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?
You've done such an excellent job, Moira, of tying in Wimbledon, film, and weather! At first, I wasn't sure where you were going with this, but I'm very glad I went along for the ride. I do love good film guides, and it sounds as though these are excellent. Oh, and I remember the feeling of having to scrabble for that information in those days before the Internet...ReplyDelete
Thanks Margot, it was a weird connection, but I was sure some people would like it. And yes, we wouldn't be without the internet, but we are allowed some nostalgia for the way things were.Delete
God bless Google - we do play "the what have they been in before game", but with internet on phones its not quite as taxing as it used to be. Someone usually cheats (probably me)ReplyDelete
There is a *faint* possibility that advancing age is playing havoc with my memory these days - am very glad to have the Great Google to hand. Nothing more annoying than not being able to remember where you know that face from...Delete
I'm sure someone's about to invent an app which when you hover your phone over an actor's face will immediately give you a name and list of films they've been in - a sort of visual version of shazam. (In fact someone probably already has, I'm so behind on things like this.)ReplyDelete
But it will take away all the fun you describe - I like wondering aloud and racking my brain to remember where I've seen an actor before, and it always spoils it if someone says 'just google it'.
Shazam for faces is a great idea, but exactly as you say, ruins the fun a bit... Google a last resort. (though as I say above, I wouldn't be without it. Eventually. After driving everyone mad trying to remember... )Delete
So much enjoyed this, Moira and now I must read that memoir. I have been especially enjoying watching the Danish/Swedish noir TV because there is such a small pool of actors so one is forever saying things like 'oh look that dodgy policeman used to be married to the prime minister in Borgen!'ReplyDelete
Oh yes that's so hilarious, and so true! There've been a few Welsh dramas coming through lately, I think that might be similar....Delete
He had a way with an adjective: http://www.lesliehalliwell.com/favourite_reviews/index.htmlReplyDelete
Oh that's excellent Lucy, a perfect summing up of his style. Going to put a link in the piece above.Delete
Oh, I loved this! Like you, we were a family that talked all the way through films ('I like those curtains') and our copy of Halliwell was held together with lashings of sellotape.ReplyDelete
My mother was queen of obscure-actor recognition. When I was about 12 (in 1972), we went on a cruise to celebrate my parents' 25th wedding anniversary. It was a cut-price job - basically a rust-bucket cargo ship called the 'Monte Ulia' plying between London and the Canary Islands, with with a few cabins, a swimming pool like a dent in the deck, a library full of incredibly obscure 1950s hardbacks and some minimal entertainment: clay-pigeon shooting; the odd quiz; a fancy dress party. The passengers were a incredibly diverse bunch, and included a bloke that my father spotted in the library, tearing the pages out of a book he was reading in order to blow his nose.
As soon as we left the London docks, my mother and I started to feel sea-sick. This worsened as we hit the Bay of Biscay, and for about forty-eight hours, all we could do was like on our bunks in our windowless cabin (yes - bunks for an anniversary cruise) queasily waiting for the sea to smooth out a bit. My mother occupied her time by thinking about her fellow passengers: that very eccentric-looking long-haired, droopy-skirted older woman, partner to the nose-blower - surely she was familiar in some way?.... The feeling of familiarity nagged at her, but it wasn't until we were off the coast of Spain that the answer suddenly came: the woman was familiar because my mother had seen her in an obscure Sunday afternoon black-and-white film about white slavery, made in the 1940s - and when, the next day, we were able to get as far as the dining-room, my mother went up to the lady and said, 'Are you Anita Sharp-Bolster?' - and yes, she was, and yes, it must have made that lady's CENTURY!!!
ps Just to add to this: - for some reason, the ship was delayed in London for a day before sailing, so as compensation, all the passengers were taken in a coach to see a stage revival of 'The King and I'. I've just checked, and no, this isn't just some weird dream I had, the King of Siam really WAS played by Peter Wyngarde.Delete
Oh that's so lovely and so funny, and so EXACTLY what my mother is like. And yes, how happy dear Anita would have been. My mother would've been saying to us 'Yes you do know her, she played the sister in that thing, you remember, the one about the dog, or it might have been a cat.' I have just been recommending to my mother a film on Talking Pictures TV which features an actor who grew up round the corner to her - John Gregson - and whose mother knew her mother.Delete
I think Peter Wyngarde as the King of Siam is too hard to contemplate right now. I'll have to edge round it in bite-sized chunks.
PS I did have to check that you hadn't made up the name Anita Sharp-Bolster, and indeed you hadn't.Delete
Oh, I love John Gregson - such a gentle, funny, English presence. Incidentally - and here we go again on families - early on in 'Genevieve', Dinah Sheridan's character drops a basket of shopping, and one of my sisters cites this as the first sighting of a red pepper in British film.ReplyDelete
OMG, your sister (one I met?) totally wins with that, what an amazing perception. Social history: a misspent youth watching old films was actually important study and research.Delete
Have you ever seen a film called The Holly and the Ivy? 1950s, b/w, Ralph Richardson plays a vicar with grownup children with problems? John Gregson (Scottish for no apparent reason, and very unlikely in a farmer's son in an English village) is the fiancé of the dutiful daughter. It is one of my favourite films of all time, and I think you would love it. I watch it every Christmas. I think it does pop up on Talking Pictures TV occasionally.
No, never seen it, and it goes straight onto my wish-list.Delete
Let me know how it goes.Delete
We still do a mini-version of that almost every night. When our television turns on ... it is always on Turner Classic Movies, although we hardly ever watch movies on TV anymore. So when it comes on it is usually mid-movie. The first thing we do is try to recognize the movie. If it is not obvious, like My Fair Lady or Casablanca or Yankee Doodle Dandy, then we turn to Glen for his expertise. If we can't figure it out, later he checks the TCM schedule. We have discovered some interesting movies that way.ReplyDelete
When watching TV crime shows, we usually decide it is the most recognizable guest star that will be the villain.
So glad to hear it - though not a bit surprised! You would fit right in with my family... It is immensely satisfying to do it that way, isn't it?Delete
I was interested to see Noah Stewart saying recently that in certain circs the most famous star could be ruled out as the villain, because the actors wouldn't want to play unsympathetic characters...