Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The 'Singapore Girl' and Pierre Balmain

1970s 'Singapore Girls', via
Flying out from Heathrow Airport with Singapore Airlines, we heard an announcement that there were suites on our flight. ‘Wow’, I thought, ‘You must be really fancy to have a suite!’ Then ahead of us, we saw the most amazing looking woman. An exquisitely beautiful Asian lady in a blue, flower-patterned long skirt and top, her hair in a glossy, flawless chignon.

“I bet she’s got a suite,” I said to the Mr, “A lady like that can’t possibly be flying economy.”

When we got to our gate, she was not alone. There was a whole gang of identically-dressed women, plus a couple in red and green versions of the same outfit. What could it be? The world’s most elegant finishing school on an outing? The International League of Hotness on tour? Actually, it was the cabin crew for our flight.

Back in 1968, Malaysia-Singapore Airlines, the airline that split to become Malaysian Airline System and today’s Singapore Airlines, got Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain to design the uniforms for its female cabin crew. He came up with a slinky, yet covering, batik outfit based on the traditional sarong kebaya. The airline has its staff's uniforms individually fitted every six months to ensure an immaculate fit, and employs grooming consultants to help staff pick the ideal makeup for their colouring. I'm guessing that they also teach the staff how to do their hair, as while the adverts often show ladies with their hair down, all the ones I saw had either bobs or perfect updos.

Other airlines may have changed their uniforms over the decades, but I can see why Singapore Airlines has stuck with the sarong kebaya: it’s elegant and lovely and somehow timeless. I suppose its simplicity of line owes a lot to the 1960s as well as tradition; the uniform is devoid of pointless frippery, while the classic batik pattern hasn’t aged the way many prints would have done.

The ‘Singapore Girl’ became quite an icon in the late 1960s and 1970s, and when you’ve seen the cabin crew, it’s easy to understand why.

On the way back to England, our flight to Heathrow was diverted to Manchester because of a storm, so it took about five hours longer than expected. They must have been very tired, but our cabin crew remained elegant and helpful to the end - a real credit to the airline that employs them.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013) [film]

When it was announced that Baz Luhrmann was directing a new version of The Great Gatsby, one of my favourite novels, for the big screen, I was excited, and perhaps a little apprehensive. As stories came out about it, little snippets of news, I grew alternately more excited and more apprehensive. Now I've seen it, and I feel...


'Meh' is probably not the reaction a person should have to this film. A lot of it is spectacle, great zoomings-in from a whole city to one person, wild parties, fast cars, and probably comes across much better in 3D at the cinema than on a little 2D screen (I saw it as an in-flight movie). I enjoyed the spectacular aspect; it wasn't historically accurate but it was glittery and giddy and all the things we want the Jazz Age to be.

I was also surprised by the soundtrack. I'm not a fan of modern 'urban' musical styles - I just don't connect with the sound, and choose to listen to other styles. Knowing Jay-Z was doing the soundtrack to Gatsby, I expected to find it intrusive and out-of-place, but it was blended with 1920s tunes here and there and worked very well.

So, looks good, sounds good. Why the 'meh'? Basically, the characters. Tom and Daisy have a complex relationship, Gatsby and Daisy have a complex relationship. In this film, Tom is an utter oaf and his mistress Myrtle completely vulgar. You can't imagine why anyone would want either of them. Because of that, you should root for Daisy and Gatsby at least a little, but Daisy comes across as a drip until almost the very end, where she will not lie to her lover, and Gatsby is, well, an arse. In the Robert Redford/ Mia Farrow version of the story, you do feel Gatsby and Daisy are trying to reclaim their teenaged dreams in some sunlit, impossible time. Redford's Gatsby is a dreamer. Di Caprio's is ambitious, hardheaded - more accurate for a character who's dragged himself up from nothing, working with bootleggers and criminals, but it seems odd that he's so hardheaded even with Daisy. To Redford's Gatsby, Daisy is a dream he might just be able to grasp. To Di Caprio's, she is a property and social status to be acquired.

And so, I don't think I'll go out of my way to watch this again. It looks great, but it's not a film that really touches me.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Bloofer Lady: Fenella Fielding

Valeria Watt entrances Sergeant Bung
2013's Bloofer Lady is the sultry star of Carry On Screaming, Fenella Fielding. Throughout her career Fielding has preferred to focus on stage acting, which means she's far less well-known than her beauty and talent merit. That said, she's managed a few appearances in cult telly programmes, including occasional appearances in The Avengers and being the PA announcer in The Prisoner.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Digging up family history

Apologies if this post looks a bit funny: the reason I've been quiet for a week or so is that I'm in Myanmar (Burma). My grandfather was born here, and never got to come back before he died. I promised myself that one day I would come here for him, and now here we are!

We've spent a few days in Yangon, where we took time to visit the War cemetary. My great-uncle Bunny died in 1942 and doesn't have a grave, but his name is on the memorial. I will do a proper post on the cemetary later, when I have access to Mr Robot's proper photos. It's phone pics for this post, I'm afraid! We also visited Shwe Dagon Pagoda, the stunning building in the first photo. Then we went on to Inle Lake, which was utterly amazing.

Anyway, now we are in the town of Pyin Oo Lwin, which was a hillstation called Maymyo when granddad lived here. We had a fantastic guide, Sozo, who has helped other people looking for places where their families lived. I fear he has more success with white people as their houses were bigger and the names of the buildings stuck.

First we looked round the Christian cemetary. My great-grandfather is buried there. Sozo is friends with Father Joseph, the local Anglican priest (he is a Burmese gentleman), and also maintains the cemetary, though it is hard work. Father Joseph has been having the site cleared and is trying to re-identify graves, but as great-granddad McDonald had a ling-gone wooden marker we found the approximate area where his grave was, but not the specific site. It was very kind of Father Joseph to take time out from his church work to show us the cemetary in detail as I am sure he is a busy man!

Then we looked for the house where granddad grew up. My great-aunt gave us directions, and we found the approximate location, but again, not the house itself. From the directions, we are sure that the house stood on a site that is now a playing field. However, we did find a house that looked just like granddad's would have done in the 1910s, with a brick ground floor and wooden upper floor with verandah. It's one of the oldest houses in that part of town, around 100 years old. Sozo spoke to the chap who lives there, and he allowed us to step into the yard to take photos.

It isn't the grand sort of colonial house you see in most photos of hill stations. I'm quite glad about that. The history of Anglo-Indian and Anglo-Burmese people, the mixed people, sometimes seems in danger of being lost. This little house is part of that other history, the story of people who weren't grand or authoritative. My people. I feel I've brought a little piece of granddad back to the town he loved.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Peaky Blinders and some bimbling around

I’ve been going through one of those phases with no big things on, so I’ve just been ticking away like a clock, going through my regular routine.

The Shelby clan
As far as viewing goes, I can’t be bothered with Downton Abbey - it moves through the years so quickly. Does no-one notice that the inhabitants of the Abbey have barely aged in about 15 years? That annoys me so much I can’t even be bothered with the plot. I have, on the other hand, been enjoying Peaky Blinders. If you’re not in the UK or have missed it, it’s set in the 1920s, and the Peaky Blinders is a criminal gang, centred on a working-class family, who organise gambling and other crimes.

Peaky Blinders uses modern music (as part of the soundtrack, it’s not part of the characters’ world), but I like it. It probably helps that it’s the sort of thing I’d like even if it weren’t on the programme, always did like a bit of Nick Cave... I might have been irritated by the music if other aspects had been weaker, but it’s mostly nicely done. Many characters are still feeling the effects of the First World War: gangleader Thomas Shelby still has nightmares about the war, and treats the men he served alongside with rather more kindness than most other people. He’s even more tolerant of Communist rabble-rouser Freddie than he would be of most people – more tolerant than even his family expect him to be.

Aunt Polly - note the shirt and tie, she's a little dated
The interiors and clothes reflect that fact that most people didn’t move over to all-deco, all the time, with gin and motorcars, is great. Aunt Polly, in fact, the Shelby matriarch, has something of a careworn Gibson Girl look, still in the clothes of an earlier era. The only person who’s really embraced the Jazz Age is Ada, Thomas's sister, and while her drop-waisted dresses and Louis-heeled shoes are clearly more frivolous than the clothes worn by other characters, there’s still a seediness to them.

Ada Shelby, in her fab 20s clothes
I’ve only taken a dislike to one character, and that’s Grace, mainly because she’s written to be practically perfect. She’s blonde and pretty with a beguiling Irish accent, and why, if you don’t like her she will sing at you with her gorgeous voice and then you will love her. Barf. Compared to the other characters, she comes across as alarmingly lacking in depth. I don't know why that is, as she has a clear backstory, and far more to do than characters like Ada, yet of all of them, she's the one that doesn't fit into the story properly. Possibly it's because of all of them, she feels the least realistic, the most like a concession to 21st century thinking. Anyway, she's not enough to spoil the story, annoying as she is.

EDIT: Like Peaky Blinders? I've also written about Peaky Blinders series 2

This Tuesday I finally handed my friend Sarah the 1950s cardigan I’ve been knitting for her to wear to her wedding. As part of the process I had to do a couple of adjustments such as lengthening the sleeves, and I was terrified that it wouldn’t fit. However, it fitted perfectly once she had it on, and should show off the nipped-in waist of her dress to perfection. She even loved the sparkly clear buttons I chose.

Finally, I managed to get a few more of the old, green, Penguin crime novels in Oxfam. These things have been like hen’s teeth lately, I hope no idiot is doing horrible things to them in the name of ‘upcycling’. (Why I hate upcycling.) Anyway, there was a couple by Dickson Carr in the quartet, which makes me very happy as they are hard to come by and I enjoy them.

Have you been watching or reading anything that’s both vintage and fun of late?

Friday, 4 October 2013

Quatermass 2 [film]

Mysterious objects have been falling from the sky
I love Quatermass, the science fiction-horror television series from the 1950s. The first series (Quatermass) is mostly lost, but the second and third ones (Quatermass II, Quatermass and the Pit) still exist, and I’ve got what there is of all three on DVD.

Recently Quatermass 2, the late ‘50s Hammer remake of Quatermass II, was on telly. I love Quatermass and I love Hammer, so it couldn’t fail, right? Wrong. The main thing I didn’t like about the film was the one thing that couldn’t be ignored: I really didn’t like Brian Donlevy as the Professor. Apparently the character’s creator, Nigel Kneale, also wasn’t keen on Donlevy in the role. For me, Quatermass has to be an eccentric British boffin, someone whose brilliance can be mistaken for madness. I see him as nudging close to the line that divides Dr Jekyll or Dr Moreau from respectable scientists. Donlevy is American, and in common with the heroes of the American SF movies of the 1950s it always feels as though he has the potential for action. I’m not saying Donlevy is bad, but he’s not Quatermass!

The storyline is a cut-back version of Quatermass II. As in the original, strange objects have been falling from the sky, and Professor Quatermass, investigating them, discovers a factory that is allegedly developing artificial food, where the workers all behave in a very strange manner. Where do the objects come from, and how are they connected with the workers at the factory? However, the film is less inclusive than the television programme. The global aspect of the story is missing – whereas in the original version, artificial food factories the same as the one Quatermass investigates exist in Siberia and Brazil, in the film there’s no reference to other countries.
The 'artificial food plant' looks suspiciously like a space colony...

Quatermass’ daughter, Paula, is another casualty of the conversion, and that’s a real shame because in the series she helps track an asteroid using a radio telescope, and takes part in the analysis of a substance her father finds. In the film, the most prominent female at Quatermass’ research centre is a secretary - who gets sent out of the way when serious science is being discussed.

All in all, I found this an unsatisfying version of the original series, lacking much of the atmosphere and global scale.