Bristol on Film: Some People, 1962

Some People is a little-known social realist film from 1962 that offers a glimpse of a post-war Britain rarely seen on screen. It is not set among northern terraces or the slums of the East End of London but on the docksides and gleaming new council estates of Bristol, the capital of the West Country.

When I moved to Bristol last year I wanted to get to know its culture and so asked around for tips on which novels and films best represent the city. Some People was one of the suggestions and after a little hunting I found a DVD released by Network in 2013.

It was lying on the coffee table when my then 69-year-old Dad visited and he recoiled at the sight.

“Is that… Is that Some People?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Oh, nothing,” he replied, still eyeing it with suspicion, and I knew there was a story to tell.

His reaction prompted me to watch the film sooner rather than later.

It was directed by Clive Donner who would make a name for himself with The Caretaker in 1963 and then head to Hollywood to make What’s New Pussycat? In 1965.

While Some People is clearly the work of a director finding his feet it is nonetheless an enjoyable drama about a teenager, Johnnie, played with charm and intensity by Ray Brooks, and his struggle to choose between straightening up or continuing a descent into delinquency.

Johnnie and his friends Bill (David Andrews) and Bert – a baby-faced David Hemmings – get into trouble racing their motorbikes along the Portway on the banks of the Avon and are banned from riding them which leaves them frustrated and deepens their boredom.

Then one night, while messing around in a church they’ve all but broken into, they are taken under the wing of Mr Smith, a local youth group organiser played by veteran British actor Kenneth More, who encourages them to form a pop group.

A grab from the film: the pop group.

Bill rejects Mr Smith’s mentorship seeing in it an attempt to control him and breaks with Johnnie and Bert, falling in with a gang of hard-cases.

Then, fuelled by jealousy over his girlfriend’s attraction to Johnnie, Bill tries to sabotage his friend’s new found stability. It’s small stuff – squabbling and scrapping, hardly Marlon Brando territory – but that makes it feel all the more authentically British.

The film’s strengths are its cast, setting and its considerable charge of nostalgia.

Filmed entirely on location, it captures the reality of Bristol in the heat of post-Blitz reconstruction, half tumbledown harbour city, half planners’ dream.

A large part of the action takes place on the Lockleaze estate, high on windswept Purdown in the city’s northern suburbs.

St Mary church
CREDIT: Desmond Tripp from Bristol, T.H. Burrough, 1970.

St Mary Magdalene with St Francis church is one of the stars of the production – a mad modernist vision in concrete and stained glass that provides a surreal sci-fi backdrop to the boys’ antics. The church opened in 1956 and was typical of the space age houses of worship built on overspill estates all over the country in the post-war period.

Unfortunately, though it looked astonishing, it was plagued with structural problems and was demolished in 1994, which only adds to the value Some People holds as a record of a time and place.

Another particularly striking scene takes place in the Palace Hotel, an especially grand Victorian pub on Old Market. There Johnnie has a breakthrough conversation with his taciturn working class father played by Harry H. Corbett (whose Bristol accent, it must be said, ends up drifting to somewhere near Cork). Real pubs are rarely seen on film, especially in colour, and this is a particular lovely example – cast iron tables, a beaten up piano, everything dark with age, the aroma of smoke and stale beer positively wafting from the screen.

Those with an interest in public transport will thrill at the plentiful footage of the famous Bristol ‘Lodekka’ buses while aviation geeks will get a similar thrill from scenes of Mr Smith at work: when he isn’t encouraging young tearaways to play nicely together he is an engineer overseeing test flights of the Bristol 188 ‘Flaming Pencil’ supersonic jet.

Anneke Wills plays Mr Smith’s daughter, Anne, who has a teenage fling with Johnnie. His influence leads her to buy tight jeans which she further shrinks to fit in the bath. You’d think this scene a little ripe if it turned up in a modern period drama set in the 1960s but here it is charmingly authentic.

In general the film is a useful reminder that in 1962 kids were still wearing quiffs and leather jackets.

Original press ad from 1962
SOURCE: British Newspaper Archive.

Passing scenes of dancehalls, espresso bars and roadside motorbike hangouts will also bring back memories for anyone who was on the scene in the 1960s. Less thrilling but no less evocative are the bus stations, council houses and cigarette factories where real life plays out between bouts of fun or violence. It isn’t Grim Out West, only a little grey, a little sparse, slow and sleepy.

If Some People has weaknesses they are the score – square rock’n’roll arranged by Ron Grainer and performed by local Shadows wannabes The Eagles – and the fact that it is effectively propaganda for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme which part-funded the production. I say ‘effectively’ because Bill, the rebel, delivers several stinging diatribes against it and, frankly, seems much cooler than Johnnie and his gang of goody-goodies.

Once I’d finally watched the film I was more curious than ever about Dad’s reaction and pressed him on it when we next went for a pint. With some reluctance he told me the story.

Like Johnnie, Bill and Bert, he and his 14-year-old friends on a Somerset council estate were often bored and got up to mischief. When it wasn’t joyriding, it was repeatedly breaking into the local CO-OP to steal cigarettes.

One night he returned home to find his father in a foul temper.

“Where have you been, boy?”

“In town to see Some People.”

“Oh, yeah? Some People? Well while you’ve been out, some bloody people have been here to see you.”

The people in this case were the police and Dad ended up with a criminal record.

After that, like Johnnie in the film, he started a rock group and threw his energy into making music rather than trouble, before settling down to a life working in factories and warehouses.

Art imitating life imitating art.

You can watch Some People via BFIPlayer.

Reading 1959: Schooldays, Regency, Cold War

Covers of the three books.

One thing I’m keen to do in exploring novels from 1959 is to read widely – not just the most critically acclaimed books, those reckoned to be in The Canon, but also genre fiction, popular writing and books which have fallen out of fashion. This set, which I read on holiday, contributes to that aim.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles is considered a classic in the US and is, I gather, widely read in schools but I first heard of it in January this year.

It is set in a boys boarding school in New England during World War II and revolves around the intense friendship between the charismatic, athletic Phineas and the academically-minded, sour-witted Gene.

According to some readings, they are in love, though that is never made explicit and was denied by the author. Either way, the closeness of their relationship tips over into hatred for a brief, mad moment and the rest of the book deals with the fallout, against a backdrop of the end of childhood and the threat of conscription.

The landscape, the school, its culture and personalities are beautifully depicted. When Knowles described thawing snow, you feel it; when he writes about the stink of a locker room, your nose curls.

There’s also something startling in the reality of the human relationships the book depicts – of the fine line between affection and animosity, and the constant shifting of allegiance and the balance of power within groups of friends.

On Twitter, I described it as a cross between Brideshead Revisited and Lord of the Flies and, having thought on it for a week, still think that’s about right, flippant as it sounds.

How does it fit into 1959? Well, it’s another example of processing the experience of World War II; and, despite Knowles’s denial of the gay subtext, it also feels like part of an increasing honesty in writing about sex and relationships.

* * *

Georgette Heyer’s The Unknown Ajax is a funny thing – Jane Austen fan fiction, essentially, but more broadly-drawn than the model. If I say that if Hammer Films had fancied branching out into romance, they might have done it justice, does that hint at the tone?

The plot is a good one: the irascible Lord Darracott is reluctantly forced to acknowledge an estranged heir after his son and grandson are killed in a boating accident – Major Hugo Darracott, a giant, uncouth Yorkshireman who has been serving in the Napoleonic wars.

He is not made welcome by the family, especially the independent-minded Anthea, who is expected by her grandfather, his lordship, to marry the Major to keep control of the family fortune in trusted hands.

Hugo, of course, wins them over with his good nature and resourcefulness. After much gothic melodrama around smugglers, ghosts and hidden passageways, there is a twist that most readers will have seen coming from about page ten, but is no less satisfying when it arrives.

At times, it feels like being battered with a dictionary of slang. Having taken the trouble to research the speech and dialect of the Regency, Heyer seems determined to use every nugget, so hardly a line of dialogue is without one or two examples: wet-goose, widgeon, mushroom, once-a-week beaux, and so on. She also likes exclamation marks! In imitation of 18th and early 19th century writers, no doubt, but too much for modern readers!

Heyer is regarded as faintly ridiculous these days, although she remains very much in print, and invented a genre. Unfortunately, I can see why – anyone submitting this manuscript to a publisher in 2019 would be told it was lacking subtlety, riddled with cliches and too derivative. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like The Unknown Ajax, though: it is fun, highly digestible and rich in period detail. And I’ve just bought my Mum a copy.

What marks this out as a product of 1959? The camp quality, perhaps, and the fact that Hugo Darracott is yet another war veteran protagonist, albeit from the wrong war.

* * *

Alistair MacLean is one of those writers whose books I recall being everywhere when I was growing up – a whole shelf at the library, on the revolving racks at the Read-and-Return, cluttering the bargain bins in secondhand bookshops, and then overwhelming charity shops in the 1990s.

His most famous novels, thanks to their film adaptations, are probably Where Eagles Dare, Ice Station Zebra and The Guns of Navarone. His 1959 effort, The Last Frontier, is less well-known, though it too was adapted for the screen, as The Secret Ways starring Richard Widmark, in 1961.

There’s a certain pleasure in reading even bad thrillers. Between coshings, shootings, chases and bouts of torture, there’s rarely time to catch breath and think about the quality of the writing. Unfortunately, this book comes with long stretches of tedious expository dialogue which leave the mind free to reflect on the terrible prose and creaking plot mechanics.

It is set in Hungary in the years immediately following the 1956 uprising and concerns a British agent, Reynolds, who is sent behind the iron curtain to extract a kidnapped scientist with the help of the anti-communist underground.

Reynolds is at first presented as a machine – as a man so perfectly trained that nothing can sway him from his mission, who doesn’t ask questions, who reacts rather than thinks. A whole novel of that would have been interesting to read but, unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for Reynolds to become careless, sentimental, and lovelorn.

At various points, we are expected to believe in disguises so good that they can fool someone who knows both the person being impersonated and the impersonator in extended conversation at close quarters.

We are supposed to accept that the Hungarian secret service, the AVO, is run by a bunch of sinister oddballs who can be fooled by a bit of unsophisticated fibbing.

And chemical torture, it turns out, can be resisted if you try really hard.

All of this would be bearable if the book wasn’t so earnest – if it accepted itself as a bit of fun rather than a serious exposé of the evils of totalitarianism and a treatise on world peace.

Here’s the thing: Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, for all their problems, are ageing well as literature; and if you want dourness without silliness, Le Carre is your man. I just can’t see what MacLean brings to the party. I’d rather read John Gardner.

The 1959 factor? The Cold War in general, and a fear of brainwashing in particular. (I’ve got The Manchurian Candidate, also from 1959, on my to-read pile.)