In the late 1930s Nella Last, a housewife aged 49, living in Barrow-in-Furness on the North West English coast,agrees to send details of her routine to the Mass observation project,a ...
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Anton du Beke
In the late 1930s Nella Last, a housewife aged 49, living in Barrow-in-Furness on the North West English coast,agrees to send details of her routine to the Mass observation project,a non-governmental scheme designed to chronicle the lives of ordinary people. When war comes Nella defies her over-protective husband to join the local Women's Voluntary Service. Initially diffident she blossoms thanks to the dominant but kindly Mrs. Waite, and enjoys her independence as a useful war worker. The film also shows her relationship with her two sons as well as the effect of the war on the community and ends by explaining that Nella kept in touch with the Mass Observation project until her death in 1968.Written by
This superb film was made because of the remarkable personal qualities of the British television comedienne and comedy writer, Victoria Wood, who has always had her serious side as well, as she shows here. Wood wrote and starred in this film, which was brilliantly and sensitively directed by old pro Gavin Millar, one of British television's most famous drama directors. Victoria Wood has always enjoyed an enormous popularity with the public at large because she is so 'down to earth' and so 'real', and her quaint folksy approach to humour, drawing upon her northern roots, expressed sardonically in her northern accent, is dear to the hearts of the British in a way which no foreigner could ever understand. She has always refused to do anything about her appearance, and the public have lived through her stages of being too fat, then being less fat, along with her, as if she were a family member of everyone's. She would never allow a surgeon anywhere near her face. She is what she is, and 'you can take it or leave it'. Her excruciating honesty is much prized by everyone except the phonies and the pseuds. Here, she has chosen to dramatize the story of a shy, excessively meek and self-effacing, ordinary woman during the Second World War. The story is drawn from the extensive, poignant, and revealing diaries of this woman who lived in the north, and were submitted to Mass Observation over many years, and whose name was Nella Last. She was identified as 'Housewife, 49'. It is necessary to explain how these diaries came to be written. In 1937, a small group of writers and artists in London (several of whom I knew towards the end of their lives, namely Kathleen Raine, William Empson, and Julian Trevelyan), decided they were fed up with the inadequate press coverage of the public's true reactions to the abdication of King Edward VIII. They decided to set up their own amateur opinion-gathering project, and they called it the Mass Observation Movement. One of the three main driving forces behind this was the poet Charles Madge, whom I never knew, but Kathleeen Raine was his widow, and she used to talk to me a lot about Mass Observation, on which she had once worked indefatiguably herself, so I have some understanding of what those people thought they were doing. They solicited diaries from ordinary people, over 500 of them around the country, who supplied them on an unpaid and purely voluntary basis. One shy and thoroughly obscure person who did this was Nella Last. Her story grew and grew, and from her seemingly drab and ordinary life, a vast and moving drama grew, like a poppy appearing on a desolate battlefield. Victoria Wood has crafted an amazingly moving and fascinating film based upon this tale of someone who was not merely ordinary and obscure, but meek and retiring. Nella Last opened her heart, and recorded all the things which most of us would be too intimidated to relate, about who really did what to whom in her town, and how she and they felt about it. The result is an absolutely astounding revelation of just how interesting the lives of seemingly boring people can really be, when examined in depth and with compassion. This film is a testament to the rich and intensely-lived lives of the meek, the helpless, the repressed, and the oppressed. These are the people we pass in the street and don't notice. They have feelings too, they have their joys and their sorrows, but they keep them to themselves and suffer silently. Nella Last broke the rule of silence, the 'omerta' of the obscure, and she spoke out of the depths of her suffering heart about what it is like to be a nobody and to be treated as one. She also described her slow climb up towards a degree of self-confidence, her achievement against all the odds at doing something constructive for the War Effort, yes, she, Nella Last, the nobody. She ended up being, in her small way, a somebody. And that is her story, and it was so worth telling. And only somebody with the heart and the soul of a Victoria Wood could or would ever have dared to try. And the success is total. The performances of the other people in this incredible film are breath-taking in their honesty and heart-breaking in their intensity. David Threlfall is an actor many of us remember for his unforgettable portrayal on stage of Smike in Dickens's 'Nicholas Nickleby', a quarter of a century ago. Here, he portrays Wood's husband, a man so immobilised by the inability to express his feelings that it is perhaps the greatest classic film portrait ever achieved of a man frozen into silence, whose feelings are powerful surging currents, but whose lips are sealed, and only his pathetic, pleading eyes reveal anything at all. The women who play the many vivid supporting roles in the film are all so brilliant that one gasps. When the film is over, you feel you have left a group of friends whose personalities are seared into your memory. These are real people, this is a real film, this is a real story. Watch it and learn. It deserves to be shown in schools, to humanize some of the feral young who have no feelings and no compassion, and whose idea of life is to go around stabbing each other to death in the streets, as they do nearly every day in London now. Above all, this story of Nella Last is a study in loyalty, and of the ultimate true human values which she exemplified in her hidden life of obscurity, poverty, and invisibility to the world. What an achievement this is! And how proud Victoria Wood should be of what she and her inspired colleagues have done in making this film!
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