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'The Angel Who Pawned Her Harp' (1954)

Recently shown on Talking Pictures TV (but always likely to be shown again) is the charming and very sweet ‘The Angel Who Pawned Her Harp’ (1954)- ostensibly, it is about an angel (Diane Cilento) who is sent down to the very appropriate Angel Islington in London, who in pawning her harp to get some money to live, is required to show everyone that she meets the right path in which their true happiness lies. Written off and looked down upon by most of its contemporary critics, it is a slight film (it runs not much more than an hour) but one that is delightful in a number of ways.

The credit for its charm is largely down to one person-Diane Cilento who is front and centre of the fantasy. She needs to be impressive for us to believe in her and she is. Although the future Mrs Sean Connery would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in ‘Tom Jones’ (1963), to me, this was her best film performance. She is sweetness and charm personified in what can be seen as almost a London version of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ (1947).

The Angel (she has no other name) comes to earth and is introduced to a number of characters whose fate she has in her hand. There is Len (Phillip Guard) who works for pawnbroker Mr Webman (Felix Aylmer) but fancies Jenny (Shelia Sweet) daughter of the music loving local Sgt (Edward Evans). Mr Webman is a scrooge like cynic about life though, but his real passion is his love of his music boxes. Meanwhile, Len is trying to get up the courage to ask Jenny (or any girl) out, whilst her father neglects his wife- all things that Angel needs to nudge along, so that they realise what they have to do to be happy.

It is all set in a non-gentrified and monochrome part of North London and is a post war happy little community where kids are charmed by music boxes and even local criminals like Alfie Bass are a bit soft. The humour is very light hearted and understated by writer Charles Terrot (whose book this is based on and was previously turned into a 1951 TV show). There is for example a sweet moment when Len who desperately wants to take a girl dancing asks Angel out which she happily accepts- astonished by this, Len says “Are you in love with me?”. She says “Yes, of course.” “Crumbs” is Len’s cry to which Angel assures him “Don’t look so worried, I love everybody”.

‘The Angel Who Pawned Her Harp’ is not a very demanding picture but what it does do is engage your heart and emotions so that you do care what happens to the characters of this little community and makes you feel a little bit lighter and brighter afterwards.

If you can’t wait for Talking Pictures TV’s next showing, Renown Films have a special DVD of it available for £10- see the details below:

The Angel Who Pawned Her Harp – Renown Films

Eyewitness (1970)

The latest underrated gem from Talking Pictures TV is the hardly ever talked about Eyewitness (1970) with a starry British cast of Mark Lester (Oliver!), the ever lovely Susan George (Straw Dogs et al), Jeremy Kemp (Z-Cars etc) and the very reliable Lionel Jefferies (wrote and directed The Railway Children).

Its history and origins are interesting as Eyewitness is principally based on the novel of the same name written under an alias by John Harris, who was better known as the author of The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1953) which was turned into the film starring Michael Redgrave and Dirk Bogarde the year after. However, the theme is an old one that goes back to Aesop’s Fable best known as The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

So, Mark Lester plays Ziggy a young boy who whilst living with his sister Pippa (Susan George) and grandfather (Lionel Jefferies) on a sun drenched unidentified island (filmed in Malta) witnesses the assassination of an African leader. In horror, Ziggy disappears whilst the assassin and accomplice run away and plan how to hunt down the only witness to the killing. Pippa by this time is comforted by a hunky new boyfriend called would you believe it -‘Tom Jones’ and played by Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1967) veteran Tony Bonner who seems to be channelling our own Paul Nicholas, so similar are they in appearance.

Whilst the police chief (Jeremy Kemp) declares martial law in order to hunt down the assassin(s), Ziggy returns home to Pippa, her new boyfriend, and their grandfather to work out what to do next. Pippa in particular knows that Ziggy spends most of his time telling ‘whoppers’ and she doesn’t trust his story of witnessing the killing. So, the scene is set for the police to try and capture the assassin and accomplices, who in turn want to silence Ziggy, whilst Pippa only really has eyes for Mr Jones.

Eyewitness is a surprising delight- it has the great benefit of an excellent pacey and at times, very funny, script by Ronald Harwood (who would go on to receive an Academy Award for the writing of the Roman Polanski film The Pianist (2002) ). It is always good to watch Susan George especially as in this film she is asked to do more than just wear a series of short skirts and pout – and to demonstrate some of her underrated acting chops. She and the director of Eyewitness (John Hough) would go on to work together on 1974’s Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. Listen out also for the music- co-ordinated by future film director Jonathan Demme who went on to win an Academy Award for Silence of the Lambs 21 years later.

However, the real star of Eyewitness is the incomparable Lionel Jefferies as the very military regimented grandfather (he himself was a proud holder of the ‘Burma Star’). His family have their dinners with him dressed in full Mess uniform. When interrupted by the police he remarks “It’s gala night in the Mess tonight- cold soup and burnt pud”! He has also not forgotten his military training as at one point he goes on a commando type raid and turns a handy paraffin lamp and bottle of Brandy into a Molotov cocktail.

So, Eyewitness gives us Susan George, Lionel Jefferies and sun drenched Malta – what’s not to like?

'Black Sunday' (1977)

One of the very best things about Talking Pictures TV are the selection of underrated films from the 1970s era that they show- and they have certainly come up trumps with the revival of one of the most intelligent and thrilling thrillers of that generation in Black Sunday (1977). Directed by John Frankenheimer, the director of such films as Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1966) and the exciting French Connection II (1975), the film is a tricky combination of a political thriller and disaster movie.

Consequently, it struggled at the box office on release- around the same time you had conventional disaster pictures like The Hindenburg (1975), Two Minute Warning  (1976) and don’t forget Rollercoaster (1977) in ‘Sensurround’, and the end of that kind of era of filmmaking was upon us. But what mass audiences missed then was a real genuine delight for the serious film enthusiast who want to be thrilled from the head as much as from the heart-and where the movie has something to say about the nature of terrorism, that is as relevant today as it was over 44 years ago.

 So, the story of Black Sunday is based on the Thomas Harris (Silence of the Lambs) novel about an Israeli anti-terrorism agent/commando David Kabakov (Robert Shaw – fresh from his success in Jaws (1975)) who is out to prevent a plot by the Black September Palestinian group to bring terror to the shores of the USA. To do this the terrorists use Dahlia Lyad a PLO fanatic to further radicalise a returned and seriously mentally harmed Vietnam POW Michael Lander (a brilliant Bruce Dern) to do their dirty work.

Most of the film’s pulsating 143 minutes follows Lander and Lyad as their launch their horrific plans and Kabakov goes full out to avert them. There are several genuinely breath-taking moments that I had forgotten about it from when I saw it when it was released here in the UK in 1978- and you really stay with the picture despite its length.

Robert Shaw is in brilliant form and apart from his tour-de-force in Jaws and The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974), I think this is his finest role. He has to gravitate from searching out and hunting down the Black September terrorists to reflecting the price paid in his lifetime of hunting down terrorists and killing them, who then respond by further atrocities, and so it goes on… In that sense it anticipates Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005) which also deals with Mossad taking on Black September and philosophies about how terrorism can be dealt with – if at all. Robert Shaw sadly died just 12 months after making Black Sunday at the age of just 51 and the film is a testament to his fine acting abilities.

Bruce Dern as Michael Lander is in some ways a sympathetic character- battled and mentally bruised from years in a Vietnam prison, then losing his family and treated simply as another number to be managed out of conflict, he sets out to bomb people into knowing his pain. In a lot of respects, he is a fore runner of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo character (1982-2019) .

As the Black September terrorist, Marthe Keller has the hardest task to portray as Lyad is a truly cold and fanatical person with few redeeming features, who is pulling Lander’s strings all the time to turn him into the fanatical killing machine she and her cause demands. Keller has been underused in her career- having started in things like Funeral in Berlin (1966) but doing most of her work in Europe especially in a series of French and German pictures. She is probably still best known as the girlfriend of the Dustin Hoffman character in Marathon Man (1976).

There is excellent support from a very impressive cast especially from the familiar face and voice of Walter Gotell who appeared in no less than 7 different James Bond films starting with  From Russia With Love (1963) to The Living Daylights (1987) although he was at his very best in the greatest Bond film ever The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).

Overall Black Sunday holds up extremely well and I regard it as one of the most intelligent and exciting political thrillers made- well worth a second watch!

'London- The Biography' by Peter Ackroyd (2000)

As a South Londoner and someone proud of his London heritage I had been looking forward to reading probably the best book written on the Capital -Peter Ackroyd’s ‘London -The Biography’ (2000)- a mere 800+ page opus. I recently got a primer for it through the 3 part documentary series that was based on the book that is now available on You Tube – details to view them are at the end of my blog.

Ackroyd is really a cultural and history giant of London- brought up in East Acton and having written biographies of London greats such as Chaplin, Dickens and Hitchcock, he certainly knows his onions.

Unlike other authors, Ackroyd writes in themes rather than in a strict chronology sequence- with the result that he is able to bring together and discuss similar events centuries apart – the Poll Tax riots of 1989 are seen as a modern manifestation of previous violent protests like the burning of Newgate prison in the 1780s as part of what became known as the ‘Gordon Riots’.

To begin at the beginning as they say, Ackroyd is good when he talks about Roman London being attacked by Queen Boadicea (who got as far as sunny Plumstead!) and her armies. She had ruled the Britons in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire around AD 60. She and her armies of around 300,000 took the likes of St Albans, Colchester and then eventually London, but her short reign there was ultra-violent as up to 80,000 people perished in the fighting. A sign of her violence is that female romans were run through on spikes and had their breasts sewn onto their mouths- Boadicea was not a liberal. She was eventually defeated but Ackroyd points out that one reason why so much of the ground and clay around the City of London is red is that was the impact of the burning of iron and metal during the clashes for good old Londinium.

Moving forward, Peter Ackroyd points out how dark and violent London has been down the ages-people attended in their droves to witness executions of thieves and thugs in places such as Tyburn (close to Marble Arch)- and such was impact that it led to affluent Londoners wanting to distance themselves from such acts. So, that led to the creation of convent gardens and squares where people could avoid such decadence.

London has of course seen huge growth over its life – Ackroyd makes the point that in just 100 years its population went from just 1m to 5m-and it could no longer cope, and it took the likes of Henry Mayhew in the 19th century to write his seminal ‘London Labour and Life’ for society to sit up and take notice of the amount of abject poverty in the city. One theme that Mayhew was surprised by was that even though there were ways out of this poverty a number of London families refused to move and preferred what you could call ‘territorial pride’.

One of the points that is made is how certain parts of London have emerged. For example, Anglo Saxons forced Britons to live in East London which was described at the time as “London at its worst” (I'm saying nothing!). Other parts of London came into being of course due to the creation of the railways and the tube- leading to the suburbs being created.

Parts of our history that I was only vaguely aware of are covered in great detail such as the Gordon Riots of 1780 which became a protest about the relaxation of restrictions on Catholics. This led to 10,000 people marching into the central of London shouting “No Popery” and 700 people dying.

The social fabric of London is also covered well. Ackroyd points out that in the 1700s there were around 17,000 Gin Shops that were set up in the capital and where that drink became the scourge of the nation. It was once said of it “Drink for a penny, dead drunk for two pence and a clean straw for nothing”. Mothers would feed their babies on gin and generally the poor of London became addicted to the demon brew.

Ackroyd seems especially good when discussing the dark underbelly of London -he mentions for example the suicide off the Woolwich Ferry in 1948. He has talked openly about London’s “power, majesty, darkness and shadows”.

He also talks and writes especially well about the spiritual connection between Londoners down the centuries. Some years ago, he said this:

I truly believe that there are certain people to whom or through whom the territory, the place, the past speaks…Is it not possible that within London and within its culture are patterns of sensibility or patterns of response which have persisted from the 13th and 14th centuries and perhaps even beyond?”

Well said, Sir!

Please visit these links below to catch the 3 episode documentaries of Peter Ackryod’s important work:


BBC Peter Ackroyd London Part 1: Fire and Destiny - YouTube

BBC Peter Ackroyd London Part 2: Crowd - YouTube

Peter Ackroyd's London - 3/3 Water and Darkness - YouTube