Thoughts on the 2017 General Election, what a whirlwind!

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I want to pre-empt this by saying – what a day! And I also want to pre-empt this by saying Labour did not win the election. That is plain to see. And also, I am a Labour supporter/voter so forgive the bias but here are my thoughts I wanted to put down.

The first proper election I became interested in, obviously down to age, was the 2010 election. I had just turned 17 and we were faced with a hung parliament. I can still remember seeing Gordon Brown with his children leaving No. 10 and then David Cameron entering that famous building. But what was stark was the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. Remember Nick Clegg promising no more tuition fees? Yeah. Very quickly through the autumn and winter of 2010 people were riled. Students protested, Charles and Camilla’s car was attacked by activists (hahaha). And the riots in the summer of 2011. It was a pretty eventful time to say the least. And Ed Miliband became leader of the Labour Party. “Red Ed” as he was known in some quarters of the press. Up until 2014, politically, things were constant. Then the Scottish Independence reared its head. To me, that was a change of things to come. The 2015 election was the first one I could vote in. I voted Labour and got behind Ed Miliband. I liked him. He’s become very sassy and shade abundant on Twitter which is just marvellous and long may that continue. But. The Conservatives secured a majority. Labour lost, I would say very substantially. The polls had got it wrong. Oh those opinion polls. The morning I woke up to the result was just so shitty. Aargh. I accepted it and accepted that the next election would be in 2020 with Cameron staying on for five years…

Along came Jeremy Corbyn. I hadn’t heard of him until about August of that year when his name was cropping up so many times – he would return the party to traditional Labour, not the Blairite/Centrist party it had become. That’s what people wanted wasn’t it? A different party to the centrist-right Conservative Party. So, he became elected and some in the party didn’t like it. They fucking hated it. As did the press. The fucking press, oh my god. Again, like in 2015, things chundered along with until the EU referendum vote. That’s when shit hit the fan big time. 52% vs. 48% to leave the EU. Whatever side you were on, you cannot deny that a massive tinderbox of emotion had been opened, and I think that was completely unnecessary. I’ve heard of families being torn apart, that’s how massive it was! And the state of the press was disturbing, as were certain quarters on social media who backed ‘Brexit’. Initially, I was fuming with the result. But after about 4-8 weeks I accepted it and, I have to say, wasn’t really bothered. Like, what can I or anyone else do about it? Nothing.

But this period was a disaster for Labour. I won’t go into it as everyone knows about it but the party was tearing itself apart. Oh, and David Cameron resigned, cue a Tory leadership race, and Theresa May becoming the new Prime Minister. It was such a strange time, so much had changed in a relatively short space of time. We kept hearing ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and these unjustified slurs on those who did not vote that way. And it still goes on, “those fucking remoaners, how dare they have an opinion!”. Ugh. Anyway, September 2016 saw another Labour leadership contest. Corbyn stormed it and again people were declaring the Labour Party was dead. Me included to a certain degree.

Fastforward to Tuesday 18 April 2017. At about 10:30-11:00 in the morning. A surprise announcement that Theresa May was calling a general election. She was calling it for the good of the country despite refusing to call an election, and saying it several times. URGH. Look at the fucking Daily Mail and The Sun frontpages for god’s sake! It’s sickening. But oh so wrong…

I was not hopeful. In fact I was convinced Labour would be dead and the Conservatives would have over 400 seats. A landslide. Fuck’s sake. I think Brenda from Bristol, who has become infamous, sums it up – “NOT ANOTHER ONE?”

The campaigning started. The press began their Labour attack. But, if one looks at the campaigning now, you can see Theresa May being “weak and wobbly”. Not “strong and stable” as she was preaching. She was full of soundbites, she felt cold, stiff and almost robotic. No heart or soul in her demeanour. There were local council elections on 5 May and Labour lost so many seats. It felt like a 1983 scenario in the election. And then came the manifesto. That was a massive game changer. A fucking dementia tax? Fuck right off! That alienated many voters, hell, even people on the Mail Online tore her apart. Oh, and the vote for fox hunting. Utterly shameful and inhuman. That says it all. Corbyn on the other hand played a blinder. A manifesto that, yes, “for the many, not the few”. It appealed to people. Maybe, just maybe, something is happening. After nearly a year of fatigue with Corbyn I was changing my view. This was for me, it felt natural somehow. Looking back now, the crowds at his rallies tell a big story. Thousands at every one of them. It was amazing and it made me think, something is happening.

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Strong and stable?
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Corbyn’s rally at The Sage, Gateshead. Nigh on 10,000 people!

So, we come to yesterday, and today. The results, Conservatives with 318, Labour with 262. You what?! Not a Tory landslide?! Nope. I return to my pre-empts. Labour has not won this election. The Tories have won. BUT. We have a hung parliament, and Labour has done extremely well. Has the loser won? Yes! Weak and wobbly Theresa May has lost and has no mandate whatsoever for any of her policies. Strong and stable my arse. It has backfired on her spectacularly. That is why it is, sort of, a Labour win. No-one saw it coming. That is why so many are happy today including me. That exit poll last night was gobsmacking. Never did I think it would happen. The front-pages of nearly every newspaper yesterday were vitriolic in their Labour criticism. Not so in the early hours. Of course, Labour have a lot to do. We all know that, they need to come together and really fight to be a solid and strong opposition with no in-fighting. It does nothing whatsoever. Whatever you say about Jeremy Corbyn, he has played a blinder, but he has not won the election.

How newspapers can change…

However, we are all losers. We are about to enter a ‘coalition’ with the DUP in Northern Ireland. They are, supposedly (I don’t know much about them), worse than UKIP. Anti-abortion, anti-women, anti-LGBT, anti-everything. This is scary. So much for Corbyn being a “terrorist sympathiser” eh, given the DUP’s history. And Brexit talks are about to begin, ugh.

Anyway. We will look on 9/10 June as a game changer for British politics. What will happen now is anyone’s guess. There may be an election later in the year, we just don’t know at the minute. But what we do know is this…

Theresa May’s gamble has failed. She has taken the public and her voters for granted. The dream is over.

General Election 2017 declaration
Weak, wobbly, and glum.
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Stylising romance in a ‘Grand Hotel’ on wheels: Dietrich’s triumph in Shanghai Express.

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Dietrich at her most iconic, a cinematic goddess.

It can be said that Shanghai Express was the counterpart to MGM’s lavish Grand Hotel. Both were released in 1932 and both feature a solid ensemble of actors. This was the first Marlene Dietrich film I saw back in 2015 and I was struck by, not only it’s lavish feeling, but the incredible lighting. Sternberg really created something magnificent. Of course, the famous shot of Dietrich being lit from above is instantly iconic. I would go as far to say that that shot, along with her top hat and tails, is one of cinema’s iconic images. This truly cemented the Dietrich legend. Sadly, as she got older, Dietrich wanted to retain the image of a legend. Nonetheless, her role of Shanghai Lily in Shanghai Express is triumphant and the film is a stylish visual feast.

The film is set in 1931. China is involved in a civil war and looms in the background, and later foreground, of the film. The opening credits feature Chinese symbolism – the symbols, masks, a man banging a gong and fish in water; all evocative images. The film begins with passengers boarding the train to Shanghai which is stationed in Peking. A car pulls up at the station and Shanghai Lily walks out. This is a magnificent image and confirms Dietrich to be the major star that she was. Dressed in black with a net veil and feathers she is a beauty and you cannot take your eyes off her. Lily has loose morals. Indeed, a man comments on how “everyone in China knows Shanghai Lily”. The opening sequence is visually impressive and is testament to Sternberg’s wonderful direction particularly with a tracking shot of soldiers and workers preparing for the train’s departure. Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brook) is boarding the train. He speaks with an upper class British accent and has courteous manners, a real gentleman. He is reunited with Lily on the train. She calls him ‘Doc’ and he knows her as Magdalen. She, with considerable frank, informs him “it took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily”. There is still sparks between them. He still has the watch she gave him. Lily is very image conscious, perhaps a nod to Dietrich herself? She asks Donald “have I lost my looks?” to which he replies “no you’re more beautiful than ever”. We see, throughout the film, Lily in countless beautiful gowns.

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Shanghai Lily making her entrance.
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Dietrich is every inch the star.
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Donald meets up with Lily again.

On board the train, Lily is sharing a compartment with Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), a Chinese woman of similar reputation to Lily. Wong deserves attention here. She achieved international stardom in the 1920s with her sex appeal and exoticism, notably in the 1929 British silent film Piccadilly. She is incredibly mysterious as Hui Fei, hardly saying a word and seems to be cold and icy. In the compartment, Lily quips to Hui Fei “don’t you find respectable people terribly dull?” The sets deserve a mention too. So much care is lavished onto the sets, they are stunning. The passengers get to know one another and, during dinner, the train is stopped by Chinese government soldiers who search the train looking for spies. They apprehend a rebel agent and check everyone’s passports. The mysterious Henry Chang (Warner Oland) sends a coded message in a telegraph office and he later questions the passengers. Later on, he forces himself on Hui Fei and she fights him off. He is sleazy and Hui Fei shows great strength by fighting him off.

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A steely, mysterious Hui Fei.
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Lily sharing a compartment with Hui Fei.
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Gorgeous, lavish set designs.
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Chang trying to force himself on Hui Fei.

The love between Donald and Lily is evident. They have another encounter at the back of the train. She is dressed in furs and is, not only sexy, but exudes power and control – a true seductress and using femininity as a power tool. They kiss and she is left feeling happy. Sternberg uses, as mentioned, stunning direction and the lighting is sensational. He highlights Dietrich’s face in several close ups indicating the importance of his leading lady further cementing the Dietrich legend. Also, a shot which sees Chinese soldiers pulling down a ramp for them to storm the train could come from both a 1920s German film, and a 1940s Film Noir. It is stunning and incredibly evocative. The Chinese soldiers storming the train is seemingly the work of Chang who, again, takes all the passengers in for questioning as the train stops. There is brutality in his questioning. Opium dealer Eric Baum (Gustav von Seyffertitz) is branded with a hot piece of metal. Lily is also questioned and Dietrich’s confidence is in abundance here. We find out more about her. While she flippantly retorts that she is travelling to Shanghai to buy a new hat. She also reveals she has been in China for 8 years, her parents have forgotten her (perhaps because of her loose morals) and has been engaged several times. She does not seem to mind that she is a loose woman, she seems to enjoy it. Donald, who is listening to this, punches Chang and defends Lily’s honour after Chang is disparaging towards her. Lily shows great strength as Donald is taken away by the officials. A shot of Lily at the window looking for Donald is not only evocative but moving and shows a vulnerable side to Lily – another wonderful piece of direction by Sternberg. We even see Lily pray as this shot dissolves into smoke billowing from a moving train.

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Donald’s watch.
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Lily the seductress.
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They finally kiss.
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Evocative lighting, superb direction by Sternberg.
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Lily being questioned by Chang.
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Praying for Donald’s safety.
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Stunning shot of the moving train.
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Lily at the window. Her face is lightened. Dietrich gives a brilliant performance.

Hui Fei is an extremely important character in the narrative. We see her thinking about suicide as she pulls out a knife, Lily quickly stops her. The knife is an important marker here. A little later on, Hui Fei emerges from the shadows and stabs Chang in the back not once but twice. Wong is calm, steely and not acting hysterical that one would expect from an actor or actress. Her dialogue is stilted and not particularly natural as she tries to reason with the officials. This is a minor criticism as Dietrich is so watchable in the film and her acting is terrific. She has been forced to go with Chang so Donald can be freed as he been detained. But as Hui Fei has killed him, Lily is also free. Again, we see her praying and she has been crying, any criticisms of her dialogue are only minor in light of this.

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Anna contemplates suicide…
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… and is stopped by Lily.
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She emerges from the shadows…
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… is behind Chang…
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… and stabs him to death.
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Lily showing strength and fighting off the officials.
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Dietrich’s brilliant performance as an emotional Lily.

Critics and reviewers labelled this as “Grand Hotel on wheels” owing to its lavishness and ensemble of actors. What follows is the most famous sequence of the film and an iconic image of cinema. Dressed in a black nightdress, Lily makes her way to Donald’s compartment. He is still very much in love with her. She returns to her compartment, lights a cigarette and turns out the light. Wrapping her nightdress around her she smokes the cigarette. At first, she seems in turmoil, almost as though she cannot believe it. Her hand is shaking. The moving train can be causing it or Donald’s love. Her face is lit from above and there are goddess connotations here – light coming from an ecclesiastical source (namely heaven) and is shining on her face as a beacon of tranquillity making her a goddess. She later smiles knowingly and is triumphant. As she smokes the cigarette smoke beacons in the frame and the shot dissolves into a montage of newspapers. It is an extraordinary sequence and memorable, a highlight of Sternberg and Dietrich’s collaborations.

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Hands behind her head, feeling confident and sexy.
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Goes to Donald’s compartment.
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Back in her compartment with a cigarette in her mouth.
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Turns the lights off.
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Donald sightly bewildered by Lily.
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Lit from above, a true goddess. Shaking hands.
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A smile, her and Donald’s love apparent.
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The cigarette smoke…
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… dissolves into newspapers.

The train stops in Shanghai, it has finally reached its destination. Lily gets off the train and is attracting male attention. The passengers are relieved to be safe. Hui Fei is being questioned, still steely but she is the heroine of the film as she, so to speak, saved the day. Lily is waiting for Donald. She looks at the watches on sale in one of the stores at the station, seemingly for Donald. He walks up to her and she puts the watch on him. He won’t let her leave his side again, they are meant to be together. The watch can act as a metaphor for Lily ensnaring him, she has him, at last! They finally kiss and Donald quips “many lovers come to railway stations to kiss”.

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Lily and her male admirers.
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Hui Fei still steely.
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Lily putting on the watch she has bought for Donald on his wrist.
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They kiss, they are finally back together again.

A film of style, lavishness, beautiful lighting and romance, Shanghai Express was a massive success and was the highest grossing film of 1932. It was nominated for three Academy Awards – Best Picture (losing to Grand Hotel), Best Director for Sternberg and Best Cinematography for Lee Garmes’ work on the film. It had a well-deserved win for Best Cinematography, a triumph of lighting and direction. The image of Dietrich being lit from above will always remain an iconic image of cinema. Arguably Dietrich’s finest moment.

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1932 poster for Shanghai Express.

Works Cited

Shanghai Express, Dir. Josef von Sternberg. Paramount, 1932.

Top hat and tails, with a bit of romance and homosexuality: Dietrich in Morocco

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The iconic top hat and tails.

Following on her from her astonishing breakthrough in The Blue Angel, Morocco was Dietrich’s first Hollywood film. Starring alongside Gary Cooper, another soon to be legendary actor, and Adolph Menjou, Dietrich as Mademoiselle Amy Jolly is an incredible screen presence and is watchable. As I said in the previous review, the camera adores her.

THE iconic image of Dietrich is in this film, and is always referred to. The top hat and tails and same sex kiss. This was astonishing for audiences in 1930, although in an era of pre-code cinema, literally anything goes and one can even argue that such occurrences were a given. You only need to see films, such as The Sign of the Cross from 1932 where Claudette Colbert baths nude in asses’ milk, to know that a lot of films were incredibly daring. But a same sex kiss? Morocco was the first American film to show this and in Queen Christina from 1933, Greta Garbo as the Swedish monarch kisses a woman. This is why Dietrich, and this film, is important from a historical point of view. While it may show something of an independence there is still the lesbian subtext there which makes this film all the more interesting.

I don’t want to provide a waxing lyrical of the above sequence, although it will be mentioned later on as it is important, the film is a joy to watch. I haven’t even got on to the top hat and tails! The film begins in Morocco with the French Foreign Legion returning from a campaign. This is an impressive sequence, soldiers are marching and drums are beating. Private Tom Brown (Cooper) is in the legion. Let’s get one thing clear. Gary Cooper is gorgeous. That chiselled face, smile and eyes! You can see why, as Tom, he is attracting female attention. The local girls are completely enamoured with him. On a ship bound for Morocco is Amy, a nightclub singer and performer. She meets Kennington La Bessière (Menjou), a wealthy man who wants to help her. He gives her a card which she immediately tears up into pieces.

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Gary Cooper as Tom Brown.
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Dietrich as Amy Jolly.
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Amy ripping up the note.

The film jumps forward to the nightclub. Amy is the headline act and is getting ready. Now I can gush over the top hat and tails! We see her in, initially, shirt and trousers and then later a jacket and top hat. Dietrich looks comfortable wearing such clothes and gives way to this level of ambiguous gender. Is it cross dressing? Or is it a performance? I would say a bit of both. It’s a confident, memorable performance that ensures her appeal to both sexes. Men to, in a somewhat negative sense, laugh at and be entertained, but for women to marvel at such confidence and to feel a sense of comfort, possibly for lesbian spectators. There are gasps, boos and applause as Amy walks on stage. She then begins her performance and sing “When Love Dies”. Tom is already in the nightclub who, completely taken with Amy, claps to drown out the jeers. Undeterred, Amy makes her way round the tables and spots another woman who has a flower in her hair. She asks the woman if she can keep the flower, to which she can, and she playfully kisses her in return. This is met with laughter and doesn’t seem unusual for the audience members. She then begins her next performance wearing a much more feminine dress, albeit extremely daring (and reminiscent to her style in The Blue Angel) of a very short black dress and long feather shawl. Her legs are on display. They are long and she looks incredibly sexy. Now, this can be a marker of power as she is proud of her femininity but can invite unnecessary male desire. Laura Mulvey in her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ comments on this and argues that such desirous shots connote “to-be-looked-at-ness”. Amy’s next performance sees her carrying a basket of apples and she hands them out to the men in the audience. Tom receives an apple and he receives a key to her room.

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Amy getting ready and looking in the mirror.
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Ready for her performance.
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That kiss.
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Her second performance. Legs on full display. Sexy, confident, powerful.
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Both Amy and Tom are taken with one another.

Tom is interesting, and something of a predictable and typical man. He has been in Amy’s room before, presumably with other female performers, and seems a playboy who likes women. Nonetheless, he is taken with Amy and there is chemistry between them despite awkward pauses (a negative aspect of the film generally). They muse over their lives; he asks if Amy is married to which she replies “Husband? Never found a man good enough for that”. Amy realises that she is falling for him, and seems concerned at this. A sign that he may well break her heart, just like all the other men in her past have done. She says “you better go now, I’m beginning to like you”.

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Tom in Amy’s room.

The use of light and set design makes Morocco incredibly stylish, and is another marker of Sternberg’s signature. Chiaroscuro lighting is evident throughout the film, for instance when Tom leaves Amy’s room, and she follows him not long after, they are blinded by shadows of plants. It creates a claustrophobic atmosphere but beautifully stylish and unique. This is the same in the cell where Tom has been detained for assaulting two natives. It is claustrophobic but stylish and dark. Tom is dressed in a white uniform, he is handsome and one can easily see why Amy falls in love with him. Who wouldn’t fall in love with a tall handsome man in uniform?

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Darkly lit exterior of Amy’s room.
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Gorgeous Gary Cooper.
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The darkly lit cell. Very claustrophobic.

Tom wants to desert and leave with Amy. He is tired of fighting. However, La Bessière is enamoured with Amy too. He lavishes her with an expensive bracelet and offers her marriage. Tom overhears this but he still wants to leave with Amy to Europe. Amy rushes off to her next performance leaving Tom in her dressing room. He notices the bracelet and believes she would be better off with a rich man and writes a note on the mirror saying he has changed his mind. I would argue this is a cowardly act. Amy arrives to see him leave, and spots him with other women, masking his true feelings. Interestingly, the other women go with their men. Amy thinks this is mad to which La Bessière replies “they love their men”. They do it for love. Love is powerful.

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Tom and Amy in a clinch, they are in love with each other.
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Tom’s note on the mirror.

La Bessière sees that Amy has been drinking “like a fish” after being badly treated by Tom. She shows him the note on the mirror and throws a glass of champagne at it. This is the first time we really see Dietrich show off her acting range. She gives a competent performance and we really feel for her. She accepts La Bessière’s proposal. She shows, yet again, her range at her engagement party. Wearing a set of pearls, she suddenly hears marching – Tom is back. She rips the pearls from her neck and runs off. Lavish set designs are shown off at their best here. You’ve got to hand it to Paramount, they really were imaginative and provided such classy designs. Running outside she frantically looks for Tom, except he is not there. Amy is anxious and is completely in love with him.

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Amy throwing a glass of champagne at the mirror.
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Lavish set, incredibly stylish.
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Amy hears the marching soldiers.
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More stylish sets.
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Apprehensive Amy, she wants her man back.
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Amy in dispair. 

Later, she discovers Tom in a canteen with a native woman. He has been carving “Amy Jolly” on the table with a heart over her name. She discovers this. He does love her! Dietrich’s sexuality is used, somewhat strangely here. When she finds him she puts her leg on a chair. A sign of power, as if to say, you’ve missed this? Or deliberate to-be-looked-at-ness? It certainly has multiple readings but is clearly placed there. The regiment are about to disembark and leave. After saying goodbye to Tom, Amy realises that she cannot lose him again. One final exchange with La Bessière she runs after the soldiers, along with the other women, to be with her love. It is brilliant final sequence. The wind is howling and sand is shifting rapidly peppered with dramatic drum beats and marching feet. As the women walk further down, and disappear beneath the horizon of the sand, sand is all we can see. It is bleak, lonely and vast and a powerful final shot. Amy simply had to be with Tom and would do whatever she could.

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Amy’s leg on the chair after discovering Tom with a native woman.
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The carving on the table.
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Amy can’t bear to lose Tom again.
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Runs after the soldiers.
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Joining the women and running after her man.
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Powerful final shot. Bleak, lonely and vast.

Morocco was released to yet more success. This time, rewards were abundant. It was nominated for four Academy Awards (Best Actress, Best Director, Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography). Even though the film came away empty handed, a nomination cemented its success and regard. Indeed, this was the only film Dietrich was nominated for in the Best Actress category. Upon watching the film, it further cements the Dietrich legend of ambiguous gender and sexuality and clearly causes a stir and rouses interest. The film lacks something though. I feel as though the story limps along and the insistence of Amy wanting to be with Tom sends out a weak message and brushes away any female empowerment.

Nonetheless, the film will be remembered for a daring display of Dietrich’s gender ambiguity and same sex kiss. That is the marker of a legend, to create memorable performances. Dietrich had this in spades.

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1930 poster for Morocco.

Works Cited

Morocco, Dir. Josef von Sternberg. Paramount, 1930.

Mulvey, L. (1975) ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen, 16(3): 6-18.

Falling in love with a legend, I can’t help it! Dietrich’s breakthrough in The Blue Angel.

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Dietrich as Lola Lola.

I really, really, want to stress how much of an extraordinary film Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel is. It will always have a place in the history of cinema for several reasons. One, it is considered to be the first German sound film, two, it is full of gorgeous German expressionism, three, it has an incredibly sleazy, sexy, bleak and fantastic story, and fourth, it made Marlene Dietrich (Lola Lola) both an international superstar and a cinematic legend.

Just a note – this review is from the German version of the film, not the English version.

However, it must be stated that this film was supposed to be Emil Jannings’ (Professor Immanuel Rath) starring role. Indeed, he is given top billing on both the opening credits of the film and promotional posters over Dietrich. On viewing the film, it is definitely Jannings’ film. The tragic story of a repressed, and hesitant, school Professor full of morality who enters a sleazy world of cabaret and becomes humiliatingly dependent on Lola, and then later turned into a joke, is Jannings’ film for definite. It’s Rath’s story. But Dietrich is the star of the film as Lola. She gives an extraordinary performance that you cannot take your eyes off of her. You just have to look at her to know that, one, the camera adores her, and two, she is a goddess.

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A cinematic goddess.

The film begins with a shot of sloped houses that screams of German Expressionism and cements its place in the Weimar era. Indeed, the Weimar period was due to come to end with the rise, and dominance, of Nazism. But back to the opening shots. The sloped houses look unreal, almost fairy-tale like but still full of drama. We see Rath having his breakfast which establishes his peaceful, and incredibly ordered life. The next scene is in the school. Prior to Rath’s arrival, the class is in chaos. The boys are misbehaving and are mistreating the lone good boy (the class ‘swot’). Upon Rath’s arrival, things quickly change. The class is now regimented, there is no life and there is a heavy feeling of boredom. He tries to teach the boys. The lesson is about Hamlet. After a somewhat comic exchange with one of the boys over the quote “to be or not to be” he sets them to work and wanders around the room inspecting their work. He notices one of the boys looking at a photograph (we discover a little later on it is of Lola). After confiscating it, Rath intriguingly looks at it and blows the paper skirt which reveals Lola in stockings and suspenders – highly daring for the time. This fades out to a shot, a fantastic shot, of Lola standing proudly on stage with her hands on her hips. This is a powerful image, an image of confidence and assurance. From a repressed, regimented opening the film has now come alive.

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The German Expressionist opening shot.
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Rigid German schooling.
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Photograph of Lola Rath has confiscated. He is intrigued.
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The extraordinary first shot of Lola Lola, in all her powerful and confident glory.

Lola is an interesting character, and arguably an archetype for both the Dietrich legend and of future cinematic femme fatales. Barbara Kosta, in her study on the film, quotes Marjorie Garber who adds how “Dietrich’s reputation, Dietrich’s image, is built on this structure of cross-gender representation”. According to Kosta, Dietrich has been placed “outside conventional gender definitions” which provides her with “the power of the desiring/desired object – an icon for everyone”. Lola is all-encompassing, powerful and masculine while still appearing feminine. She attracts men like a moth to flame and is very sexy. She declares “they all come back for me”. Rath, very quickly, finds himself under her spell. Enraged by the young boys’ trips to The Blue Angel club he visits the club to catch them, and meets Lola.

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The young boys drawn to Lola, like a moth to a flame.

His morals have begun to vanish thanks to the sleazy world he now finds himself in. Men want Lola, as seen with an obese Captain (a grotesque figure) who clearly wants ‘a good time’ with her. Enraged at this, Rath defends her honour – a gentlemanly act. It is at this point we come to the film’s most famous sequence, Dietrich singing what was to be one of her signature songs – “Falling in Love Again” to Rath. It is a romantic, sexy, naughty, confident and powerful performance. Wearing a top hat with her legs full on display she has lured Rath further into her trap. The top hat Lola wears is interesting in its symbolism and again cements the iconic Dietrich image. To use Barbara Kosta’s words from her study, the top hat “lends an air of transgression and accentuates her sexual ambiguity”. So, while she is singing the song to Rath, and is clearly taken with him, she could very well be singing it to anyone. Dietrich was rumoured to be bisexual and this ambiguous sexuality is intriguing in this light.

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Rate watching on adoringly…
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…as Lola sings “Falling in Love Again” to him. An iconic image.

Rath spends the night with Lola, seemingly their only sexual experience together. This causes him to be late for class. As an act of morality, he has supposedly failed his students and resigns in order to be with Lola. His morals have now gone. Rath finds himself proposing to Lola, which is firstly peppered with a hearty laugh from her then the film fades into their wedding reception. Very quickly however, things change. He initially disapproves of her continuing to work in cabaret but then finds himself working alongside her. A notable scene sees him putting on her stocking for her. She can’t do it herself – he has to do it. She is in control of him. Is this the marker of a powerful woman? From a male point of view this is incredibly belittling for Rath, and for a time of masculine dominance he is failing at being a man.

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The happy couple?

As this is set in 1925 the film jumps forward four years to 1929 with an impressive set of dissolves (for the time). He is now totally dependent on Lola and is working for her as a clown within her troupe. They return to his hometown, and return to The Blue Angel. Rath is distressed at thought of performing for people he knows, and despises, but Lola does nothing to stop this from happening. Rath is derided and berated by the crowd. It is a truly disturbing sequence. Owing to his size, where one can argue he has now become a grotesque character, he is an easy target. Lola has moved onto a new love interest – a more handsome man named Mazeppa (Hans Albers). As they eventually kiss, Rath is subject to numerous tricks performed by the conjuror (Kiepert, played by Kurt Gerron) which sees him having eggs smashed on his head and face. He is forced to make a crow noise, but upon witnessing Lola and Mazeppa kissing, he becomes hysterical and his crow noises intensify as he reacts with rage. This is a man having a mental and physical breakdown. He is now a tragic and pathetic figure. He attempts to strangle Lola, who, scared, breaks away and he trashes one of the rooms. He is put into a straitjacket to calm down.

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Now a clown, both physically and literally.
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Lola’s stern and unsympathetic face. 
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A despairing Rath.
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Egg smashed on Rath’s face. The final straw and the beginning of a massive breakdown.
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Rath strangling Lola.

What follows is a heartbreaking sequence. We see Lola, in all her finery, singing “Falling in Love Again” except the lyrics take on a different meaning here. “I can’t help it” and “never wanted to” suggests that even though she takes a shine to whichever man she sees, she doesn’t mean it. They are only temporary, or pawns to her game of sex and desire. Very harsh of me to say this as I adore Dietrich, but Lola as a character, while confident and powerful, is unlikeable by this point. Rath hears her singing, and after being freed from the straitjacket, he escapes and slowly makes his way to his old classroom. Sternberg’s direction, and the cinematography, is beautiful and extremely impressive in this sequence. You think of other German Expressionist films such as Nosferatu here. The low-key lighting, or chiaroscuro, lighting, is extremely all encompassing as well as dark and dingy. He makes his way to the school and is found dead while clutching his desk – the only place that mattered to him beneath his organised and repressed nature. He had been rejected and humiliated by everyone. One can argue he died of a broken heart and hope he finds some sort of peace. A tolling bell can be heard as the camera pans backwards to reveal the empty desks, dark classroom, and Rath dead. It is a disturbing sequence but beautifully directed and leaves a brutally powerful truth. No-one can help who they fall in love with, but enter the bounds of love at your own cost. As Rath was told – “all for some dame”.

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Rath in a straitjacket.
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Lola without a care in the world.
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Low-key lighting as Rath escapes.
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Rath found dead in a place he truly loves. He is at peace.
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The final shot.

The film was a huge success. Hollywood were interested and Paramount, eventually, offered her a contract. They wanted Dietrich on their payroll. Under Sternberg’s encouragement, she moved to the United States under contract with the studio. They wanted a German counterpart to Greta Garbo who was, arguably, the most famous star in Hollywood. Over the next five years her place in cinema history was cemented. While Jannings’ gives a tremendous performance (incidentally, he was awarded the first Academy Award for Best Actor in 1928), Dietrich is the star attraction. Nonetheless, The Blue Angel remains an extraordinary achievement and is a film that stands up today.

I want to use a quote from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard to finish, as uttered by Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) – “no-one ever leaves a star. That’s what makes one a star”. Dietrich’s very presence cements her legend and legacy. As will be seen in the rest of the reviews, the camera (and audiences) adored her. She was, and always will be, a legend.

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German poster for The Blue Angel.

 

Works Cited

Kosta, B. (2009) Willing Seduction: The Blue Angel, Marlene Dietrich and Mass Culture. New York: Berghahn Books.

The Blue Angel, Dir. Josef von Sternberg. UFA, 1930.

A retrospective of Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford

Saturday 6 May marks 25 years since the death of Marlene Dietrich in 1992, a legend of cinema. Incidentally, Wednesday 10 May marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Joan Crawford in 1977; another legendary figure in cinema history.

Certainly, for Joan Crawford, an anniversary of 40 years is such a long time. Especially when there are still stars from the classical era still alive, namely Olivia de Havilland and Kirk Douglas who both turn 101 this year. I’ve always been fascinated with Dietrich and Crawford, particularly with the former. Dietrich was beautiful. She was sexy, glamorous, vulnerable and mystifying. Similar can be said of Crawford. Female stars of the classical era have this effect on me, more so than me. Although Paul Newman comes pretty close – good god almighty! Now he was beautiful. But, of course, this effect a star can have on a spectator is more than just looking good. There’s acting, or performing, voice, aesthetics such as lighting and the relationship between the star and the camera. The camera can simply adore a star, and for Dietrich and Crawford, the camera loved them.

To commemorate these two legends, I want to provide a retrospective of some of their key films. What I don’t want to do is to turn this into an academic essay. Mind you, it will be very hard not to suddenly drop a quote from a book, or a journal article, into these posts. Old habits die hard! No, I want to basically write how I interpret each film and how fabulous these two legends appear. Because they were pretty fabulous it has to be said.

It would be nigh on impossible to watch every film they appeared in. Some aren’t even available anywhere in the world. Here are the films in order of release:

Marlene Dietrich

  • The Blue Angel
  • Morocco
  • Shanghai Express
  • Blonde Venus
  • The Scarlet Empress
  • The Devil is a Woman
  • Desire
  • Destry Rides Again
  • Witness for the Prosecution

Joan Crawford

  • Grand Hotel
  • Mildred Pierce
  • Humoresque
  • Possessed
  • Johnny Guitar
  • What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

These retrospectives will focus on representation, sexuality, ageing, female empowerment, performance and acting, aesthetics (lighting, camera) and the meaning that is created. There may even be criticisms of Dietrich and Crawford. Criticisms? Of these two legends?! Quite possibly.

These retrospectives will begin on Friday 5 May with Marlene Dietrich’s films, and on Wednesday 10 May I will move on to Joan Crawford.

If anyone gives two hoots, I hope you enjoy them.

Falling out of love with Strictly

I have to get this off of my chest.

Ever since Strictly Come Dancing began in 2004, I have watched it and loved it. The 2009 series was the series I properly began to get invested in it. Dodgy series really, it seemed old hat compared to The X Factor which was wiping the floor with it. The celebrities comprised of a lot of soap stars, Alesha Dixon joined the panel and there was a racism row. It just seemed all meh. But in 2010 things stepped up a gear, the dances were of high quality, the celebrities were fantastic and you really rooted for them (apart from vile Tory Ann Widdecombe of course). The costumes were gorgeous, the music was gorgeous, the dances were gorgeous. Everything was fabulous.

But since 2014, things changed. Producer interference has ruined this once fantastic show. Dancing is being compromised for favouritism and pure entertainment. I mean, I have no evidence of this but in my eyes the judges adhere to a script essentially written by the producers. It is all so predictable. You can predict the scores they will give. You can predict who are the ones heading for the dance off, i.e. thrown under a bus. The producers WANT certain people to do well. 2014 saw the DIABOLICAL Around the World week which was just, well, beyond parody. But ‘entertainment’ becomes jarring after a while. Surely the whole point of this show is to see some spectacular dancing? Not dancing with props, or themes, or dancing set to horrendous music. Dancing with fantastic music, and moods created by such music. Oh and THOSE FUCKING BACKING DANCERS. They add nothing.

See, this is my problem with the whole thing. Because The X Factor has gone under the radar, Strictly has got bigger and is trying too hard in creating entertainment. Less is more. But 2016 has been the final straw. Overmarking to purposely save couples is a joke and is farcical as is the belief that bigger is better. However, as long as it gets the ratings things will stay the same, and get worse. Producers, you are ruining a once wonderful show. You will sabotage your own success.

I will always watch Strictly but now I have lost heart, and interest. The soul has been ripped out of Strictly Come Dancing.

My appreciation of Hilda Ogden

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I feel so sad writing this. Late last night we all heard with such sadness that Jean Alexander passed away yesterday at the age of 90. She had turned 90 only three days before. It has been so touching to read tributes to Jean across social media and in the press. She was, and is, held in such high regard – a marker of a legend and an icon. Hilda Ogden, to which Jean will be eternally known for, is one of Coronation Street’s most iconic characters as well as television’s most iconic creations. To me, Hilda was part of my own “Corrie quartet” which featured Ena Sharples, Elsie Tanner and Annie Walker. Four fabulously strong women who have gone to that Rovers Return in the sky.

Hilda was way before my time. As a child, I was completely unaware of the Corrie greats. But thanks to the Granada Plus repeats (a channel which should never have closed down), aged 6 I discovered a wealth of incredible characters – Hilda being one of them. One of the first episodes I saw was Stan’s funeral. I still have that episode on a well-worn VHS that I taped from the repeats and it was beautiful. Of course, as the years have gone by, DVD’s of classic episodes have become available as well as hundreds of episodes uploaded onto YouTube so I’ve been able to see Hilda in her full glory.

But how can I sum up such an iconic character? It’s funny seeing Hilda in her earliest episodes. Joining the show in 1964, Hilda, along with hubby Stan, were COMPLETELY different. They were common as muck for the existing residents of the street, shouting and arguing but very quickly they settled in and as Elsie remarked in Hilda’s first episode from July 1964 “they’ll fit in here like a glove”. And they did. Hilda quickly got a job as the Rovers cleaner, a job she would keep for the next 23 years so she instantly became part of the fabric of the show.

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Hilda as she appeared in 1964.

Not only this, Hilda provided vital, and fantastic, humour to the show with her singing, malapropisms, nosiness and life with her beloved Stanley. Several moments stick out for me. The famous Muriel on the wall is always mentioned, and deservedly so. But the Oggies looking after some chickens in their back yard thanks to lodger Eddie Yeats’ crackpot schemes is wonderfully hilarious, especially with Hilda coming back to no.13 after visiting son Trevor to find a chicken on the table! Another moment sees Stan and Hilda enter a Mr and Mrs contest at the Rovers. Hilda is convinced they’ll win but, as usual, Stan puts his foot in it and they lose to Gail and Brian (the first of Gail’s many doomed marriages). To the modern viewer, these stories may seem uneventful, or maybe even boring. But they are funny, natural and well written. And the moment where Hilda holds a seance in 1977. It has to be seen to be believed, exceptionally hilarious.

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Hilda and a chicken, 1979.
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Hilda, Eddie and Stan. The impeccable trio.

But it is not just humour that made Hilda a legend – the drama also played a vital part. Jean was an incredible actress and her acting range was shown through many incredible episodes. Two stick out in my mind. First, in October 1976, when Hilda discovers that Stan has been stealing money from her gas and electric tin. Prior to this she has, again, become the laughing stock of the street when her “red rotten mac” has been used on a guy for fireworks night. Jean gives a masterful performance. She is wretched, the anger is evident in her voice and she can’t stomach the sight of Stan any longer. For all of their ups and downs, and there were lots, this is the most powerful. Stealing from Hilda’s tin, money that she had slaved over for weeks on end, valuable money that the Oggies desperately needed in order to survive had been squandered to give Stan beer money – a disgusting act on behalf of Stan. But, despite this, Hilda adored him. And when Stan died in November 1984, Hilda was now alone for the first time. Those entire November ’84 episodes is Jean’s acting masterpiece. Stan became extremely ill and was taken to hospital. Hilda couldn’t bear the idea of Stan being in hospital and was frightened he would never come out; which sadly turned out to be true. For all of his faults, Stan was her life and her world. His funeral episode is a masterpiece in both drama, script and acting. Throughout the episode Hilda is strangely calm, something Ivy and Vera both remark on, and it is obvious she is putting on bravado for the neighbours. At the end of that day, and when son Trevor hurriedly leaves, she is completely alone in a house full of memories. Fiddling with a package of Stan’s belongings from the hospital, she takes them out one by one. She then comes to his glasses case but there are no eyes behind them. Stan has gone and the glasses are just another object. She breaks down having kept her tears in all day. This scene earned Jean a prestigious Royal Television Society award and is a scene that has gone down in television history for its simplicity and emotion.

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The Oggie’s celebrating their ruby wedding, 1983. They adored each other.

While her performances made her an icon, the image of Hilda is the most iconic. She had a voice like a foghorn and an equally grating singing voice which was always met with disdain from the street’s residents. I’m reminded of Bet shouting “Hilda belt up chuck there’s a good un!” while she cleaned out the Rovers select in 1983 (for her own anniversary party!) and singing at the top of her voice, proud to have marked her ruby wedding anniversary with Stan. But this sparrow-like woman with curlers, a pinny and a scruffy mac always seemed to act as if she was a cut above the residents. She always bragged about something whether it was cleaning for the Lowther’s or acting refined while staying at a posh hotel for the Oggie’s second honeymoon in 1977. Ah that famous line. “Woman Stanley. Woman!” Legendary. But let’s not forget that Hilda could be judgemental, which often caused several arguments, as well as ruthless and was fiercely protective of Stan; even spitting on the Rovers floor in 1972 after Stan was accused of being a peeping Tom. She was a sad character underneath it all; lazy husband, endless bad luck, a son who wanted nothing to do with her or Stan. Jean’s acting ability made Hilda a three dimensional character and we always sympathised with her even when she was being a nosy cow!

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Hilda had a cultured eye for art…

Despite this, she was deeply loved by the residents and the affection and love for Hilda was apparent when Stan died. The neighbours rallied round helping Hilda and gave her love and support. And when the time had come for Hilda to leave the street, on Christmas Day 1987, the residents threw her a surprise party. They had come to see her as a massive part of their lives and were used to her being there. And even when she sang ‘Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye’ they all cheered and joined in. Hilda had them in the palm of her hands, a captive audience at long last.

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Christmas Day 1987, Hilda’s leaving party and an audience at long last.

Hilda is up there with Ena, Elsie and Annie; forever locked in time as television greats. Dickens could’ve created Hilda Ogden – a tragic, comic heroine who audiences come to love and adore. With the death of Jean Alexander, for me, the old Coronation Street has died with her.

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Jean Alexander, 1926-2016.