Their Finest Hour and a Half

BOOK: Their Finest Hour and a Half
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About the Book
It's 1940. In a small advertising agency in Soho, Catrin Cole writes snappy lines for Vida Elastic and So-Bee-Fee gravy browning. But the nation's in peril, all skills are transferable and there's a place in the war effort for those who have a knack with words.
Catrin is conscripted into the world of propaganda films. After a short spell promoting the joy of swedes for the Ministry of Food, she finds herself writing dialogue for 'Just an Ordinary Wednesday,' a heart-warming but largely fabricated ‘true story' about rescue and romance on the beaches of Dunkirk. And as bombs start to fall on London, she discovers that there's just as much drama, comedy and passion behind the scenes as there is in front of the camera . . .
Lissa Evans
For my uncommon man.
 . . . when once work begins in the studio, nothing that happens in the outside world is of any relative importance . . .
George Arliss
April 1940
‘I was wondering,' Sammy said, tentatively, as they paused between courses at La Venezia, ‘if you should think of getting a new photograph of yourself. Something just a tiny bit more up-to-the-minute, perhaps . . .'
Ambrose's first impulse was to dismiss the idea – after all, as he reminded Sammy, he'd had a perfectly decent set of prints taken not so long ago and they'd been bloody expensive, and it wasn't as if his current level of income allowed him to run to unnecessary extravagance. And surely the whole purpose of an agent was to increase a client's income, rather than spend it for him?
Sammy looked chastened, as well he might.
Back at home that afternoon, Ambrose dug the file of photographs out of the bureau, just to reassure himself, and yes, they were scarcely eight years old – taken in February 1932, not long after the highly successful kinematic release of
Inspector Charnforth and the Bitter Lemons Mystery
– and really, they were more than adequate: full face, chin on hand, a fine, frank gaze at the camera, a curtain draped artfully across the wall behind, a briar pipe and a volume of verse resting on a table in front. They spoke of depth and maturity, of vigour and yet also of a certain masculine sensitivity. Their invisible caption – unmistakably – was ‘Leading Man'. He put the portfolio away again and gave no further thought to the matter until a fortnight later, in Sammy's office. Where he was being kept waiting.
‘He'll be in any minute now, Mr Hilliard,' the typist kept saying, brightly. ‘He knows you're expected, only he's had to take his doggie to the vet, the poor little thing's ate half a tin of boot polish and it's been ever so ill.' And since the chaos of paper on Sammy's desk meant that it was impossible to discern which script it was that Ambrose was meant to be collecting, he was forced to sit and stew. The 1940 edition of
was on the office shelf, and he amused himself for a while by looking through the ‘Character Actors' section – page after page of uglies, fatties, the once-beautiful and the never-handsome, each of them no doubt nurturing the hope that a browsing director, tiring of chiselled good-looks, might one day choose a more ‘interesting' face for his next romantic lead. Poor deluded saps. He turned the page on the final gargoyle, and pointedly consulted his watch.
‘Any minute now, Mr Hilliard,' said the typist.
It occurred to Ambrose that he ought to check his own entry in the volume, and re-opening it at the beginning, he started to leaf through ‘Leading Actors', at first briskly, and then with a growing sense of unease. When he at last reached his own photograph, he stared at it for a while; it seemed, this time, somehow less than satisfactory. He glanced again at the portraits of his rivals, and it was like picking through a police file marked ‘Dangerous Cases' – all was mood, spleen, sullenness, seething introspection. Here slouched Marius Goring, wreathed in shadow, here Jack Hawkins, peering shiftily from beneath the brim of his hat. Glowering presence succeeded glowering presence. No one stood upright. No one gazed directly at camera. No one smiled. It was clear that the fine, frank gaze had had its hour; nowadays it was de rigueur to look as if one were just about to cosh an old lady.
‘I've been thinking about your suggestion of the other day,' he said to Sammy, when his agent at last arrived at the office. ‘It's all a matter of style, of course. There are fashions in photography as in everything else, and one simply has to accept the fact. We are in a new and brutal age.'
Sammy nodded, a touch uncertainly. ‘So, you'll have another picture taken?'
‘If I must,' said Ambrose.
The photographer was a blue-chinned Hungarian refugee called Erno. He was trying to establish himself in London, Sammy said, and was therefore acceptably cheap. On the debit side, his English was rudimentary.
‘Brooding,' said Ambrose, who had taken the precaution of bringing the copy of
with him to the room above a hat shop in D'Arblay Street. ‘Darkly atmospheric.' He jabbed a finger at the picture of Leslie Howard (another Hungarian, come to think of it; Christ, they were
). It showed the actor gazing dyspeptically off to one side, the dim lighting heightening the contours of his face.
‘Like him,' said Ambrose, enunciating clearly.
Erno frowned, and looked from Ambrose to the picture of Leslie Howard and then back again.
?' he repeated doubtfully.
Give me strength, thought Ambrose. ‘Yes,' he said, trying to keep the exasperation out of his voice. ‘I want you to make me look exactly like him.'
Erno stared at the photograph for almost a full minute, and then went away to a corner of the room and rummaged in a bag. He came back after some time with a piece of what looked like fine cheesecloth.
‘Moment, plizz,' he said, and began, with painful slowness, to fasten the material over the camera lens.
‘Will you be
much longer?' asked Ambrose. ‘Only I have an awfully busy day ahead of me.'
May 1940
‘Do you think I should wear my good shoes for the interview?' asked Catrin, still curled beneath the eiderdown. ‘Not that they'll be looking at my feet, I suppose . . .'
There was no immediate response from Ellis. He was standing naked beside the window, peering upward between the opened blackouts in an attempt to gauge what the weather might be like at street level, and he scratched his knuckles, one hand and then the other, the skin between them permanently inflamed from contact with turpentine, before turning towards her. ‘What was that?' he asked.
‘Oh . . . nothing important, really.' She had learned that she talked far too much in the mornings.
She watched him scoop his shirt from the floor and begin to get dressed. He was tall, the skin very white beneath his clothes, his face high-cheekboned, almost Slavic. Not only handsome but
, she'd thought, with a thrill, when she'd first seen him, though he'd turned out, prosaically enough, to come from Kent.
‘Are you back for supper?' she asked. ‘Only I suppose I ought to use up the beetroot, it's starting to get little white spots.'
‘What d'you say?'
‘I was wondering if you'd be back for supper.'
‘No, I'm on duty tonight.'
‘Oh. Well, I could bring you something to eat at the studio, if you wanted.'
He was tying his bootlaces, and he looked up at her with an air of puzzled impatience, as if she
insist on speaking in Swahili; and it was impossible, as always, for her to gauge whether a scarred eardrum meant that he hadn't quite caught what she was saying or whether he simply wasn't listening.
‘I could bring your supper to the studio,' she said again. ‘After I get back from work. If you'd like.'
He gave a grunt and then straightened up, tugging at the sleeves that were always too short for his arms. ‘I'd better be going,' he said.
She pulled on a dressing-gown and followed him into the kitchen. He was standing beside the table, frowning at the worn pocket-book in which he kept his notes, angling the pages in order to catch the light.
‘Would you type these up for me, Cat?' he asked. ‘One day soon, before the bloody thing falls to bits.'
‘Of course I would.'
‘Though you probably won't be able to read my writing.'
‘I will. I'm sure I will. You should see Mr Caradoc's, it's all drunken spiders.'
He nodded, his thoughts already elsewhere. ‘See you later, then,' he said. She stood barefoot on the doormat and watched him climb the basement steps two at a time, and it occurred to her as he disappeared from view that the ‘see you later' must mean that he
expecting her to come to the studio with some supper, since otherwise he'd go straight from there to the warden's post at Baker Street, and she wouldn't see him again until the following morning. Though perhaps she was reading too much into the phrase.
She tended to do that, to pick through his speeches like a cryptologist, trying to elicit answers without having to actually ask him any more questions. And it was nearly always the boring-but-necessary things that he failed to catch the first time – meals and shoe-repairs and what to say to the landlord about the geyser – things that simply had to be sorted out before she left for work. She would hear herself pecking away at the same topic, phrasing and re-phrasing in an effort to dislodge a useful response, and it was dreadful to think of how dull she must sound to him.
She closed the front door and filled the kettle, and put the heel of a loaf under the grill. There was only margarine left, and nothing to spread on it but the carrot jam that she'd bought by mistake, thinking it was marmalade. She dabbed a spoonful of it on to the toast and ate it quickly, before the taste could catch up with her, and then went back in the bedroom and started to hunt for her good shoes. It was a long time since she'd worn them.
She shared an office at Finch & Caradoc with the junior copywriter, a good-natured boy, only a month or two younger than herself, but a tremendous talker, and since, this morning, he was away at his army medical, she was able to whip through Mr Caradoc's letters without disturbance. She had already moved on to her other work by the time that Donald flung open the door, lobbed his hat in the general direction of the coat-hooks and began to flap his elbows.
‘Go on, guess!' he said, adding in some random footwork. ‘Go on, guess what I've just been categorized. Go on, Catrin – guess.'
‘No! I'm D2 and that means—' he stopped dancing long enough to fish a slip of paper from his overcoat-pocket and hold it triumphantly above his head. ‘Unfit for
military service whether at home or abroad.
.' He kissed the form and resumed dancing, adding a tuneless lyric to the patter of his steps:
BOOK: Their Finest Hour and a Half
13.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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