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Abstract only
Andrew Roberts

The conclusion argues for the importance of the cinephile approach to cinema history and how it is not a self-indulgence but essential for understanding the work of the actors. The book ends with an illustration of how an actor’s work can, and does, create its own mythology.

in Idols of the Odeons
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Matron and mistress of misrule
Andrew Roberts

One theme of this book is how female actors were more prone to be negatively judged in terms of their appearance and this occurred virtually from the outset of Hattie Jacques’s career. The supporting part of Matron in Carry On Nurse came after more than ten years of stage, radio and cinema experience and it was Jacques’s ability that elevated what could have been a standard-issue gorgon into a national icon. Unfortunately, the part also created a straitjacket of typecasting from which Jacques was only occasionally liberated with the likes of Carry On Cabby. The art-house short The Pleasure Garden stands as a reminder of an actress whose range was so neglected by Pinewood.

in Idols of the Odeons
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Post-war British film stardom
Author: Andrew Roberts

The volume encompasses seventeen chapters, each devoted to an individual actor who represents a diverse aspect of post-war British cinematic stardom. The approach is one of a cinephile academic and although the time frame ranges from the 1940s to the 1980s, the focal point is the 1950s. It was in this decade that the film industry faced increasing competition from television and the involvement of Hollywood monies in UK-based pictures. By the end of that period, the ‘star system’ maintained by the Rank Organisation and Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC) was being succeeded by independent productions using Pinewood and Elstree Studios and censorship was being relaxed. Many actors took the opportunity to escape, or even transcend, their previous casting limitations or stereotyping.

Of the subject matter, Jack Hawkins, John Mills, Kenneth More are ‘senior leads’, Laurence Harvey and Stanley Baker are ‘younger leads’ and the ‘leading ladies’ section contains chapters on Sylvia Syms and Diana Dors. ‘The comics’ details the work of Norman Wisdom, Terry-Thomas and Leslie Phillips. The careers of Sidney James, James Robertson Justice, Margaret Rutherford and Hattie Jacques are considered in terms of the art of the leading character actor and the work concludes with tributes to Peter Finch and Peter Sellers.

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Andrew Roberts

An impressionistic view of cinemagoing in the 1970s, contrasted with the 1950s, when picture houses would typically host films starring a recognisable ‘British stalwart’. The chapter goes on to discuss the elements that created a screen persona of that era, including the studio politics and the role of their publicity machines. A further issue is the decline of cinemagoing as television became the country’s most popular medium. The progressive dominance of US-backed films, a development stimulated by the ‘Eady levy’ is debated, together with critical reaction of the period to any perceived undermining of the ‘national identity’ on-screen. The introduction also considers the impact of such journals as Sight and Sound and Films and Filming on shaping perceptions of post-war British cinema. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how the actors within this book were instrumental in both creating and undermining a national myth.

in Idols of the Odeons
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‘Stand by, number one’
Andrew Roberts

Hawkins’s popular screen image as possibly the ultimate British cinematic patriarch of the 1950s is discussed, together with his background as a child actor and a pre-war juvenile lead. His rise to stardom is chartered via The Small Back Room and State Secret to the actor’s status as one of the key figures associated with Ealing Studios. Mandy and The Cruel Sea are debated in terms of Hawkins’s ability to convey anger and vulnerability and The Man in the Sky is discussed as an example of the more overtly flawed heroes of the late 1950s. The independently produced The League of Gentlemen marked a transition into leading-character player, often specialising in genially untrustworthy roles. The chapter concludes with an assessment of Hawkins’s performance in The Prisoner.

in Idols of the Odeons
‘What’s the bleeding time?’
Andrew Roberts

James Robertson Justice became a star for his role as Sir Lancelot Spratt in Doctor in the House and this chapter describes the appeal of this screen patriarch to the British public. One often overlooked element of the character is the skill and attention to detail applied by an actor who enjoyed claiming a lack of thespian skills. Yet his image, on- and off-screen, was carefully contrived and his Rank contract stardom of the 1950s masked a more subtle and nuanced actor. Roles in Anthony Asquith’s Orders to Kill and the prisoner-of-war comedy thriller Very Important Person were reminders of talents so frequently employed in shoring-up comedy films rooted in an ethos that harked back to the 1930s.

in Idols of the Odeons
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‘Do push off, there’s a good chap’
Andrew Roberts

The chapter commences with an overview as to how John Mills did not accord with the standard image of the post-war male film star and how his popularity derived from his apparent ‘ordinariness’. The sheer scale of the actor’s career is discussed, together with how he achieved major stardom as the archetypal ‘Everyman’ during the Second World War. The October Man is considered in terms of post-war British film noir and showcasing Mills’s talent for conveying barely suppressed angst. By the 1950s Mills was frequently cast as officers and towards the end of the decade Town on Trial and Ice Cold in Alex displayed his authority figures as flawed, complex individuals. Tunes of Glory is evaluated as possibly the actor’s definitive performance and the chapter ends with When the Wind Blows, as an ironic reflection of Mills’s wartime pictures.

in Idols of the Odeons
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Hawling like a brooligan
Andrew Roberts

This section opens with More’s popular image of the 1950s and how he embodied a form of male screen identity defined as ‘the chap’. It goes on to argue that this persona was the creation of a stage and film actor of considerable dramatic range. Genevieve, the picture, that established Kenneth More as a box office attraction, is discussed with reference to the end of rationing and the early signs of the affluent society. The actor’s skill at depicting immaturity is also covered with especial reference to The Deep Blue Sea and Reach for the Sky is discussed in terms of its evocation of wartime heroism. The latter sections of the chapter detail the end of More’s contract with the Rank Organisation and how The Greengage Summer marked a transition to leading character actor. Particular attention is focused on The Comedy Man as representing the finest screen work of More’s later years and as a deconstruction of his familiar cinematic image.

in Idols of the Odeons
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The talented Mr Skikne
Andrew Roberts

Harvey was an actor who apparently delighted in generating his own publicity. This chapter discusses how an overseas-born star created his own image – including his screen name – which attracted much critical opprobrium. Early miscasting as a conventional juvenile lead is contrasted with Harvey’s skill at depicting villains and outsiders. A contract with the producer James Woolf eventually resulted in the actor being cast in Room at the Top, which, together with Expresso Bongo, consolidated his appeal as a leading character. Harvey’s career in the 1960s was marked by attempts at Hollywood stardom, alternated with incisive performances in British films, especially Life at the Top. The chapter concludes with an assessment of his last major British film, A Dandy in Aspic and Harvey’s importance to cinema.

in Idols of the Odeons
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Not to be crossed
Andrew Roberts

The film career of Margaret Rutherford is an object lesson in how whimsy and eccentricity are traits that need not descend into indulgence. The key of Rutherford’s screen performances was her Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirt, whose beliefs are entirely real to her. The actress was at her finest in roles that saw her applying her own codes of conduct to a world her characters increasingly found unrecognisable, such as I’m All Right Jack and The V.I.P.s. Her Jane Marple and Mistress Quickly are equally vital figures, both staving off boredom and convention.

in Idols of the Odeons