Walter Greenwood and Film

Walter Greenwood’s early novels make quite a few references to the movies. Many of these suggest that the cinema is a place for escapism and the commercial exploitation of hopeless dreams. In Love on the Dole (1933) movies are particularly linked to popular romance and dreams of other lives. Helen Hawkins, who comes from a more desperate household than that of the Hardcastle family, realises with profound misery that even the ‘opiates’ of ‘cheap novelettes or the spectacle of films’ cannot block out her squalid home life (Vintage edition, 2008, p.65). Sally also comes to see the ‘pictures’ as unreal once she has fallen in love with Larry and he has lost his job: ‘she wanted something real and permanent, not the mere whiling away of time watching flickering shadows on a screen’ (p.142). However, the novel also understands very well how important the cinema has become as an affordable and sociable leisure activity for both women and men in Salford in the years before the slump hits hard. It summarises the lives of younger women in Hanky Park: ‘five and a half day’s weekly in a spinning mill or weaving shed, a threepenny seat in the picture theatre twice a week … until they married, when picture theatres became luxuries’ (p.42). In its first part the novel shows Harry Hardcastle as an optimistic young apprentice, with few responsibilities and some cash to spare (he is paid ‘ten bob a week!’, p. 53):

They’d have a great time, with the boys at the pictures tonight. He’d buy her [Helen] a tanner’s worth of chocolate. There’d be the picture queue – always fun there — the fourpenny seats; perhaps a penn’orth of chipped potatoes each, wrapped in a piece of newspaper; wouldn’t be Saturday night lacking these’ (p.68).

Seven years soon go by, however, and Harry completes his apprenticeship – and is immediately laid off by Marlowe’s engineering works: ‘They now were fully qualified engineers. They were also qualified to draw the dole’ (p.154). Very quickly, he, like the young married women, has to give up all luxuries: ‘He read the movie play-bills again, groaned inwardly that he lacked the necessary threepence – no sixpence, threepence each for Helen and he.’ (p.171). The films still model some of his dreams, but he fully knows that they are mere dreams shaped by wish-fulfilment plot-conventions:

‘What a travesty of romantic love their present courtship. If his present circumstances were to be a subject of a movie play, this would be the opportunity for him to rescue, from some sort of danger, the only child of a wealthy man who rewarded his heroism with money and a good job. Oh, what was he thinking about? (p.176)

 

Nevertheless, Greenwood himself from very early on in his career showed a keen interest in writing film scenarios or adapting his work for cinema. That this continued to be an interest throughout his writing career has been insufficiently noted. It would be fair to say that just as he had a dream of being a published writer, he also had a dream of escaping poverty by making it as a movie-writer – and in fact he achieved both unlikely dreams, as if he were in a movie. Greenwood’s happiness to contribute to popular entertainment can be seen in what is usually identified as his first filmed scenario – that for the successful 1936 Ealing Studios George Formby film about a hapless and poor TT racer who finally makes good, No Limit. The film was directed by Monty Banks and produced by Basil Dean’s Associated Talking Pictures company, known later (after 1938) as Ealing Studios No Limit

However, as the sport historian Tony Collins has discovered, Greenwood also had a hand in the writing of a film partly about rugby league and partly about horse racing, released the year before in 1935. Where’s George? (later retitled The Hope of His Side) was directed by Jack Raymond and starred Sydney Howard ( IMDB entry). The film’s protagonist is Alf Scodgers, and also includes Mrs Scodgers, both of whom appear briefly in the novel of Love on the Dole and also as the stars of a short story that became part of The Cleft Stick, ‘Mrs Scodger’s Husband’. Tony Collins’ online article, ‘Where’s George? League’s Forgotten Feature Film’, shows a film poster that clearly attributes the story to Walter Greenwood (Where’s George rugby league film). Collins comments that ‘Where’s George? has none of the social commentary of Greenwood’s other work. In fact it is difficult to find anything of Greenwood in the script’. Like No Limit, however, the film does feature a working-class man making it good, if mainly by luck this time, and features the Scodgers, who seem to have been comic Hanky Park characters created by Greenwood for whom he felt considerable affection, since he re-uses them several times.

 

It should be no surprise then that Greenwood was keen from almost the beginning to maximise the audience for Love on the Dole by translating it into new forms. With the play version, Ronald Gow’s perception that the novel could be dramatised pre-empted the author  and they co-wrote it. Once the play was a clear success, Greenwood (and Gow) actively pursued a film version. Thus during 1935–36 they negotiated with the British division of the French film company Gaumont about a film version. However, a number of features were famously objected to by the British Board of Film Censors (after they read the whole play-text which the film company and authors submitted to the BBFC) to the point where Gaumont felt they could not go ahead with the project. Clearly, these judgements by the film censors of a work that was widely read as a novel and widely seen as a play in Britain tell us something about mid-1930s assumptions about those media and their reception as compared with their expectations about films and their audiences.

 

Greenwood was and remained cross about what he probably regarded as a suppression of the truth about working-class lives and living conditions as well as an obstacle to his own career. In a letter to The Manchester Guardian of 26 February 1940 (brought to my attention by Carole Levine’s article below), Greenwood complained that the censorship and prohibition of the film version of Love on the Dole undermined the claim that the war against Germany was being fought to safeguard free speech and democracy. Greenwood even compared the British Board of Film Censors to the Nazi propaganda ministry of Dr Goebbels (see Carole Levine, ‘Propaganda for Democracy: the Curious Case of Love on the Dole’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 45. October 2006, especially pp. 846-8 Article). This censorship decision did for the moment bring a pause to his film-writing career, until the film adaptation of Love on the Dole was very surprisingly resurrected in 1940, resulting in the classic 1941 film version of the novel and play (it drew on both).  See separate article about the film version of Love on the Dole The Film of Love on the Dole (1941).

 

However, Greenwood had also created another avenue into the film business two year’s earlier. In 1938 he had become not just an author but an agent for a variety of kinds of creative artist, for in that year he co-founded with his accountant, James Park, his own stage and film agency and production company, called Greenpark, after its two originators. Its ‘memorandum and articles of association’ stated that the company was founded to ‘Carry on the Business of Producers and Promoters of Electric Cinematograph Pictures, Picture Theatres, Music halls, Stage Plays, Operas, Operettas, Burlesque, Vaudevilles, Ballets, Pantomimes, Revues, Concerts, Spectacular Piece and Bioscopic Pictures’. The company still exists as a film archive provider (Greenpark) and during the nineteen-forties and nineteen-fifties and after it produced a large range of mainly short or medium-length information films for government or industry commissions.

 

These films included Summer on the Farm and London 1942 in 1943, Make Fruitful the Land in 1945, Proud City – a Plan for London in 1946, and Five Towns in 1947, which are a reasonably representative sample. Summer on the Farm was one of a set of ‘four seasons’ short films by Greenpark about farming and was scripted and directed by the documentary film-maker Ralph Keene, who worked on a large number of Greenpark films . Greenwood may well have known Keene already, since newspapers in 1939 announced that the film-maker had been asked by Michael Balcon to produce His Worship the Mayor for Ealing Studios, but sadly the film was never made (Daily Mail 21 February 1939, p. 8). London 1942 was directed by Ken Annakin, with Ralph Keene as producer: it reflects visually and verbally on the state of London after three years of war and constructs the city as a centre for the people’s war and a model for communal values: ‘Every man, woman and child has a job to do’, ‘everyone gets a fair share’, ‘Here is the ordinary citizen, one of the worldwide brotherhood of men and women … who will fight till the lights go up again on a world freed from want and fear’ (the film can be seen at the British Council Film website: British Council). Make Fruitful the Land was an informative and actually very entertaining film about the history and practice of crop rotation, made in Technicolor and making imaginative and innovative use of illustrations, paintings, and animated diagrams as well as dramatic reconstruction and live footage (The film can be viewed at the British Council Film website: British Council). Five Towns was directed by Terry Bishop (with a script by the communist poet Randall Swingler) and shows the London fiancée of a man from the potteries being introduced both to his family and the region. Themes include post-war reconstruction and the living craft of pottery-making (‘using excellent actuality footage of pottery production’), a focus which, together with the Arnold Bennett milieu of the film, Greenwood would surely have found sympathetic.

 

Ralph Keene directed and scripted another Greenpark production in 1946, Proud City – a Plan for London, the topic of which inevitably gives it an even stronger focus on post-war reconstruction: the rebuilding of the capital. Though Greenwood’s interest in film has been noticed, his commitment to film production may have been underestimated during and after the war. Most of the Greenpark films had sponsors who were interested in either agricultural production or in post-war reconstruction, but at the very least he is likely to have found these sympathetic topics to be involved with.

 

Some obituaries and also Greenwood’s Dictionary of National Biography entry record without any further detail that he wrote a script in 1944 or 1945 for a film called Six Men of Dorset. This was in fact not made, but we can reconstruct its subject matter quite precisely and also why Greenwood might have found it an attractive project. The Evening News reported on 3 October 1945 that the actor and director Bernard Miles had told their film critic that he had recently been working ‘with Roy Boulting and Walter Greenwood on a script for The Six Men of Dorset’. This was to be part of an ambitious programme of post-war British film production by the Two Cities company. The Evening News saw no need to say anything further about ‘The Six Men of Dorset’ because it could presume that many readers would have heard of the play on which it was based – Miles Malleson and H. Brooks’ play Six Men of Dorset, published in 1934 to celebrate the centenary of the Tolpuddle Martyrs being sentenced to transportation for forming an agricultural union in 1834 and their subsequent pardon after mass demonstrations.

 

Greenwood was also the co-writer (with Ara Calder Marshall and Paul Rotha) of a 1947 documentary about post-war Manchester directed by Rotha and called A City Speaks (‘a film about local Government’) – a fact noted by historians but not by Greenwood’s literary critics (see Charlotte Wildman’s ‘A City Speaks: The Projection of Civic Identity in Manchester’, Twentieth Century British History, 23, 1, 2012, pp. 80–89.). Like Paul Rotha’s 1946 documentary Land of Promise, the film centres on the topic of post-war improvements, though in this case with a focus on Manchester rather than the nation as a whole. Charlotte Wildman suggests that there is a ‘relative lack of a narrative of “reconstruction”’ in the film, but it seems to me its strong interest in the replacement of nineteenth-century slums with modern planned housing, and in the provision by local government of employment, social services, and healthcare (indeed, post-war Manchester is represented as a welfare state in its own right) is very much a focus on post-war reconstruction. These topics Greenwood would surely have found, like his collaborators, sympathetic, but his association with the film (he is one of the narrators too) perhaps also helped to underline the distance travelled since Love on the Dole and the fulfilment of the 1941 film’s promise – though the documentary is clear that there is still work to do: ‘let the lessons of yesterday not be forgotten in the plans of tomorrow’.

 

Two post-war theatrical friendships were important to Greenwood – with the actor Robert Donat and the actress Thora Hird. These friendships translated into his film career too when Donat, after directing and acting in Greenwood’s play The Cure for Love in its 1945 premiere, put much energy into getting the 1949 film version made (IMDB). In the film Thora Hird played the character Mrs Dorbell – a perennial Greenwood character, who had first appeared in Love on the Dole. Greenwood also wrote two post-war feature-film scripts. The highly watchable The Eureka Stockade, 1949 had what might seem an uncharacteristic setting for Greenwood in 1850s Australia (Wikipedia entry). It focused on a key event in the development of Australia as a democracy, when gold miners suffering taxation without representation rebelled against the governor of Ballarat, Victoria. They took an armed stand in a hastily built stockade and were quickly defeated in a bloody battle with the police and a British military detachment. Afterwards, much public opinion across Australia turned against the governor and democratic rights were granted to the miners and all other white adult males to elect representatives to the Victoria parliament. Though this has not been previously noticed, the story gave Greenwood a curious chance to revisit an aspect of Love on the Dole: the historical miner’s leader, Peter Lalor, is depicted as a moderate who tries to negotiate with the governor and who repeatedly tries to dissuade the miners from more radical politics and from armed revolt. He becomes their leader only when the governor refuses to negotiate, and is in the end elected as their MP: the scenes in the film strongly suggest that Peter Lalor and the Eureka Stockade are seen as reprising Larry and the Battle of Bexley Square, except that in this case the authorities push him into more radical activism and he survives to become a democratic political leader.

 

More obviously characteristic, in that it returned to the themes of co-operation between labour and capital discussed in Greenwood’s only wartime novel Something in My Heart (1944), was the 1950 film Chance of a Lifetime (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chance_of_a_Lifetime_(1950_film)). This was directed by Bernard Miles and caused considerable controversy because of its story-line about the absolute need for co-operation between workers and management. While the film’s urge for consensus now seems moderate – in line with Greenwood’s lifelong Labour Party membership – rather than revolutionary, film distributors were unable to see this, as Fintan MacDonagh explains: Reacting against its perceived socialist agenda, the major film circuits refused to show it, and it was even castigated as ‘propaganda for communism and workers’ control’ by the Ministry of Labour. The President of the Board of Trade, Harold Wilson … personally intervened to impose its release on the Odeon circuit. Regrettably it was not a financial success, though Miles later spoke of his pride in making a film to ‘speak for England’. The Film Bulletin Review took the opposite view, praising the authentic portrayal of the working-class engineering workers as unusual in English cinema, but suggesting that the consensus it portrayed would ‘displease the more extremely left’. For Greenwood it was perhaps something of a return to the imagined life of Marlowe’s engineering works which featured in Love on the Dole, but with hopes at least for more co-operation between managers and workers. It has not been at all adequately noticed that film was a medium into which Greenwood put a great deal of his energy and creativity across the whole of his career.