Saturday 8 February 2014

London’s burning…Flame in the Streets (1961)

Notting Hill’s not what it used to be, not since Hugh Grant, Richard Curtis and Julia Roberts rubber stamped it as the capital of the culturally-cosy rom-com and, whilst there is romance, there’s precious little comedy in this frank depiction of multi-cultural London back in 1961.

Post war Britain had seen a mass influx of immigration from the former colonies and dilapidated Georgian Squares of Westbourne Grove, Bayswater and Knotting Hill had provided cheap, exploitative accommodation for many West Indian families. Tensions had run high as the run-down heart of former empire had struggled to assimilate so much change so quickly. The Noting Hill Riots took place in the late summer of 1958 and they saw the jailing of dozens of white men as well as the establishment of the Carnival aimed at bringing people together after all the hate.

But whilst society is now more integrated in many respects, race and immigration are scarcely less of an issue, and Flame in the Streets is still an important and resonating film and all the more remarkable for being over fifty years old.

Directed by Roy Ward Baker and screen-written by Ted Willis from his own play Hot Summer Night, the film focuses the key issues through the family of trade unionist Jacko Palmer (John Mills) – a decent man, protecting the equal rights of all his chapel members with a calm eloquence.

Johnny Sekka
Unknown to Jacko, his daughter Kathie (Sylvia Syms – how many great roles did she have over this period?!) is in a relationship with another member of staff at the school where she teaches one Peter Lincoln (Johnny Sekka) who just happens to be black.

In Jacko’s factory, he is supporting the promotion of a black foreman Gabriel Gomez (Earl Cameron). Gabriel is smart and a hard worker yet he has to endure racial abuse from white co-workers and there are senior union members who won’t countenance his appointment – not because they’re biased but because they “recognize” the problems this will cause… this is the running theme of the film: the whole pragmatic rationalization for racialism… it’s not you it’s the *situation*…

Earl Cameron and Ann Lynn
We’re given hints of the potential for mixed marriages with Gabriel’s home life with his white wife, Judy (Ann Lynn) who seems to have given up a lot to be with her man: living in reduced circumstances in a house stuffed full of immigrant families. There wasn’t adequate provision for the new Britons and many were abused by opportunist landlords.

Slum conditions and discrimination at work were one thing but racial violence is never far away with three of Gabriel’s Caucasian workmates on the lookout for trouble: goading him at work and where he lives as they travel in search of trouble.

Jacko prepares for the big union meeting at home with his wife Nell (Brenda De Banzie) and father (the brilliant Wilfrid Brambell) also a union man: there’s promotion ahead for Jacko too if he plays his cards right and long-suffering Nell dreams of a change of scenery…she has sacrificed much for her husband.

Sylvia Syms and John Mills
But things are coming to ahead at home to as Kathie gets spotted with her boyfriend and Nell finds out about the relationship. De Banzie acts up a storm as she attempts to deal with the facts…all her prejudice and fear surface as she imagines her daughter throwing away her future on a relationship that in Nell’s eyes will doom Kathie to a life on the outside.

Meanwhile Jacko is carrying the day at the meeting as he persuades the union that Gabe should be valued on his abilities alone and not his racial background. He argues fair and square but it’s not long before he is forced to face his own prejudices when Nell tells him of Kathie’s determination to marry the man she loves.

Nell and Jacko confront Kathie
Jacko takes a more rational approach than his wife and tries a subtler line, inverting the logic of the union meeting to say that this relationship should be judged on its potential utility and workability in the face of the accepted facts of racial intolerance.

He goes to speak with Peter directly and raises the same question putting the onus on him to justify the longer term discomfort any marriage will cause Kathie… it’s the gentlest form of intolerance wrapped up in reasonableness. Is Jacko being honest with himself – at least Nell admits her prejudice?

But it is a complex and difficult moment and you don’t lose sympathy with the family even when viewing them with modern sensibilities.

Mills, Sekko and Syms
Spoilers ahead: Events take a dramatic turn for the worst as the white gang brings violence to the bonfire night celebrations and there’s a riot going on pulling in thugs from both sides as well as the good guys… a riot of their own.

The spell is broken by the arrival of the police and as Gabe gets pushed into the fire. Pulled out by Peter and Jacko you hope for his recovery and that, somehow, this will be the start of the move towards reconciliation.

The film ends as Peter and Kathie walk back home with Jacko and Nell… ”if only it were that simple” said one of my companions but the ending gives no guarantees.

Dusty verdict:  A quite stunning period piece that deserves wider recognition: this is Britain starting to face up to itself barely a decade after the Windrush brought the first immigrants across from the Caribbean.

John Mills leads a superb cast by example with special mentions to Earl Cameron and Ann Lynn whose love and mutual support hopefully lead the way.

Flame in the Streets is available on an apparently less than satisfactory DVD in the UK although the US edition (which I watched) does proper justice to the CinemaScope aspect ratio.

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