The Hand of Hackney
Alan Hackney, the Forgotten Novelist
From life in the wartime British Army (Private’s Progress, 1954), through to the New Towns of the 1960s (Let’s Keep Religion Out of This, 1963, filmed as Heavens Above) and the start of package holidays in Spain (Whatever Turns You On Jack, 1972) the novelist Alan Hackney had his finger on the life pulse of Britain.
His books are so spot-on in nailing the social history and the politics of the time – but luckily, also laugh-out-aloud (with the partial exception of Let’s Keep Religion Out of This) – that they should be on any reading list for first year students doing a degree in that social history/politics post war period of Britain. And watching Private’s Progress and I’m Alright Jack would save them tedious hours of skimping through some inadequate books, which partially miss (because they were written by academics – secure in their jobs and financially comfortably off, and some of whom were also influenced by their political leanings, left or right). Important aspects and commentary on what life was like for many were missed. For instance, Arthur Marwick’s British Society Since 1945 does not mention, even in one passing sentence, the desire of many Britons to escape the class stratification of that period and emigrate to Australia on the £10 scheme. Both the Kinks and the Animals touched on this stifling class ceiling in some of their music. And many Britons, encouraged by the Australian government took the boats heading out via South Africa and across the Indian Ocean to a socially freer continent.
Meanwhile, those of us left behind could go to the pictures on a Friday or Saturday night and bust a gut laughing at the films touched with the Hand of Hackney: Private’s Progress (1956), and I’m Alright Jack (1959).
Yet Alan Hackney rarely appears when book critics mention the likes of Angus Wilson, Kingsley Amis and William Cooper in the same breath. Still, I doubt that he would have been bothered. Financially he did alright. And the novelist William Cooper rolled around the floor laughing as he read his novels, and Evelyn Waugh did that rare thing (for him) and invited Hackney down to the Waugh home in Somerset, saying how much he admired his work.
Not only do his books have a sharp view of what was happening in Britain at the time he wrote them, but they burst with brilliant dialogue, and the vernacular. The vernacular spilled over into film scripts that he contributed to that weren’t based on his novels, such as Two Way Stretch (1960).
The Film Censor giving Two Way Stretch a “U” – suitable for children – certificate didn’t notice that Alan Hackney had slipped in a choice phrase when Peter Sellers as the trustee Dodger Lane tells visiting welfare ladies in the Prison Governor’s garden that the giant marrow they are admiring was “Hand raised, as they say in the Navy”. There would have been an acknowledged titter in cinemas up and down the country, particularly from ex and serving serviceman.
His novels follow the lives of the same characters as they emerge from the war, such as the gormless Stanley, his naturist father, the unscrupulous, suave Brigadier Bertram Tracepurcel (Uncle Bertie), Stanley’s wartime mate Private Cox (Coxey) who after the war re-invents himself as “Mr de Cameron”, and then Fred Kite, Mrs Kite and Cynthia as they adapt, and some do very nicely thank-you, as Britain moves into the 1970s. The shop steward Fred Kite even makes it to the House of Lords in What Ever Turns You On Jack.
In the obituaries for Alan Hackney when he died in 2009, the consensus is that I’m Alright Jack (“Private Life”) was the apex of his work with its merciless laugh-out-aloud dissection of trade unions super-glued to demarcation disputes and tussles with the Bosses and the Bosses looking after No.I whilst hypocritically spouting on about the “National Interest” (whilst lining their own pockets doing arms deals with corrupt Middle Eastern governments) and consciously provoking union militancy – strikes – for their own financial gain.
In fact, all his novels have an equal weight, but if one has to be highlighted besides I’m Alright Jack (“Private Life”), in the view of this writer it should be Private’s Progress.
Here’s a novel (1954), and then a film made shortly after (1956) that appears in bookshops and then on cinema screens, wedged in between celebrations of World War Two British courage, and examples of individual daring-do. Films, often based on non-fiction books, such as Reach for The Sky (1956), The Dam Busters (1955) and Above Us the Waves (1955).
Private’s Progress is a film that shows some Army Brass who are dodging and skiving as much as the soldiers they are commanding, and Army Brass who are involved in high scale looting of Art Works, shipped back to Blighty for private re-sale and their own financial gain.
“Shipped back” should perhaps be more accurately called “air-lifted”. There were elements in the RAF Transport Command and the USAAF equivalent who were assisting in flying back high-end loot.
The film’s dedication to “All Those Who Got Away With It” would have included British army soldiers who held Prince Friedrich Ferdinand of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, his family, and their servants at gunpoint in the courtyard of Glücksburg Castle near the border with Denmark in May 1945. They were searching for Heinrich Himmler and looted the castle at the same time. Easily pocketable items with high value such as jewellery disappeared. The British Daily Mail in May 1945 reported that “The Duchess of Mecklenburg had appealed to the King (George VI) for compensation… ‘I wrote to Queen Mary in England who is my aunt, asking her to help me and she replied she would do’.” It’s not clear whether any of the soldiers, which would have included officers were ever detected or disciplined, and most of the jewellery seemingly was never recovered.
In the film Private’s Progress Brigadier Tracepurcell and Private Cox and ATS Greenslade don’t get away with it, but in the novel they do, and they do very nicely too. The Boulting Brothers being realistic, knew the British Board of Film Censors would not allow the “culprits” to get away with it, and would refuse a certificate, and the film, therefore, wouldn’t get shown in British cinemas.
It was for the same reason that in the thriller League of Gentlemen, 1960, ex-British Army officers, and a few Other Ranks having mounted a spectacular and successful bank raid – using skills learnt during their army war training – also didn’t get away with it. Talking in 1985, the screenwriter T.E.B Clark (Hue & Cry, 1947, Passport to Pimlico, 1949) stated that in his screenplay for The Lavender Hill Mob, 1951, Alec Guinness also wasn’t able to get away with it. “The censor would not have allowed it”, he said. This wasn’t copping out – it was knowing what was, and was not allowed. The British Board of Film Censors was a self-censoring Trade Body established in 1912, and down the years had had an informal and comfortable relationship with the British Governments of the day.
In the film, every one else in Private’s Progress either does get away with it, or finds dodges and skives to make their boring, drudge-ridden and pointless army life in the Holding Unit a touch easier.
One extraordinary sequence in the film, not commented on by reviewers (and not in the novel) is when Major Hancock (Terry-Thomas) skives off and leaves the Camp, and is seen entering a Picture House in the local town. The banner poster above the Picture House entrance shows that the featured film is In Which We Serve. In Which We Serve was a deeply felt film written and directed by its star Noel Coward, at a time – 1942 – when the tide had yet to turn for the wartime Allies. When Noel Coward was finishing the films’ script in late 1941 British military were having one defeat after another, and the storyline of In Which We Serve was based on the sinking of the destroyer HMS Kelly in the Battle for Crete – a ship commanded by Louis Mountbatten. Recognising a good propaganda film, it was actively helped by the British Government’s Ministry of Information, in providing service men, and promotion. “A classic example of wartime British cinema through its patriotic imagery of national unity and social cohesion within the context of the war” – Wikipedia entry.
In Private’s Progress the on-screen credits boast that the Producers had help from “Absolutely No-One“. Richard Attenborough was in both films. (1).
The following day Major Hancock has them on a forced route march, with full kit. Sweating as they march they are brought to attention by the Company Sergeant Major. Major Hancock addresses them. “You’re an absolute shower. Practically every man in that cinema was from this company.” Cox mutters “Including you, cock.”
Terry-Thomas is rightly associated with the “Absolute shower”expression, but it was Alan Hackney who used it, having first heard it from an irate Commanding Officer in India during the war.
ABCA stood for Army Bureau of Current Affairs set up during the Second World War to “educate and raise morale” amongst servicemen and servicewomen. The railway dodges outlined by Coxey included the ATS dodge, that Fusilier Walter Morrison describes in detail, along with others not mentioned by Coxey, in Pete Grafton’s You, You & You: The People Out of Step with World War Two. (2)
In the three Boulting Brothers films based on Alan Hackney’s novels there are omissions, and, the other way around, narratives that are not in the novels.
In the novel Private’s Progress there is a section where the Stanley character is posted to India, mirroring Alan Hackney’s wartime experience. The novel also fleshes out what is only briefly touched on in the film: the London wartime world of Catherine, Stanley’s sister – a world of artists pre-occupied with producing art that is “plastic”, a stressed female vegan, a hardened squaddie who swings both ways, a Quentin Crisp type character who can’t bear the thought of having to wear “that dreadful khaki” and two dodgy art dealers, one of whom manages to “disappear” following the confusion at Dunkirk. This strand is an important – and witty – narrative element throughout the novel.
The “disappearing” of soldiers – “posted missing – presumed dead” – following Dunkirk is also mentioned in the Afterword to You, You & You.
Both the films and the novels they are based on are equally good standing alone by themselves. Alan Hackney was closely involved in the films Private’s Progress and I’m Alright Jack, even though the screen credits are perfunctory. “From a story by Alan Hackney” does not convey that it is a novel.
His Gollanz published novels have been out of print for years, though most copies – second-hand – are available at reasonable prices on abebooks. Faber and Faber in their Faber Finds series currently list Private’s Progress.
- The same happens with Marcello Mastroianni appearing in a film that features another film he starred in: He’s the central character in Germi’s Divorce Italian Style (1961), and is shown making his way to the Picture House in his Sicilian home town where Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) is playing, playing to a packed house despite a pulpit condemnation from the town priest. They’ve seen the film poster featuring Anita Ekberg and heard that the film is full of orgies.
- You, You & You: The People Out of Step With World War Two. Pluto Press, 1981. youyouandyourestored.wordpress.com