by Allan Fish
(UK 1941 100m) DVD2
Down in Hankey Park
p John Baxter d John Baxter w Walter Greenwood, Barbara K.Emery, Rollo Gamble play/novel Walter Greenwood ph James Wilson ed Michael C.Chorlton m Richard Addinsell art R.Holmes Paul
Deborah Kerr (Sally Hardcastle), Geoffrey Hibbert (Harry Hardcastle), Clifford Evans (Larry Meade), George Carney (Henry Hardcastle), Joyce Howard (Helen), Frank Cellier (Sam Grundy), Mary Merrall (Mrs Hardcastle), Maire O’Neill (Nancy Dorbell), Marjorie Rhodes (Mrs Bull), Marie Ault (Alice Jike), Iris Vandeleur (Mrs Nattle), A.Bromley Davenport, Kenneth Griffith, Peter Gawthorne,
I remember where I was when I heard of Deborah Kerr’s death in the autumn of 2007. I was sat in front of a friend’s PC in Fairview, New Jersey scanning through the BBC website. Despite her appearance in such films as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, Julius Caesar, From Here to Eternity and The Innocents, it was neither of them that I thought of. It was rather her appearance at nineteen as Sally Hardcastle in this early, overlooked British classic that presented itself to memory. The irony was not lost on me that I was so far away from Blighty, and particular from the second home, Salford, where the film and original play and novel were set.
Growing up I remember in my frequent visits to Salford seeing a block of flats with the name Walter Greenwood Court just across from the then thriving shopping precinct. It’s gone now, raised to the ground with many others of its ilk, and no street or landmark bears his name. Though few of my generation know of him, they should, for he documented better than any other a complete way of life soon to vanish forever.
Sally Hardcastle lives at home with her parents and her younger brother Harry in a small house in Hankey Park in Salford. Harry can’t afford to pay for a decent suit with which to go out on Sunday and impress his lady friend, Helen, while Sal is bored of the attentions of the men around her, including middle-aged bookie Sam Grundy. She’s more interested in Welsh political demonstrator Larry Meade. However, things take a turn for the worse when the mine that employs Harry and his father lays them off, Harry gets Helen in the family way on a trip to Blackpool and Sal’s beloved Larry is killed in a disturbance. Reluctantly, she decides to become a kept woman for Sam Grundy who arranges jobs for her brother and father, but her father disowns her as a whore.
It may seem a little archaic today, but socially the film remains invaluable, while there are enough expressionist techniques to belie John Baxter’s anonymous reputation. He’s helped immeasurably by his cast, with Hibbert touching and Merrall and Carney – banging his brush on the ceiling to attract attention in the time-honoured way – the epitome of working class parenthood. At its heart, Kerr – replacing Wendy Hiller from the play, who was a local but unavailable – is excellent as Sal, her normal faint Scottish brogue submerged in a realistic portrait of grim Northern durability who realises her only hope is to pawn her body while others pawn what little belongings they have at the local miser’s pawnbroker shop. (In passing, one must recall the memorable sequence where the women charge into the pawnbroker’s as it opens as if it was the January Sale.) Indeed, Robert Murphy was quite right when he observed that the real bite comes “from the gaggle of black-coated gosspis – Mrs Dorbell, Mrs Nattle, Mrs Jike and Mrs Bull – who, Greek chorus-like, pronounce judgement over their ha’porth o’ gin.” And what a quartet they are, sipping away up to thruppence worth of spirits under the watchful eyes of Queen Victoria’s portrait, most memorably the Oirish Maire O’Neill as the unstoppable Mrs Dorbell and Marjorie Rhodes as the screwed on, pragmatic Mrs Bull. You only have to leap forward a generation and it might be Minnie Caldwell and Ena Sharples in the Rovers Return. “Are there any spirits here tonight?“, Mrs Jike calls out mid séance, and one half expects Mrs Bull to reply “aye, if you look in t’cupboard.” It’s not only unforgettable but a vibrant pre-cursor of sixties kitchen sink realism.