Patrick Hamilton’s stunning trilogy beautifully rendered
I completely missed this at the time of transmission, possibly because at the time I was unaware of the trilogy of which it was based. And in many ways I am very glad of that, as I do prefer to have read the book on which a film or TV dramatisation has been made, as going to the book afterwards seems to get in the way of my own experience of the original.
Of course the danger of this approach might be the purist reader is forever nitpicking about how badly the book has been served and doesn’t do it justice.
Happily, this is not the case here, and in the main there has been not only a faithfulness to the book, but something added by performance and by the wonderful visual element showing the minutiae of a vanished time
Patrick Hamilton’s book, Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky was originally 3 interlocking books, published over a period of some 5 years, centring around a Fitzrovia pub, The Midnight Bell, in the late 1920s, and telling, from 3 different viewpoints, stories of hopeless love, broken dreams and the aspirations and hardships of ‘little people’, the ordinary lives of those without the benefits of money and education, but with the desire for something better, somewhere……
Bob is the barman at The Midnight Bell self-educating himself, wanting to be a writer. Pretty Jenny, from a very poor background, is initially proud to get a live-in job as a housekeeper and cook to 3 elderly people of means. Warm-hearted, homely Ella is the barmaid at The Midnight Bell. Bob loves ruinous Jenny, who loves no-one, though Bob in turn is beloved by Ella. It’s a kind of much more sparkling, much more witty, much more emotionally, less didactic Huis Clos.
Simon Curtis is a director of fine pedigree from stage, where his credits include the original production of Jim Cartwright’s Road, TV – credits include BBC’s Cranford and film – My Week With Marilyn.
Kevin Elyot was a fine writer (My Night With Reg) – and wisely here uses much of Hamilton’s sparkling, precise dialogue, lifted from the trilogy, and does not seek to impose his own voice. He prunes, shapes and guides, trusting in the source material.
All performances are assured, Bryan Dick as sweet, charming Bob, far too susceptible to the twin delights of a pretty ankle and the alcohol he serves, Zoe Tapper as ravishingly pretty, dramatically damaged Jenny, and, especially Phil Davis, always worth watching, here, more dapper, less outwardly seedy than his usual casting, but still definitely a bit creepy, as Ernest Eccles, erstwhile admirer of the stand-out, heart-breakingly must-stay-upbeat Ella, beautifully played by Sally Hawkins
The last section of the piece, Ella’s story, The Plains of Cement, as in the book itself, is the one which best manages the balance between humour, pathos and a kind of anxious terror. Davis’ horribly lonely Eccles is both repulsive and inviting of pity, and the scenes between him and Hawkins’ overwhelmed, not quite sure what is going on Ella are both funny and creepy, and I found myself with anxiously thumping heart resonating with Ella’s troubled confusion, bewildered by it all.
The structure of the 3 stories is beautifully woven together. If I have one minor criticism, it is that the end of the piece half suggests a sense of missed opportunity for Bob, which is not suggested for him, in Hamilton’s book – it may well be the reader’s, and indeed, the viewer’s perception, but it is not something which is made part of Bob’s perception.
The DVD has been uploaded in entirety (in small sections) to You Tube, I thought it was worth getting to play as a seamless whole in good definition, but at least the You Tube gives a sneak preview and allows you to make your choice!
An extraordinary trilogy of hope and despair in thirties London
Patrick Hamilton’s trilogy of bar and street life in London in the late twenties and early thirties, linked by their three central characters, was originally published as three works : The Midnight Bell, in 1929 when Hamilton was 25, The Siege of Pleasure 3 years later, and the final volume, The Plains of Cement in 1934. They were then republished the following year as this trilogy, Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky
The novels are drawn in part (or the first one is) from aspects of Hamilton’s own rather destructive life. Although they could indeed be read singly, without reference to each other, and in any order, it is through reading them sequentially that the widest understanding happens.
The Midnight Bell is a West End pub. Two of the bar staff are Bob, who yearns to be a writer and is something of an auto-didact, and Ella, a plain, good natured young woman who is in love with Bob, although she has no hopes in that direction, as she is aware that his considerable physical charms, his wit, likeability and intelligence – not to mention his own intense susceptibility to pretty women, put him out of her reach.
Bob has a growing problem with alcohol, but at the beginning of the novel it is no more than heavy drinking, and there is every likelihood, in his mind, that he will fulfil his literary ambitions, and make something of himself. Ella, the perfect kindly barmaid does not drink, and seems the least damaged of the three central characters. The other protagonist is Jenny, a ravishingly pretty young prostitute, aged 18, whose entrance one evening into The Midnight Bell will be cataclysmic for Bob
(The trilogy was broadcast as a BBC drama the set has been uploaded, in small segments, to YouTube)
The Midnight Bell is Bob’s story, a decline and fall, laid absolutely low by love. As Bob himself is a witty man, this book ripples with Hamilton’s sparkling word play and mordant observations. In fact, for my tastes, the self-deprecating humour, as an antidote to the darkening story, was almost a little overdone. In Hamilton’s later books – most specifically in The Slaves of Solitude, his brilliant and sly humour is much less overt, and instead sparkles darkly and judiciously, rather than `and here’s another funny line’
The much, much, bleaker The Siege of Pleasure is Jenny’s Story. Picking up at the end of the Midnight Bell, when Jenny’s destruction of Bob is almost complete, Hamilton almost immediately back tracks to show how Jenny, who is not consciously wicked, became a woman of the streets. Unlike the destructive, vicious and racketty Netta of his other highly acclaimed novel, Hangover Square: A Story of Darkest Earl’s Court, another stunningly beautiful, completely amoral woman who uses her beauty to part men from their money, Jenny, though absolutely self-obsessed, has a kind of charm and a desire to please. Jenny’s dark destruction is also due to alcoholism. The Siege of Pleasure also seethes with Hamilton’s socialist, egalitarian politics – Jenny is a well-drawn individual woman, but she is also a representative of the unfairness of the class system. The best she can hope for is a life in service, and, at the start of the book, becoming the live-in housekeeper and cook to a trio of elderly siblings, represents a big step up on her own humbler, violent beginnings. Her fall is rapid and its start happens in a single evening.
Tottenham Court Road Station, 1930s
But, for me, the stand-out is Ella’s story, in The Plains Of Cement – London and the area between Oxford Street and the Euston Road, form the bulk of it, though the glamour of theatre land, and the poverty of Pimlico, are also drawn. Ella is a good young woman, kindly, and with a kind of commonplace store of cliché driven phrases, which however come with a homespun innocence from her. She is another with few prospects, and, her only escape could come through marriage, except that she accepts her plainness is unlikely to make this likely. One of the denizens of the bar is a truly irritating, desperately lonely on the verge of elderly bachelor, Ernest Eccles. Eccles is screamingly annoying, the kind of person whose conversation is full of meaningful innuendo which is at the same time WITHOUT meaning. The developing courtship (if indeed that is what it is) is wonderfully handled, and Ella, appreciating Eccles’ good qualities, must juggle moral choices – she has a dearly loved mother, and a hated, bad-tempered stepfather – also working in the bar industry, fallen from almost being a `self-made man’ to a bottle and glass washer. Ella gives half her earnings to her mother; the stepfather is mean as well as an emotional bully.
This again is a bleak book, but it is the writer’s wonderful humour, light touch, fine ear for dialogue, and the internal running commentary of Ella’s thoughts whilst her `out in the world’ external doings and sayings are happening, that makes his work such a delight to read.
The excruciating progression of Eccles’ courtship of Ella, and her frustration, embarrassment and changing feelings towards her elderly admirer, moment to moment, are wonderfully drawn. – here is an excerpt where Eccles is holding forth, but Ella is fixated on the fact that he has a particularly noticeable tooth, which is presently distracting, whilst Eccles is holding forth about his various ‘Funny Little Habits’ of which he is inordinately proud:
The Funny Little Habit under immediate scrutiny was his Funny Little Habit of being Rather Careful in his Choice of Words – in other words, his objection to swearing.
‘I mean to say It’s Not Necessary, is it’ he was saying
‘No…’ said Ella, tooth-gazing.
‘I do think it’s so unnecessary to be Unnecessary‘ said Mr Eccles, getting into slight tautological difficulties. ‘You know what I mean – don’t you?’
‘Yes. I do.’ She wondered if it would have been any better if it had come down straight. Even then it would have wanted the point filed off to get into line with the rest.
‘I mean to say if you’ve got to use expletives why not just use ordinary, decent, everyday words?’
‘Yes. Why not?’ (His other teeth of course were in excellent condition for his age.)
‘I always think it was such a good idea,’ said Mr Eccles, – ‘a fellow I read about in a book. Instead of saying “Damn” and “Blast” and all the rest, whenever he was annoyed he used to say “Mice and Mumps – Mice and Mumps”
‘Oh yes?’ (Couldn’t a dentist break it off halfway down, and then crown it?)
The detailed, authentically delineated Ella comes from the same kind of world as Enid Roach in Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude – and Ernest Eccles, though not consciously bullying, in the manner of the obnoxious Mr Thwaites in that book, is equally a boor, insensitive, solipsistic and insufferable in his pomposity. Hamilton writes from inside his central female characters utterly believably.
The autobiographical basis for the first novel in the trilogy came from Hamilton’s own love affair with a prostitute, and his own alcoholism. His father, too, was an alcoholic, an unsuccessful writer, and made an early, disastrous marriage to a prostitute. Out of his own dreadfully destructive nature and nurture Patrick Hamilton created finely crafted literature. Alcohol, and its potential for destruction, as well as its ability to create a rose-tinted world, runs through all three books, as does the various ways in which capital exploits labour
In the end, despite the humour, the storyline, the well drawn characters, and the marvellous journey of 3 novels sequentially, which can be enjoyed as solo outings, it is Hamilton’s depth and humanity which grabs me, every time. His touch may be light, and have at times an almost Restoration style comedy of manners going on (the trajectory of the courtship between Eccles and Ella) – but light, in Hamilton’s touch, is never limited to the superficial, and he has an enviable ability to whisk aside the surface, and leave the reader heart-clutchingly aching as they engage with, not only his central characters, but ourselves. He is some kind of witness to the lives all those who are not the explorers who discover continents, the astronauts who step on other planets, the rulers of nations, but those who live inside the ordinary dwellings, the denizens of those Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky
A tender, tragic and darkly comic account of small lives on the margins
Patrick Hamilton was described by J.B. Priestley, in the introduction to one of his best known books, Hangover Square, as one of the best ‘minor novelists’ writing in the interwar and beyond years.
Though for a time his star blazed very brightly indeed, through a couple of stage plays which went on to a broader life as classy, noir films by Hitchcock, Gaslight and Rope, he never quite achieved the enduring fame of a writer like Graham Greene, who also explored what might be called the shadow side of human nature.
Hamilton as a man had his own shadows to wrestle with – alcoholism, and perhaps this was a bulwark against a nature both too tender and too angry. Perhaps his fierce Left politics also began to fall out of favour in the fifties when the Cold War began to bite and many feared reds under the bed.
In many ways his writing reminds me of a ‘minor’ Victorian novelist, who similarly wrote from rage but also from compassion and a humour which was dark and un-cheery – George Gissing.
London, the crouching monster, like every other monster has to breathe, and breathe it does in its own obscure, malignant way. Its vital oxygen is composed of suburban working men and women of all kinds, who every morning are sucked up through an infinitely complicated respiratory apparatus of trains and termini into the mighty congested lungs, held there for a number of hours, and then, in the evening, exhaled violently through the same channels
Slaves of Solitude is set in 1943 in a suburban boarding house, in ‘Thames Lockdon’ (loosely modelled on Henley-on-Thames) There is a seedy, penny pinching respectability, a po-faced rather right-wing sense of little-England righteousness which stalks the pages and the mean, soulless little rooms of the ‘Rosamund Tea Rooms’. Rosamund is no longer a tea-room. The economies of war have turned the tea rooms into a boarding house, where those of more than slender means have found possibly their final resting places – several of the residents are quiet elderly spinsters or widows.
The central character is Enid Roach – how she hates both her names, and the spiteful sobriquet of Roachy, or even worse, Cockroach, which were hers as a not successful teacher. Miss Roach is teetering on the edge of 40. She is a refugee from London, where she still works as a publisher’s assistant, though to be honest, more of her work involves accounts and clerical duties than reading manuscripts. Bombing flattened her rented accommodation in London; hence she has shored up here, commuting daily.
She is far less grey and nondescript and irretrievably spinster than she thinks. Various onlookers (some of them the elderly ladies and gentlemen in the boarding house) like her ability to be more free-thinking and less petty and insular than many. For example, she leans towards sympathy with Russia, and does not automatically assume that every German is a Nazi. She also has a certain something ‘a rather nice face’ which makes some men see her as not quite past interest.
Unfortunately, the boarding house also contains a horribly blustering and opinionated bully in the person of Mr Thwaites, who embodies everything about little-England righteousness, and an unerring instinct to attack the tender and kind, who don’t have the killer instinct to lash back. His victim, on a daily basis in the nasty boarding house dining room, is Enid.
Two other major movers of the novel’s dynamic are a kindly, heavy-drinking American, one of the ‘over paid, over-sexed, over-here’s, Lieutenant Pike, who has some designs on Enid, and a further nemesis, in the hands of Vicki Kugelmann, a German woman who has lived in England for well over a decade, and has been taken under Enid’s kindly wing, in part because of her degree of being ostracised for being German, but, also for representing, like the Lieutenant, a wider world.
Hamilton captures, beautifully, the narrow world, the thinking processes, the pettiness and the glories of his characters. Although in many ways this is a dark, sad book, echoing Enid’s sad cry:
at last she put out the light, and turned over, and adjusted the pillow, and hopefully composed her mind for sleep – God help us, God help all of us, every one, all of us
it is also horribly, viciously comic in its exposure of the nasty, small-minded petty tyranny of the Mr Thwaites of the world, who imagine their spiteful drivel and their pompous utterances against their fellows is ‘bluff humour’ instead of the wearing, pointless savageness of its true nature.
You know’, said Mrs Barratt, I don’t think you really like the Russians, Mr Thwaites. I don’t think you realise what they’re doing for us.’ ….
Mr Thwaites was momentarily taken aback by this unexpected resistance, and there was a pause in which his eyes went glassy.
‘Ah’ he said at last. ‘Don’t I?….Don’t I…Well, perhaps I don’t…Maybe I thinks more than I says. Maybe I has my private views….’
Oh God, thought Miss Roach, now he was beginning his ghastly I-with-the-third-person business. As if bracing herself for a blow (as she looked at the tablecloth), she waited for more, and more came.
‘I Keeps my Counsel.’ said Mr Thwaites, in his slow treacly voice. ‘Like the Wise Old Owl, I Sits and Keeps my Counsel.’
Hamilton is clear where his loyalties lie, and where he wants ours to lie. ‘Thwaiteness’ is not the glittering crime-against-humanity which fills the news, which ‘the silent majority’ may look at, and tut at, in horror, but it is instead, a relentless small spitefulness and viciousness, on a daily basis, which arises out of those small lives, as much as, on the other side, daily small kindnesses may arise from the lives of the nameless.
A subtle, tragi-comic tale of a good man undone by adoration, ‘in darkest Earl’s Court’
Patrick Hamilton is a not-quite-forgotten, admired author, who specialised in getting inside the heads of those who were disaffected, on-the-margins, or even, dangerously psychopathic – he was a stage and film writer, as well as author, and responsible for the highly charged, tightly wound, thrillers of sinister psychopathology, Gaslight, and Rope
Hangover Square was one of his most iconic novels. Set primarily in London on the very edge of, and then just at the start of, the Second World War, this follows the fortunes (pretty well unstoppably downwards) of George Harvey Bone, a not quite impoverished, weak willed man with a severe drinking problem, some undiagnosed dissociative mental health problems, and a dangerous 2 year infatuation with a hard, vicious untalented actress.
Bone is an unlikely subject to capture a reader’s compassionate interest, yet he does, because despite the fact that he is someone of a definite wasted life, a bit of a bumbling, naïve and pathetic character, he is nevertheless like a lost and vulnerable puppy, possessed of great sweetness of temperament, despite his irritating flaccidity of purpose
Netta, the object of his adoration, is a beautiful and completely amoral woman, without any charm, wit, intelligence, talent or likeability. Her one asset is her extraordinary beauty, which is clearly barely even skin-deep. Whereas Bone is a marshmallow, ineffectual, likeable drunk, Netta, and her closest crony, louche, spiteful Peter, are hard, aggressive, deeply unpleasant drunks.
The trajectory of the story is George Bone’s worsening mental health problems, and the hopeless infatuation with Netta, who is completely uninterested in George, in any way, except as someone to sponge money from, and exploit.
This should be an unbearably depressing book, but instead, there is a kind of gentle humour in George, a puppyish enthusiasm and a potential for excitement and joy which carries the reader along, despite the awareness of the grim background of war on the horizon, the predictable and nasty leanings towards Fascist sympathies espoused by Netta and Peter, and George’s inability to free himself from the nest of vipers he can, in some ways, clearly see.
Netta. Nets. Netta. A perfectly commonplace name. In fact, if it did not happen to belong to her, and if he did not happen to adore her, a dull, if not rather stupid and revolting name. Entirely unromantic – spinsterish, mean – like Ethel, or Minnie. But because it was hers look what had gone and happened to it! He could not utter it, whisper it, think of it without intoxication, without dizziness, without anguish. It was incredibly, inconceivably lovely – as incredibly and inconceivably lovely as herself. It was unthinkable that she could have been called anything else. It was loaded, overloaded with voluptuous yet subtle intimations of her personality. Netta. The tangled net of her hair – the dark net – the brunette. The net in which he was caught – netted. Nettles. The wicked poison-nettles from which had been brewed the potion which was in his blood. Stinging nettles. She stung and wounded him with words from her red mouth. Nets. Fishing-nets. Mermaid’s nets. Bewitchment. Syrens – the unearthly beauty of the sea. Nets. Nest. To nestle. To nestle against her. Rest. Breast. In her net. Netta. You could go on like that for ever – all the way back to London.
Perhaps Hamilton’s ability to make us feel George from the inside, and care about him, too, comes in part from what must have been a certain self-identification in the writer, as Hamilton himself had a disastrous relationship with alcohol, child of an alcoholic father, he died in 1962 of liver cirrhosis. He was a writer who definitely identified with the underdog, the marginalised, and the powerless in society.
Hangover Square was made into a much altered film, setting it in London at the turn of the twentieth century (hence, completely losing the political background which is an integral part of the book’s darkness) and making George Bone into a composer/musician. Effectually, a much more romantic melodrama, more Hollywood, more clichéd. Hamilton wisely did not buy into the hackneyed cliché of the tortured artist in his book. George Bone a much more everyday, genteel, impoverished, distinctly ordinary person. Weak, but essentially decent.
J.B. Priestley in his introduction to the the Penguin Classics edition of Hangover Square, describes Hamilton as one of the best ‘minor novelists’ writing in the interwar and beyond years. And lest that seems like damning with faint praise, it is I think fair, admiring praise.
However………I should caution anyone who gets this edition, with the Priestley introduction to AVOID reading that introduction if you have never read Hangover Square, as foolishly, in the closing paragraph of his otherwise pertinent and interesting introduction, he reveals one of the major spoilers. (I was re-reading, so not a problem)
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