Accent on Living

FOR one who has never been there before, first impressions of England, derived from three weeks in London and a few ventures into the country, are necessarily vivid and incomplete. In the main, the American finds it all rather reassuringly as he had expected it to be. With his natural adaptability, he is soon enjoying the feeling that he is a character in a J. Arthur Rank production; and if the rest of the company startle him at first as too convincing a job of casting, he is glad to have even a temporary role in so well mounted a show.

True, the butcher, the fishmonger, the waitress, and the baker’s boy do not join hands with the strolling Police Constable in Shepherd Market in a ballet interval, but the American is never quite sure that they won’t. How does the barber spend his time after his matinee performance as a barber? Is the courtly old man who punches tickets on the train really a talented young mummer, artfully made up? The oversinister Continentals serving as headwaiters in the expensive restaurants — are they in fact members of village cricket clubs during their hours offstage? Even the motor traffic wheeling silently through its intricate patterns — lootless, mannerly, and with only the click of its direction signals for a sound effect — seems like pantomime long and successfully rehearsed.

Granting that London’s version of itself has every appearance of authenticity (however great the strain on one’s credulity imposed by the lift at the Albany), the impression of make-believe strikes the American anew on any journey into the country. The toy church in Surrey, discharging its congregation on the stroke of Sunday noon, across the toy bridge over the absurdly beautiful stream (complete with swans), directly into the toy public house, where a brilliant character actress wrestles with the beer pumps and impersonates a genial proprietress — here is obviously a bit from a forthcoming Guinness picture. It is hard for the stranger not to believe that the whole set will be struck and en route to the storage rooms by midafternoon. The too wan cleric, the too ruddy village souse who had scored heavily with a fine comedy entrance as the first man in when the pub opened — these and the rest of the troupe will remove their grease paint and return to the studios whence they came.

It is well known on both sides of the Atlantic that British engine whistles are surplus property from Hitchcock films, and that this lends a curiously melodramatic quality to suburban travel in a third-class nosmoking compartment. But little has been said about the absence of a headlight on the British engine. An American’s first reaction is that only the day trains are thus unequipped — a shrewd economy, he supposes — but he soon finds that not even the night expresses seem to have one. In the United States, every engine carries a powerful headlight, so that the engineer can see clearly the obstacle that his train is going to hit, but in Britain no.

“It really has no effect,” one Englishman explained, “on the course that the train is made to follow. Has it?

An unanswerable question like this leaves the American pretty much adrift. (It would have been more effective had not the Englishman first opined that the British engine did carry a headlight — a position he was forced to abandon after looking at several engines in Waterloo Station.) But one country or the other is plainly wrong here. The headlight must be dropped or its virtues acknowledged. The present situation is intolerable.

Foremost among the other stage properties which enliven the British scene are flowers and polished brass. A sufficiency of window boxes putting forth greenery and blossoms can give even the sooty facades of the financial district an air of holiday. The discreet Georgian houses fronting a residential square are all abloom like a country garden; a Victorian hotel takes on the appearance of an exceptionally gay corner of the Riviera.

The brass gives a splendid effect to all entrances and commercial signs, polished to the point where many a name plate has been obliterated; there are yards of it around the windows and doors of most pubs, and never has the stranger seen so glittering a saloon with such promise of doughty refreshment inside. The only trouble is that the pub has just closed, or won’t open before another half hour — and no two pubs ever seem to keep the same hours. The better looking the pub, the more, likely it is to be closed, and one suspects that the pub combining flower boxes and polished brass in its proud offer to the wayfarer never opens at all.

This means nothing to the more fastidious of the Londoners, who prefer only the tiniest unpolished drinking dens anyhow, but for their effect on the visitor, in conveying to him the sense of a place well maintained, it would be hard — for anything like the same outlay — to beat the flowers and the brass.

The costuming of the whole British production seems just as authentic as the sets, although one or two of the supernumeraries, in full-skirted overcoats, tight trousers, low-crowned derby hats, and with fiercely curling mustaches, may look a bit overdrawn. The occasional player in green tweeds and a flaming red tarn may cause the stranger to consult his program notes, yet here proves to be a genuine Scotsman, suitably unintelligible and slightly drunk, in town for the big football game.

As for the females, their roses-and-cream complexion is so compelling that no one need care especially what sort of things they are wearing. A good-looking show, all in all, and enjoying a very long run indeed.