I loved the novella by Amos Oz called ‘Panther in the Basement’. This film is based on that book and, even though the title is a touch too ‘cute’ for my taste, it is an interesting transposition of the story to film. The wonderful Alfred Molina is terrific as Sergeant Stephen Crabtree, the British soldier posted to Palestine during the British Mandate. He is a man fascinated by this land of the Bible and delighted to meet a young boy who looks able to help him understand the language. They strike up a friendship which is odd since the boy, Proffy to his friends, is brought up to hate the British and declares himself a sworn enemy.
The political is personal, though, and soon Proffy is conflicted by the difference between what he has been told about the British and what he likes about Sergeant Crabtree. The two spend time together, usually at the British mess, and Proffy helps the sergeant with Hebrew while Crabtree teaches Proffy English.
Proffy’s friendship with two friends of the same age as him is based on their sense of fighting back against the British Mandate. They plot ways of attacking the enemy as young boys do, oblivious to the dangers involved. Proffy sees an opportunity to use Crabtree as a source of military information to further their freedom fighting cause but things do not turn out that way and when he is followed by his friends his secret visits to the British mess are misinterpreted.
The resulting interrogation of Proffy by a Jewish group was confusing to me: who were they and on what authority did Proffy’s parents subject their son to such treatment? A sub-plot showing their involvement in the Haganah might explain this. In any case, Proffy is branded a traitor in his community and he questions the nature of friendship; learning too late that Sergeant Stephen Crabtree was more of a friend than he realised at the time. The final scene is worth waiting for since it brings a resolution not found in the book.
On balance, the book is far better than the film, even with the presence of Alfred Molina, but the location filming adds a dimension that I could not see in my mind’s eye when reading. The sense of Jerusalem in the 1940s is brought to life. For this reason, the film is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I saw this film by director Amma Asante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert at the Bath Film Festival. It is based on the book ‘Colour Bar’ by Susan Williams and tells the story of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams who met in post war London and fell in love. The film centres on their love for each other and the difficulties this caused, not only because he was black and she was white in a society that was shocked by any mixing between races but also because he was heir to the throne of Bechuanaland and whoever became his wife became Queen.
It is the love story that is most affecting and cinema always does a good job of showing the detail of the period. London in the 40s looked a bit grim but Bechuanaland looked amazing in ways that I could not picture for myself when reading Susan Williams’s book.
David Oyelowo played Seretse Khama and Rosamund Pike played Ruth Williams and made me believe they would have moved heaven and earth to be together. When everything was stacked against them, they continued in their quest to be married and take their place in Africa. This would be enough of a challenge without the forces of the British Empire working against them. As the film shows, the need to keep mineral rich South Africa sweet was the major reason the Labour government would not help the couple. I was pleased to see a young Tony Benn and an older Fenner Brockway portrayed as principled politicians eager to help the cause.
The couple were pawns in a political game, not helped that Churchill did not keep his promise when he returned to government. Yet, they won through and went on to lead Botswana to independence and Seretse Khama assumed the presidency by democratic election. Jack Davenport had the difficult job of playing a stiff servant of Empire but did it well, just stopping short of villain status. The despicable role of the Church of England in their story was missed and it the agony of their years apart, when Seretse returned to London to negotiate his way to the throne, were conflated into a few scenes.
However, this film was a triumph of storytelling of a period of our history that needs to be discussed rather than ignored. It would be good to think that such a circumstance would be greeted differently now, in modern Britain. Who knows!
The second novel in Jamila Gavin’s ‘The Wheel of Surya’ trilogy is fascinating since most of the action takes place in post war London where Sikh children Marvinder and Jaspal have found their father but discovered that he is not the worthy man they thought he was.
The novel shows different cultures and different lives as they weave in and out of the events leading up to the partition of India and Pakistan. It also shows the effect of the war on people and places. The London where Jaspal runs with his gang is war damaged and reduced to rubble. The kindly doctor befriended by Marvinder, attracted to the playing of his violin, has lost his family in the holocaust. Both brother and sister miss their father, in prison for his wrong doing, but unsure of the fate of their mother back in India.
Throughout the story, we see the effect of a different culture on the children. For Jaspal, his inner rage surfaces as a need to fight but Marvinder finds solace in music, especially the violin. Both are shaped by Britain at the same time as being identified as foreign because of their religion and appearance. It is a book about being torn between two worlds.
Characters from the first book in the trilogy return and scenes set in India make us hope, like Marvinder and Jaspal, that the mother is still alive.
‘The Eye of the Horse’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This film is something of an oddity but it remains in my hinterland because it covers a period of history with which I am fascinated and takes another angle when exploring it. The partition of India in 1947 has been covered in many other films but in this one Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan takes centre stage.
Interestingly, the film is structured around the idea of a dying Jinnah arriving in some heavenly anteroom where he is asked to account for his life. The use of an ‘angel’ figure guiding a person back to the key scenes of their past has featured in many films. Why computers are needed in this heavenly room is a mystery since Jinnah died in 1948, unless we are to suppose that either he spent a long time awaiting his judgement or that computers were in use there before they were invented on earth. Whichever, the story of Jinnah’s life is the important thing.
By talking to his heavenly guide we are given insights into Jinnah’s reflections on his actions. He voices regret over the course history took, especially over the loss of life caused by the partition on India into India and Pakistan. At the end of the film we have a scene where Jinnah resumes his earlier career as a barrister and cross examines Mountbatten who he blames for the chaos of partition.
The best aspects of the film are the scenes where the more straightforward retelling of his story is possible, for he did have a fascinating life. His role as a central figure in Congress and opposition to the British rule is shown, as is his willingness to cross boundaries by marrying a Parsi. However, as independence becomes a possibility his determination to protect the Muslim minority grows into a demand for a separate Muslim state.
Gandhi and Nehru play major parts in this film as do Lord and Lady Mountbatten. The friendship between Edwina Mountbatten and Nehru is given more space than perhaps it needs in the context of this story. Christopher Lee played Jinnah in what was an interesting casting choice. He is on record as saying it was one of the most important roles of his career. I also believe the film was popular in Pakistan.
This film is worth seeing alongside other films that cover the same period.
The Ruth and Seretse Khama story was told comprehensively in this book by Susan Williams. The sub-title ‘The Triumph of Seretse Khama and His Nation’ points to the happy ending but the book details the lengths the British went to to avoid embarrassment over an African Prince marrying a white British woman.
There is greater depth here than in the previous book I mentioned, ‘A Marriage of Inconvenience’. Her access to records not released when the earlier book was written gives Williams an advantage which she uses well. She details the struggle the couple had to get married. The church does not come out well in terms of living up to Christian principles but it did reflect accurately the values and attitudes of the time.
Of most concern is the role of the British government. The Empire was fading after the Second World War and many Labour politicians played an honourable role in campaigning for freedom for former British colonies. Yet it was a Labour government that worked with South Africa to prevent Seretse Khama from taking up his rightful leadership role. When the Conservatives won the election in 1951 things became even harder for the couple. They were kept away from Africa in exile in Britain.
An enquiry was held to see if he was a fit person to rule. The outcome was that South Africa’s objection was enough to keep him from home. In Britain, Ruth and Seretse were insulted in the streets. It was not until 1956 that they were allowed to return to Bechuanaland and then only on the condition that Seretse renounce his claim to be Chief.
The story may have a happy ending since the first President of Botswana, democratically elected, was none other than Seretse Khama. He remained President until his death in 1980. It is an amazing love story; love is where it falls. It is also a story of diminishing empires and the way people are mistreated when nations seek to protect their self- interests.
‘Colour Bar’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I read this book and saw the associated television documentary when they were released in the 90s. I had not previously heard the story of Ruth and Seretse Khama until I saw the two part television documentary. I then read the book for more detail and became fascinated by the story of a white British woman and the black man who met in central London and fell in love.
As this was the 1950s, their relationship was unusual but love is where it falls and the story of their determination to be together was, and is, inspiring.
They met in 1947 at a dance in London organised by the London Missionary Society. Seretse Khama was sent by his tribe to England to study, first at Oxford and then in London. He was an African Prince and heir to the Chieftanship in Bechuanaland in Southern Africa. They fell in love and planned to get married. They had to contend with disapproval from all sides.
South Africa was the main barrier to their happiness. The apartheid regime did not approve of a mixed marriage of a prominent leader of a country on their border. The British government sought to appease the South Africans and the elders of Seretse Khama’s tribe were also unhappy.
The fact that, with all the forces of powerful governments against them, they still got married is an inspiring story. His uncle who was acting as regent recalled him to Bechuanaland, expecting the marriage to be annulled. Instead, Seretse appealed to the tribe at village public meetings.
The British government recalled Khama and then refused to allow him to return to his country. It was to the shame of the Labour Party in Britain that this took place under a Labour government that had so many members who expected to see the dismantlement of the British Empire after the second world war. Yet South Africa was powerful and had reserves of gold and oil that Britain needed. Ruth and Seretse Khama were unimportant in the scheme of things.
‘A Marriage of Inconvenience’ included interviews with Ruth Khama. She died in 2002. Seretse Khama had died twenty years before her. In a final scene in the documentary, she stood on a hilltop near his memorial stone looking out over the plains. It was a moving end to a great love story.
This one man theatre piece was a superb review of the life of Paul Robeson. The sub-title, ‘A Life with Songs’ is apt as Tayo Aluka is an excellent singer as well.
Paul Robeson rose to fame because of his singing voice but his increasingly vocal criticism of the US government brought him difficulties in later life. His socialism along with his views on racial discrimination ensured he rubbed up against the authorities. It was his views on the Soviet Union that did the most damage. By saying what he thought was impressive about the communist system he was branded unpatriotic and constraints were put on his travel and movements. From 1949 onwards his career suffered.
Interestingly, Robeson forged a bond with Welsh miners when in the UK in the 40s. He made a film here called ‘The Proud Valley’ which I saw on television as a boy without realising the significance of the actor playing the lead role.
Tayo Aluka is a commanding presence on the stage in a play that he also wrote. He makes the most of the props which furnish the stage around him; photo frames, flags and artefacts of a life are called upon as he relates the rise and fall of his career. Robeson’s personal life is dealt with briefly; it seems he had multiple relationships, some of them overlapping.
‘Call Mr Robseon’ sent me off to learn more about this remarkable man. This is why Tayo Aluka’s play is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?