Behind the Scenes: 1950s Film-Making and ‘My Week with Marilyn’

Like ‘The King’s Speech’, ‘My Week with Marilyn’ presents an at least semi-historical account of the private life of a public figure; in this case: Marilyn Monroe. However, it also goes one step beyond, it opens up the ‘behind-the-scenes’ world of film-making in 1950sBritain.

Beginning with a look at the cinema experience, in the opening scene of the film, we are watching Marilyn (played by Michelle Williams) singing and doing some token ‘Marilyn-moves’. The shot then changes to one of the same view of her, but from the outside of the screen, as it is being watched in the cinema. As the audience in the cinema, we gain access to a view that would have been experienced by a cinema audience in the 1950s, and we become conscious of her own act of viewing from the cinema seat. Then, the camera turns on the audience, to the protagonist sitting transfixed by the images on screen: Colin Clark (played by Eddie Redmayne).

The film is based on Clark’s memoirs and we are shown that through a couple of well-mannered pesterings from him in early scenes, he manages to become Third Assistant director to Laurence Olivier, for the filming of ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’ at Pinewood Studios in 1957. ‘My Week with Marilyn’ then offers access to not only the characters of Monroe and Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), and their tense relationship, but also to the set design (seen behind Olivier in his office in one scene), the filming process and even the wardrobe department (allowing a slightly superfluous role for Emma Watson).

Watching the film, we are given a privileged look at how films were constructed, and the problems along the way. Marilyn’s character is shown to a troubled one: she is trapped within a constructed image herself: she asks Colin at one point: ‘Shall I be her? Marilyn?’ And indeed, she confronts this constructed world in a scene in which they visitWindsorCastletogether. As she peers into the Queen’s dolls house, we see her from within its interior. This is very much like our looks at the set design and wardrobe department of ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’, as a constructed environment.

In ‘The King’s Speech’, George VI’s stark metallic microphone often occupies a key position in shot, in an ominous, central position which obscures some of the scene behind. The microphone is a device which separates us as the audience from the scenes behind, and set in context, it separates the King reading his public announcement from the families listening to the wireless in their homes. In ‘My Week with Marilyn’, film takes this role as mediator between public and private. In the final scenes, Clark watches the test footage of ‘The Prince and The Showgirl’ as the last privately filmed images, and those he relates to his own relationship with Marilyn, before the film’s intertitles inform us of what happened next in the public lives of these figures. By showing the ‘behind-the-scenes’ world of 1950s film-making, we not only see the private lives of the film stars but the process by which these private scenes became part of a public image on the cinema screen.


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RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2011: The Public Life of Plants

The Chelsea Flower Show has been a celebration of gardens since it began as The Great Spring Show in 1862. It is a widely respected, beautiful display of plants, flowers and vegetables, one which celebrates the use of these natural forms in gardens as works of art. Extravagantly ‘different’ and ‘out-there’ works include James May’s ‘Paradise in Plasticine’ in 2009 and Diarmuid Gavin’s Sky Garden this year.

In my first visit to the show, when wandering around the show gardens and central pavilion, I found the miniature nooks where a recognisable, idyllic life had been reconstructed most interesting, and one where notions of domestic comfort and memory were very much under interrogation. In many of this year’s exhibits, nostalgia for certain lifestyles and surroundings was embodied by natural and material structures. These included a view through the gap in hydrangeas onto a table laid for tea in the Hilliers Garden (which  reminded me of the feeling of ‘looking on’ created in Eric Ravilious’ painting ‘Tea at Furlongs’).

Jon Wheatley and Mary Payne‘s exhibit recreated a rustic garden in the grounds of a blacksmith’s forge, with an emphasis on traditional crafts and a countryside lifestyle, using natural flowers and foliage growing up around wooden structures, tools and signs.

This effort to construct feelings of homeliness in an exterior space (and a very public one where these would be scrutinised at Chelsea) becomes exaggerated when it is domestic materials and items themselves which are pushed into the outside world of the garden. For example, lurid blue ‘hooverable’ carpet was used as part of an outside room at the Chilstone garden in order to provide a comfortable area for relaxing in the garden, while leads us to question the boundary between interior and exterior living. And similarly, in the UK horticulture stand, minimalist white shelves starkly resemble the beams of an interior space, not to mention that these platforms are lined with arrangements of the homeliest of plants: fruit and veg.

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Alexandra Harris’ ‘Romantic Moderns’: A Topographical Study of Thirties Art and Culture

Alexandra Harris’ Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper, the winner of The Guardian’s First Book Award 2010 is a book I wish I’d written. Erudite and exciting, Harris takes the reader on a cultural tour of England in the inter-war years. Her main premise is that Modernist movement fostered in this period was not solely characterised by a shift away from the past and a move towards speed, functionalism and technological advance. Instead, writers, painters and poets indulged in a celebration of intimate values, tradition and memory: a return to the comforts of a past, idyllic England and the home.

On this tour of ‘the private life of Modernism’, Harris points out the early sketches of artists, Virginia Woolf’s dreams of furniture and wallpaper, the experiences of revolutionary surrealists at quaint village fetes and recollections of wanderings around antique shops and churches or drinking tea at the bottom of the garden. In an early chapter, she describes an uneasy time made comfortable by the cataloguing and treasuring of pre-war nooks and crannies of memory:

Paul Nash’s megaliths, the erotic dramas of Graham Sutherland’s landscapes, Vita Sackville-West’s old roses at Sissinghurst, Edward Bawden’s copper jelly moulds…all these things suggested the many forms that ‘going home’ might take. Writers and painters were drawn to the crowded, detailed, old-fashioned and whimsical, gathering souvenirs from an old country that might not survive the fighting.

With this obsessive collecting culture in mind, Harris embarks on her own collection of the human details which lay behind the grand ideals of twentieth century Modernism. She presents a topographical study of art and society, charting where artists and writers lived, ate, slept, holidayed and gardened.

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Curtains, Private Lives and Public Memories

This is the opening of a slightly questionable paper I gave yesterday for the Textile Society. The society aims to promote the study of history, culture and design of textiles ( I talked about textiles in film, beginning with The King’s Speech. I focused on the use of curtains onscreen as a way of opening up two views for the audience: firstly, a view inwards, into the private life of the home; and secondly, a view outwards, onto a recollection of social history – something I termed ‘public memory’.

Tom Hooper’s Bafta and Oscar award-winning film, The King’s Speech, tells the story of King George VI’s stammer, and how he was coached by speech therapist, Lionel Logue, so that he was able to speak eloquently in front of his countrymen. The film’s action is split between the private rooms George shares with his family and Lionel’s office, where he is trained, and the intimidating public arenas in which he has to speak. Just as the textiles of a living-room would be displayed in a National Trust or English Heritage property; an exciting example of British Heritage film, interiors in Hooper’s film have been reconstructed carefully using fabrics and furnishings to represent the intimate, everyday lives of the royal family.

In this formal photograph, King George sits at his desk, just following his declaration of war in 1939. He is surrounded by a grand mantelpiece to the left, elaborately patterned wallpaper and a gilt-lined desk-top. Although we later see Colin Firth as George being photographed in the same formal setting, in Hooper’s film, the audience is first given a privileged view: dressed-down in shirt and braces, the King gives his speech from a space deliberately constructed to make him feel at home and to overcome his nerves. In order to create this setting, a rather drab wishy-washy patterned fabric lines the ceiling and the walls. The fabric has been chosen to deliberately reflect the messy paintwork of Lionel’s office: a place where George has built up his confidence. Just as in our own homes, we associate the fabrics and furnishings with personal memories of our experiences and private lives; for Firth’s character, this fabric holds a specific memory of safe, private spaces, away from public scrutiny. Indeed, the fabric is so prominent here that we find ourselves looking as much at the background of the scene as at the King speaking.

In terms of our public memory of these events in 1939 (even if we weren’t there, or hadn’t even been born yet), we are all accustomed with the image of the royal family walking out and greeting the crowds from the balcony at Buckingham Palace. This is a public memory of this era in social history. However, in The King’s Speech, what we see is a view from the inside, a view of the royal family’s private life. In the film’s final moments, we see the royals walk out onto this iconic scene in history, past the fabrics and furnishings of their home.

As you can see in the film’s poster below, the same domestic framing – the gold gilding and the curtains – have been used in order to emphasise this unveiling of the King’s home life: deliberately drawing audiences in, making them want to see what goes on ‘behind closed doors’ or behind the curtains, in this case. Curtains divide the scene between the crowds outside and the King in his home on the inside. The crowds are representative of the public memory we ourselves hold of this scene in British social history. And on the other hand, the materials of the home shown on inside of the curtains, the gold gilding and the blue fabric of the curtains themselves represent the home life of the King: a private life.

In our homes, curtains are used to divide the public outside from our private lives. Onscreen, by appearing to unveil characters in their homes, the use of fabric, and curtains in particular, presents the very same dilemma of private life and public memory.

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Ghislaine Wood on Post-War Design

In the immediate post-war period, war veterans, women workers and evacuees all looked forward to returning home. As a result, interior design became a paramount concern for the population and for government, as highlighted by a boom in lifestyle literature, leaflets on modern living and the nationwide Festival of Britain in 1951.

Last week, I attended a lecture by Ghislaine Wood entitled ‘Tradition and Modernity in the British Interior 1948-1972’. As the director of the forthcoming exhibition for post-war design at the V & A (2012), Wood focused on the changing face of design, using textiles, wallpaper and furniture design.

(More here:

I’ve picked out the top three snippets of the talk, which I find illuminating in relation to changes in society rather than simply design.


1. ‘New Homes rise from London’s Ruins’: Festival of Britain, 1951

I probably find this so exciting to read about because Waterloo is my ‘local’ station in London so I can imagine the exhibits spread along the South Bank at the height of the 1951 summer. The Royal Festival Hall is all that remains of the buildings otherwise deemed too ‘socialist’ and therefore destroyed in 1953.

The festival was primarily meant to create a sense of optimism for the disillusioned public, but I think it’s really interesting that it was believed that displaying confidence in design was believed to be the way to do this. Government was emphasising that hope for political and social change in Britain could be placed on urban design and also on up-and-coming interior designs, thus drawing attention to the home as a vital site where newfound comfort, ease and confidence could be incubated.

As an example of post-war life in the home, the Lansbury Estate  in Poplar displayed fully-functioning homes. Labour-saving devices, furnishings and fabrics formed part of a very specific message of national pride and progress, one which would eventually influence the most intimate of spaces for the British public: the home.


2. Society and Scientific Discovery

Wood’s talk drew particular attention to fabric design and how patterns were influenced by scientific discoveries. She described how the ‘Dome of Discovery’ on the South Bank not only emphasised how science was the saviour of design, but the building itself was decorated on the inside using a fabric influenced by molecular design.

I have been unable to find the fabric she showed, but similarly, the design below was developed by John Line for the festival celebrations and is based on the molecular structure of boric acid.

Alongside influences from Pop Art and the US, this response of fabric designers to scientific discovery was accelerated by the 1960s space-boom. Following is Lunar Rocket, by Eddie Squires, which was designed in 1969, in anticipation of the successful moon-landings. Again, fabrics  designed for the private space of the home were being significently influenced by national events and public discoveries.

Many more of these textile designs can be found in the Sixties Collection at the V & A. Check this out if you’re interested:


3. An Influence of European Modernism: Ernö Goldfinger

It is assumed by many that the post-war years were characterised by a limpet-trend for tradition in terms of design: the floral fabrics, the hearthside and the country house (as embraced by Laura Ashley and David Hicks). However, it seems to me that it is the work of Hungarian emigré Ernö Goldfinger which continues to characterise many a London landscape. At the time, his proposal of tower-block living embodied a modern and what’s more, realistic, way of life –  in the flat rather than the house.

Despite their space-age appearance from the outside (note the iconic Trellick Tower above), it was the economy and efficiency of the interior which was used to advertise these buildings in posters and leaflets. At a time of housing shortages and continuing austerity, the insides of these futuristic blocks of concrete held the promise of a reformed private life (whatever the grim realities of living in them have later turned out to be).

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