Friday, 13 June 2014

The Mice That Roared

I've been reading Steven Fielding's fascinating book A State of Play: British Politics on Screen, Stage and Page from Anthony Trollope to The Thick of It as preparation for my papers and hopefully book on politicians' novels (in the post this week: Mary Agnes Hamilton's Murder in the House of Commons and Folly's Handbook, and Joe Ashton's Grass Roots). It's a great survey of creative media attitudes towards the political process. I'm familiar with the more recent films and TV series, and quite a few of the novels from the 1880s on, but there are plenty of surprises.

One of those surprises is He Snoops to Conquer (excellent title) from 1944. I knew George Formby was politically sound: he refused to play segregated audiences in South Africa. His wife and manager Beryl was great too: When Malan threw them out of the country in 1946 after she hugged a black girl, she told him to 'piss off, you horrible little man'. He Snoops, according to Fielding, is Formby's call for a land fit for heroes, explicitly endorsing Labour's call for a mass house-building programme to counter the machinations of corrupt councillors and house builders. All done with the aid of a banjolele:

George, despite a happy-go-lucky persona that wouldn't get him a screen-test for Chinatown, plays an odd-job man who helps a reporter exposing dodgy dealings by an idle and corrupt local councillor and their mates in corruption. George gets tangled up in all sorts of shenanigans as the old guard fight to retain their privilege, before getting elected as a tribune of the people in the kind of popular uprising that resulted in the 1945 Labour landslide. (The other thing it's notable for is that some of George's songs aren't about voyeurism for a change). Here are the opening few minutes:

I've always liked those British films aimed at the 'provincial and industrial class' as Fielding puts it: Gracie Fields is another favourite, and the Boulting Brothers are also excellent though slightly reactionary film-makers. Fielding mentions Passport to Pimlico which I've loved ever since watching it with my grandmother. It's sweet and funny take on the post-war reconstruction. Annoyed at not getting their fair share, the people of Pimlico discover that they're actually a remnant of the vanished (real) Kingdom of Burgundy, and declare independence. Thus they get to make a lot of jokes at the expense of the technocratic government from a 'little people' perspective - it's the small-c conservatism of a people suspicious of the technocratic and bureaucratic state after the privations of war and rationing.

A few years later came a similar film, The Mouse That Roared starring Peter Sellers ('an hilarious new personality') in multiple roles.

Based on a series of comic political novels, the tiny Duchy of Grand Fenwick decides that it wants Marshall Aid and a voice in the corridors of power…so it invades New York with a band of archers intending to lose badly and therefore qualify for aid, but instead the 'army' acquires a devastating weapon from the Yanks (who haven't realised they're at war) and ends up dictating a new world order of peace and diplomacy to the major powers. Wish-fulfilment of the most delightful kind until you notice the film's sharp points about realpolitik and Cold War attitudes.

And on that note: time to go. I'm back here again for an Open Day tomorrow, the second weekend in a row I've been at work. Could be worse: it's better than watching Wayne Rooney's angry loser face on TV. Ho hum. Have a good weekend.

1 comment:

Phil said...

They're not all about voyeurism - "With my little stick of Blackpool rock" is about exhibitionism.

A friend of mine does a cracking version of "Just like a woman" in the style of George Formby - a magnificent pisstake of Dylan at his phoniest.