A 1960s Juvenile Reader: Classic British Comic Strips and ‘Just William’

Literary & Linguistics, Media & Communications, Popular Culture

As a counterweight to the surfeit of 1960s American television that comprised a large slice of my diet of home entertainment, my juvenile literary tastes back then were decidedly more Anglophile. Plunging into the graphic art world of the 1960s comic book I digested everything I came across catering for adrenalin-pumping, red-blooded British boys.

Desperate Dan, ‘The Dandy’
Among these beacons of popular culture were The Beano (which starred Dennis the Menace and Gnasher), The Dandy❈ (featuring Korky the Cat and Desperate Dan), Knockout (Billy Bunter), The Hotspur, The Rover (these two papers were prime examples of the “Boys’ Own Adventure” style of stories) and Eagle with its centrepiece inter-galactic hero ‘Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future’, not to forget Tiger which catered for British schoolboy football mania with the stellar-booted striker ‘Roy of the Rovers’. The individual comics were grouse fun but what I most enjoyed was the comic book annuals of The Beano, etc., where I could indulge myself in reading a whole end-of-year book comprising a cross-section of the comic’s different strips⚀.

At primary school in the sixties the punitive powers-that-be weren’t all that rapt in comic books as reading material…my confiscated copy of ‘Dennis the Menace Bumper Comic’ (before I had a chance to read hardly any of it!) bore witness to that. From what was on offer in the school library, the one children’s book I did take a shine to was Just William, I should say series of books because there 38 (some sources say 39) ‘William’ books in all! All of the books were collections of short stories, with the exception of one in novel form.

Richmal Crompton
Just William was the creation of female English author Richmal Crompton (Lamburn). As a child feverishly devouring all the William books I shared with the overwhelming bulk of readers the uncritical assumption that Richmal was a man. How wrong were we all!!! Miss Lamburn was a school mistress (ironically – in an all-girls school!) who contracted polio and spent the rest of her life writing the William series of books as well as 41 adult novels❦.

The character of William (surname: Brown) was apparently based on Richmal’s young nephew Tommy…in the books William is scruffy and untidy in appearance, and given to directness, rebellion and straight talking – which sometimes lands him in strife. He is the leader of his own small gang of school friends who go by the name of “The Outlaws” (comprising his best friend Ginger as well as two other boys, Henry and Douglas). William is 11, an age he stays at, despite the series of books stretching over a period of nearly 50 years! [‘Just William’, Wikipedia entry]

‘William the Dictator’
Most of the books follow the ordinary run of events of William and the Outlaws entangling themselves in minor mischiefs, usually involving nothing worse than the ill-conceived idea of painting a terrier blue! But occasionally William strayed into more edgy and outright polemical territory. In the short story ‘William and the Nasties’¤ William’s band emulate Hitler and his fellow National Socialists in order to terrorise a local Jewish sweet-shop owner (featuring in the 1935 collection William the Detective [‘Five Fascinating Facts about Just William’, www.interestingliterature.com].

Just William’s topicality
A good number of the Just William books regularly reflected current events of their day. William the Conqueror (published in 1926) was resonant of European colonial power imperialism leading up to WWI. William The Dictator (1938) reflected the world’s concern with fascism and National Socialism. Similarly, William and the Evacuees (appearing in 1940) was set against the backdrop of WWII. In the post-war period, the superpowers’ preoccupation with the space race inspired new books like William and the Moon Rocket (1954) and William and the Space Animal (1956) [‘Just William’, Wikipedia entry].

Just William book spin-offs
With such popularity that the Just William books attained (12 million sales in the UK alone), they inevitably flowed through to adaptation to other forms – cinema (three films in the 1940s), two television series (one in the mid-1950s and the other in the early 1960s), radio and even theatre. As well, the schoolboy hero spawned a host of Just William merchandise…from jigsaws and board games to cigarette cards, magic painting books and figurines of William [‘Richmal Crompton’s Just William Society’, www.justwilliam.co.uk]

Celebrity fandom: Lennon as William
Some time after the Beatles visited Australasia in 1964 at the height of “Mop-top mania”, I remember hearing that John Lennon had been a fan of the fictional William in his boyhood. Lennon’s devotion to the books prompted him to form his own, real-life version of the Outlaws, moulding his friends Ivy, Nigel and Pete into a Liverpudlian boy foursome. With John of course as leader, the boys engaged in “small acts of defiance and daring” on their local turf [J Edmondson, John Lennon: A Biography (2010)]. The revelation that I had been propelled into the stratospheric company of such a youth icon as Beatle John, only served to magnify my primary school days zeal for all things William Brown!

PostScript: Continental comic book legends
My childhood taste in comics were not exclusively confined to the gold standard of British comics. Like millions of other children I was also captivated by those ancient Gallic tormentors of Roman legionnaires, Asterix and Obelix (Astérix le Gaulois by Goscinny and Uderzo). In equal measure I was in the thrall of Tintin, Hergé’s creation of a globe-roaming Belgian boy-reporter. Each comic album of The Adventures of Tintin was a lesson in political geography embroiling Tintin in high-stakes adventures in a new and exotic land. But as rewarding as the respective adventures of Asterix and Tintin were, in my book nothing quite scaled the same exalted heights of anticipation as did the prospect of dipping into the treasure trove of Just William’s world.

╼╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼╼╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼╾
❈ The originals The Beano and The Dandy were of course far superior to the highly derivative and latter imitations like The Topper and Beezerand Cor!!
⚀ not to be overshadowed, schoolgirls had their own comics and annuals such as Bunty and School Friend Annual
❦ the most accomplished of which was Leadon Hill. The tone of the adult novels was more pessimistic than the Just William series, dealing with themes of divorce and infidelity [Danuta Keen, ‘Not Just William: Richmal Crompton’s adult fiction republished’, The Guardian, 21-Apr-2017]
¤ the name ‘Nasties’ is the result of William’s mishearing of the word ‘Nazis’

“Breaking through” against Terrorism?: The Government’s Counter-Narrative and a Matter of Transparency

International Relations, Media & Communications, National politics, Society & Culture

Last week I received, among the usual array of unsolicited online communications, something from a researcher from the London-based social communications company, Breakthrough Media. The pro forma email said that BM (my abbreviation, not theirs) was casting a new online TV series and were on the lookout for people aged over 50 (that’s me!) to be in the show…apparently they were particularly interested in folk in that demographic “who love to chat, have a laugh and would like to know how to Email, Skype, Facebook, Online Shop, Online Bank, or use the Internet” (capitalisation all hers!).

The message went on to say that they were “also looking for tech savvy friends, family members, or colleagues, who could team up with the Over 50 candidates to be their teaching buddy, during filming” (in August). What they specifically wanted from me was leads on “great potential candidates” for the program. Now, taken on face value, this all sounded innocent, admirable even, very community minded.

Elizabeth House: BM’s ‘anonymous’ London location
I had never heard of “Breakthrough Media”…just another of the new media start-ups in the ever mushrooming world of social networking I supposed, and usually I ignore such online pitches. But somewhat intrigued I decided to try to find out a bit about them. Their website would be a good place to start, I thought❈. It was however unsurprisingly jargon-laden and disappointingly short on substance…the website’s description of what BM was about, went “we design and build award-winning campaigns that tackle some of the world’s toughest social issues, helping our clients counter misinformation, prevent violent extremism, promote democracy and protect the environment”. Full of jargony generalities such as “our strategic thinking and our creativity are joined-up and informed by real-time audience engagement…(and) inspiring positive social change” (www.breakthroughmedia.org). In its job advertisements the company describes itself thus: “Breakthrough is a communications agency and production company. We specialise in conflict resolution, society building and countering violent extremism”. Again, the message resonates with progressive, international goals and desirable outcomes.

I turned to other, independent, commentators and observers of Breakthrough Media…frankly there wasn’t much on the web about the media company, but one fairly thorough dissection of BM’s role and its background was contained in a 2016 report by The Guardian on Britain’s RICU (the Research Information and Communications Unit) [‘Inside Ricu, the shadowy propaganda unit inspired by the cold war’, The Guardian, 03-May-2016, (Ian Cobain, Alice Ross, Rob Evans & Mona Mahmood)]. RICU was created in 2007 as an arm of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OCST) and funded by the Home Office. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue defines RICU’s function as “coordinating government-wide communication activities to counter the appeal of violent extremism while promoting stronger grass-roots inter-community relations [www.counter-extremism.com]. RICU’s work is a key part of Westminster’s anti-radicalisation program, ‘Prevent’.

The relationship between RICU and Breakthrough Media
Where does BM fit into the picture of RICU and its fight against extreme fundamentalism, terrorism and ISIS? The two have a contractual arrangement: RICU pays BM to produce digital materials, films, Twitter feeds, Facebook profiles, YouTube clips, and the like, which promote the UK government’s anti-terrorism policies. The propaganda, emanating from BM on behalf of the Home Office (BM unsurprisingly prefers the term “strategic communications”) is aimed at Muslim communities, the desired outcome being “a reconciled British Muslim identity”. As The Guardian report revealed, BM’s stratagem is to “influence online conversations by being embedded within target communities via a network of moderate organisations that are supportive of its [sic] goals”.

An uncomfortable and problematic relationship?
BM is well remunerated by OCST for its counter-terrorism work (earning a reported £11.8M during 2012-2016), but its role as a conduit for RICU has some disquieting aspects. BM’s contacts with Islamic communities, either directly or through its PR team Horizon Public Relations, is not transparent. BM represents its work to the public without disclosure of its connection to the British government. At least one former government minister has conceded (to The Guardian) that deception in the dissemination of the messages could damage trust between the government and Muslim citizens. Other outspoken critics of this practice include human rights lawyer Imran Khan and the vice-chair of the Institute of Race Relations Frances Webber who saw it as giving an appearance that Muslim groups had been co-opted to a government agenda [‘Revealed: UK’s covert propaganda bid to stop Muslims joining Isis’, The Guardian, 03-May-2016, (Ian Cobain et al)].

Advocacy groups and critics of the Home Office policy have complained that RICU/OCST uses the Muslim Civil Society Organisations (MCSO) as mouthpieces for their government counter-narratives, irrespective of whether the MSCO are aware of it or not [‘The Home Office is Creating Mistrust within Muslim Civil Society’, (CAGE, 16-May-2016), www.cage.ngo

The Guardian also showed how RICU (as the paymasters) have an editing role in the finished work of Breakthrough…RICU’s head Richard Chalk is an occasional visitor to BM’s Lambeth office – Chalk can be found at times sitting in the edit suites and monitoring the BM productions. One source of the newspaper indicated whilst Breakthrough projects are not strictly scripted by RICU, they’ll “make it clear that they want a particular form of words to be used at a particular point in a film”⚀.

RICU and BM are also linked in a veil of secrecy in regard to the media, as The Guardian discovered. Neither parties allow their staff to talk to the newspapers about their roles in counter-terrorism. BM cited reasons of ‘confidentiality’ and ‘NFP’ to the The Guardian for its reticence. The paper’s investigative team did unearth the fact that even some of the freelancers employed by Breakthrough to do RICU’s clandestine bidding were unaware of BM’s (covert) connection with the British government.

Given the scale of the threat posed, the majority of Britons would have few qualms about the Home Office using its agencies to engage in “industrial scale propaganda” in a bid to counter ISIS’s propaganda machine and its success in poisoning the minds of some young Muslim Britons [B Hayes & A Qureshi, ‘Going global: the UK’s government’s “CVE” agenda, counter-radicalisation and covert propaganda’, (Open Democracy UK, 04-May-2016), www.opendemocracy.net]. BM have undeniably produced some good work in getting the message across, but where it becomes ethically questionable is when contractors like Breakthrough Media and co-opted NGOs present their counter propaganda whilst in the guise of being “independent, community-based campaigns”, when the reality is that the information they are disseminating to schools, university ‘freshers’ and the like is backed (and guided in most cases) by the government.
______________________________________________________________
❈ a number of the links on the website menu were broken at the time I accessed it…that internet know-how training they were talking about might have come in handy in the BM IT department!
OCST itself was the successor to IRD (Information Research Department), a top-secret body set up by Britain’s Foreign Office in 1948, during the early dawn of the Cold War, and wound up the same year Elvis died (1977).The Independent has drawn attention to IRD’s questionable record during its existence of disseminating anti-Communist propaganda routinely exaggerating stories of Soviet atrocities and anti-British plots, S Lucas, ‘REAR WINDOW : COLD WAR :The British Ministry of Propaganda’, The Independent, 26-Feb-1995, www.theindependent.co.uk
The Guardian also disclosed that BM’s founding directors have pre-existing links to the governing Conservative Party

The Emergence of Modern Mass Culture in the 1920s: (II) ‘Silents’ to ‘Talkies’, a Transition in Lento Time

Cinema, Media & Communications, Popular Culture

The 1920s was a decade for innovations in communications, as we saw in the earlier related blog “Modern Mass Culture in the 1920s I” which dealt with public radio, the emergence and popularisation of the medium in the US and world-wide. The 1920s also ushered in another form of mass media which would become the most momentous innovation in communications and public entertainment of the century – ‘talking’ motion pictures.

For the last 80 years sound has been integral to world cinema, giving the hitherto silent film an added dimension, building depth into the structure of the storyline. As for its filmic predecessor the silent movie, where are we most likely to see it these days?❈ Commercial screenings of silent era films are rare birds indeed … if we seek them out, we might find them if we’re lucky in an old, suburban Art Deco picture theatre, the initiative of a handful of specialised film societies dedicated to preserving the memory of the lost art form. Or we might catch grainy, monotone snatches of an old silent pix as archaic footage on TV docos. When we do manage to view a silent movie we are often struck by how unrealistic, how stylised they appear today, how over-the-top and melodramatic the acting seems. In the decade-and-a-half up to the late 20s the truth however is that silent films and the star actors of the day had an appeal to their doting audiences that was real and totally captivating.

The Jazz Singer
The advent of talking motion pictures did not come about because of a growing dissatisfaction with silent pictures on the part of film-goers. On the contrary patrons of cinemas were completely happy with the ‘product’, the experience, as it was already. Actually, ‘silent’ movies were not really silent, they had accompanying mood or background music provided by an orchestra or a piano to set the tone of particular scenes. As well, title cards (sometimes called “inter-titles”) were interspersed between shots to advance the story, or to clarify what was happening for the audience. Screen-transfixed audiences would engross themselves in the story action, the emphasis on body language and facial expression by actors to convey strong emotion (emoting ‘feelings’) and meaning. Prior to The Jazz Singer (1927), audiences hadn’t wanted to hear actors talk (or at least they hadn’t expressed such a wish)[1].

The coming of sound
Specific technological challenges needed to be overcome to realise the successful application of sound to film. Amplification had been addressed with developments in the phonograph and the viability of radio transmission facilitating public radio. The hub of the problem was synchronising the action, the visual image, with the sound recordings of spoken dialogue, music and sound effects.

Duelling sound systems
Enter Vitaphone … Vitaphone was an analogue sound-on-disc system developed by Western Electric (a subsidiary of IT & T) in competition with an alternate system devised by RCA/General Electric, which used a sound-on-film method. A number of companies experimented with sound-on-film methods (Fox Movietone, the German company Tri-Ergon, DeForest Phonofilm, RCA Photophone), this ultimately led to the development of a superior and more versatile analogue system to that of the more haphazard dual-processing Vitaphone[2].

Warner Brothers however were committed to the Vitaphone system and utilised it first on the 1926 film Don Juan which had synchronised music and sound effects, but wasn’t a ‘talkie’ (as it contained no spoken dialogue). The followed year they took it a step further with The Jazz Singer , the first (partly) talking movie, which audiences took an instant liking to, especially the presentation of Al Jonson’s songs¤.

Sound movies in, silent films out: an “overnight sensation” which took several years to happen
The Jazz Singer was a calculated gamble by Warner Bros which was in a financially precarious position at the time, but it turned out to be a ‘game-changer’ for the then minnow studio Warners and for cinema’s future as a whole … its positive reception signalled that audiences wanted sound. But this transformation from one type of feature film to another was no sudden event, the process away from profitable silents was a gradual process. First to emulate Warners was 20th Century Fox with its Movietone system, soon the other major studios followed the trail-blazers into sound. The big Hollywood companies tended to play it both ways at first, none of them stopped making silent films straight away. After all, how profitable talkies would become was still to be seen. In the two years following The Jazz Singer ‘s release, the major companies made a mixture of productions – some all-silent, some all-sound and some part-sound movies[3].

The major film companies’ decision to convert to sound, according to Donald Crafton, had mainly to do with power politics in the industry. Paramount and MGM held an oligarchic hold over the industry in the mid 20s, controlling not only the production of its films but the distribution and exhibition of them as well (vertical integration which was what Warners aspired to as well). Warners’ and Fox’s unilateral venture into the talkies was seen as a threat to the big boys’ hegemony and necessitated the majors’ eventual venture into talkies. The other minor studios including RCA and UA which didn’t immediately opt for sound pictures still survived as silent film-makers[4].

🌀🎬🎥📢🎬🎥🌀

FN: The “Big Five” and the “Little Three”
By the 1930s the Hollywood hierarchy, after a series of expansions, mergers and takeovers, had settled into an (unofficial) two-tier industry power structure:

⁍ The Big Five: MGM, Paramount, Fox, Warner Bros, RKO
⁍ The Little Three: Columbia, Universal, UA (United Artists)

🌀🎬🎥📢🎬🎥🌀

Sound at a price
Various factors acted as a speed bump in the transition to sound movies. There were new financial costs for the industry to take account of. Cinema theatres had to be wired for sound, the cost of which was almost prohibitive – in 1927 only 400 theatres in the US of the multiple thousands were thus connected … by the end of the decade over 40% of the country’s movie theatres had sound systems installed in them[5]. A background factor occurring concurrently with the studios’ efforts to sort out the wrinkles involved in sound pictures was that public radio in the US was still in the process of trying to establish a foothold of its own.

The international language of silent films
The silent cinema had a linguistic universality to it, exporting an American film to a non English-speaking country merely required translating of the credits and title cards. But with sound films this restricted markets for American and English films, and dubbing into the local language was an added expense[6].

Clara Bow
The ‘sound’ of silent stars
From the perspective of the actors, especially those who had established their niche in the silent era, there were formidable challenges to transitioning to the new, sound medium. Acting in sound movies and the whole dynamic was different, they discovered, sometimes to their cost. Actors now had to memorise their lines beforehand, and on set they had to not stray far from the microphones, basically stand still and recite their lines clearly. The voice became THE issue for many established silent stars … a number of Hollywood actors could not make the transition❉. Some with heavy foreign accents like Emil Jannings, Vilma Banky and Pola Negri had voices that sounded harsh, unmelodious and muffled on-screen. Other top silent stars were similarly hamstrung by their voices – John Gilbert sounded weak and squeaky on screen✾, and Clara Bow and Norma Talmadge had flat Brooklyn accents – which didn’t suit their romantic lead personas[7].

Other silent film heavyweights had an instant aversion to the idea of sound films and avoided them, eg, leading silent actress Mary Pickford simply retired from acting rather than change over to sound; Charlie Chaplin, whose craft relied heavily on mime, never really embraced talkies and proceeded to make films only irregularly into the sound era (his Modern Times in 1936 was a film without spoken dialogue). Myrna Loy, an actress who successfully made the transition to sound, has recollected how much silent movies were loved. Fans felt as though that they possessed an ‘intimacy’ with their favourite Hollywood stars. Like many contemporaries Loy believed that the art of pantomime was perfected in the silent film[8].

The new medium hamstrung by technological limitations
The new sound technology transformed how movies were made, the ambience on the set completely shifted in a manner directors found inhibiting. Directors, accustomed to shouting directions to actors whilst scenes were being filmed, were hushed up by sound technicians who now in effect called the shots, demanding silence on the set so that incidental noises didn’t interfere with the recording of dialogue❦. Not only did directors feel that sound imposed a break on their free rein over the set, but the movie studio heads felt a similar loss of the financial control of their pictures … sound film production required a huge capital outlay of studios which meant that producers and moguls couldn’t keep the same tight budgetary holds on film expenditure as they previously had[9].

Directors weren’t the only movie personnel affected by sound. Projectionists at the back of the theatre had their work doubled, now having also to operate phonographs as well as projectors during screenings … the projectionist needed to be ever alert as the equipment had a tendency to jump around and result in a loss of synchronicity between image and sound. Again technological breakthroughs eventually came to the rescue after a new type of film was invented allowing for the sound to be recorded directly onto the film itself[10].

Paramount Studios
The take-up of sound films spelled bad news for a myriad of theatre musicians … the silent era had been a fruitful source of employment for them, but once movie houses had installed sound systems their services were no longer needed. On the other side of the coin, talking pictures required fully fleshed-out screenplays and the coming of sound was a boon for scriptwriters![11]

The early sound equipment was an impediment to the filming of action scenes. To avoid the camera noise being picked up by the sound recorder, the cameraman had to be ‘quarantined’ off in a stationary box to the side. Bereft of the freedom of movement enjoyed in silent movie-making, talkies became just that, static scenes in which characters stood round talking to each other (derisively referred to by some as “tea cup dramas”). The lost spectacle of the silents’ scenes of fast-action adventure caused disquiet among the audiences of early talkies. Within a few years this problem was overcome with the creation of new, quiet cameras[12].

For a section of the viewing audience who had enjoyed silent movies, the coming of sound to the cinemas created a new, consequential problem. Talking films per se excluded movie-goers who were deaf or had hearing issues. Some theatres tried to compensate for this by providing special headphones, but these were not fully effective and were of no help to those people who were completely deaf[13].

In time all of the problems and obstacles that came with the emergence of talkies were more or less ironed out … by 1930 the film-going public had voted resoundingly in favour of sound movies at the box-office – audiences at US picture theatres by 1929 had hit 90 million per week, up from an average of 50 million per week in 1920[14].

PostScript 1: Silent film stars – the ‘superstar’ sui generis thesis
The prestige and kudos of Hollywood movie stars circa 1920 was at an unparalleled high in American society. The personas of silent movie stars often came to take on a “godlike” status. As Jeanine Bassinger describes it, the film star of the early 1920s had a “level of adulation that simply had not existed before movies were invented”[15]. The leading silent stars like Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton, Chaplin and Pickford, were uniquely celebrated and adored by the public to a level not achieved by later film stars even in the “Golden Age of Hollywood”. The silent stars of the screen were modern society’s first superstars, they did not have to compete for the public’s affections as the later sound film actors did. They were no pop or rock stars in the 1920s to share the limelight with … similarly, stars of spectator sports in America were very much still a phenomenon in the making[16].

And yes there were celebrities and high achievers in the performing arts prior to the advent of motion pictures – standout performers from theatre, vaudeville, opera and burlesque – but these stars were never remotely on anything like the (global) scale of silent film stars, who engendered mass adulation in their fans felt that they had an intimacy with their favourite screen stars.

Hitchcock’s ‘Blackmail’ (1929): Britain’s 1st talkie

PostScript 2: The international drift to a cinema of talkies
This blog has concentrated on the story of the evolution of sound pictures in America – elsewhere things took longer to evolve. Cinemas in Europe were not fully wired for talking pictures till the 1930s, and the USSR and Japan were still making silent films into the mid thirties. Once sound (belatedly) consolidated itself in these overseas film industries, it sparked a surge in the international production of talking pictures in native languages[17].

╼─━┄┅┈┉─━┄┅┈┉─━┄┅┈┉─━┄┅┈┉─━┄┅┈┉─━┄┅┈┉╾
❈ in the sound era only a very select few film-makers have maintained fidelity with the spirit of the silent movie, Jacques Tati is one such throwback whose cinema harks back nostalgically to the silent days of Chaplin and Keaton with its reliance on visual gags interspersed with a modicum of incidental and incoherent dialogue
¤ Warner Brothers’ 1927 sound picture triumph has been attributed to a greatly improved quality of sound in the Vitaphone system, (‘Bob Allen asks… Why the Jazz Singer? … and puts forward a personal theory’, www.web.archive.org)
❉ there were of course a number of established silent movie actors who did successfully make the switch to talkies, including Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Laurel and Hardy
✾ in Gilbert’s case technology did him no favours – his high-pitched voice on film was perhaps made worse by sound adjusters giving his voice too much treble. A suspicion at the time was that the studio deliberately sabotaged the actor because his salary (highest in Hollywood) was costing them too much, (‘Talkie Terror’)
❦ the 1952 film Singing in the Rain accurately captures the shambolic disruption to the profession of film-making brought about by the advent of the talkies … the recent French film The Artist also concerns itself with this subject

[1] E Thompson, ‘A Very Short History of the Transition from Silent to Sound Movies’, (Wonderstruck), (2011), www.wonderstruckthebook.com; ‘Silent Film’, Wikipedia, http://Wikipedia.org. Two years after the first sound film there was still much negativity about talking pictures, even the premier industry magazine, Variety, opined in 1929 that “movie stars should be screened, not heard”, M Donnelly, ‘The Birth of the “talkies” sounded the death knell for many silent stars’, Daily Telegraph (Syd.), 02-Jul-2016, www.dailytelegraph.com.au
[2] D Hanson, ‘The History of Sound in the Cinema’, (1997), www.cinematechnologymagazine.com
[3] C Gallagher ‘Introduction’ in C Gallagher et al, ‘The Silence After Sound: Hollywood’s Last Silent Movies’, 08-Feb-2009, www.notcoming.com. It became standard practice at this time for production companies to make the same movie in both talking and silent versions
[4] a number of theatres in America did close after the changeover to talkies but Crafton attributes this more to other economic factors, such as increased radio listening and automobile driving, D Crafton, The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931
[5] ‘The History of Film’ (The 1920s – Part 4) (Tim Dirks), (AMC Filmsite), www.filmsite.org
[6] ibid.
[7] the studios employed diction and voice coaches to aid those contract performers struggling with their voices and elocution, although some contemporaries opined that they could have done more to help the actors adjust, J Doyle, ‘Talkie Terror, 1928-1930’, (The Popular History), 19-Oct-2010, www.pophistorydig.com; Thompson, op.cit.
[8] cited in G Flatley interview, 1977, ibid.
[9] ‘Talkie Terror’, loc.cit.
[10] Thompson, op.cit.
[11] ibid.; ‘The Advent of Sound: 1927-1930’, www.cinecollage.net
[12] Thompson, ibid.
[13] ibid.
[14] ‘The Formation of Modern American Mass Culture’, (Digital History), www.digitalhistory.uh.edu
[15] Excerpt from ‘Silent Stars’ (by J Basinger), New York Times (1999), www.nytimes.com
[16] although the 1920s did witness the beginnings of newspaper-‘created’ sports stars, eg, Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth, ‘Digital History’, loc.cit.
[17] ‘The Advent of Sound: 1927-1930’, loc.cit.

The Emergence of Modern Mass Culture in the 1920s: (I) Public Radio

Cinema, Media & Communications, Popular Culture

In 1920 the American public was enraptured with the still relatively new medium of film and with the growing phenomenon of movie stars – silent films were all the rage with people from all strata of society. But technological breakthroughs were already opening up new choices for consumers of mainstream entertainment in the US and the wider world.

Early radio days
That same year, 1920, following on the pioneering breakthroughs in Marconi and Tesla and a host of other contributors to the development of radio[1], the first federal licence was granted in the US to radio station KDKA (owned by the Westinghouse Company) in Pittsburgh, Pa. KDKA started with sport, broadcasting prize fights and Major League Baseball.

Early radio activities in the US were intended as a public service, not-for-profit, RCA (Radio Corporation of America) was formed as a government-sanctioned radio monopoly. RCA with David Sarnoff the instrumental figure in the company But with big business (including newspapers) making an investment in the novel form of communication with the singular purpose of making a financial ‘killing’ from it, this was destined eventually to ride roughshod over the altruistic public service function.

AD for Atwater Kent Receiver
The Corporatisation of radio
Big business interests in the US was taking account of the brand new medium. Corporate America wanted in on the action and was looking for ways to make radio pay¤ … advertising was the key. Radio broadcasting had moved from the pre-1920s phase of inventor/entrepreneurs like de Forest (see below) and Aubrey Fessenden⌻ and amateur operators to profit-conscious organisations in the vanguard. The first radio ad appeared in 1923 on station WEAF in New York. In a familiar pattern of oligarchic business expansion, many of the existing stations coalesced into networks, big players like RCA (later morphing into giant NBC – National Broadcasting) and its rival network, CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System), who were able to secure the top advertising revenue returns on their commercial stations. By 1930 nine out of ten US radio stations were selling advertising time[2].

Table 1 (below) illustrates how the number of US radio stations rose exponentially from a very low base in 1921:

Year№ of Stations
1921 5
1923556
1927681
1940765
Source: CH Sterling & JM Kittross, Stay Tuned: A History of American Broadcasting (1978)

⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮

Table 2 (below) illustrates a similar growth in the revenue dollar from US radio:

YearAdvertising Revenue of radio stations
1927$4.8million
1930$40.5million
1940$215.6million
Source: CH Sterling & JM Kittross, Stay Tuned: A History of American Broadcasting (1978)

⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮⚮

Federal Communications Commission (emblem)
Chaotic airwaves rule OK!
In the early days reception wasn’t great with the majority of listeners relying on very basic, home-made crystal sets (the eventual advent of amplifying receivers addressed some of the shortcomings). But the listeners were blighted by recurring problems with the on air broadcasts … the stations’ frequencies were continually being interrupted by other radio transmitters who would suddenly cut in on them in the middle of a program[3]. Stations regularly ran experimental programs which were a mishmash of hits and misses. The airwaves were a haphazard free-for-all until measures were taken to regulate the industry in 1927 with the Radio Act. The Act empowered the Federal Radio Commission to reallocate radio frequencies into a geographical zonal system with licenses, time of operation, station power and wavelength to be equally allocated. This system however worked less than perfectly[4].

A revolution in home entertainment
Within a few short years the stations got their acts together and with improved technology and more receivers available, the American population embraced the mass media of radio. People would hold invite friends over for “radio parties” in their homes. Teenage and adolescent listeners would tune in and dance to jazz programs (the music de jour of the 20s). Radio quickly became a central part of American lives. From fairly limited offerings at first, eg, music, reading the latest news items✥, sporting broadcasts, stations started to offer quality and variety … radio shows had become the go-to form of entertainment – detective serials, westerns, comedies, romances, children’s shows, were all very popularly received. The soap opera✾ (drama serials containing multiple characters with intertwined, often emotionally fraught lives), the one significant invention of radio, became the staple cultural diet of many listeners[5].

By 1929 radio was reaching 10,000,000 American households. One of the most popular programs was Amos ‘n Andy, a form of audio entertainment which unfortunately also served to disseminate racial and cultural stereotypes (in this case reinforcing a derogatory view of African-Americans). When the phonogram invented earlier by Thomas Edison, was commercialised, the proliferation of record players in homes alongside radio sets gave Americans a “new world” of home entertainment[6].

Other countries in the western world rapidly followed America’s lead in the spread of the AM radio phenomena[7], one that would grip and enthrall listeners world-wide until the commercial introduction of public television in the 50s would eventually assume that mantle of shaping or reshaping mass communications.

“Welles-storm”

PostScript: Radio ‘pyrotechnics’ – The ‘invasion’ of America
There has been no better illustration of the sheer, mind-bending power of radio than enfant terrible and soon-to-be Hollywood directorial luminary Orson Welles’s 1938 broadcast on national radio. Welles’s performance of The War of the Worlds (by Sc-Fi pioneer writer HG Wells) spooked the nation (or at least the one-fifth of the over one million listeners to the program who were thrown into a panic by the calamitous ‘news’!) … the radio audience were fooled into believing that they were hearing a live report of an actual invasion of Earth by spaceship-transported Martians[8].

╼╾╼╾╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾
❈ the involvement of leading newspapers in the new medium was interesting considering that radio early on was promoted as “the newspapers that come through your walls”
¤ the development pattern was different in Europe – in Britain the government agency, BBC (established in 1922) was the guiding light for public radio’s progress
⌻ undertook pioneering work in laying the foundations of AM (amplitude modulation) radio
✥ the delivery of ‘instant’ news through the air waves was a transformation for “Joe and Joan Public” who no longer had to wait to the next day to read about the latest events in their daily newspapers
✾ so named because it was the norm for soap companies to sponsor this type of day and popular evening radio programs (Scott, ‘History of the Radio Industry’)

[1] it would be remiss here not to single out the pioneering contribution of Lee de Forest whose invention of the Audion vacuum tube most possible live radio broadcasting, an amplifier and transmitter which was the “key component of all radio, telephone, radar, film, television and computer systems before the invention of the transistor in 1947” (‘Lee de Forest American Inventor’, Encylopedia Brittannica (RE Fielding), www.brittannica.com
[2] CE Scott, ‘The History of the Radio Industry in the United States to 1940’, www.eh.com
‘History: 1920s’, Advertising Age, 15-Sep-2003, www.adage.com
[3] ‘The growth of radio in the 1920s’, (Mortal Journey), (08-Apr-2011), www.mortaljourney.com; ‘Emergence of Radio in the 1920s and its Cultural Significance’, www.xroads.virginia.org
[4] ‘Federal Radio Commission’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
[5] Mortal Journey, loc.cit.; ‘The Formation of Modern American Mass Culture’, Digital History, www.digitalhistory.ut.edu; ‘Soap opera’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
[6] Mortal Journey, op.cit.. Edison’s phonograph paved the way for the eventual development of sound technology for films
[7] later, in the 1930s, advances spearheaded by Edward H Armstrong led to the invention of FM (frequency modulation) radio – which prompted a backlash by Sarnoff and RCA and the breakout of an “AM Vs FM war”, ‘FM broadcasting in the United States’,
Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
[8] B Lenthall, Radio’s America: the Great Depression and the Rise of Modern Mass Culture. The Story of the Century, (2007), www.press.uchicago.edu

John Clarke, A Satirist for All (Australian) Seasons: To Daggdom and Beyond

Biographical, Cinema, Media & Communications, Performing arts, Popular Culture, Society & Culture, Sport

John Clarke: Trail-blazing Parodist, Lodestar, Daggstar

John Morrison Clarke died, most unexpectedly, in the Victorian wilderness a day-and-a-half ago. An ordinary looking man with an ordinary (unremarkable and yet distinctive) voice, but an ‘Everyman’ with a towering gift for communicating parody and travesty!

John Clarke, born and raised in Palmerston North, New Zealand, but domicile in Melbourne, Australia, for the last 40 years, was a uniquely talented satirist, TV comedian, comic writer and actor. The word ‘genius’ gets carelessly tossed around way too much these days, but in appraising the oeuvre of Mr John Clarke it finds a true home.

Whilst in New Zealand Clarke developed and refined the character of Fred Dagg, a stereotypical, blunt-speaking farmer from the North Island, with long straggly hair and perpetually clad in a black singlet and gumboots. Fred Dagg got Clark’s idiosyncratic brand of humour into the spotlight of New Zealand television. By 1977 Clark had outgrown both NZ and (so it seemed) Fred Dagg and moved to the bigger canvas of Australia❈. Clarke wasn’t quite done with Fred Dagg – in Australia Fred resurfaced as a real estate ‘expert’ with his guide for would-be home buyers providing the “good oil” on avoiding the pitfalls inherent in the spiel of property agents – as the following “bullshit-busting” sampler of his trenchant wit testifies:

A “cottage” is a caravan with the wheels taken off.

“Genuine reason for selling” means the house is for sale.

“Rarely can we offer” means the house is for sale.

“Superbly presented delightful charmer” doesn’t mean anything really, but it’s probably still for sale.

“Privacy, taste, charm, space, freedom, quiet, away from it all location in much sought-after cul-de-sac situation” means that it’s not only built down a hole, it’s built at the very far end of the hole.

“A panoramic, breathtaking, or magnificent view” is an indication that the house has windows, and if the view is “unique”, there’s probably only one window.

Fred Dagg AKA John Clarke was no admirer of the realty and property game and the proclivity of estate agents to be “fast and loose with the truth”, and he gave us the following memorable job description of what they really do:

“The function of the agent basically is to add to the price of the article without actually producing anything”.

(and how to recognise a real estate agent)
“If you’ve got gold teeth and laugh-lines around your pockets, you’re through to the semis without dropping a set”.

There was so much to the creative output of Clarke comma J, and so much variety too … screenplays, film acting, radio, stage work, television, songs, books. Clarke’s art didn’t fit into any one particular mould, he was, to use Martin Luther’s expression, an “irregular planet”, always inventing, moving on and reinventing, exploring something new that had piqued his interest.

My personal favourite John Clarke nugget of gold is the Complete Book of Australian Verse⌖. These are a series of recordings in which Clarke audaciously and imaginatively reinvented the “Canon of Great British Poets”, relocating it to regional and outback Australia. Clarke ‘discovered’ the existence of an Aussie poet “laureate-hood” comprising “dinky-di” Australian poetry ‘greats’ with names like ‘Shagger’ Tennyson, ‘Stumpy’ Byron V.C, ‘Gavin’ Milton and “Fifteen Bobsworth” Longfellow⊛.

Clarke’s sublime riff on these fictional masters of Australian poetry is incisively, deeply humorous, and both wise and pretentious-sounding at the same time! Absurdly funny stuff, especially when uttered in John’s wonderful flat, disinterested, monotone voice (“he was sentenced to three years jail for insulting a lobster in a Sydney restaurant”) … Clarke’s clinical dissection of Leader of the Opposition John Howard, to paraphrase playwright Simon Gray, “made me laugh so much that I was prepared to overlook its cruelty” – the poem entreating the future PM to change his vocation:

‘To a Howard’ by Rabbi Burns
Wee, sleekit, cowerin, tim’rous beastie,
I know tha’s probably doing thy bestie,
…………………….
Thou’ll try wi’ th’ gunnery up at the range,
Thou’ll no have much truible, thou’ve dun it afore,
Thou’s an expert for a’ that; look, ‘Wanted: Small Bore’.

With ‘A Child’s Christmas in Warrnambool’ Clarke produces a poetic tour de force by turning Dylan Thomas’ classic winter-scene ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ on it’s head, transforming it into a children’s nostalgic celebration of Australian summers past:

“The smell of insect repellant and eucalyptus and the distant constant bang of the flywire door”/”the fridge of imperishable memory”/”the wide brown bee-humming trout-fit sheep-rich two-horse country”/”some middle-order nephew skipping down the vowel-flattening pitch and putting the ball into the tent-flaps on the first bounce of puberty”.

The Complete Verse‘s eclectic compilation includes a coruscating if excruciating piece by “Sylvia Blath” which is both riotously funny and disturbingly harrowing at the same time. Clarke weaves into the poem Sylvia’s harangue of her dead father who “danced upon my cradle, as I Annexed the Sedatenland” and ends with an unexpected and wicked twist (a crossed-line channelling of Germaine Greer!!!): “Daddy Daddy I’m through, Hello? Germaine … I can hardly hear you, This is a very bad line.”

Since the 1990s Clarke had been an on-screen constant feature with his famous series of mock political interviews (“two-handers” with Bryan Dawe as the straight-man ‘innocently’ asking questions which were fodder for Clarke’s witty retorts) … the one-liners just rolling off Clarke’s golden and acerbic tongue, skewing high-profile politicians left, right and centre:

(pricking at the bluster of an overbearing state premier)
“I’m not interested in doing the most intelligent thing … I’m JEFF KENNETT!

Prime Minister Hawke’s robust and over-enthusiastic response to the question of how fit he was after a recent op:
(so fit that)
“I’m a danger to shipping!”

Clarke was a wordsmith that other satirists and comic writers in Australasia must have looked at with a mixture of admiration and envy … he simply had such a razor-sharp, punchy, economical and hilarious way with words.

And there was much more to John Clarke’s stellar CV – such as his ‘invention’ of the ‘sport’ of farnarkeling for The Gillies Report, and not to forget the manifold brilliant riffs on finance, business, the economy, the public service and the environment (“the front fell off (and) we towed the ship outside the environment”). Clarke was a trail-blazer in television comedy … his “on the money” take on the crazy, shambolic world of Olympics bureaucracy The Games was a template for other later projects which explored the thorny terrain of corporations and officialdom (such as Utopia) and it informed the BBC’s contribution to the 2012 London Olympics campaign.

John Clarke’s sudden, most untimely death leaves a Sydney Opera House-sized hole in Australian and New Zealand satire – and I shall never forget that voice – as with Billy Bragg’s, so distinctive, and as with Joe (Dragnet) Friday’s, so deadpan matter-of-fact … or his trademark mischievous grin and the sparkle in the eyes.

⚜⚜⚜
Vale John Clarke … thank you for entertaining and delighting us for so long and enriching the lives of so many people all the way from Palmerston North to Perth. John’s song lyrics were wrong in one respect … there are countless people in the two Trans-Tasman countries that he lived and worked in who do know “how lucky” they were to have him, albeit for too short a time✥.

╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼
❈ his unusual accent didn’t really fit the clipped English speech pattern of “Nu Zillunders” anyway
⌖ the success of which was followed up by the Even More Complete Book of Australian Verse
⊛ other Oz poet-luminaries include b.b.hummings, TS (Tabby Serious) Eliot, Ewen Coleridge, Ted Lear and many more
✥ one of the incomparable Fred Dagg’s best-known songs was entitled ‘We don’t know how lucky we are’

T20’s Grand Obsession, ‘Sixermania’: Its Time to Restore the ‘Five’

Media & Communications, Sport

A large part of the focus in the Big Bash League, currently showing on a TV screen near you, is on the hitting of sixes. Perhaps I should say, more accurately, a large part of the commentators’ focus anyway. The fast food-spieling game-callers strive to outdo each other in exaggerated amazement at the distance each six travels (electronically measured) and lap up every crowd catch or would-be catch.

Those Goliaths of commercial cricket, Channels 10 and 9, structure their marketing of T20 and List A games around the action of big six hitting, highlight packages thrive on a roll call of sixes and the frenzied crowd reaction.

imageEverything is geared towards facilitating the hitting of sixes; the boundary rope positioned some distance in from the fence as a safety measure to prevent serious injury to fielders sliding into the boundary palings (in the manner befalling Simon Jones at the Gabba in 2002), allied with modern bat technology and fielding restrictions. The outcome; sixes have become as commonplace as cooking programs on the box, it’s all too easy for the top batters in T20.

Consequently hitting a six has been devalued as an achievement, it is no longer considered anything that special or exceptional, just something really to be expected or anticipated … this ball, next ball, next over.

imageBasil Fawlty in the ‘Rat’ episode of Fawlty Towers (many of you will no doubt recall it) takes back an over-generous portion of veal cutlet he has just served up to the public health inspector for the third time, saying to the exasperated inspector, “Too much of a good thing always leaves one wanting less, I always find.” So it is with the spate of faux sixes that pass over the rope without clearing the fence. Incidentally, I just don’t get it! How can the ball lobbing on the full on the rope be considered a six, given that when the full field was previously used in matches the ball had to clear the white picket fence to register a six (whereas hitting the traditional white pickets on the full was only four). It seems to be simply all about making it easier to hit a six … sixes and wickets, the constant flow of both is the raison d’être of the limited overs game.

My proposition is that we reintroduce the score of five to correctly acknowledge the devaluation of this lesser six. Before the Great War a stroke that cleared the boundary line or fence on the full was worth ‘five’ (a little later it was adjusted up to ‘six’ to give the shot a fairer proportional differentiation to a ‘four’). A five could be awarded for a shot that lands over the rope but does not clear the fence.

The difference between a ‘5’ and a ‘6’ might not amount to much in the scheme of an individual’s innings (below see Footnote) but it does justly reward the superior hit, a real six which truly is “hit OUT of the field of play”.

imageFootnote: Although it could make a substantial difference to a batter’s score – the great pre-WWI batsman Victor Trumper in a Sydney grade cricket match in 1903 hit 22 fives (as a six was worth at that time) in an innings of 335 in 165 minutes. If achieved under the amended value Trumper would have scored 357.

The World According to Hulot

Biographical, Cinema, Media & Communications

In the 1953 film, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr Hulot’s Holiday), Jacques Tati introduced the character of Monsieur Hulot to the world of cinema-goers. Over the next 18 years in a sequence of four widely spread out movies, Tati reprised Hulot who became the emblematic face and profile (if not the voice) of the idiosyncratic Parisian’s cinema. In the features made by Tati between 1950 and 1971 Hulot was the central figure and yet at the same time he was peripheral to the ‘action’ of the story, “the man nobody quite sees” as Roger Ebert described him [R Ebert, ‘Mr. Hulot’s Holiday’, www.rogerebert.com], until something goes “pear-shaped” as a consequence of Hulot’s habitual clumsiness.

‘Mr Hulot’s Holiday’
Physically M Hulot cuts a tall, distinctive figure, a sort of “prancing, myopic giraffe” (a reference to his characteristic springy, long-striding gait) as one collaborator noted [Peter Lennon, ‘My holiday with Monsieur Hulot’, The Guardian (23-07-03, www.theguardian.com/film]. Stanley Kaufmann described Hulot as “a creature of silhouettes” [S Kaufmann, ‘The Second Mr.Hulot’, New Republic 139(23),1958]. The Hulot silhouette was put to good use in the various film posters for the Hulot movies. Hulot’s standard garb, the fedora hat and long-stem pipe, long trenchcoat, long pants (not quite long enough to cover his ankles) and umbrella, were all well suited to the dark outline of Tati’s form. The personality of Hulot is avuncular, benign, friendly, forever curious, but he is also gauche and prone to misadventures.

The storyline of Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot is, as always with Tati, a simple one. M Hulot visits a resort in the north-west coast to get a taste for himself of the new, post-war passion for spending summer at the seaside. He wanders round with no particular object in mind, just checking out the human ‘wildlife’ that is drawn to the beach resort. There is no plot to speak of, just a series of amusing, whimsical escapades, eg, a ping-pong game in which we see only the figure of Hulot running flat-chat from one side to the other desperately trying to return the ball. The location for Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday was the French seaside town of Saint-Marc-sur-Mer which today has a bronze statue of the man who put it on the tourist map (depicting Hulot in appropriate stance, tilting forward, observing the human interactions on the beach).

‘Mon Oncle’
Mon Oncle (My Uncle) (1958) was the second in the M Hulot series, this time Tati’s attention was directed towards the modern suburban home and mania for consumerism of the Parisian middle classes. The story has Hulot, living in the city and unemployed. He occupies his day visiting his sister and her family (the Arpels) in the new suburbs on the outskirts of Paris, to look after his young nephew. Their ultra-modern house and garden are geometrically designed and fully automated, everything is push button, gates, doors, everything precisely mechanised. Hulot’s sister wants him to adopt their chic lifestyle so she gets him a job at her husband’s firm and tries to match him with her neighbour, both ventures prove comically disastrous. The plastics factory is a soulless and sterile environment, like the Arpels’ antiseptic home, and the female neighbour is too bourgeois in her tastes for Hulot who is in any case a confirmed bachelor.

In Mon Oncle more than in any other of his films we are left in no doubt of Tati’s preference always for humanity over technology! The Arpels live in an ugly modernist style home with a pristine yard. The home’s arsenal of whiz-bang gadgets are not only coldly impersonal, but Hulot discovers that their functional effectiveness is not up to scratch. The gate is practically entry-proof, the garage doors malfunction, the small parking space is totally inadequate for the Arpel’s very long car, and so on. Hulot brings his own brand of disorder to the house but this only serves to accentuate the original folly. Tati is a dab hand at noting all of the modern inconveniences of contemporary Western society. Mon Oncle is a sharp commentary on the way “modern life traps humanity within its contrivances” [James Quandt, ‘Scatterbrained Angel: The Films of Jacques Tati’, From the Current – Criterion Collection, www.criterion.com] Mon Oncle won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 1959.

A feature of Jacques Tati’s cinema is that he is forever casting a questioning eye at the craze for modernity. With Playtime, the focus turns to the ultra-mod architecture that has come to dominate a modern city like Paris. As always, the plot-line is coincidental, dialogue is incidental. The insouciant M Hulot wanders round the city visiting the airport and various buildings, in doing so he continually crosses paths with a group of wide-eyed American tourists. Hulot peers inside busy offices to expose dispiriting scenes of workers in their own depersonalised little boxes shut off from human interaction. The movie like all of Tati’s films has a slow, leisurely build-up and it is a very long film (originally around 155 minutes but cut to 124 minutes for commercial release in 1967).

Although Hulot is the thread that runs through Playtime, Tati deliberately does not allow the popular character to dominate proceedings (as tended to be the case in Mr Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle)[Kent Jones,’Playtime’, From the Current – Criterion Collection, www.criterion.com] putting the focus back on ‘everybody’, ie, the observed cross-section of humanity. Tati eschews the use of close-up shots and the camera panning in for exactly the same reason.

There are many small gems in Playtime – like the blissfully unaware Hulot boarding a crowded bus grabbing on to what he thought was a handrail, immersing himself in his newspaper only to find himself again out on the footpath at the next stop because the mistaken handrail was actually the tall floor lamp of a fellow commuter who had alighted the bus. Or the spiral neon arrow on the nightclub sign which guides the drunk straight back into the Royal Garden from which he has just departed … both of these sight gags are pure gold!

‘Playtime’
So much of Tati’s art is about messing with the impersonality of modernisation which he disapproves of, sabotaging it to bring the dehumanising folly of it into the spotlight, this is his narrative. As Ebert precisely describes it, Tati “discovers serendipity in a world of disappointment”, ‘Mon Oncle’, www.rogerebert.com]. In Play Time, “an obstreperous cityscape whose supposed modern conveniences conspire to trip, bewilder, and ensnare the hapless populace gets violently reshaped as a vast play area” [David Cairns, ‘Jacques Tati: Things Fall Together’, www.criterion.com]. The film turned into something of an epic saga, being eight years in the making! Play Time was the most expensive French film to that point ever made, in no small measure due to Tati’s insistence on constructing a horrendously expensive mini-city, a set of glass and steel, nicknamed Tativille. To finance the film Tati had to sell his own home and eventually the rights to all his films – a clear indication of Tati’s commitment to his artistic vision!

Tati’s fifth feature, Traffic (or Trafic in French) was the last to include M Hulot. Traffic’s plot is as threadbare as Playtime: Hulot is a car designer who invents a new automobile, a gadget-packed camper car, the film tracks Hulot’s attempts to transport it to Amsterdam for a motor show. The trip, as any trip would be involving M Hulot, is not without incident. Hulot and his companions experience various vicissitudes including breakdowns, customs inspection hold-ups and a multiple car pileup, in the end arriving at the destination too late for the auto show.

In the laughs department Traffic is a bit light on even compared to the earlier Hulot pictures. But Tati films do not create “belly” laughs, no real LOL moments, the humour generated by him is more of a gentler, subtler style of comedy, giving rise to a wry reflection on an amusing situation. There is one scene in Traffic though where the director draws comical comparisons with the Apollo 11 moon mission (happening concurrently with the making of Traffic) with two of the characters mimicking the low-gravity motion of astronauts.

The Tatiesque film: a throwback to a lost cinema
In Traffic, as in all of Tati’s features, he was criticised for the weakness of the dialogue. Tati would have been indifferent to this objection because it was inconsequential to what his (idiosyncratic) cinema was about – to him the visual had primacy, whether it be man versus road, man versus building, etc.[James Monaco, ‘Review of Trafic by Jacques Tati’, Cinéaste, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Summer 2009). As a child Jacques grew up on a diet of silent cinema, Keaton was his idol, but he devoured the work of Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd, all the great silent comics. His strain of comedy harked back to that era. As Kaufmann noted, Tati in the postwar period was “the only performer attempting to recapture the immensely more imaginative and abstract comedy of silent days” [Kaufmann, op.cit].

Entering the cinema from a background as a mime in music-hall also grounded Tati in the art of the visual and the physical. Tati’s films are not strictly silent pictures, sound does play its role but it is as background, complimentary but subordinate to the visual. Stylistically, dialogue in a Tati movie is a device for sound effect [Jonathan Romney, ‘Jacques Tati’s Playtime: Life-affirming comedy’, The Guardian (25-10-14), www.theguardian.com/film]. It never distracts from the central preoccupation of his cinema, observation of the interaction of human nature with the environment.

At the time of Tati’s death (1982) he was working on a project for a new Monsieur Hulot film entitled ‘Confusion’ with its theme being western society’s obsession with television and visual images. As James Monaco observes, it would have been fascinating to have seen what Tati would have made of today’s virtual world, the internet, social networking media and digital devices [Monaco, op.cit.].

Francois in ‘School for Postmen’, a 1947 short
Footnote: before there was Hulot, there was Francois. Francois was the eccentric comic creation in Tati’s debut feature, Jour de Fête (The Big Day) (1949). The storyline has Francois, an over-zealous and maladroit postman (sort of a precursor to M Hulot), watching a US postal training film and trying to replicate its efficiency in his provincial post office operation. The results however go disastrously haywire. Tati employs this premise to satirise contemporary society’s slavish devotion to technological progress, especially it’s eagerness to adopt American innovations [‘Jacques Tati Facts’, www.biography.yourdictionary.com].