You won’t know the lady pictured above. Her name is Elsie Turner, rechristened “Mrs T” by yours truly when I was 7, and it was as Mrs T that I have referred to her ever since.
I think we all have someone in our lives, other than our parents, who somehow changes or influences the direction which our lives take. It may be a teacher, a grandparent, maybe even a hero we aspire to be. In my case it was Mrs T. I met her when I was 7, having accompanied my Dad to her house one day in order to “help” him (I use the term loosely) with some gardening work he was doing for following her move into the area. Mrs T was in her early seventies, and we hit it off instantly – helped by her often surreal sense of humour and our mutual love of books. At the end of the job, I promised I would go and see her again. This I did a week or so later, and continued to do so at least once a week (normally more often) until she passed away fifteen years later. She had no children or grandchildren. She had been married for just a few days when her husband returned to the war, and she never saw him again. Likewise, one of my own Nans had passed away a few months earlier. We fell into position perfectly.
We would talk, drink lots of tea, eat lots of cake, read books together, and play card games or scrabble. As years went on and going out became more difficult for her, I would make sure she had a supply of library books, do some shopping, and some household chores. She also gave me a batch of 78rpm records at one point. She had no music system at all, just a radio. So, I took them home and rather crudely transferred them to tape, and took them round on occasion so that she could hear them. She would sing along to them (rather badly, even she would admit), and teach me other songs from the period.
One thing that wasn’t always quite as pleasurable was Mrs T’s love for cricket, Irene Dunne and Deanna Durbin. When I first got to know her, Channel 4 had just started broadcasting in the UK, and their habit of showing old films every weekday afternoon meant that Mrs T could see again films she had first seen in the 1930s. I’d watch old films with Mum too, but they were mostly 40s and 50s films, we rarely watched anything as old as I did with Mrs T. I have to confess that Deanna and Irene never really appealed to me, but these were films that meant a lot to her and with good reason.
These were films that she had seen for the first time when she was in London during the 1930s, working as a Nanny (and a wonderful one she must have been). I heard lots of stories over the years about this period, and she always seemed very proud of her time in London. I know now that she had good reason to be. Girls born in a Norfolk village in 1909 rarely left the village itself, let alone move across the country to the capital. Her move must have raised some eyebrows at the time.
Along with Deanna Durbin and Irene Dunne (I’m sure there were others), I also got introduced to silent films for the first time when Channel 4 started showing them on Sunday afternoons. I remember The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg was one of them, starring Ramon Novarro. At the time I guess I was bored rigid watching a silent movie (I saw it again recently and , up until that point, remembered nothing of it), although as a teenager I do remember being rather taken by Ramon Novarro (although I certainly didn’t let that on at the time!). She was rather taken by him too, and had gained his autograph when she went to see him on stage in London. If so, that would have been in 1935 when he was appearing for a brief time in a rather disastrous stage play.
The film that changed everything was Show Boat. I had seen the 1950s glossy MGM version with Mum by this time (I was about twelve I guess), and admit that I wasn’t altogether happy that my afternoon with Mrs T would be spent watching an older version of the story rather than playing cards. But this twelve year old became entranced within minutes of the film starting, and my love of cinema was cemented forever. It became “our film”, and we would talk about it and sing the songs. Mrs T would tell me about the first time she saw it in London. I heard those stories many times over – it’s funny how we never realize that we’d give anything years later to hear them all over again. We hoped and waited that our beloved Channel 4 would show it again. They did about a year later, at about 11pm on a school night. Dad was out of work, and we were no longer hiring a video player. There was a thirteen year old boy bawling like a baby in his bedroom that night as he wasn’t allowed to stay up and watch it.
We did get to see it again about eight years later, when it was shown one afternoon. For one more time we could sit and watch the film together. By this time, Mrs T was in her mid eighties. The chat was getting less bright and bubbly and funny, she was getting through less library books, I’d even begun to start winning games of scrabble. My friend was slowly running out of steam.
By this point I was visiting three or four times a week. I was going through a period after sixth form where I was moving from one temp job to another. In 1996, I applied for an office job at the local university, and got an interview. I hurriedly went to tell Mrs T the good news. She tried her best to look pleased, but had somehow got it into her head that a full-time job would change everything, and that I would have better things to do than see her in my (considerably less) spare time. This wasn’t true, of course. The very next day I had a phone call from her niece, telling me that Mrs T had had a stroke and was in hospital. She died two weeks later, just a few days after I had started work at the university which has been the centre of my life in one way or another for the last seventeen years.
I guess the passing of Mrs T and the start of that job was the real end of my childhood. It was a sixth month contract (no renewals I was told), but I was still working there nine years later when I handed in my notice so that I could finally do a degree. It was film that I chose as my subject, and the direction that my degree (and my MA and PhD) took seems to have been very much influenced by my childhood friend. Instead of analyzing films, I write about how they received and understood at the time they were released, and what they meant to audiences at that time. This wasn’t a conscious decision, of course, but I can’t help but think it (and the period I invariably research) was influenced by the person with whom I spent so much of my childhood and teenaged years, and the stories she shared of how, why and when she saw the films that we watched together and why they meant so much to her.