Friday, April 01, 2016

UNA



UNA


By O. Reader

In a reasonably long life (so far) you tend to meet a lot of people. I know that I have. My voluntary work has taken me to different parts of the country and I know literally thousands of people, and far more superficially know me. My secular career involved publishing and lecturing around the country, and doing battle on message boards. But when you look back, sometimes there is the odd individual who somehow stands out.

So this post is a tribute to Una. I remember her from when I lived in London, and recently I used a variety of websites to trace what became of her. (Which is not the easiest of things to do going forward in time, it is far easier to go back).

Ealing Green in West London has special meaning for me on several levels. The religious building I attended and worked from in London was there. The school I went to (Ealing Grammar) was there. And the Ealing Film Studios were there. For a glorious period of about ten years they produced a series of comedy films that subtly sent up the British character, or at least how the British liked to think of themselves. Most starred Alex Guinness before he was a big hit in The Bridge on the River Kwai and went all po-faced and serious prior to finally ending up in Star Wars. By the time I lived there, the Ealing Film Company had sadly gone, but BBC TV had bought the studios. Most old Ealing Film comedies and many BBC comedy programs from later in time have recognizable locations for me; streets where I called on people, familiar buildings, even the interior of my school for a couple of films. And the whole area was peopled with actors, many of them minor players, who could be called into the studio at a moment’s notice just down the road for work. I met many of these people, but name-dropping here wouldn’t mean much - certainly not to an American audience.

Anyhow, also on Ealing Green lived Una.  She was in her middle years, and was extremely short. She’d spent her life on the fringes of the film industry. She’d acted in one film - she’d played The Infant Phenomenon in the 1947 film version of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, a part for which she was perfectly suited. For those who don’t know their Dickens, the traveling players of Vincent Crummles have as one of their star turns a somewhat elderly infant prodigy, who “though short on stature had a comparatively aged countenance” who “had been kept up late every night and put upon an unlimited allowance of gin-and-water from infancy to prevent her growing tall”. Nicholas looks a little too closely and asks how old she is?  When told she is only ten, he remarks “How extraordinary...”

But probably the most resonant part of Una’s background for me was her parrot - a particularly vicious specimen which invariably advanced menacingly whenever we called. Una’s parrot had been Mrs Wilberforce’s parrot ‘General Gordon’ in The Ladykillers. Forget the unsubtle re-telling with Tom Hanks - the original film version with Alex Guinness, Peter Sellers, and Herbert Lom had it all. Or at least for a British audience, which could appreciate the nation-specific subtleties and stereotypes. (Just watch the scene where a team of hardened criminals are overwhelmed by a gaggle of twittering old ladies handing out cups of tea and cakes while playing Silver Threads Amongst the Gold on an out-of-tune piano.) The director, Alexander Mackendrick went back to the States on the strength of it, and directed the extremely cynical Sweet Smell of Success with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis straight after. Anyhow, I’m getting off the point - which is an Occasional habit - the original film starred Una’s parrot.

Most of her family were in the film industry in some way. One relative I believe was a set designer, and when he died I was given a copy of Jerome K Jerome’s Sketches in Lavender from his library, which I still have. Her brother was a film producer. Yet another relative was a stuntman, who did David Niven’s jump in The Guns of Navarone. As a film junkie and long-time member of the British Film Institute, I had lots to talk about. And I saw specific films again on the strength of the information she gave me.

Only that wasn’t actually my official reason for meeting her. I’d called in our ministry work with a young lady with whom I was an item at the time, and we had been invited in. Una made excellent coffee. And we debated this and that and the other, and each week for number of months got on (as we say in the UK) like a house on fire. It wasn’t our reason for being there, but we read some of the pieces she had written, and she heard some of the humorous verse I was writing at the time before I grew up. Una’s philosophy was best described as agnostic - and just so that my posts impart a tiny bit of erudition, that’s a word that actually comes from the Bible - check the Greek for Acts 17 v.23.

I realize now, that Una wasn’t really all that interested in our message. She was interested in US. Two young people who were idealistic and wildly enthusiastic and - as goes with the territory - probably came over as planning to change the world. (In actual fact, our message was specifically that WE were not going to change the world, but the subtlety of that probably got lost on her.) We were also greatly interested in the arts, or at least of her two visitors, I was.

How did it come to an end? Una went back to work, so was not available at the times we were. The young lady and I broke up. And soon after that (although no connection whatsoever) I said goodbye to London and headed off for the wilds of deepest Berkshire, working my way over the decades to the even wilder wilds of Wales.

But I always remembered Una. And when doing historical research, I wondered if I could trace what happened to her? Her film contacts as well as Ancestry should help. Well, they did. I found from IMDB that she had been a composer. There had been a grand piano in the back room and I’d never asked and she’d never volunteered. Her published composition work however was not remotely classical, but in popular music of the 40s and 50s. It seems surprising that had not come up in conversation, but maybe I had just been more interested in the movies at that time.

Like everybody else I knew from that era, Una ultimately left London. She lived to be 98. I discovered that she had put her memories down on tape for the British Film Institute History Project, one of many groups for which I was already a member. As I write I am waiting for them to digitize the two cassettes her tale is stored on, so I can hear her in her own words as recorded for posterity back in 1991. I am looking forward to that. She appeared on the outside to be a very happy person, with a happy family around her. Perhaps, several decades ago, I should have tried to regain contact. But I remember her now.

5 comments:

An occasional reader said...

Thanks for posting

Harry H said...

She sounds like an amazing person. You Sir are also an amazing person. I'd love to share a pint with you one day and listen to your stories.

An occasional reader said...

Thanks for those kind words. It is sometimes said that truth should not be allowed to get in the way of a good story. Also known as - only the facts have been changed to protect the guilty/innocent - take your pick.

But actually this time I really enjoyed writing Una because it is 100% true. I know she had no children; otherwise I would have tried to track down her descendants and send it to them.

roberto said...

I love the way you write Occasional Reader

An occasional reader said...

It has taken until now (June 9) but the British Film Institute department finally came up the tapes of Una's life story. They found the cassettes and after various false starts digitized them - and they will now be on one of their websites. I remember her voice very well, and her anecdotes brought back memories of conversations from over fifty years ago, especially how she fell out with the director of the one film she appeared in. She actually worked in the studio's music department for many, many years - which all makes sense now. It was a nice surprise to find her story preserved and - hopefully from my intervention - rescued.