Tuesday, May 24, 2016

From O. Reader


I am a great fan of British B pictures - those “quota quickies” that the British film industry was obliged to make in the 1940s through to the early 1960s as support for the big picture - which often came from America. They were cheaply and very quickly produced and many directors and actors cut their teeth on them. Watching them today - in glorious grainy black and white - it is great fun to see famous thespians of later years playing the cinematic equivalent of Shakespeare’s third murderer in Macbeth.

One series we are currently enjoying all over again on DVD was called “Scotland Yard”. These were three reelers, designed to last half an hour when the big picture was a bit long (and a total performance was rarely allowed to exceed three hours). Nearly 40 were made, and they were all crime investigations, and all were introduced by the solemn faced and sonorous toned Edgar Lustgarten who also acted as narrator.

Lustgarten (we always used to call him Edgar Last-Gasper) was a lawyer, writer and broadcaster, and a fixture on British radio for several decades. And I would always listen to him in his various radio series of famous crimes, trials, and scandals, with him often playing all the parts.

One of the best, which I quite often revisit, was about William Joyce, “Lord Haw-Haw”, the radio propagandist for the Nazi regime, who was hanged by the British as a traitor in 1946.

Joyce was a familiar voice over the airwaves throughout the war; broadcasts that many Brits found amusing. Lustgarten was involved in propaganda broadcasts back to Germany, using the pseudonym Brent Wood to hide his Jewish background, and the two men reportedly indulged in oblique verbal sparring at times. However, for the public, the dialog was somewhat one-way. Listening to Haw-Haw in Britain was a popular entertainment; listening to British broadcasts in Germany could be punishable by death.

But Lustgarten did this radio documentary about Joyce, and got the voice impersonation off (as the Brits would say) “to a T”. (As an aside, had Joyce been captured a few years after the war, he would have probably served a token sentence, and then written his memoirs. Unfortunately for him he was captured in the full flood of post-war retribution, and was convicted of treason. Since technically he was never a British citizen, but Irish-American, his conviction and execution has caused legal misgivings since. And his wife, who also broadcast propaganda and certainly WAS British, was never charged. But as one authority put it - in the climate of the times, better men were executed for less. Americans who broadcast for the enemy like “Tokyo Rose” and “Axis Sally” got away far lighter in comparison.)

Anyhow, we were talking about Edgar Lustgarten. Actually, we were talking about British B pictures in which he appeared. I really must keep to the point. Whatever that is.

These little films started with the dramatic tones of - “SCOTLAND YARD”. Americans should imagine a token rip-off from the introduction to “The FBI” or “Dragnet”. We would go through doors into the secret rooms of Scotland Yard where about three men in a small room would be using state of the art technology - maps on tables, magnifying glasses, that sort of thing - and then we would home in on a file that said “The Driscoll Case” or similar. Cut to Last-Gasper, I mean Lustgarten, who would introduce the story.

They were all filmed at Merton Park Studios, home of another long running B series based, loosely, on the work of Edgar Wallace. The studio was tiny. So we would have the police in their headquarters, the size of small closet. The villain had maybe escaped to somewhere exotic - say, Morocco. Cut to stock footage of airplane in the sky, then stock footage of Morocco, and then police headquarters in Morocco - the same closet now decked with slightly different furniture and British character actors with unconvincing make-up and even more unconvincing accents. By the end of thirty minutes the crime was solved, and Lustgarten would pontificate over the end credits.

It was great fun. It never failed.

And the sheer limitations of the form gave the whole series a new lease of life when TV took over. That reliance on close ups and few characters - created by threadbare budgetary considerations - actually made them ideal for the small screens of early TV and they all had new lease of life.

Modern films with their emphasis on CGI and action and bloated lengths and surround sound quite often leave me cold. But creaky old movies with creaky old plots and ghosts from the past in the casts - I can enjoy them time and again.

I think I’ll put one on the player right now.

1 comment:

  1. It's always a pleasure when I read your articles Jerome.