Today's books, when I get to them, will be:
The Filmgoer's Companion
The Film Guide
& Seats in All Parts
all by Leslie Halliwellpublished 1985
The connection between film minutiae, and summer sports events, and the weather, may be hard to trace, but for 30 years it was undoubtedly there. The Wimbledon tennis tournament has been almost wholly free from rain so far this year, very unusually, but I still thought with nostalgia, as I do every year, of an odd corner of TV and film practice from my earlier life, so I am writing about it in the hope that it might be familiar to other film fans.
Leslie Halliwell was renowned to my generation as THE great expert on films, and the author of wonderful reference books that we used all the time before the Internet and IMDB made life easier.
And so I am going to describe something called a Double Halliwell, in the hopes that others will recognize this manoeuvre, and tell me that they did the same. We always called it that in my family - film and casting fiends all. Those who join our family later claim that throughout any film or TV drama the family talks all the time, saying ‘Who’s that – was he the one in that Agatha Christie last week?’ and ‘ she must have made this film before she married X, do you think?’ and (of course!) ‘SHE must be the murderer: she wouldn’t have taken the role otherwise’. But then when the credits roll there is absolute silence as everyone studies them closely. (Of course we pull the new people into the cult eventually, and soon they are saying knowledgeably ‘she must have played one of the Bennet girls in Pride and Prejudice’ – always a safe bet – or wondering if this was one of a later star’s first films.)
Anyway, gather round while Grandma explains about
The Double Halliwell
Imagine it is a summer’s day long in the past and you think you will watch some Wimbledon or cricket on a Tuesday afternoon, so you switch on the TV, but there are no sportspersons in sight. Instead there is a black and white film halfway through. It is obvious that rain must have halted play, so the BBC is showing a film instead - but infuriatingly, there is no way to know what film it is if you don’t recognize it. This is maddening, an unscratched itch. We are talking the 1970s, 80s and most of the 90s here: you can’t just hit an info button on your remote control, you can’t go on Twitter and ask your mates, you can’t look at a BBC website and see if they are explaining what is happening.
You could wait till the end of the film, in the hope that the announcer will say ‘That film, The Bishop’s Wife, was shown instead of our Wimbledon coverage, which was stopped by rain.’ But a) how annoying to wait and b) quite often (unbelievably, but it is so) the announcer would not tell you and c) if it’s got a bishop in it, and his wife, and it stars David Niven and Cary Grant, you pretty much know what film it is.
So let’s take a less obvious example.
The film is set in London during WW2, and has a feel of that era, ie it’s not looking back at the war from the safety of the 1950s. You think you recognize John Mills. So now you get your Halliwell 1 out – his Filmgoer’s Companion: a doorstopper of a reference book, it lists actors in alphabetical order, and gives you the names and dates of all their films. You look up the awe-inspiring oeuvre of John Mills: he made seventeen films between 1939 & 1946. (But you know this one isn’t either Great Expectations or The Young Mr Pitt, due to the lack of historical costume.)
Now, you might say ‘But wait! Who is that, also in the film? It is Alastair Sim.’ So then you could look up his list of films in Halliwell 1. But: he and John Mills made at least two films together in the early 40s, Waterloo Road and Cottage to Let.
[At this point, if there were more than one of you, someone would be saying: ‘Waterloo Road? Nah, that’s the one with Vivian Leigh as ballerina turned prostitute, this isn’t it.’ But they are thinking of Waterloo BRIDGE, a quite different thing.]
So now you get out your Halliwell 2, the Film Guide, equally huge, which is a list of every film ever made at that time, just about. And you can look up the synopses of both of these films, and establish that what you are watching is Waterloo Road, and very excellent it is too, and ooh look, is that a young Stewart Granger playing a spiv? (Yes it is). And even if you didn’t manage the Alastair Sim extra filter, the combination of the two books would have got you there anyway.
Leslie Halliwell was the film buff extraordinaire, and his two reference books were valuable to an extent unimaginable in this day and age. New updated versions would come out regularly – in my family the children tended to generously buy them for the parents, so the older versions could trickle down to our new lives in shared flats. He was very opinionated, but you always knew how to skirt round his prejudices, and the facts were sacred. He had a vocab for films – I don’t know if others shared it: an oater was a Western, a thickear a violent gangster film, a caper was what I think in the US would be a heist - a carefully planned crime seen from the POV of the criminals.
[*** In the comments below Lucy Fisher directed me to this webpage, which demonstrates Halliwell's style and humour perfectly, in bite-sized quotes. And I do recommend all the comments below for personal takes on films and Halliwell and the gritty process of id-ing actors. ***]
Interspersed with the factual lists would be small entertaining pieces – lists of weird titles, remakes, book-to-film conversions, and overviews of certain stars, as, say, The Marx Brothers. He also produced a book about his 100 favourite films, a TV guide, and books of quotes and quizzes.
And he also wrote
Seats in all Parts
- a delightful memoir. It's the story of a lifetime obsession with films. It divides into roughly two sections – his childhood growing up in Bolton in the 1930s, and then his life when he went to Cambridge, and ended up running a cinema in the city. Both strands are fascinating, and absolutely suffused with a world of old movies. This is a charming and nostalgic book, very funny, and Leslie Halliwell sounds like the just the lovely man we all knew he must be.
He died in 1989, and couldn’t have imagined that his reference works would be unnecessary in this internet age. But his words on films are still well worth reading. I have been looking at some of his books for old times sake while writing this, and was unable to put them down: they are irresistible.
And this memoir of films, cinemas, and a lifetime passion is a delight.
The picture is Edward Hopper’s New York Movie, because what else could I use?