Thursday, 19 November 2009

'I've Shaken Hands with Her': the Caravan Park and 'The Best Pair of Legs in the Business'

Drawing on research completed for his PhD, Matt Kerry discusses The Best Pair of Legs in the Business (1973).

Britain in the early 1970s was a place of moral panics, strikes and power cuts. Stuart Hall comments that 1972 was a year of ‘sustained and open class conflict of a kind unparalleled since the end of the war’ (293). Terry Staples also points out that the miner’s strike of 1973 had a direct influence on the film industry in early 1974 when the ‘restrictions on the non-domestic use of electrical power’ during the ‘three-day week’ meant that cinemas had to ‘reduce the number of shows they put on’ (229).

British cinema itself was heading for a crisis. Most of the debt-ridden Hollywood companies had withdrawn funding from British films at the end of the 1960s. Filmmakers had to resort to tried and tested formulas, such as movie spin-offs of TV sitcoms, or sex comedies, in order to sustain a living. Although Best Pair is not based on a sitcom, it is a film adaptation of a TV play, both of which star Reg Varney in the central role of Sherry Sheridan. During this period there were a number of films released which looked back nostalgically to the traditional British holiday such as Holiday On The Buses (1973), That’ll Be The Day (1973) and Carry On Girls (1973). However, Best Pair appears to evoke the mood of the time more successfully, exposing the holiday on a cheap caravan park for the dismal experience it could be.

A lot of the action in the film takes place at night. This darkness adds to the gloomy atmosphere. It’s as if the lights have literally been turned off – pre-empting the blackouts of the early 1970s. As the campsite’s only resident entertainer, Sherry attempts to construct some sense of community in the half-empty clubhouse of Greenside Caravan Park, by starting sing-a-longs such as ‘Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside’, but the merriment appears to be forced. The atmosphere is like the aftermath of a party where the guests have stayed too long – a hangover, perhaps from the affluence and optimism of the late 1950s and 1960s. It’s as if the decade before hasn’t lived up to its expectations, and the decade that has followed has seen both an economic and spiritual slump.

The caravan holiday in Britain had originally been a middle-class pursuit in the 1920s and 1930s, as part of the fashion to ‘get back to nature’, just as the original pioneer holiday camps had been. Camping in a Romany style van had been a rare novelty for Bohemian types who wanted to get away from it all, the whole point of the holiday (as Angeloglou 49 - 50, explains) was to ‘rough it’, by digging your own toilet, cooking over an oil stove, and by looking after the horse, which most city folk were not used to. The static caravan parks of the post-war era, however, had little to do with the origins of middle-class camping, instead providing a cheap alternative to the holiday camp, with cut-price accommodation. As Walton points out, the number of people taking caravan holidays at the end of the 1960s had more than doubled to 4.5 million in comparison to the 2 million who took a similar holiday in 1955, and ‘The coastline of Lindsey (Lincolnshire) saw caravan numbers increasing at 1,000 per year throughout the 1950s and 1960s from the 3,000 already present in 1950’ (43). The rows of static caravans were seen by some traditionalists to be an eyesore. In his 1974 poem, ‘Delectable Duchy’ Betjeman expresses a wish for them to be swept ‘out to sea’ by a ‘tidal wave’ (21).

The crisis of the central character in The Best Pair appears to embody the crisis of Britain at the time the film was made. As an entertainer who has just been dropped by his agent, Sherry’s future job prospects look very bleak. In one scene he announces his options as “the Labour Exchange, National Assistance, and very shortly the old-age pension”, and as a last resort, he pessimistically hopes for death. Sherry belongs, suddenly, to another era. He sings Flanagan and Allen songs and does a terrible drag act that allows him the freedom to fill his gags with innuendo, when in actual fact he disapproves of the sexual revolution – in one particular scene he decries the world as a ‘filthy, dirty’ place, after discovering that his wife is having an affair. Not only has Sherry been stripped of his masculinity, but he has also lost his authority as head of the household. His son, Alan, for whom he paid to have a private education and then go on to university, is now effectively middle class and Sherry feels threatened by this. Sherry believes that Alan is also ashamed of his father for ‘making a living by being a lady’, even though his act is ‘good enough for Royalty’, as Sherry points out.

Sherry is a monarchist. His ‘idea of England’ as Stuart Hall refers to, is an imperial one, with ‘a commitment to what Britain has shown herself to be capable of, historically…rooted in ‘feelings about the flag, the Royal Family and the Empire’ (147). The film was made at a time when the Royal Family was relatively free from scandal, and it could be argued that the strong Royalist sentiments of the time were a reaction again to the crisis of the period. Princess Anne’s wedding was celebrated in the year of the film’s release, and the Jubilee came four years later. These celebrations were part of a trend of nostalgia, as Britain desperately looked back to the Coronation; a time when it was coming out of a period of austerity and rationing and was looking forward to better times.

Sherry constructs part of his national identity around his monarchist values, and name-drops the Queen at any given opportunity, his brief meeting with her, being the highpoint of his career, and a boost to what little ego he has left. He stretches the story, however, beyond credibility, telling two young campers that his Royal command performance was by special request from her Majesty, and that his job at the caravan park is merely a ‘paid holiday’. Later, we get a glimpse of a photograph of the occasion. The Queen is greeting a group of entertainers after their performance, but Sherry is on the back row, and not in close proximity to the monarch, which puts paid to his later claim that he’s shaken hands with her.

The culture clash between working-class entertainer and his educated son is brought to a head in a scene where Sherry and Mary go to have tea with Alan’s prospective in-laws. Their son is due to marry into an upper-middle class family who live in a Georgian vicarage. During his visit to the vicarage, Sherry modifies his regional accent and mimics the vicar’s body language by walking with his hands behind his back. When the vicar questions him about his job in a caravan park, Sherry disguises his shame about the job by saying that he has merely spent the summer there as a ‘try-out’, and that he intends to take over the site when he retires. Sherry feels that working in such a place is only acceptable if you are the owner, just as working as an entertainer is only acceptable if by Royal command.

The argument that ensues is triggered by Sherry’s not knowing the proper way to eat cake during middle-class ‘tea’. The vicar’s Georgian silver tea service, handed down from his grandmother is a symbol of inherited wealth. Mary expresses her admiration for it – she sees it as a symbol of ‘family’, whereas, Sherry is intimidated by it. He tries to go one better by saying that he has eaten off gold plates with the Queen. The claim is so ludicrous that no one believes him for a minute, and the lie is further compounded by Sherry’s saying that it happened first at Buckingham Palace, then Windsor Castle. Sherry wrongly believes that an association with Royalty gives him ‘class’, not realising that those who do have class might not necessarily give a damn whether he has met the monarch or not. He also attempts to speak of his relationship with the Queen in ‘show business’ terms by saying she has ‘warmth and star quality’. This is an attempt by Sherry to exclude the vicar and underline his allegiance to the Queen, and in turn demonstrate her supposed loyalty to entertainers.

Sherry’s fa├žade then slips. He stops speaking in Received Pronunciation, throws down his pastry fork and eats the cake with his hands, much to the disgust of everyone else. By trying to break their pretence by disregarding the rituals of eating with a fork, plate and napkin, he reduces eating to its most basic function and makes it grotesque. He then also admits to his working class status by arguing that he has ‘slaved himself into the ground to make a gentleman’ of Alan. When his lie about having eaten with the Sovereign fails to convince, he desperately claims that he has ‘shaken hands with her’. Even this is a lie, and one which his wife refuses to back him up on. The bitterness of Sherry, and his lack of identity is fore-grounded in a scene which could have come as light relief, set as it is in an English country garden, away from the bleak and depressing campsite. The setting, however, throws Sherry’s inadequacies into relief. He doesn’t fit in with the middle-class traditions of the past, and without the support of his family, and uncertain job prospects, his future is uncertain too.

If earlier depictions of the holiday camp in films such as Sam Small Leaves Town (1937) and Holiday Camp (1947) attempt to construct an ideal working class community in the pre- and post- world war, in The Best Pair community falls apart, prefiguring an emergent pessimism, expressed in the crisis of the three-day week.

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