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.
As 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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.