveillance equipment. One of its monitors catches a glimpse of Leo.

This opening is as striking for its style as its content. Although photographed by Chris Menges, who was the chief cameraman on Kes (1969), one could not mistake Bloody Kids for a Tony Garnett/Ken Loach social drama, for its look is lurid and garish and seems to be pushing the film beyond gritty realism. Stephen Frears was always looking for material that offered imaginative responses to the everyday, thus giving an overworked theme (in this case, juvenile delinquency) a fresh perspective and dimension. Visually Bloody Kids has something of the ambience of modern film noir, which will resurface in some of Frears’ later work, such as The Grifters (1990) and Dirty Pretty Things (2002). Some of his thematic preoccupations (to be discussed later) are being foreshadowed here also.

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  1. Pauline Kael, review of My Beautiful Laundrette, New Yorker, in Pauline Kael, Hooked (Marion Boyars, 1990). 

“Shoot straight, you bastards, don’t make a mess of it!”: an appreciation of Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1980)

Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1979) is to Australian film what David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is to the British cinema and John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) is to the American. Like those two masterpieces, it has a larger-than-life, arguably tragic hero who is charismatic but controversial; an iconoclast and outsider who tends to follow his own rules and can be a thorn in the side of authority; a character of enormous courage who is also capable of a savagery that can test the boundaries of acceptable conduct; and a character whose progression raises important and uncomfortable issues about racism and about national identity.

In an interview in 2004, Edward Woodward was to call Breaker Morant “the greatest piece of work I’ve ever been involved with” and Bruce Beresford “the greatest director”. His performance of the English-born Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant (the nickname derived from his reputation as the best breaker of horses in Australia) catches all the character’s complexities, adding an impudent twinkle of irony to the man’s intelligence and hot temper. Reflecting on the film a good twenty-five years after its making, Bryan Brown, whose sardonic performance as Lt. Peter Handcock contributes invaluably to its variety of mood, said of Breaker Morant that “it doesn’t date”, a deserved tribute not only to the solidity of its craftmanship but to its still pertinent observations on the hypocrisies of high command and the facility with which those in power can serve up scapegoats to cover their own deficiencies and duplicities.

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Ambler and Greene: Journeys into Fear

“International business may conduct its operations with scraps of paper, but the ink it uses is human blood.”
(Eric Ambler)

“Victims? Don’t be so melodramatic. Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving? […] These days, old man, nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t, so why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat and I talk about the suckers and the mugs. It’s the same thing”
(Harry Lime, looking down from the Great Wheel in The Third Man)


A year or so ago, when I was contemplating writing a book on the relatively unexplored territory of the screenwriting career of Eric Ambler, one outcome seemed certain: I would need to devote a chapter comparing Ambler with Graham Greene. The connection seemed inescapable. They were both major screenwriters who had made a significant contribution to British cinema during its heyday of popularity from the late 1940s to the end of the 1950s; they were both masters in their fictional field who, particularly during the 1930s, brought a new literary respectability to the genre of the mystery thriller; they even shared the same publishers and had coincidentally spent regular periods of residence in Switzerland.

My interest was piqued still further when I recalled quotations cited in two classic works of Greene scholarship, which, in an interesting and oblique way, seemed to confirm my conviction that the parallels between Ambler and Greene were worth pursuing.

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