Wednesday, 19 January 2011

the bewitching hattie jacques

Eric Sykes had a point when he was commenting on the BBC4 TV drama about his comedic partner and fellow Carry On movies star Hattie Jacques. I'd rather see more about her comedic abilities than the story of her affair with a younger man. Luckily, there's The Pleasure Garden (thanks Christina Lamb), which is full of Jacques' playful wit and grace. In this 'poetic ode' fantasy from 1952 by American poet James Broughton, Jacques skips and dances through the ruins, fields and trees of the old Crystal Palace grounds in London as a witch-like character who frees mortals to pursue their desires with her magic shawl. Her real-life husband of the time, John Le Mesurier, plays a funereal minister of public behaviour. Mooching around in undertaker's costume, (complete with cool round shades and top hat) he pins leaves to the naked statues and generally tries to rein in the abhorrent liberal excesses on show so that he can turn the park into a cemetery.

The Pleasure Garden won the Prix de Fantaisie Poetique at the Cannes Film Festival in 1954, then dwindled into obscurity before being rescued and reissued by the BFI last year as a lost odd gem. The opening scenes look little more than quaint bohemian fiction, but it's when Jacques arrives, swooping into view like a mischievous gypsy fairy, that the film sparkles. There's lots of Alice In Wonderland, Midsummer Night's Dream and the films of Jean Cocteau in there, as Jacques's free spirit casts spells to allow characters - including a rare performance from future free cinema director Lindsay Anderson - to live out their dreams, before a tug-of-war finale between art and heart.

Set among the neglected original Crystal Palace terraces, The Pleasure Garden captures places that were about to disappear - the colonnade as well as the bandstand where Jacques steps and twirls balletically were knocked down later and many of the statues carted off to auction in 1957. But the film also explores visions of the past and future, harking back to an imagined idyll (Jacques character is even called Albion) and looking forward with bright hopes. Made in the shadow of the Festival Of Britain, the supernatural events that happen in this derelict former glory reflect a sense of trying to break free of the postwar debris, both literal and metaphorical. That this seems to play out in the costumes is the most strikingly modernist element about it. Victorian values literally go up against burgeoning beatnik free expression, from hats and buttoned-up outfits to knotted hankies and clothes discarded to reveal loose undergarments, like some kind of pre-subcultures battle of sartorial wills.

All this pairs neatly on the BFI DVD release with The Phoenix Tower, a 1957 documentary about the design and building of the BBC Crystal Palace television tower. No Hattie Jacques or costumes on the latter, but plenty of larger-than-life Meccano engineering and sky-high thinking.


  1. I've always found her extremely sexy, so was not at all surprised that she had an interesting love life.

    1. Here, here! She was a bombshell and men fancied her. No question. I'm often told I look similar, though slightly slighter in frame and older men always chat me up. I think if people had known about her affairs, it would have wrecked her career but culled the stereotyping immediately.

  2. And an admirable view that is too. Oo-er ...