Holiday Camp (Ken Annakin, 1947)

This is my contribution to the Beach Party Blogathon, being hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. Please do visit and look at the other postings.

Holiday Camp 3As soon as I heard about the Beach Party Blogathon, I thought it would be fun to write about a film focusing on the great British holidays of the past. There are actually several to choose from, including The Entertainer, where Laurence Olivier is brilliant as seedy seaside entertainer Archie Rice, and the war-time drama Millions Like Us, which begins with a family holiday during the summer of 1939. I hope to write about both films in the future.

However, in the end this time I decided to spotlight Holiday Camp, the smash hit feature film debut of the great Ken Annakin, which gives a vivid portrayal of a world vanished forever. At the start of the film, hundreds of holidaymakers are eagerly flocking by train to a large camp – in fact Butlins at Filey in North Yorkshire, although the location is never stated.

This is a portmanteau-style drama, written by Sydney and Muriel Box, with several different stories unfolding simultaneously. The whole cast is excellent, but Jack Warner and Kathleen Harrison steal the show as middle-aged couple Joe and Ethel Huggett, taking a break with their two grown-up children and their baby grandchild. Three more Huggett adventures followed this one, and I’m certainly keen to see them too. There’s plenty of chemistry between the central couple and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Jack Warner in a non-police role (though, even so, he does take on a pair of criminals at one point!)

Hazel Court and Dennis Price

Hazel Court and Dennis Price

The assorted holidaymakers arrive to find themselves regimented into a series of activities organised by the camp’s Redcoats. Unmarried couples can’t share a room, and instead singles are matched up with strangers of the same sex as room-mates, in blocks which one character compares to prisons. The camp’s own radio station urges everyone to get up early for a keep-fit session in the open air, and everybody trudges obediently to the canteen three times a day for meals. With rationing still in force, nobody can afford to miss out.

Comedians such as ‘Cheerful Charlie Chester’ take the stage (I remember him on radio in the 1960s and 70s) and every girl in sight is dragooned into a poolside beauty contest. It’s all very similar to the world of hit TV sitcom Hi-de-Hi!, set just a few years later, although I didn’t notice anybody dressing up as a “funny carrot” in this one! After having seen Millions Like Us recently, I was interested to see that its star, Patricia Roc, has a brief cameo as herself in this film, judging the beauty contest.

Jack Warner in a publicity shot for the film

Jack Warner in a publicity shot for the film

I was rather surprised that so little of the film actually takes place on the beach, since Filey is known for its sands. Most of the action happens within the camp, with water scenes filmed around the pool rather than beside the sea. Perhaps the explanation is that the film was made in the winter, even though the bikini-clad women valiantly try to look as if they are basking in sunshine! It was probably tempting to do as much filming as possible back at the Gaumont-British studios in Shepherd’s Bush. According to the trivia section at the imdb, actress Jean Kent was originally due to star, but became ill because it was so cold on location and had to pull out.

Not surprisingly, war casts a heavy shadow over this film, made after just two years of peace. The Huggetts’ daughter, Joan (Hazel Court, who was only 21 and looks even younger) is a war widow, and is nervous about telling her new boyfriend, Jimmy (Jimmy Hanley) that she’s already a mum. An older holidaymaker, lonely Esther Harman (Flora Robson) is haunted by the memory of her lost love, a soldier who never came back from the First World War.

Jack Warner and Kathleen Harrison

Jack Warner and Kathleen Harrison

Other storylines include the plight of a penniless young musician and his pregnant girlfriend, a card-sharping pair who target the Huggetts’ son, and a sinister charmer, Binkie (Dennis Price) who is obviously lying about his service as a pilot in the war. But what is his real story?

There are spoilers in this next paragraph. (These are also mentioned in the comments).

The sexism in much of the film had me flinching, but I was in for a surprise. Ageing Elsie Dawson (Carry On actress Esma Cannon) sets out to catch a man, and there is quite a bit of unkind humour at her expense. Meanwhile, Binkie romances Angela Kirby (Yvonne Owen), and woos her with remarkable success, via acts of minor violence. Every time he twists her arm or crushes her hand, she suddenly smiles and says something like “Ooh, you he-man!”, rashly agreeing to go on a date after all.

Esma Cannon as Elsie

Esma Cannon as Elsie

However, this isn’t just a nasty joke about women enjoying violence, as I thought at first. It becomes increasingly clear that Binkie really is a sadist. There is a glimpse of him washing clothes in secret at the start, which I took to be just a sign of his poverty, but is in fact him covering up his parallel life as a serial killer. When Angela decides she has had enough and turns away, he persuades Elsie (who knows too much about his real identity) to go for a late-night walk – and there is a chilling moment as he enfolds her in a deadly embrace. Anybody who was tempted into laughing at either Elsie or Binkie earlier on (and that’s probably everybody watching the film!) suddenly discovers the violence beneath the comedy. As the rest of the holidaymakers head for the train, smiling and talking about the great time they’ve had, Binkie is arrested – and Elsie will never go home again.

There’s a blogathon coming up focusing on the year 1947, which is mainly focused on Hollywood – but I have the impression this was a great year for British film too, with this one and the superb Ealing drama It Always Rains on Sunday.

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19 thoughts on “Holiday Camp (Ken Annakin, 1947)

  1. I always associate Jack Warner with the charming scoundrel he played in the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol, so I find it hard to picture him as either a cop or a dad, but I think he’s an excellent actor; as is Kathleen Harrison (who was also in the Christmas Carol film). This movie really sounds interesting, with a great British cast. Do you know if Dennis Price’s character was based on an actual British serial killer? I thought of John Haigh, the so-called acid bath killer, but he seems to have been caught after this film was released.

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    • Many thanks for the great comment, G.O.M. – this does indeed have a fine cast. I don’t know if there was any real-life basis for Price’s character in this film, though it’s an interesting question.

      For any British viewer of a certain age, Jack Warner is the TV policeman, after playing Dixon of Dock Green on TV for 21 years, following on from the 1950 film The Blue Lamp. I only saw a few of the later episodes of Dixon, when he was really much too old for the character, but, looking up the show on the imdb, I see he was in an amazing 432 episodes. I should really try to see a few of those which survive! I do agree he was good in A Christmas Carol.

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  2. Is this Dennis Price’s first outing as a serial killer before his classic performance in Kind Hearts and Coronets? This one was available to me during my journey through 1947 but I didn’t get that far. Now I’m sorry I missed it. Will add it to my catch-up queue.

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    • Hope you get a chance to see it, Bea – I found it very enjoyable. It must have been hard to decide which films to watch from 1947, as it was such a great year, with a whole blogathon coming up devoted to its releases! That’s an interesting point about Dennis Price’s role in Kind Hearts and Coronets – I’m not sure if this was the first time he played a serial killer or not. I definitely want to see more of his work. Thanks for visiting and commenting!

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  3. Pingback: The Beach Party Blogathon: Day 1 Recap | Silver Screenings

  4. This film sounds like it encapsulates some of my Butlins memories – the rationing and the same-sex room-mates rule might’ve been relaxed but the organised activities and the dubious ‘summer romances’ remained!! Thanks for the intro, I’ll have to give this one a watch.

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    • I only stayed at a holiday camp once when my daughter was very small – she loved the funfair and swimming pool, but I didn’t come across any of the organised activities! Hope you enjoy this one – I think you will. Thanks for the comment.

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    • This is the first Huggett film I’ve seen, but I do want to catch the others now too. I haven’t seen ‘Bank Holiday’, but, looking at the details of it on the imdb, it looks as if there are many similarities with this one – and another great director, Carol Reed. I’ll hope to see that one too, many thanks for mentioning it.. There seem to have been quite a few of these portmanteau dramas in the 1930s and 40s – another good one is ‘Friday the Thirteenth’ from 1933, starring Jessie Matthews.

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  5. Thanks for introducing this movie to me. Hazel Court, I have seen mostly in horror films, so it would be interesting to see her in a non-horror flick. Flora Robson, I am familiar with her body of work, and Dennis Price, but the other actors and actresses aren’t known to me. The name Jack Warner makes me think of the legendary Hollywood Studio Chief!

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    • Jenni, I’m not a big horror fan so I don’t think I’ve seen Hazel Court’s films in that genre – thanks for the interesting information. The two Jack Warners can cause confusion when searching for classic film info (I’ve also read a lot about the studio boss!), but it’s definitely worth checking out the British film actor of that name! Thanks so much for visiting and commenting.

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  6. This film sounds like a winner and I’ll be hunting it down. I heard of the Huggett adventures but haven’t seen any yet. The Brits were great at making “portmanteau style” dramas. My sister and I recently saw Derby Day and we loved the different storylines unfolding in that one. Looking forward to reading your write-ups on The Entertainer and Millions Like Us.

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    • I haven’t seen ‘Derby Day’, but it sounds very good and has a fine cast, so I’ll hope to catch it soon – thanks for the suggestion and for the kind words. I hope you enjoy the Huggett adventures!

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    • Many thanks for the kind words and the invitation, but I’m already taking part in your blogathon at my other blog, movieclassics.wordpress.com.

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