Film was a precious commodity during World War Two. Not so much the films that were playing at the picture houses as there were plenty of Hollywood imports to give the audience an escape, but the actual stuff to film on. It was, like so much else, rationed out. So Laurence Olivier gets colour stock to make his unsubtle patriotic Henry V but the infinitely more cinematic Powell and Pressburger worked in shadowy black and white for many of their wartime films like A Canterbury Tale*. Their Finest Hour and a Half is set in 1940-41 and follows four seperate people as they are slowly drawn in to making a propagandist film about Dunkirk for the Ministry of Information.
Catrin is a Valleys girl who ran away to London with a socio-realist painter, one of the (fictional?) Paddington group. She’s a copywriter on adverts who is drafted in to write “women’s dialogue” at the MOI, eventually scripting a fictionalised account of two female twins rescuing soldiers from the French beaches. It’s hard not to feel this is the character the author expects the audience to identify most strongly with. She’s more modern than Edith Beadmore, a costumier at Madame Tussards; more worldly than Arthur Frith, the military adviser to the film who tries not to remember the real rescue; more compassionate than Ambrose Hilliard, a former leading man struggling to accept the world sees him more as a character actor now.
This is an undemanding read, one that whizzed by in a couple of nights. The Blitz is something that causes changes: two near misses makes Edith move to the seaside where she encounters the film crew (and a subsequent bomb triggers another change in her life). But it’s not the focus of the book and the closest it comes to showing the horror of it – the pyschological as opposed to the physical damage and social upheaval it caused – is when Ambrose is asked to identify the body of a friend. There are great details, such as people not wanting to bother with the shelters and the bureaucracy involved in doing something as simple as travelling to the coast.
The details of making a film under wartime conditions works well, although the description of Catlin’s first visit to the MOI seemed to be straight out of Brazil (an impression probably increased by the description of Senate House). I seem to be reading a few books with Soho as a setting at the moment, and this novel did conjure up those familiar side-streets.
It’s ideal for reading whilst travelling, or if you want something fast and surprisingly light. It’s romantic, without romanticising the period or becoming too sentimental.
* that’s one reason why they go delirious once they get to work with colour, producing films that use it as part of the narrative and theme (A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus). I’m digressing because I love P&P so much…