Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Lavender Hill Mob

The Ealing Comedies are amongst the best loved products of the British film industry. One of these is currently showing here in London, at the Odeon, Panton St. giving us the rare opportunity to see it on a (relatively) big screen.  After handing over an eye watering £11.45, I settled down to wait. Screen 2 at Panton St is typical of  any multi screen cinema and as such is comfortable enough but adds nothing to the cinema going experience.

As the lights dimmed we slipped into the seemingly endless series of trailers of now showing and coming soon films. These were a serious assault on the senses. Designed, as they were, to show off the power of digital technology. The sound, in particular, left me with the sense that there was blood trickling from my ears. I have no idea what any of those films were, except that one included rapping penguins and another featured Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher!

Eventually this madness stopped and the old familiar certification appeared on screen, assuring us that The Lavender Hill Mob was highly unlikely to offend anyone……….bliss!

Released in 1951, written by T.E.B. Clarke and directed by Charles Crichton, it is a beautifully crafted heist movie. Henry Holland (Alec Guinness) is a clerk in the Bullion Office  at The Bank who for twenty years has been responsible for the transportation of gold. His devotion to his job and his utter reliability make him appear to be the ideal man  for this position, but he has a secret. He has developed the perfect plan to steal a consignment and escape from the tedium of his life. The only fly in the ointment is how to dispose of the gold. Selling it on the post war British black market is far too risky but getting it out of the country seems like an impossible task.

Enter Alfred Pendlebury (the wonderful Stanley Holloway), the new lodger at the boarding house in Lavender Hill where Henry Holland lives. A frustrated artist, Pendlebury owns a small foundry producing cheap souvenirs for the British and European holiday trade. Put two and two together and you have the basis for a very entertaining 80 minutes.

Everything works in this film. The set pieces, the robbery, the wild run down the spiral staircase of the Eiffel Tower and the car chase are wonderfully handled. It is both funny and tense and all of the characters are likeable, how often can you say that!

The cast is brilliant, the two principles are well supported by Alfie Bass and Sidney James as professional thieves recruited to assist in the caper. There are many other well known names in the cast, such as John Gregson, Sidney Taffler and Michael Trubshawe and even more of those shamefully anonymous character actors from the period such as Marjorie Fielding, Clive Morton and Meredith Edwards. Blue Peters Valerie Singleton apparently has an  uncredited part although I think that I must have blinked while she was on screen, because I didnt see her. There is even an early and quite brief appearance by Audrey Hepburn. But there is one star that hasnt been mentioned yet.

London. This film is as old as I am and provides some wonderful footage of the Capital in the post war years. Surprisingly, Lavender Hill makes little or no contribution but there are some nice shots of Notting Hill/Dale. However, the real interest is in the City. The Bank, The Royal  Exchange  and most importantly the area around St Pauls are very well portrayed. The amount of open space around the Cathedral, the result of wartime bomb damage, may well astonish some younger viewers.

So, this is not a slick, high tech, modern heist caper. There are plenty of those around and many of them are very entertaining, but this is something special. Seemingly old fashioned now, it was cutting edge in its day.

Go and see it.

From left to right - the former Bramley Arms, the site of the Old MacDonald police car crash - Lavender, you have to use you imagination for the rest of the title - St Paul's, not as depicted in the film!

Friday, 22 July 2011


We are being invaded by the French! Well, it’s not really an invasion, it’s more of an infiltration……and it’s not actually the French, but it is something very, very French.

In recent years we have become much more of an outdoor society. Perhaps it’s global warming or possibly we’re just becoming more “European” in our approach to life, but whatever the reason we are enjoying outdoor socialising more than ever. This has led to the proliferation of outdoor eateries and pavement cafes. It has also resulted in a serious improvement in the standard of mobile food vendors. Of course, the humble burger van is still out there and is, I am sure, still doing very well, but it is also now possible to get a decent cup of coffee and a snack or light meal from a cafĂ© on wheels.

Many of these are served from imported vehicles, such as Piaggio three wheelers (just enough room for a coffee machine, but little else) and Airstream trailers (I do love an Airstream!) but the subject of this rambling is the vehicle that seems to have become the current weapon of choice in the street food wars. It is, of course, the Citroen H Van.

Perhaps not the prettiest of vehicles, with its boxy shape, snub nose and corrugated panels, but it certainly does exude a certain Gallic charm. You can easily imagine it sitting in a shady corner of the car park, sipping a pastis and smoking a Gauloise. In production from 1947 to 1981, it is a slow but eminently practical van with its low floor and high roof (most people would be able to stand upright in an H Van), its square lines have enabled it to be converted to suit just about any purpose, without resorting to an expensive, bespoke, coachbuilt body........and it is perfectly suited to the mobile food trade.


For many years they have been catering for the needs of French travellers, parked at the side of the road, surrounded by plastic chairs and tables sheltering under Pernod and Ricard umbrellas. Overseen by portly chaps in stained aprons, there never seemed to be a shortage of punters prepared to lay down their francs and euros for a generous plate of steak frites before continuing their journey.

Now, they are here and, to my mind at least, are a very welcome addition to London’s al fresco scene. Serving everything from booze to crepes, they are cropping up at popular locations all over the Capital and beyond and long may that continue.

Of course, not all H Vans are used for catering, the black, short wheelbase model below, is a (rarely driven) mobile advert, pointing prospective buyers towards the slightly off the beaten track Temperley store in Notting Hill.

More information on the vans can be found here and here.