Launder and Gilliat: Prolific and Tradesman like Collaborators of British Cinema

Biographical, Cinema

Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat were two English film-makers who maintained a steadily consistent presence in the British cinema between the 1930s and the 1970s. Launder and Gilliat’s creative film roles, whether as writers, directors or producers (or as all three), contributed to over 100 British films in that era, including nearly 40 together as co-writers and producers.

The two co-wrote The Lady Vanishes, a 1938 mystery which was a breakthrough feature for Alfred Hitchcock❈. Interestingly Launder and Gilliat (hereafter L & G) had their (separate) starts in the film business composing inter-titles (title cards) for silent movies in the late 1920s, the same industry beginnings undertaken by Hitchcock several years earlier. L & G combined their talents behind-the-camera together for the first time from the mid 1930s. The L & G partnership had a flexibility and a particular pattern to it … invariably they would jointly produce films and/or also co-write screenplays (although on other occasions either man would co-write films with various other collaborating screenwriters). But almost with very few exceptions one or the other would direct a specific film singly – this was done apparently to avoid confusing the actors[1].

A versatile¤ and fecund partnership
As well as being prolific contributors to the creation of British films for such a long period, L & G’s film output spanned a range of genres … from thrillers and ‘whodunits’ like Green for Danger (1956) and Secret State (1950) to WWII social-realism films such as Waterloo Road (1944) and Millions Like Us (1943) to romance/adventures like The Blue Lamp (1949) to historical dramas such as Captain Boycott (1947) to farces like The Green Man (1956) and light comedies such as The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), a precursor to a popular series of movies set in a girls’ boarding school immobilised by riotous juvenile anarchy – starting with The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954) which spawned a string of increasingly predictable sequels.

“Journeymen auteurs?”
The Times of London described the Gilliat/Launder team as “one of the most sparkling writing, directing and producing partnerships in postwar British cinema”[2]. Notwithstanding such praise, L & G’s body of work has tended to be undervalued by the bulk of film critics … at times eliciting back-handed appraisals from critics such as “toilers in the British comic tradition”; (their films at best exhibiting) “unfailing good humour and the occasional brainy prankishness”[3]. Certainly, technical innovation and self-conscious artiness was not Gilliat and Launder’s style, but they never managed to garner anything remotely like the prestige or critical approval that was lavished on other contemporary British film-makers, eg, Powell and Pressburger, Carol Reed or the Boulting brothers. Bruce Babington has attributed this in part to L & G’s ‘reticence’ as film-makers, the way that they declined to project themselves forward and intervene in controversies and debates of the day, unlike say, their contemporaries the Boultings[4].

Enlistment in the production of propaganda vehicles
So closely did the personal film-making styles and interests of the two collaborators align, many people found it hard to distinguish between a Launder-directed picture and one directed by Gilliat … most L & G films tended to resemble the fruits of their combined efforts. Or as Adair and Roddick put it, “it would take a lynx-eyed buff to be able to distinguish one from the other”[5].

The war-time pictures, Millions Like Us and Two Thousand Women can be identified as reflecting in particular Frank Launder’s preoccupation with the portrayal of strong, defiantly independent women[6]. These films were commissioned by the UK Ministry of Information to counter the prevailing low recruitment and morale of women in war-time factory work. Millions Like Us, as Judy Suh has noted, conveyed the “double valence of women as productive workers and domestic symbols of national unity”. L & G’s social-realist films, though propagandist in purpose, posed questions of gender and class whilst depicting the routine of ordinary people at work. The necessities of war-time brought out the conflicting roles and identities of women in such an out-of-the ordinary circumstance, as well as the existence of crossings of class boundaries[7].

Hockey stick-wielding private schoolgirl anarchists
After the war, witty and farcical, albeit slight, comedies were their forte (with the occasional thriller thrown in). Like other high-profile international film-makers L & G had their favourite performers that they liked to work with. L & G got the best performances out of British actors like Alastair Sim, Margaret Rutherford, Joyce Grenfell, Rex Harrison and George Cole. Of these luminaries it was Alastair Sim whose star shined most brightly under the direction of L & G. Sim appeared in at least ten L & G movies and his deliciously roguish star turns as a middle class word-spinning con-man were pure gold. George Cole, who also had a regular gig in the St Trinian’s cycle as the ultra dodgy spiv Flash Harry◘, described working with Gilliat and Launder (and Sim) … to Cole (later himself to find TV fame as consummate, malapropistic con-man ‘Arfur’ Daley in Minder) their films meant:

“Good scripts but terrible money. If Alastair was in the film it was even worse because he got most of it. But they were wonderful people to work with”[8].

In the 1940s Launder and Gilliat formed their own production company, aptly named Individual Pictures, at this time they were contractually engaged by Gainsborough Pictures … in 1958 the partners took charge of the production side of the struggling independent studio British Lion. By the 1960s both the quality and quantity of Gilliat/Launder productions had receded. In 1980 Launder went once more to the St Trinian’s well❃ with yet another sequel, Wildcats of St Trinian’s … unwisely so as the novelty of L & G’s feature films based on Ronald Searle’s charming cartoons of feral schoolgirls had long since lost their appeal.

PostScript 1: The Charters and Caldicott characters trope – antiquated, old school Englishness
L & G wrote into The Lady Vanishes two minor characters that were to become iconic, background characters in British cinema. Played by actors Basil Radford and Naughton Wayne, the two incidental supporting figures are singleminded cricket enthusiasts (“cricket tragics” as one recent Australian PM was dubbed) trying to hurry back to England to see the last days of the Manchester test match. The popularity of the characters saw them reappear in other L & G movies (including Night Train to Munich, Millions Like Us and in the 1979 remake of The Lady Vanishes), and in several other non-L & G films, eg, the Boxs’ A Girl in a Million and (appropriately enough) It’s Not Cricket. Charters and Caldicott were also reprised for several radio series, and for a 1985 television series. Charters and Caldicott’s fame also extended to their inclusion in a series of Carreras Cigarette cards in the 1950s.

Charters & Caldicott
The gormless personalities of Charters and Caldicott, a couple of blithering “Colonel Blimpish” snobs, was a comical throwback to a past England with ‘proper’ gentlemanly good manners and standards of dress[9]. Matthew Sweet saw the two blunderers (in their 1938 incarnations against a backdrop of appeasement) as symbols of “a peculiarly British obstinacy in the face of Nazi aggression” in Europe[10]. Their apathetic dispositions and complete lack of perspicacity about the momentous events happening around them also puts one in mind of Tom Stoppard’s two artless and aimless courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern roaming through Elsinore, ‘Everyman’ figures in the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

The familiar picture of the familiar team

The Lady Vanishes helped open Hollywood doors for Hitchcock … after ‘Hitch’ completed Jamaica Inn in 1939 (written by Gilliat et al) he set sail for America (for good), inviting Gilliat to join him however the Cheshireman declined the offer, preferring to stay in the smaller and infinitely less lucrative pond that was the British film industry (Babington, 2002)
¤ “Versatility” Gilliat once said, “was always our curse”, but as Gilbert Adair remarked in a 1994 obituary for the film-maker, “it was also their own form of individualism”
◘ Cole as well appeared in nine of L & G’s films
❃ this was twice too often to the well as the preceding Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966) was also a lame effort at rehashing the by now decidedly stale formula

[1] although such was the working symbiosis between the two that the non-directing partner would in all likelihood make suggestions for improvements to the designated director where necessary, B Babington, Launder and Gilliat (2002)
[2] quoted in The Age (Melbourne), 08-Jun-1994
[3] G Adair & N Roddick, A Night at the Pictures: Ten Decades of British Film, (1985)
[4] Babington describes Launder and Gilliat as “modest auteurs”, Babington, op.cit.
[5] Adair & Roddick, loc.cit.
[6] ‘Launder and Gilliat’, BFI Screenonline,
[7] J Suh, ‘Women, Work, Leisure in British Wartime Documentary Realism’, Literature/Film Quarterly, 40(1), 2012
[8] ‘Obituary: Frank Launder’, The Independent, 24-Feb-1997,
[9] ‘Charters and Caldicott’, Wikipedia,; ‘Charters and Caldicott’,
[10] M Sweet, ‘Mustard and cress’, The Guardian, 29-Dec-2007,

Equality at 10,000 Feet: The Pioneer Aviatrix in the Golden Age of Aviation – Part II

Aviation history, Gender wars

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Equality at 10,000 Feet: The Pioneer Aviatrix in the Golden Age of Aviation – Part I

Aviation history, Gender wars

❝ We had to prove that women were as good pilots… in an age where some men didn’t think a woman should drive a horse and buggy, much less drive an automobile, it was a job to prove that females could fly.❞
~ Louise Thaden[1]

⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆

The other afternoon the resident ABC evangelist on the wireless was rabbiting on that the PC word to describe female pilots, especially those early pilots of the airways, was aviator … he was saying that the term aviatrix was de rigueur, we should use only the ‘correct’ gender-neutral term ‘aviator’ which doesn’t make a distinction between the two sexes, etc, etc.

And in a purely technical sense the government-sanctioned radio evangelist is right, the name ‘aviator’ does better represent the spirit of our contemporary times, after all no one (hardly anyone, right?) these days uses poetess or even authoress – these descriptors sound a bit cumbersome and more than slightly ridiculous in 2017 … although I note that the staunchly conservative Oscar ‘cinemarati’ dole out prizes to screen actors every March for what they still insist on calling the “best actress” and “best supporting actress”. Notwithstanding all this, my preference to describe those pioneering women of the skies is for ‘aviatrix’, quaintly old-fashioned as the term may be … to me it does set them apart, identifying the uniqueness of their important role in the evolution of aviation history and as pathfinders for new female work roles, and in doing so, demonstrating that women were capable of doing anything than men could do.

The internet is awash with studies and information on untold number of pioneer aviatrices. A casual googling of “aviatrix history” will turn up a host of sites with titles like “Harriet Quimbey – First U.S. Aviatrix”, “Lores Bonney – the forgotten aviatrix”, “The History Chicks Aviatrix Archives”, “LadiesLoveTailDraggers | Aviatrix History”; “Aviatrix – Sheroes of History”, “BBC – Forgotten record of aviatrix Beryl Markham”, “Aviatrix You Should Know: China’s Amelia Earhart” and “Our History | Women in Aviation History | “Sharpie: The Life Story of Evelyn Sharpie – Nebraska’s Aviatrix”. Clearly, most who write on the subject, on the World Wide Webosphere anyway, seem to concur with my preference for ‘aviatrix’.

Irish first wave aviatrix Lilian Bland
France gold, the US silver …
What becomes readily apparent when you delve into the history of the early, formative phase of aviation, is how internationally diverse the phenomenon of the aviatrix was. France and the United States led the way with the earliest pioneering achievements❈ – first woman to earn a pilot’s licence (Frenchwoman Baroness Raymondé de Laroche, 1910); first woman to pilot a motorised aircraft solo (American Aida de Acosta in France, 1903, in a dirigible owned by Alberto Santos-Dumont – six months before the famous Wright Brothers’ flight). Not to be outdone, women aviatrices in the English-speaking world were also quick out of the blocks – Anglo-Irish aviatrix Lilian Bland in Belfast 1910/1911 was one of the first to design, build and fly her own aircraft (which she called the Mayfly⌖)[2].

In the first 40 years of the 20th century the appearance of women pilots became a worldwide craze. Aviatrices took to the air in Belgium, Germany, Britain and Eire, Russia, Estonia, Argentina, Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, Japan, China, Korea, Italy, Australasia, Canada, Spain, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary and Persia, in fact from any country that had a viable even if rudimentary aircraft industry.

Amy Johnson
Aviatrix “rock stars”
The public at large is familiar possibly only with a few of these pioneer aviatrices, the “glamour-pus” headline grabbers like American Amelia Earhart and England’s Amy Johnson, or if you are from the USA you probably have also heard of Ruth Law, Louise Thaden, Jacky Cochran and Florence ‘Pancho’ Barnes. All of these high-flyers (literally) broke numerous records and won continent-to-continent, long-distance air races¤ and have been the subject of various biographies, television documentaries or biopics.

N-25 “Tourist Hauler” Biplane
There was a lot of women pilots by the twenties and thirties (especially in the USA), and the great majority of them weren’t as fortunate as Earhart and a select few of the elite aviatrices who could elicit sponsorship from newspapers and the like. There were few posts for commercial pilots available to women at the time (primarily due to systemic and deeply ingrained sexism), therefore many women pilots in the “Roaring Twenties” turned to barnstorming and if they could to working as a stunt pilot in the movies. Barnstormers moved around the country performing aerial tricks and manoeuvres, for audiences, either individually or in orchestrated clusters of Gipsy Moth type crafts (known as “flying circuses”). Barnstormers also made money by taking local townspeople up for joy rides[3].

Jean Batten
“First-wave” Australasian aviatrices
Gladys Sandford was the first New Zealand woman to be awarded an air pilot’s licence (1925), but without dispute the Shaky Isles’ greatest-ever aviatrix was Jean Gardner Batten. After wrecking her first biplane Batten talked the Castrol Oil Co into buying a second-hand De Havilland Gipsy Moth, in which she was the first woman to complete the solo round trip between England and New Zealand. Batten also won the Harmon Trophy three times and achieved a world record for flying from England to South America. Later in the thirties the relentless Kiwi aviatrix Batten obliterated Amy Johnson’s England to Australia record, bettering it by more than four days![4]

Australia’s first female flyer in an heavier-than-air plane was Florence Taylor in 1909 at Narrabeen, NSW. Taylor’s flight was in a glider designed by her husband George (which he had adapted from Lawrence Hargrave’s cellular box-kite prototype). Prejudice from male aviators and the industry meant that women in Australia were prevented from holding a commercial pilot’s licence until 1927 (Millicent Bryant was the first to earn her Australian licence in that year).

Other women soon took up the mantle of the earliest Aussie aviatrices, most prominent among these were Maude ‘Lores’ Bonney and the aptly named Nancy-Bird Walton. Lores Bonney, originally from South Africa, in the 1930s was “regarded as perhaps Australia’s most competent aviatrix”[5]. Bonney’s record-breaking feats started in 1932 when she became the first aviatrix to circumnavigate the continent of Australia (embarking on the marathon flight – the equivalent of Darwin to London in distance – after first gaining the permission of her husband). She was the first pilot of either sex to fly from Brisbane to Cape Town, and the first woman to fly solo from Australia to England.

Nancy-Bird Walton got her pilot’s licence at 19 and like Bonney and so many other early aviators (from Charles Lindbergh down) tried initially to make a living out of it through barnstorming. In 1936 Walton won the Ladies Trophy in the Adelaide to Brisbane air race in a record time. As the first woman commercial pilot in Australia Walton was responsible for the operation of a flying medical service in the outback (Royal Far West Children’s Health Service), using her own Leopard Moth as an air ambulance. During WWII she trained a women’s air corps as back up for the men pilots in the RAAF and in 1950 founded the Australian Women Pilot’s Association, paving the way for today’s female commercial pilots to make a career of the profession[6].

PostScript: Hollywood and the glamorous/socialite aviatrix
In the golden age of aviation aviatrices like Jean Gardner Batten and Beryl Markham were not adverse to infusing a bit of glamour into their public personas. It certainly didn’t hinder their careers and sponsorship was often needed by the young female pilots to finance their attempts to win races and break records. In the twenties and thirties nothing personified the idea of the modern woman more than the aviatrix, she represented the height of glamour and daring … and of course the ubër glam-aviatrix in the world was Earhart whose image and media-savvy husband secured her income from promotional and speaking tours and from product endorsement [7].

It is hardly surprising then that from early on Hollywood took an interest in the aviatrix, and in the whole burgeoning area of aviation which provided film-makers with fresh new storylines with lots of breath-taking action and thrills. Several of the glamorous aviatrices had stints in movie acting. Ruth Elder for instance, (known as “Miss America of Aviation”) juggled flying with a (part-time) actress job and a (full-time) one as a serial ‘matrimonialist’ (Elder was married six times). RKO cashed in the vogue by casting an up-and-coming Katherine Hepburn as a socialite aviatrix in 1933’s Christopher Strong. Capitalising on the appeal of feminine good looks and the fearless reputation of women pilots, studio photographers cultivated the “glamorous aviatrix look” for movie publicity purposes[8].

❈ the very first experiments with flight involving women began in France – 1784: first woman to fly in a hot-air balloon, Marie Élisabeth Thible (eight months after the Montgolfier brothers’ first successful accent); 1798: first woman to pilot an airship, Jeanne Geneviève Labrosse (Mme Labrosse was also the first woman to parachute jump from a balloon, 1799), So, in a very real sense aviatrices were in on the ground (umm, off the ground) in aviation from the get-go!
⌖ as in may fly, may not
¤ Earhart and Johnson were both fated to die in mysterious circumstances, tragically if heroically in pursuit of their addiction to flying

[1] ‘Aviation Pioneer Louise Thaden’,
[2] K Mitchell, ‘Lilian Bland: Ireland’s first female pilot, the world’s first aviation engineer’, Engineers Journal (Republic of Ireland), 31-May-2016,
[3] ‘Barnstorming’, Wikipedia,
[4] Ian Mackersey. ‘Batten, Jean Gardner’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 May 2017)
[5] K Alexander, Taking Flight: Lores Bonney’s Extraordinary Flying Career, (2016)
[6] ‘Nancy Bird Walton AO’, (Australian Museum),
[7] K Lubben Amelia Earhart: Image and Icon, cited in ‘Why Amelia Bombed’ (V Postrel), 10-Nov-2009,
[8] S Kelly, Aviators in Early Hollywood (2008)]

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’,
❉ 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),; ‘Silent Film’, Wikipedia, 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,
[2] D Hanson, ‘The History of Sound in the Cinema’, (1997),
[3] C Gallagher ‘Introduction’ in C Gallagher et al, ‘The Silence After Sound: Hollywood’s Last Silent Movies’, 08-Feb-2009, 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),
[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,; 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’,
[12] Thompson, ibid.
[13] ibid.
[14] ‘The Formation of Modern American Mass Culture’, (Digital History),
[15] Excerpt from ‘Silent Stars’ (by J Basinger), New York Times (1999),
[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
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
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.


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),
[2] CE Scott, ‘The History of the Radio Industry in the United States to 1940’,
‘History: 1920s’, Advertising Age, 15-Sep-2003,
[3] ‘The growth of radio in the 1920s’, (Mortal Journey), (08-Apr-2011),; ‘Emergence of Radio in the 1920s and its Cultural Significance’,
[4] ‘Federal Radio Commission’, Wikipedia,
[5] Mortal Journey, loc.cit.; ‘The Formation of Modern American Mass Culture’, Digital History,; ‘Soap opera’, Wikipedia,
[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’,
[8] B Lenthall, Radio’s America: the Great Depression and the Rise of Modern Mass Culture. The Story of the Century, (2007),

Foundations of Basic Brewing: Beer’s Formative Role in the Making of Western Civilisation

Archaeology, Pre-history, Social History

If you delve into the story of beer’s prehistoric origins, you are instantly struck that its trajectory parallels that of another contemporary alcoholic beverage, wine. Just as with wine, drinking beer❈ was perceived from the earliest times not only to have an euphoric effect on consumers, but to contain tangible nutritional and medicinal properties.

Clay tablet – Sumerians drinking beer through elongated bent straws
The consensus among historians is that the production of beer probably started in Western Asia, more exactly in the ancient lands of Mesopotamia. Dating its beginnings is hard to say with precision, the best evidence lies in discoveries of ancient drinking vessels and utensils. The earliest such artifacts are possibly some 7,000-year-old pottery jars with traces of beer substances that were found in Iran (Persia), and a 6,000-year-old Sumerian tablet of people drinking a beer-like beverage through reed straws[1]. Another finding, a tablet recording a poem written in the 19th century BCE in honour of the Sumerian goddess of beer, Ninkasi, also represents the first known recipe for the craft of brewing beer[2].

Bread or beer – what came first?
In the beginning there was the domestication of cereal grains, the transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists … well not quite the beginning, this occurred (very roughly) 10,000-year-ago in the Neolithic period. The precedence of cereal grains is incontrovertible. What the next step was is not so black-and-white. The conventional wisdom has been that the cultivation of cereals was undertaken for the production of food. The grain would permit crops such as emmer wheat, einkorn wheat and barley to be grown … this led to the baking of bread and other food items.

Beer came about, according to this view, by association with bread, possibly by accident. A likely explanation for this might entail a situation where a farmer or a baker samples water in which bread had been sitting for some period of time. The water having undergone spontaneous fermentation, the natural spoilage of the germinated grain created a beer substance. The sampler liked the taste and it caught on, and thus a beer culture was born[3].

Beer the conduit for permanent human settlement?
But did humankind get serious about crop cultivation solely to produce flour for bread-making, this theory is still the orthodox view but a body of research over recent decades suggests that the earth’s grains were possibly domesticated for beer before they were for bread. This counter-view has its genesis in the early 1950s with two scholars, Robert J Braidwood and Jonathan D Sauer. It was anthropologist Braidwood who posed the question “Did man once live by bread alone?” As a result of research on a site in Jarmo (present-day Iraq) Braidwood hypothesised the earliest farming of wheat and barley was more to do with the taste that had been acquired for beer. Botanist Sauer proposed that “thrist rather than hunger may have been the stimulus behind the origin of small grain agriculture”. Beer being a “palatable and nutritious beverage” (was a) “greater stimulant” for the cereal producers[4]. The desire for the beverage according to this view was the lever that prompted humans to begin forming permanent settlements[5].

Building on this argument, Katz and Voight in the 1980s argued that beer had a dual appeal in antiquity: people enjoyed “the altered state of awareness” that sufficient intake of beer engendered, and at the same time they benefitted from beer’s nutritional superiority to every other food in their diet aside from animal proteins[6]

Recent anthropological studies conducted in Mexico support the contention that beer took primacy over bread. Teosinte, the ancestral grass of modern maize common to Meso-America, was much more suited to beer making than for making corn flour for bread or tortillas. Mexican farmers only managed to domesticate the grass into the diet staple maize much later[7].

First draughts: Sumer, Mesopotamia and the Levant
Although the Greeks traced the genesis of beer to Ancient Egypt, the general consensus of scholars would attribute its origins, based on clear archaeological evidence, to Mesopotamia, and more specifically, mainly to sites in modern-day Iraq. Recent research from Simon Fraser University (Canada) suggests the importance of the brewing of beer to Natufian culture (the Levant) in the Late Epi-Paleolithic period (around 10,000-9,500 BCE[8]. The Godin Tepe (“Grand Mound”) site (Tepe Gawra settlement) in Northern Iraq is one of the oldest in the world to yield evidence of beer production and consumption.

Chinese rice-beer brewmasters
As is the case with the origin of wine, the Orient has thrown up a worthy contender for the mantle of the first known instance of the brewing of beer. Recently a team in Jiahu (Yellow River Valley), Northern China, found pottery residues of a 5,400 to 4,900 year-old⊛ beer made from rice, barley and other grains[9]. Just as the Chinese used rice in their beer, other early brewers experimented with different materials aside from wheat and barley – rye in Thracian beer (as did the Russians later to make kvass), date palms and pomegranates in Babylon. Excavations at a 2,500-year-old Celtic site in Eberdingen-Hochdorf (Germany) unearthed the remnants of beer mixtures which had added the ingredients henbane, mugwort and carrot seeds to a base of barley malt[10].

Beer, a healthy option?
The Mesopotamians and Ancient Egyptians believed that beer had health benefits. The brewing process involved in producing beer killed off any inherent bacteria and viruses, this made drinking beer preferable to water which retained various pollutants that made it unsafe by comparison. It was also nutritionally advantageous – providing much-needed carbohydrates, proteins and minerals. The Ancient Egyptians moreover thought that sage and thyme contained anti-cancer properties and integrated these herbs into their beers. Positive medicinal effects in ancient beer included the essential amino acid lysine and the brews were high in B-vitamin content. The Egyptians identified the existence of some 100 remedies in beer. Further south on the Nile the Ancient Nubians 2,000 years ago infused their beers with antibiotic medicine, tetracycline[11].

Ancient Egyptian brewster making beer
A heavenly brew
Beer in ancient times was integrated into mythology and religion, thus elevating its status. It was part of the Sumerian “god myth” with Babylonians believing that beer was “a gift from the gods’ – or more precisely the ‘goddesses’ (Ninkasi – the ancient Sumerian titular goddess of beer). Egyptians associated their main goddesses, Hathor and Heqet, with the creation and consumption of beer (zytum¤), as was Tenenet (or Tjenenyet) who was the “Goddess of Beer and Childbirth” … beer was an integral part of the religious festivals and state occasions of Ancient Egypt (for which ‘special’ beer brews were produced)[12].

Wine Vs Beer
Ancient Greeks and Romans were generally less enamoured with beer than other ancient civilisations – although each still produced the beverage. In both societies wine was the preferred drink and one that bestowed social status. The great Ancient Greek philosophers and historians (eg, Xenophon in Anabasis) derided beer as a low-class drink for ‘Barbarians’. An indicator of the Greeks’ low opinion of beer as a beverage was that they exported it to Mediterranean ports as an aid to craftsmen to soften ivory in the making of jewellery[13]. A common perception concerning Ancient Egypt is that whilst the lower echelon of society drank beer (the “poor man’s” liquor), the upper strata right up to the Pharaohs drank wine only which was much more expensive. It would appear though that, to the contrary, beer was a staple in the diet of all Egyptians regardless of class, the Pharaohs included[14].

PostScript I: Women – the original home brewers
Sumerian society was structured around the home, the men hunted and the women collected and prepared the ingredients for eating and drinking. Within the domain of the home the first beers were brewed – by women! Women brewers in Sumeria were often also priestesses and thus held in high social esteem. When Babylon eclipsed the Sumerian Empire Babylonian women also enjoyed a similar prestige – having the right to divorce and own a business and property, and to work as brewsters (professional female brewers) and as tavern keepers (and as well as bakers)◘[15]. Early beer making elsewhere was also the preserve of (elite) women! eg, the indigenous Wari (Sp: Huari) society in the Andes in Southern Peru that flourished before the rise of the Inca Empire[16].

Beer brewing and the product’s distribution and sale remained women’s work until brewing moved away from the home when beer-making took on a commercial-scale of activity. By the Industrial Revolution the brewing of beer had been fully taken over by men[17] .

The Mesopotamian symbol for beer

PostScript II: The world according to beer
In 2011 a documentary, How Beer Saved the World, screened on the Discovery Channel. The film, once you get past the irritatingly over-the-top, megaphonic introduction, makes a reasoned case for beer’s fundamental role in shaping the world as we know it. A battery of scientists and anthropologists take turns explaining the breadth of the ancient (and the modern) world’s debt to beer – eg, it fuelled the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza (workers were paid in beer۞); it prompted the invention of mathematics and the world’s first form of writing, Cuneiform (the film argues that arithmetic and writing was necessary to account for beer’s production and distribution); it contributed to the modern process of pasteurisation. It also reinforces the view that barley was grown for beer before bread, and that the brewed beverage came about by accident.

❈ with the seemingly inexorable onslaught on the market of craft beers today, brewers are sifting increasingly exotic and sometimes weirder ingredients into their brew concoctions (so much so that lentil beer for instance seems almost a mild deviation from orthodoxy). For the ancient pioneers of beer-making though the basics comprised water, barley (or similar grain, eg, emmer, malt), yeast, but not hops … this last naturally growing plant ingredient was somewhat of a late-comer added to the composition of beer, it seems that the human cultivation of hops came much later (ca. AD 12th century), ‘The Short and Bitter History of Hops’, (D Martorana, Philly Beer Scene, Apr/May 2010),
⊛ early Yangshou period, flourished c.5000BCE
¤ the honey-flavoured Hqt or Heqet was the most popular of the beer brews in Ancient Egypt
◘ this brings us back to the beer or bread debate – was beer-making an offshoot of bread-making or vice versa? Evidence from Ancient Egypt doesn’t resolve this question, but we do know that specially made bread was the basis for some of the beer brewed (beer loaves); also in Sumeria bippar (twice-baked barley bread) was used in the brewing of beer, Hornsey, loc.cit
۞ each one received a daily allowance up to one gallon of low-alcohol beer

[1] ‘History of the word Beer’, ( Your place for everything Beer), [NDP]
[2] ‘Discover the Oldest Beer Recipe in History from Ancient Sumerian, 1800 B.C.’, (Open Culture), 03-Mar-2015,
[3] B Mauk, ‘When was beer invented?’, (Live Science), 18-Jan-2013,
[4] JW Arthur, ‘Beer through the Ages: The Role of Beer in Shaping Our Past and Current Worlds’, Anthropology Now, 6(2), Sept 2014),; D Spector,’How Beer Created Civilisation’, Business Insider Australia,
[5] although the “beer first” thesis has enjoyed a vogue, some scholars reject the argument wholly, eg, Paul Mangledorf: “Man cannot live on beer alone … Are we to believe that the foundations of Western Civilization were laid by an ill-fed people living in a perpetual state of partial intoxication?”; [6] Spectorloc.cit.
[7] JP Kahn, ‘How Beer Gave Us Civilisation’, The New York Times, 15-Mar-2013,
[8] ‘What Was Brewing in the Natufian? An Archaeological Assessment of Brewing Technology in the Epipaleolithic’, Hayden, B, Canuel, N & Shanse, J. J. Archaeol Method Theory (2013), 20:102. Doi:10/1007/s10816-011-9127-y
[9] J Wang et al, ‘Revealing a 5,000-year-old beer recipe’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, (113:201601466), 23-May-2016,
[10] B Bower, ‘2,550-Year-Old Celtic Beer Recipe Resurrected’, (Science News), 17-Jan-2011,
[11] C Seawright, ‘Ancient Egyptian Alcohol: Beer, Wine and the Festival of Drunkenness’, 02-Jan-2013,; ‘Wiki History of Beer’, (Wikipedia),; S Webb, ‘Did Beer create civilisation?’, Daily Mail (Aust), 21-Dec-2013,
[12] SH Katz & MM Voight, ‘Bread and Beer: The Early Use of Cereals in the Human Diet’,; IS Hornsey, A History of Beer and Brewing (2003)
[13] Hornsey, ibid.; JJ Mark, ‘Beer in the Ancient World’, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 02-Mar-2011,
[14] ‘Ancient Egypt Online’,
[15] T Nurin, ‘How Women Brewers Saved the World’, 21-Apr-2016,
[16] RR Britt, ‘Elite Women Made Beer in Pre-Incan Culture’, (Live Science), 14-Nov-2005,
[17] ‘Women in Brewing’, (Wikipedia),

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’