Monday, 17 March 2014

"This Happy Breed", David Lean and Noël Coward's 1944 conservative homage to "the little platoons"

Blimey, Eth - 'e's bangin' on about us again!
I first wrote about this splendid film almost four years ago on this blog, but The Salisbury Review were kind enough to ask me to revamp that article for their Spring 2014 edition. So, on the "waste not want not" principle, here's the new version (with some better photos): 

This Happy Breed,
the most successful British box office film of 1944, began life as a Noël Coward stage play. The play’s London premier was cancelled its 1939 due to the outbreak of war, and it was first staged in Blackpool in 1942. The director David Lean, in his first solo outing as a director, produced the film version two years’ later.

As the film opens, the First World War has just ended. Londoners Frank and Ethel Gibbons and their three children are moving into a terraced house in suburban Clapham. Frank, who served in the army, has found work in a travel agency: the family is joining the lower-middle classes. The film ends on the eve of the Second World War as the couple – now empty-nesters - prepare to retire to a flat. Most of the great events and social and political trends of the period are covered, including the Empire Exhibition, the General Strike, the Depression, the Abdication, Munich, mass broadcasting, mass tourism, and the rise of the motor car (one of their children dies in a car crash – Lean’s skill as a director ensures that the scene in which the family receive the news is one of the most mutedly heart-rending in all cinema).

As a depiction of lower-middle class English life between the wars, it is fascinating: as pure entertainment, it is enormously satisfying. From the fact that its Shakespearean title isn’t intended ironically, it’s no wonder that the film tends to make liberals sneer with contempt and conservatives purr with pleasure.

Coo, Frank - looks a bit rude!
A glance at the names involved in the film would suggest it really shouldn’t have worked at all. David Lean went on to become the master of epic tales shot in exotic locations. Noël Coward was, of course, the chief purveyor of brittle, upper-middle class repartee of the “terribly flat, Norfolk” variety. Celia Johnson’s accent was normally so cut-glass, anyone she spoke to probably needed stitches. Robert Newton was the sort of roaringly fruity, scenery-chewing actor one can imagine demolishing a small suburban terraced house like the one occupied by the Gibbons family simply by walking through it. Indeed, a glance at most appraisals of the film by present-day liberals suggests a tendency to review the credits rather than the film itself. For instance, the Film 4 website accuses it of conjuring up a ”toff propagandist’s England”, refers to its “peculiar patrician tones”, and dismisses its view of British history as “unreal”.

Terribly flat, Clapham
The truth is that – remarkably for its time - This Happy Breed is entirely bereft of  toffs: every character in it is dead common. The tone isn’t in the least patrician, and the only peculiar thing about it (from a leftist perspective) is that it doesn’t treat the Gibbons family as either victims or exploitative class-traitors. One suspects the script is convincing largely due to Coward’s genius for dialogue, and to his humble origins: his father was an unambitious piano salesman in Teddington. Coward made no bones about his upbringing: “I was a suburban boy, born and bred in the suburbs of London, which I've always loved and always will.” His fondness for, and understanding of, these people is evident in every line. Coward isn’t mocking the lower orders – he’s paying affectionate, accurate homage to the milieu in which he was raised.

What leftist critics find unsettling about This Happy Breed are the political assumptions underlying it – Coward was deeply conservative, as becomes obvious in the scene where Frank Gibbons clashes with his son, Reg, during the General Strike (Reg has been involved in some street violence, while Dad has been out helping to keep basic services running). After they’ve agreed to differ, Gibbons père has this to say:
“I belong to a generation of men most of whom aren’t here any more. We all did the same thing for the same reason, no matter what we thought about politics. Well, that’s all over and done with, and we’re carrying on as best we can, as though nothing happened. But in fact several things happened, and one of them was this country suddenly got tired. She’s tired now. But the old girl’s got stamina, don’t you make any mistake about that, and it’s up to us ordinary people to keep things steady. Now, that’s your job. And just you remember it!”
Blimey - I've gone all continental!
Coward’s high regard for the English character is evident in Frank Gibbons’s disappointment at the public’s reaction to the Munich Agreement (I think it’s safe to assume that Frank – or “Frenk” as it’s pronounced throughout - is a mouthpiece for the playwright’s own views). When his sister (Aunt Sylvia) accuses Frank of being a warmonger because he isn’t celebrating “peace in our time”, he tells her that the sight of people – “English people, mark you” – shouting and cheering with relief earlier that day made him “sick to my stomach”. He – and Coward – expected better of his countrymen.

The playwright demonstrates his contempt for the formulaic rhetoric of leftist compassion in the scene where the Gibbons children celebrate Christmas with Reg’s pompous young Marxist chum, Sam Leadbetter. In proposing a toast, Sam, having accused them of being members of the bourgeoisie (with whom, he explains, “it is really against my principles to hobnob to any great extent”), continues: “As you well know there are millions and millions of homes today where Christmas is naught but a mockery, where there is neither warmth, nor food, nor even the bare necessities of life, where little children, old before their time, huddle round a fireless grate…”, to which the feisty Queenie responds, “Well, they’d be just as well off if they stayed in the middle of the room then, wouldn’t they?”

That Michael Foot don't have talk some rubbish
Coward’s conservative (and evidently deeply approving) view of English attitudes is most clearly expressed in a conversation later the same evening between Frank and Ethel, who’ve escaped to the back room to avoid Aunt Sylvia’s terrible singing. Ethel is fretting about Sam’s revolutionary posturing: “But it’s wrong, isn’t it, all this ‘down with everything’ business?”. In response, Frank delivers one of the film’s key messages: “Where they go wrong is trying to get things done too quickly, and we don’t like doing things quickly in this country. It’s like gardening. Somebody once said we was a nation of gardeners. And they weren’t far wrong. We like planting things and watching them grow, looking out for changes in the weather… What works in other countries won’t work in this one. We got our own way of settling things. It may be a bit slow, and it may be a bit dull, but it suits us all right. And always will.”

Don't talk so daft - course Labour ain't gonna get in!
This Happy Breed might have been intended as propaganda, but it paints a suprisingly unidyllic portrait of family life. Aunt Sylvia and Ethel’s mother bicker and row throughout. Ethel is constantly exhausted, tetchy and somewhat joyless. As for the children, the teenage radical, Reg, is a bit of a handful, and the flighty middle child, Queenie, who despises her family’s dull, respectable existence, proves to be more than a handful: she runs off to France with a married man. After being deserted by him, she eventually comes crawling back home, having been rescued by her faithful admirer, sailor John Mills, who has saved her from ruin by marrying her. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, given that there was a war on, the importance of doing one’s duty is arguably the film’s main theme.

It would be to easy to dismiss This Happy Breed as a mildly entertaining slice of sentimental jingoism produced by a lightweight social-climbing reactionary who ultimately revealed a lack of patriotism by spending decades as a tax exile. I prefer to see it as a masterly portrait of the English before they were subjected to decades of social engineering by leftists who treat the concepts of national character and a homogenous culture as synonyms for racism.

Sad to think that a film with the title This Happy Breed produced today (probably with lottery funding) would inevitably turn out to be a vicious satire on all the values so wholeheartedly celebrated by Noël Coward and David Lean seventy years’ ago.

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