The Holly and the Ivy (1952)

When it’s on: Monday, 25 December (2.10 pm)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

I confess I had never heard of The Holly and the Ivy before watching it for this piece, and it’s easy enough to see why the film slipped gently into obscurity. Its British middle class setting has little resonance in an era that was being taken over by the kitchen sink, while World War Two, though mentioned in the film, was better remembered in a string of compelling releases throughout the 1950s. Moreover, it’s an adaptation of a play by Wynyard Browne, ensuring the story takes place for the most part in a confined set and focuses on characters talking at the expense of any real action. Relatively short at little more than 80 minutes in running time, there’s an air of lightness, even of whimsy, and a suggestion that the film is inconsequential and eminently missable.

My main reason for acquiring a copy was for the presence of Celia Johnson, one of those actors whose name on the bill guarantees my interest. I haven’t seen many films starring her, principally because she made limited appearances on celluloid and favoured the stage, however she’s always a treat. Best known for Brief Encounter, Johnson was the epitome of that tragic English lady, saddled with duty and what’s expected of her while her emotions and longings are buried as well as they can be. In her case, the feelings would be expressed in her lamplight eyes, the little jawline set as she looks on to some distant horizon to which her dreams are vanishing, wanting to follow and knowing she cannot. In The Holly and the Ivy, she plays Jenny, the eldest daughter of Reverend Martin Gregory (Ralph Richardson), trapped in a life of serving him dutifully while wanting to marry David (John Gregson) and go with him to his job in South America. The contract runs for five years, which means if she doesn’t go then her opportunity for wedded bliss will be over. It’s the quintessential Johnson role in other words, and she doesn’t disappoint.

Her story is one in a sequence of dramatic threads that play out over the course of the narrative. The family is returning for Christmas to the little Norfolk town where Martin lives in his parsonage. For some, like Aunt Lydia (Margaret Halstan, reprising her role in the play), it’s a reprieve from her widow’s existence of living in hotels. To others, the cossetted little world to which they return holds little meaning, as it does for Margaret (Margaret Leighton), Martin’s other daughter who works as a fashion journalist in London. Margaret appears to be the the classic ‘flown the roost’ child who’s moved on to bigger and better things, but she carries a dark side, lapses into alcoholism, which has its origin in a devastating secret that she’s kept for some years. As the family gathers for a happy time together, the demons and resentments they carry will be prised out, and reveal much about how everyone is playing a part so that they don’t upset the Pastor in his Christian and supposedly limited world view.

The comment on tensions between family members at Christmas strikes a note that can resonate with everyone, and there are references to the time it was made that add to the charm. The Holly and the Ivy is set in early 1950s Britain, still an era of post-war austerity that affects everyone, even this middle class family that can’t afford the services of a housekeeper for Martin, in which post-dinner cigars are handed out as a rare treat rather then the norm. Martin’s son, Michael (Denholm Elliott) is in the army, a temporary move he has made to put off his decision over whether to go to Cambridge University, which he knows will be costly. The family’s relationship with their head of the household Pastor is one of falseness, a series of bland pleasantries in which their paramount sensibility is not to upset his beliefs and values, yet withholding information from him is doing him a disservice. As Michael points out, his role isn’t only to provide sermons but to help people, and that includes his own family.

The story therefore builds up to a happy conclusion of sorts, one in which the sources of stress are largely resolved and point to a more hopeful future. In that sense it’s a little pat. The most tragic element of kitchen sink dramas is that there was often no happy ending. No matter what was overcome during the course of the film, the troubles of a difficult working class life remained and always would, so the neat climax as shown in The Holly and the Ivy was simply one battle won in a war of endless attrition against poverty and privation. And in that sense, you can see how this one carries little that can be identified with. That however isn’t the fault of the film, which is set within its own circumstances and remains a nicely acted drama, its characters largely drawn well and calling on memorable turns notably from Johnson, Richardson, Leighton, and Maureen Delaney as a caustic, well meaning Scottish Aunt, played largely for comic effect.

It’s certainly worth a watch, for its ultimate message of hope and its fine acting, also because it’s been very nicely restored and looks good. Fans of Celia Johnson will have much to enjoy; I know I did. As a drama it’s refreshingly adult in tone, one that dwells not at all on fantastic elements or those appealing to children, but rather on the theme of Christmas as a family time, with all the problems and potential for optimism that comes with it.

The Holly and the Ivy: ***

Just to wish everyone who reads these pages a very happy Christmas! Thank you for your support and for reading – love and peace to you all 🙂

The Battle of the River Plate (1956)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 17 March (10.45 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

The account of the German cruiser ship, Admiral Graf Spee, is a genuinely riveting yarn from the early months of World War Two. As a popular story, it hasn’t survived the years, probably because it didn’t lead to enormous levels of human sacrifice and the Germans involved weren’t senseless monsters, but it is good stuff and worth recounting here. For those who haven’t seen The Battle of the River Plate, bear in mind that the film follows the factual events very closely.

Following Germany’s defeat in World War One, the Treaty of Versailles imposed strict limitations on the size of warships it could build, the aim being to deny it the opportunity to compete with Britain in terms of constructing titanic Dreadnought style boats. The Deutschland-class Cruiser, of which Admiral Graf Spee was one, had various innovations designed to keep it within weight restrictions and as a consequence developed a superior vessel. The British dubbing of these ships as ‘pocket battleships’ might suggest some little tub with firepower, but Graf Spree was formidable, armed with powerful guns, fast and highly maneuverable. In short, the perfect ship for attacking merchants carrying supplies to Britain. Shortly before war broke out but with the declaration imminent, Graf Spee slunk out of its German port and into the South Atlantic, from where it could prey on shipping. This it did, racking up an impressive record of sinkings and remaining elusively at large.

Its captain, Hans Langsdorff, was a fascinating figure, a tactical genius who pulled every trick in the book to escape capture and to make the threat of his single ship look as though an entire convoy of warships was out there. In addition he was a humanist, insisting that merchant ships were ordered to send their crews across to the Graf Spee before they were sunk. Langsdorff’s attitude was that the war was on Allied shipping, not the sailors, who would be held as prisoners and treated well.

Graf Spee’s success alerted British ships of war, which made searching and destroying it their highest priority. The ‘hunting group’ that came across and battled it was led by Commodore Henry Harwood, a seaman as tactically astute as Langsdorff and with acute knowledge of the South Atlantic. Harwood guessed the pocket battleship’s movements correctly, a dazzling insight that seems to have emerged wholly from calculated guesswork, and his three ships engaged Graf Spee on the River Plate, the massive estuary leading from South America into the Atlantic Ocean. Despite the German boat’s better guns, it was eventually out-maneuvered and crippled, leaving it with no choice but to head for the nearest port and make repairs.

This happened to be at Montevideo, the picturesque capital of Uruguay. The two remaining British ships waited outside for Graf Spee’s re-emergence, aware that Langsdorff was perfectly capable of escaping somewhere along the estuary because of the size of the area they had to patrol. Engaging the services of British diplomat Eugen Millington-Drake, attempts were made to shorten the time Graf Spee needed to be fixed – Langsdorff wanted two to three weeks; he was given four days. In the meantime, the British Foreign Office, knowing fully that their phones were being tapped by German agents, put it about that further ships were massing in order to deal with it, whereas in reality only one was close enough to help. The overall effect of all this pressure was to compel Langsdorff into scuttling Graf Spee, turning the episode into a major British success story. It was also a big deal in Montevideo itself, locals clamouring to follow the news of what would happen next and reporters covering the story gaining minor celebrity status.

Little wonder that this suggested great cinematic material, and even better that it was made for the screen by the dynamic creative force that was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The pair hit upon the idea whilst attending a film festival in Argentina and getting the details, seeing it as the ticket to reviving the ailing fortunes of their production company, The Archers. British and American ships were hired and deployed in the Mediterranean in order to give the film some authentic boats to photograph, whilst some of the best models available were built for the scenes where ships are suffering heavy damage.

In order to convey the character of Langsdorff (Peter Finch), many of the film’s early scenes are between him and a captured merchant captain, played by Bernard Lee. As Lee’s Captain Dove is treated with every courtesy by the German, he comes to respect and even admire him, though it doesn’t stop him and his fellow captives from cheering on the British when they open fire. Harwood is a never more charismatic Anthony Quayle. John Gregson plays Captain Bell (and wore a specially made wax nose for the role, in honour of the real life captain, who was affectionately known as ‘Hookie’ by his men), in charge of the Exeter, the British light cruiser that took the heaviest damage and suffered the most casualties. In many ways, Gregson’s is the choice role as he gets to rally his troops, make quick decisions and score a decisive blow on Graf Spee.

However, the moments when Bell is racing around his ship, sometimes literally fighting fires, are by some distance the most exciting scenes in the film. For the most part, it’s a well crafted but ultimately highly ‘talkie’ picture, filled with characters discussing their strategies with a brief reprieve for bits where big ships fire upon each other. The actual battle takes place in the film’s middle; following is the lengthy aftermath in Montevideo, the British efforts to bluff Langsdorff into giving up and ending the fighting. It’s fine, but it isn’t thrilling, though there’s a nice sense of the excitement it causes in the city, including a very young Christopher Lee playing a Uruguayan bar owner who gets increasingly exasperated with all the attention.

Christopher Challis was the Director of Photography responsible for bringing to life those highly impressive battle scenes, the smooth maneuvering of massive ships preparing for conflict. It’s a beautifully shot film, unfortunately it’s one of those rare instances of the actual events being a lot more exciting than those committed to celluloid (there’s a great episode of Timewatch covering the story available on YouTube). The post-battle scenes remain somewhat anti-climactic, even with the closing money shot of Graf Spee on fire and sinking.

All the same, it was Powell and Pressburger’s biggest hit at the box office and a late success for the partnership. A happier ending than that met by Langsdorff himself. In the film, he meets Dove for a final chat that makes clear the respect he’s earned. In reality, having ensured that no further lives were lost (despite the misgivings of Hitler, who wanted him to continue the fight) and overseeing his crew’s transfer to Buenos Aires, he took his own life.

The Battle of the River Plate: ***