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Chris Hopkins: Why Love On The Dole stands the test of time

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Published: 20/01/16

Walter Greenwood had been unemployed in Salford for three years when in 1932 he wrote Love On The Dole.

Watching the 1941 film acts as a reminder of just how grim unemployment was in the 1930s, when the dole helped you subsist, but no more, and of the growing wartime feeling that after the war, such deprivation could never again be permitted in British society.

In 1966, Greenwood reflected on the ongoing demolition of Hanky Park, the place where he had spent the majority of the 32 years before he became an author.

"Where the wreckers have finished their work only the cobbled roadways and pavements remain to mark the streets which were our childhood playgrounds and where our homes had stood. They were built when the British Empire was at the pinnacle of its wealth and power, and they had sheltered defrauded generations for whom life had been an endless struggle both insulting and deprived."

He hoped that the demolition of the nineteenth-century slums of Hanky Park marked the end of the kind of poverty he had experienced as a child. Yet local and national reports highlight that child poverty and unemployment remain a major issue in Salford today, and in areas of the north which could just as easily been featured in the book and film.

A new Blu-Ray of the film, released by the BFI on Monday, where I have written the sleeve notes, and my book which is released later this year, Love on the Dole, Novel, Play, Film’ point to the enduring appeal of Greenwood and his observations of post-war Salford.

If the exact shape of deprivation and the nature of welfare provision has changed since the thirties and forties, both are still live issues.

The film has worn very well as a viewing experience, but sadly the social issues and prejudices which provoked it and which it hoped would be resolved are with us still.

Back then, newspaper reviewers across a surprisingly wide political range praised the novel’s sense of authenticity and capacity to move its readers. It sold well too and the stage version Greenwood co-wrote with Ronald Gow had its first night at the Manchester Repertory Theatre in February 1934 before moving to the Garrick Theatre in London.

Just under four hundred London performances followed and Greenwood, by now quite the local celebrity, claimed in 1940 that three million people had now seen the play, including the King and Queen.

However, when a potential film script was submitted to the British Board of Film Censors their major objections made production impossible.

The BBFC Censors’ reports showed great nervousness about the project on moral and political grounds:

However, under unique circumstances and, a pause of five years, the censors were persuaded to change their minds.

Once censorship problems were magically cleared, British National acquired the rights to the film, against some competition.

Walter Greenwood

The experienced John Baxter was appointed as director. He had shown a consistent interest in social conditions and he treated this screenplay with great sympathy and creativity. From the beginning, Baxter had a strong sense that the film must not be a star-vehicle because it should represent ordinary people. Thus the casting of the then little-known Deborah Kerr, who brought with her no association with previous roles or an established ‘star’ identity.

His casting decisions were indeed crucial to the film’s success: anything other than comic working-class characters were rarities in British cinema before the war, but Baxter drew on performers who, though they largely came from the working-class world of music hall, had also worked with him before in a variety of film genres.

Though in most respects a feature film, many contemporary reviews saw the film as equally a serious addition to documentary film: ‘Scornful of carping propaganda, it faithfully presents the facts as they are, or rather were, confident of their power to plead their own righteous cause ... it is also a documentary of compelling power and urgent provocation’.

The film (like the novel and play) certainly retained its appeal in the war years, with a number of references to it in Mass Observation reports and diaries. The film adaptation’s creation of a strong link to the idea of ‘the People’s War’ may have been a significant factor.

The original context for the novel and the play was, of course, mass unemployment, and this remained a focus for public concern until at least 1938. But with increasingly determined rearmament after 1936, unemployment began to fall, and though just over one-and-a-half million remained unemployed in 1939, the figure had dropped to a third of a million by 1941, when the wartime economy began to absorb all available labour.

Unemployment was thus now firmly in the past (if a very recent past), but the film as well as vividly recalling the misery of the Depression also linked it through some adept adaptations to a vision of a better post-war Britain – even though in 1941, with Germany nowhere near defeat, this had to be at best a hopeful promise to the people of Britain.

The film of Love on the Dole was a contribution to wartime civilian morale and a focus for political hopes, but it achieved those ends by being a widely accessible, entertaining, innovative and thoroughly thought-through piece of cinematography.

Love On The Dole was released by BFI films on Monday. This is an abridged version of Chris's liner notes for the new version.

The author:

"There are no stars in this film. Nothing is glossed over. It is spoken of as the British Grapes of Wrath ..."