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Time Out to Music

Posted by keith1942 on February 16, 2016

Sing As We Go back to creating surplus value.

Sing As We Go back to creating surplus value.

In a key article, `Entertainment and Utopia’, Richard Dyer (1977) offers an examination of the ideological function of the film musical. His argument is that, like entertainment as a larger category, musicals offer an alternative world, a sort of emotional utopia for the spectator.

 “Two of the taken-for-granted descriptions of entertainment, as ‘escape’ and as ‘wish-fulfilment’ point to its central thrust, namely utopianism … the utopia is contained in the feelings it embodies. it presents, head-on as it were, what utopia would fell like rather than how it would be organised. It thus works at the level of sensibility.”

He provides a series of `categories of entertainment’s utopian sensibilities’ and their oppositions; the latter being actual inadequacies:

Utopian Oppositional Categories Categories

Energy/Exhaustion – Abundance/Scarcity – Intensity/Dreariness – Transparency/Manipulation  – Community/Fragmentation

He also provides some discussion of examples from the classic Hollywood musical which show these sensibilities at work. He is careful to point out that these categories are present not just at the representational level – i.e. plot, characters, lyrics – but also at the non-­representational level; setting, costume, colour, movement and so on. He says less about the content of these utopias. Even if they are about feelings, one would expect them to be concretised in settings and situations. I want to examine how these categories can be seen operating in a number of British film musicals, and to suggest some strands of utopian content this reveals. My thoughts about how these musicals offered an alternative and an escape from `reality’ for British spectators were crystallised in the pithy remark of a colleague, Mike Hammond, at a BFI seminar (`What is British Cinema?’, 1989). After watching Sing as We Go (Britain 1934) he remarked that

“Gracie Fields was taking the working class on holiday whilst capitalism recouped itself.”

sing as we go

This is an apt summary of the film’s ideological project, [the set of values and interests that it privileges]. Gracie Platt (Fields) is thrown out of work by the closure of Greybeck Mills. Undaunted, she cycles to Blackpool to seek work. There she provides a catalyst to the romance of Hugh (John Loder – son of the Mill owner) and Phyllis (Dorothy Hyson – an office worker), and brings together the capital of a tycoon, Sir William Upton (Lawrence Grossmith) and the productive forces of the factory. Thus the film can end with Gracie, newly-appointed welfare officer, leading the workers back into the re-opened mill.

Blackpool offers an opposition of conspicuous consumption to the scarcity of work and money in Greybeck. Everything in Blackpool is excess. Excess of fun, of sweets and goodies, even an excess of song, as Gracie sings and sings again a number being plugged at a sheet music stall. Because Blackpool is essentially a working class resort, we are not presented with affluence, the abundance is relative (i.e. relative to the scarcity of Greybeck). One example; Gracie, her uncle and his friend, have their evening in Greybeck abruptly halted by the return of the aunt. She represents a strand of repressive older women found particularly in 1930 films. Her return stifles their lively fun, re- emphasising drabness and exhaustion.

Their opposites, energy and intensity, figure both in the character of Gracie, but also in the activities of the holidaymakers. The resort has `oomph’ and `pow’, two characteristics Dyer associates with this category. The intensity, `not holding back; can be seen both in Gracie’s involvement in the various jobs at the resort, and in the manner in which spectators indulge the resort’s pleasures.

Transparency, what you see is what you get, is an essential characteristic of the Fields persona. She offers an open and honest contrast to some of the manipulative characters at the resort, to the exploitative guest house owner, to the hucksters at the funfair.

This transparency is contagious. Gracie’s activities show to the cinema audience the manipulation behind fairground shows owned by petty bourgeois. Then, in a key scene, Gracie sings “Love fools you ..:” and a series of vignettes show characters embracing sincere relationships. For example, Madame Osiris, the fortune teller, reveals herself as a one-time mill hand and factory-worker’s wife.

This sequence also re-inforces the cross-class impetus of the script, (written by J.B. Priestley), as one of the manipulative song salesmen appears in a romantic (i.e. transparent) role here. The class structure of the film is fairly clear, proletarians, petty bourgeois, bourgeoisie. In keeping with British traditions the actual `marriage’ is between the bourgeoisie, in the shape of Sir William’s capital and proletarians, represented by Gracie. The Hugh/Phyllis union offers a romantic coupling between bourgeoisie and that ambiguous state, the middle classes. [Footnote 1]. This is mainly a plot device necessitated by Gracie’s persona, which is not made for romance. Attempts in later films to move her up the class ladder and add romance failed.

Most of the utopian categories appear in Blackpool in the form of the commodities, everywhere people buying and selling the attributes of pleasure. The closure of the film depends crucially on commodification. [Footnote 2]. Early in the film Hugh, son of the factory owner, learns of a new cheap process that can save the factory, but this only becomes viable when they find the capital of Sir William. The spectators are not expected to believe in the miraculous transformation of the film. But it offers an oppositional sensibility to the depression of the 1930s.

“Sing as we go … I never miss Gracie Fields. She lifts me to a high plane as well as entertains me with her thorough affinity with human joys and sorrow.” – Housewife in Lincoln from Richardson and Sheridan (eds) 1987, p261)

The use of the holiday seaside is apt. Capitalism and industrialisation had formed a working class whose lives were organised by the calendar, the timetable and the clock. An oppositional note is provided by Gracie’s Uncle Murgatroyd, with his house full of clocks that don’t work, “even the clocks have gone on strike” : The growth of both public holidays, and holidays away, had grown up in the nineteenth century.

One of the classic dramas of working class life is the play Hindle Wakes (filmed four times with sound versions in 1932 and 1952), which depicts the sexual freedom found in seaside Blackpool in the traditional holiday week. Like Sing as We Go the play details cross-class romance. However, Hindle Wakes substitutes working class realism for cinematic utopianism; at the play’s end the heroine declines the bourgeois lover for her own world.

What musicals like Sing as We Go offer are resolutely alternative worlds to the experience of organised and controlled time for the majority audience. Other examples would be George Formby, always leaving working life for sport, the TT … or Jessie Matthews variously away from the working world, in Paris or even, miraculously, out of the world of time altogether in Evergreen (Britain, 1934).

The Good Companions

Good Companions

Matthews is one of the stars of an earlier film musical, The Good Companions (Britain, 1933). This is taken from the novel by J. B. Priestley, the scriptwriter of Sing as We Go. The story displays not only Priestley’s tendency to build cross class alliances but his liking for a tone that echoes Chaucer. The voice-over for the prologue runs,

“a story of the roads and wandering places of mother England:”

A group of varied individuals set off on a journey by road. Their meeting provides an alternative to the unsatisfactory state of their present lives. Appropriately, the paean to middle England starts in Rawsley, a fictional town placed in the centre of the country. The bourgeois, Miss Trant (Mary Glynne), has remained a spinster from caring for an aged and ill father. The petty bourgeois, Inigo (John Gielgud), is fleeing from the travails of public school. And the proletarian, Jess (Edmund Gwenn), from the confines of his work and his home. This trio meet up with the Dinky Doos, a currently unemployed concert party. Together they build a successful show, funded by Miss Trant’s legacy and crowned by stardom for the leading light, Susie (Jessie Matthews).

The film ends with the promise of romance for Susie and Inigo but also, crucially, with Jess Oakroyd emigrating to Canada to be re-united with his daughter and her family. Presumably by the end of his voyage capitalism will be re-invigorated in that area. And, of course, the colonies had long provided an escape from the travails of the mother country. Miss Trant finds romance and embarks on a lengthy cruise. The Dinky Doos take up an offer in Bournemouth, the pinnacle of genteel entertainment.

In terms of utopian sensibilities the remake of the film in 1956, in CinemaScope and Technicolor, is instructive. Despite the technical improvements, the 1950s version lacks the élan of the 1930s. Whilst the story remains remarkably similar, Priestley’s narrative of overcoming economic adversity does not quite suit the more affluent fifties. Despite retaining all the main characters, there are significant changes. Jess Oakroyd is now played by Eric Porter, a very different type from the earlier Edmund Gwenn. Though he starts out as proletarian as the 1940s Jess, by the film’s end a subtle transformation has occurred. The migration to Canada has gone, and he sits in the auditorium alongside the Dinky Doos in a smart, new suit, as seemingly as bourgeois as Miss Trant (Celia Johnson). The film has also dropped the romance for Miss Trant and the continuing concert  career of the Dinky Doos.

This is a rather different closure that rests all on the stardom of Susie (Jeanette Scott) and relates to changes in the way the film handles the utopian categories. The abundance of the earlier version, achieved by displaying the world of stardom that Susie can enter at the film’s finale, is gone. Abundance in this version is displayed in the final big musical number, `Round the World’, performed by Susie. It is a series of sketches about the pleasures of travel and holidays, starting and finishing in the that modern Mecca, an airline terminal. It is a prime example of what Marx termed commodity fetishism. [Footnote 3]. The underlying labour and productive relations that enable us to fly off hither and thither are disguised in the surface appearances. We merely need to purchase the tickets to purchase the pleasure.

Cliff Richard musicals

CR movies


The mystification of work and leisure continues in a key musical of the 1960s, The Young Ones (Britain, 1961). Whilst the film is very British, in its stars, its story and its lyrics, it is also partly transatlantic. This follows from the clear borrowing from the successful Hollywood musical West Side Story (USA, 1961 – even referenced in one of the lyrics). The influence is apparent from the opening crane shot, and clearly continues in the narrative oppositions, choreography and mise en scène.

Simply put, a youth club is under threat because it stands in the way of a property developer. Working class youth must move on while capital re-invests. The film develops as a struggle between youth and age, the club members versus the property developer. However, crossing this divide in true Gracie Fields fashion is Nick/Nicky (Cliff Richard), club member, but also the son of the manipulative developer. As the hero he is able to negotiate these conflicts to a satisfactory conclusion. Whilst the abundance in the film would seem to be with the developer, Hamilton Black (Robert Morley), youth displays an abundance of colour, dress, movement… They are also able to display energy and intensity, notably in the set piece dance numbers and the two `putting on a show’ sequences that fill out the narrative.

Nicky’s romance provides moment of transparency, but this category is most noticeable at the finale. Here, Nicky confesses his real relationship to the club members, but also goes to rescue his father from an assault by rougher members of the club. Father and son both figure in the final show finale which closes the film and re-emphasises the sense of community represented by the club. But, the final community is rather problematic. The club has both middle class and working class members. And, in keeping with the 1950s moral panics, the working class members are `rough’. They have to be disciplined for the community to be re-established. This is achieved by the fight in which Nicky comes to the rescue of his father.

More problematic are other exclusions. The finale of the film, `What d’you know, you’ve got a show’, provides a feast of energy, intensity and abundance. The audience is composed mainly of young people, but includes older members, as do the scenes of idolatry of Nicky/Cliff as pop idol. The audience is also both male and female, and it appears to include both middle and working classes. The site of this community is a refurbished theatre, rather than the doomed club building. This move is significant because it represents a world apart from the real world. What is missing is the newest element in the real British society, black people. There are only two representations of black people in the film. One is the drawings of North American jazz musicians on the club bandstand. The other is a black male in a wanted poster outside a police station, part of the background for a Richard song and dance number. Both have been left behind in the old world. Cliff Richard continued in a series of film musicals that opted out of the world of work.

The 'wanted poster' appears in this sequence - visible in 35mm prints.

The ‘wanted poster’ appears in this sequence – visible in 35mm prints.

Summer Holiday (Britain, 1963), literally a `busman’s holiday; takes in both Europe and transatlantic romance and It’s a Wonderful Life (Britain, 1964) sees Cliff and his Shadows leave ship work for a desert island. Both these films also produce alliances that cross class and age boundaries. The gender boundaries are crossed in the traditional manner of romance. But again, the films fail to cross what we now term ethnic barriers.

All these musicals offer an utopian world of feelings and all can be deconstructed in terms of Dyer’s categories. The 1930s films offer a depression background, with its immediate sense of scarcity, drabness and lack. The 1950 and 1960 variants do not feature general unemployment, but in each case the characters’ work is both drab and unfulfilling. The Good Companions shows all the characters dissatisfied and restless. In The Young Ones work, as so often the case in mainstream film, never appears on screen. We only see people knocking off, or if found at work, they are not working but avoiding it. Labour, by implication, is necessary, but unexciting and unfulfilling. These almost dystopian worlds of work are exchanged for one that offers all the utopian qualities. And in each case it is the world of entertainment, be it holiday pleasures in Blackpool, the West End Stage, or the world of pop success.

Dyer quotes Hans Magnus Enzensberger:

“Consumption as spectacle contains the promise that want will disappear… (but) so long as scarcity holds sway, use value remains a decisive category which can only be abolished by trickery. (Dyer, 1997, p6).”

The rise of organised leisure, a concomitant of capitalism, produces entertainment; organised and commercialised entertainment. Dyer discusses this aspect in some detail and notes,

“entertainment provides alternatives to capitalism which will be provided by capitalism:”

And in these films, each group of characters take time out from the real world of scarcity, exhaustion and fragmentation to go `over a rainbow’ to a world where all these lacks are banished. The finale of each film then works to remove the divide between the two worlds. In Sing as We Go, Gracie leads the workers back into the mill. However, in The Good Companions and The Young Ones return is eschewed in favour of a new site which contains the virtues missing in the old world. In the former the West End Theatre, or possibly Canada; in the latter a converted theatre. What they all share is the nature of the community that occupies these sites.

In all the films there is a conscious effort to cross the divides of class, gender and age. Gracie bring together both capital and labour, and the petty bourgeois is sandwiched between. The Good Companions achieves the re-unification, with a greater emphasis on age and gender. The Young Ones highlights the age gap, but again works to unify all three categories. Whilst it ignores an equally important category of `race’, it works by denying its existence rather than recognising the exclusion.

Absolute Beginners

absolute beginners

A rather different slant on these issues is given by the more recent and much maligned Absolute Beginners (Britain, 1986). Shot in colour and widescreen, this musical presents the romance of Colin (Eddie O’Connell) and Suzette (Patsy Kensit) against the background of the 1958 Notting Hill Riots and the Notting Hill Carnival which arose out of this. Colin takes photographs, Suzette is in the world of design.

Moving between the film’s W 11 interracial slum of Napoli and Soho, this musical presents the world of pornography, pop and politics in a heady mixture. The disruption to this world comes (as with The Young Ones) from a proposed property development. Its development is hazy as the narrative tends at time to incoherence, a likely factor in its failure at the box office. But the set dances, the vibrant score (by Gil Evans) and the stylish camera work and mise en scène exude the energy and intensity somewhat lacking in the 1950s and 1960s musicals discussed earlier. Some of this vibrancy is enjoyed by the ethnic sequences, which depict Afro-Caribbeans receiving and responding to covert and overt racism. But the most vibrant depicts the seedy world of 1950s Soho. Absolute Beginners celebrates the lumpen-proletarians that are erased or avoided by the other musicals. Soho has the abundance and energy that the characters in the film are seeking. The transparency in the film is mainly offered by Colin, an innocent who learns about life, but retains some innocence.

The weakest of Dyer’s categories here is community. The film’s different worlds are all fragmenting at an amazing rate. The post-riot Carnival section does suggest a new community which overcomes racist divisions. However, Colin and Suzette leave this for their own private world of love and sex, a retreat that echoes Matthew Arnold’s `Dover Beach’. So what the film eventually offers the viewer is an immensely vital and attractive dystopia, rather than the utopia tabled by Dyer.

Wild West

Another musical in which ethnicity has a particular impact on its utopia is Wild West (Britain, 1992). Three Pakistani brothers, Zaf, Ali and Kay, live in west London and, in between various jobs, run a country band. The opening shot of Zaf (Naveen Andrews) cycling passed a huge Marlborough poster sets up cross-generic currents.

The film continues to play with genres, notably in a contrast between British realism and Bollywood style fantasy. The trio of brothers suffer the social prejudice and economic hardship familiar from Absolute Beginners. Whilst these hardships arise from the social context, much of their oppression is directly motivated by whites. Zaf suffers this directly. He also has a romance with Rifat (Saita Choudhury), who suffers from an oppressive white husband. The film avoids both predictable romantic and economic closure; Rifat gets a recording contract and their paths diverge. Unlike Colin and Susette, Zaf and his brothers do not withdraw into a private world, we see them last as they embark for the USA and Nashville. Utopia is obviously across the Atlantic. 



An Afro-Caribbean utopia is to be found in Babymother (Britain, 1998),’a reggae musical’. The heroine, Anita (Anjela Lauren Smith), battles the pressures of child rearing and male power in her bid to become a `dancehall queen: She leads a female trio in overcoming the male dominance of the club and record recording world. Her final triumph is in beating boyfriend Byron in a promoter’s contest and there we leave her enjoying the acclaim of fans.

Babymother suffers from what appears to be generic confusions, with partly realist representation of everyday life and the more glam world of musical spectacle. The later provides the utopian categories of the film:

…dancehall represents the thin, shapely, aggressively stylised and eroticised black body of Hot Britain… (Hall, 1998).

It is vibrant, energetic, colourful, postulating transparent relationships as Anita sings, “Babymother! Be a Mother to Your Child” : The black dancehall utopia at the close is more accessible than the emigration required by Wild West more community based than the closed world of Absolute Beginners’ Colin and Susette.

It thus appears to obtain some of the conviction that accompanied the closure of the earlier musicals. Left outside are the oppositional categories, the scarcity, drabness, exhaustion and fragmentation endured in the world of work and domesticity. Closure is, in this sense, as escapist as the retreat of Colin and Susette, or that of Zaf and his brothers.


The abiding image of Sing as We Go is the final shot of Gracie leading the workers back to the factory waving Union Jacks. The film’s utopian feeling was able to embrace both the entertainment world of Blackpool and, by closure, the reconstructed world of Greybeck’s Mills. By the 1950s and 60s the re-make of The Good Companions and The Young Ones eschew a return and leave the characters firmly in the embrace of the world of entertainment. The latter does hold out the promise of a property development with a new youth club. By Absolute Beginners even that unseen promise is gone, Colin’s and Suzette’s private world leaves outside what appears to be rapidly fragmenting communities. Wild West offers emigration and Babymother the enclosed world of dancehall – both are also alternatives to the fragmented worlds outside. It would appear that, both generically and ideologically, the musical has to bridge an increasing divide between its utopian world and the actual world of the viewer.


Richard Dyer (1977) `Entertainment and Utopia; in Movie No 24, reprinted in Only Entertainment (Richard Dyer, Routledge 1992).

Stuart Hall (1998) `A Rage in Harlesden’ in Sight & Sound, September 1998.

Andrew Higson (1995) Waving the Flag Clarendon Press. This has an extended discussion of Sing as We Go and its context.

Jeffrey Richards and Dorothy Sheridan (Eds) (1987) Mass Observation at the Movies, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul


Sing as We Go 1934, Associated Talking Pictures, produced and directed by Basil Dean.

The Good Companions 1933, Gaumont­-Welsh-Pearson, directed by Victor Saville.

The Good Companions 1956, Associated British, produced and directed by J. Lee Thompson.

The Young Ones 1961, Associated British Pictures, directed by Sydney J. Furie.

Absolute Beginners 1986, Palace Pictures, directed by Julian Temple.

Wild West 1992, First Independent, directed by David Attwood.

Babymother 1998, colour, Channel 4, directed by Julian Henriques.


1. The Marxist terms for class are more exact than the vague British usage of `working’, `middle’ and `upper’ classes. Bourgeoisie- own capital and hence the means of producing goods and are able to employ the labour power of the: Proletariat, who own no property and can only sell their ability to work. Petty bourgeoisie – own their own property and hence do not need to work for the bourgeoisie: however, they do not own enough to employ labour on any scale. The bourgeoisie and the proletariat wage class war over the value produced by labour, the petty bourgeoisie vacillate in between.

2. Commodities are produced by labour power and, importantly, this means they are produced for exchange. They therefore become the property of somebody, first the capitalist and then the consumer. Exchange value does not depend on the use value, i.e. what we can do with the commodity.

3. Fetishism arises when we see commodities only in terms of exchange value – their actual usage goes unnoticed. Hence lumps of hardened earth or animal skins can be very costly, especially when exhibited in an art gallery.

The original article appeared in itp Film Reader 2, 2000.

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