When duty calls

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East meets West in Victoria & Abdul, a delightful comedy drama directed by Stephen Frears.
Abdul Karim sails from India to present a ceremonial coin to Queen Victoria to mark her golden jubilee. The handsome clerk catches the eye of a monarch jaded by relentless royal duty and the two forge a devoted friendship that lifts her gloom.
However, vested interests within the royal court seek to undermine this unlikely alliance, with poignant consequences.
Judi Dench is back to her imperial best reprising the role of Victoria, a part she played to acclaim in the 1997 movie Mrs Brown. Ali Fazal provides an excellent foil as Abdul while Eddie Izzard creates an entertaining cameo as the Prince of Wales and the late Tim Pigott-Smith is the epitome of puffed-up pride as the Queen’s Private Secretary.

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Goodbye Christopher Robin

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The film Goodbye Christopher Robin explores the dark underbelly of that iconic character of children’s literature Winnie-the-Pooh.
What began as a collection of homespun tales revolving around a menagerie of cuddly toys told by a shell-shocked father to his upper-middle-class son in the 1920s became a publishing sensation that went on to receive the obligatory Disney treatment.
Although A A Milne’s remarkable professional success generated great wealth, it blighted the relationship he had with his son, Christopher Robin.
Everybody, it seemed, wanted a piece of the small boy and his toys; as soon as Milne understood the emotional cost the endless round of PR stunts was having on his son, he tried to put a stop to it by promising to never write another story about the much-loved bear. But it was too late; Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends had become public property.
Christopher Robin came to resent the books that thrust him into the public eye and declined the opportunity to benefit from their royalties; while A A Milne was annoyed the Pooh stories had eclipsed all his other work as a writer.
Simon Curtis’s film glosses over this, preferring to portray Winnie-the-Pooh as a beacon of joy in the dark days after the Great War; a beacon that is still burning today.

Toiling the soil

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Adrian Bell writes about British agriculture between the wars in his book Men And The Fields (Little Toller Books) when farmers and their labourers eked out a living during a protracted slump.
It was a challenging time when toiling the soil and tending livestock did not pay well. The characters Bell describes were familiar with the different rhythms of the seasons; they lived in harmony with their environment and were at ease with the plodding of hooves.
The tasks they carried out would have been familiar to previous generations, including those so recently named on the war memorials standing sentinel-like in each parish.
Bell, father of the journalist and former MP Martin Bell, left Uppingham School, Rutland, and apprenticed himself to a Suffolk farmer in 1920, aged 19, farming in various locations over the next 60 years.
He describes his beloved countryside through the practical, non-sentimental eyes of a farmer; he realised this rural lifestyle, with its ancient knowledge, was already withering on the vine as the magnificent heavy horses were being superseded by noisy tractors.
Only months after Bell’s book was published in 1939, Britain was plunged into another world war, an event that hastened the industrialisation of agriculture. After the war, farming, lubricated by Whitehall subsidies, continued to change the landscape with its labour-saving machines and relentless quest for increased output and profit.
Bell’s prose is illustrated by his friend John Nash, the distinguished war artist, with a series of evocative colour lithographs and monochrome line drawings.

Dunkirk veteran saluted

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Jack Danby shows the bullet hole in his D-Day helmet

Christopher Nolan’s movie Dunkirk tells the story of the British Army’s miraculous escape from the advancing German army from three perspectives: Land, Sea and Air. In weaving together three different timelines, Nolan successfully depicts the chaos of what was a colossal military defeat; the viewer is plunged right into the middle of the action where the fear and tension is amplified by Hans Zimmer’s intense musical score.
This movie is timely as, more than 75 years after the rescue that entered British folklore, so few Dunkirk veterans remain. One who has passed away is Jack Danby, of Selby. He survived Dunkirk and, four years later, returned to France in the first wave of D-Day where he was nearly killed; while trying to rescue a wounded comrade, a German bullet passed through his helmet inflicting a flesh wound.
Watching Dunkirk brought home to me the bravery of men like Jack. After the war, Jack was headmaster of four different schools in the East Riding where, after experiencing the horror of Dunkirk and D-Day, his motivation was to help build a better post-war world. His distinguished service included 12 years as the first head of Etton Pasture boarding school for disabled children; his pioneering work there was recognised by the award of an MBE in 1965.

Righteousness and humidity

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Yankee Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is found wounded in the Virginia woods by schoolgirl Amy (Oona Laurence) and brought to Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies. Prim and proper Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) tends to McBurney’s leg wound in the name of Christian charity and, as he recovers, they all vie for his affections by dressing to impress and offering gifts and banquets in their isolated mansion with its candles and Doric columns. The enemy soldier, using sly charm, disrupts their genteel routine of French lessons, prayer, sewing and music until matters come to a shocking head. McBurney fled the gunpowder and shot of a Civil War battlefield only to discover southern hospitality can also be deadly with its righteousness and humidity. Writer-director Sofia Coppola channels southern gothic in her screen adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel. It made me want to revisit Don Siegel’s 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood as the wounded Yankee.

Postcards of protest

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“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This quote, attributed to the 18th century statesman Edmund Burke, came to mind after I watched Alone In Berlin at York City Screen today. Brendan Gleeson plays a Berlin factory worker who defies the Nazi regime after his son is killed in combat by secretly casting scores of hand-written postcards across the city. He naively hopes those finding them will pass them on and the anti-Hitler messages will eventually clog up the Nazi war machine like so many grains of sand. He is aided in this act of subversion by his grieving wife played by Emma Thompson. Daniel Brühl plays the professional detective who gets on the wrong side of his SS boss while trying to track down the furtive scribe. The film is based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel. Their defiance of Hitler inspired the novelist Hans Fallada to write a fictional account in 1947 which was published in 2009 under the English title Alone In Berlin.

Restoring skiffle’s reputation…

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Billy Bragg, the Bard of Barking, shines the spotlight on skiffle in his latest book Roots, Radicals And Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World.
This primitive music, with its tea chest bass, washboard and guitar, energised the lives of British teenagers in the 1950s; a mainly drab world where the shadow of World War Two loomed large with certain foodstuffs still on the ration.
Bragg, in this well-written and diligently-researched work of scholarship, argues that skiffle lies neglected in the dead ground of British pop culture. Yet skiffle was where the “pop royalty” of the 1960s learned their musical chops and paved the way for the British invasion of the US charts; as Beatles guitarist George Harrison once said: “If there was no Lead Belly, there would be no Lonnie Donegan; no Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles.”
Donegan was skiffle’s biggest star but his swift decline into novelty songs, such as the 1960 hit My Old Man’s A Dustman, tainted skiffle with an odour of embarrassment that still lingers.
Now Bragg believes the time is ripe to restore the genre’s reputation. He stresses skiffle was the first music for teenagers by teenagers in our cultural history and he dedicates his book to “every kid who picked up a guitar after hearing Lonnie Donegan”.