The recently released film Their Finest reminds PETER FROST of a British writer far too little recognised
THE film Their Finest, now on general release and reviewed in the Morning Star on Friday April 21, paints an accurate picture of the British film industry in the early years of WWII.
Just as in other aspects of British life, women were at last getting a chance to do jobs that had for decades been the sole province of men.
Women are working lathes making munitions; land army girls bring in the harvest; female pilots deliver spitfires; female crews work canal boats and at least one woman is writing the scripts of patriotic comedy films.
I had heard that the inspiration for the new film was screenwriter Diana Morgan, who was one such woman and that the part of Catrin Cole in Their Finest was modelled on her.
She was referred to by the men of the studios as “the Welsh bitch.” The misogynistic attitude behind such insults is accurately recreated in the new film.
Their Finest doesn’t set out to be an accurate biography of Morgan. Apart from her Welsh origins and the fact that she became one of the only female screenwriters, there are few other real parallels.
What it does do with uncanny accuracy is to reproduce the kind of patriotic and entertaining propaganda cinema that Morgan and her fellow film makers produced in those hard days of the war.
Indeed Their Finest, and Morgan’s best scripted work — Went the Day Well? — could be sister movies.
Morgan had started out as an actor training at the Central School of Speech and Drama.
By the 1930s, she was appearing on the West End stage in Noel Coward’s Cavalcade, but already writing too.
She had a wicked, and a fairly rude sense of humour. She gained a reputation for writing smutty innuendo and double entendre that she smuggled past the Lord Chamberlain who censored all stage shows until 1968.
During the 1940s, she was bestknown for the theatrical revues she wrote with her husband Robert MacDermot. The couple didn’t broadcast their politics.
We do know her 1940 play about Suffragettes, The House on the Square, was criticised by feminist critics but not until the 1990s.
Morgan became practically the only female member of the wartime creative team at Ealing Studios, and one of the very few female writers at work in the British film industry at that time.
Perhaps the only comparative figure was communist director Kay Manders, who at the same time almost singlehandedly invented the drama documentary.
In the early 1940s, Morgan was taken on by Ealing Studios as a freelance writer on Russian director Sergei Nolbandov’s 1941 film Ships with Wings.
The following year she did her best work writing the script for Went the Day Well? The inspiring story is of how ordinary English villagers foil a force of invading nazi paratroopers masquerading as British soldiers. Many of the film’s heroes are women.
Went the Day Well? was made by Brazilian communist director Alberto Cavalcanti and edited by another communist, Sidney Cole.
Morgan based her script on a short story by the English novelist Graham Greene.
The film is often reckoned, including by me, as one of the finest propaganda films ever made. In 2005 a Channel 4 poll named it as one of the 100 greatest war films.
Morgan worked on many Ealing Comedies including the supernatural The Halfway House, The Peaceful Inn and Fiddlers Three, for which she wrote comic Tommy Trinder some rather lewd jokes.
Her only solo credit for Ealing was the Robert Hamer film, Pink String and Sealing Wax. This is the tale of a barmaid who murders her husband and tries to pin the crime on an innocent admirer.
Morgan felt that Hamer, who directed Kind Hearts and Coronets, was the only director at Ealing who could really direct women and the two had an excellent working relationship.
Her final film for Ealing, Dance Hall, tells a story about women from a female perspective.
The unusual story line centres on four young female factory workers who escape the monotony of their jobs by spending their evenings at the local Palais.
She was credited on two more films in the 1950s, The Woman’s Angle and the Technicolor musical Let’s Be Happy. Later she wrote mainly for television including providing many scripts for episodes of the TV series Emergency Ward 10 between 1957 and 1967.
Her final big screen script was for the 1960 film Hand in Hand. It deals with the friendship between a Jewish and a Roman Catholic child, and their attempts to understand each others’ faith.
It won several international awards, including a Golden Globe for “best film promoting international understanding” Diana Morgan died in December 1964.
Now this new film will, I hope, awake a new interest and appreciation of yet another woman who for far too long has been hidden from history.