Directed by Julian Amyes and released in the summer of 1957, Miracle in Soho was executive produced by Earl St. John for the J. Arthur Rank Organisation and co-produced and written by Emeric Pressburger whose original version of the script was written in 1934 under the title The Miracle in St. Anthony’s Lane. Incidentally, the year before the release of Miracle in Soho Hungarian born Pressburger’s successful working partnership with the director Michael Powell had come to an end. Powell would go on to make Peeping Tom which utilises North Soho (Fitzrovia) for its violent opening sequence.
The “miracle” of the 1957 Miracle in Soho occurs after the whispered prayers of Julia Gozzi (Belinda Lee) within the fictional St. Anthony’s Church located in the fictional St. Anthony’s Lane, Soho. Following her prayer for the return of an Anglo-Irish road driller and “incorrigible breaker of hearts” Michael Morgan (John Gregson), the water mains beneath the Soho lane burst destroying the newly-laid asphalt. Morgan returns to repair the road and ultimately the lovers are reconciled.
A failure critically and at the box office, critics upon release of the film were largely disappointed with this constructed Soho set alongside the morally integrated world of its character-driven plot.
Monthly Film Bulletin declared “This depressing production, with its synthetic Soho setting, has characters conceived strictly within the less happy conventions of British comedy”, Variety called it “A rather slow moving sentimental yarn” and Picturegoer condemned its “wispy plot, set in a studio-built Soho street” though hopeful in its introduction to a “peaceful mixture of people, far removed from the gangsters and floozies that usually people the screen Soho.”[i]
The Soho of the film was designed by Carmen Dillon who won an Academy Award for her work on Hamlet (Laurence Olivier, 1948) St. Anthony’s Lane is a self-contained, mammoth Pinewood Studios set. Alongside the “wispy” plot of the Italian Gozzi family’s planned emigration to Canada and the Irish philanderer Michael Morgan’s redemption – the meteoric rise of television may also be to blame for the film’s poor reception.
Splashed on the front-page of What’s On in London in 1957, the film was described as a sentimental little fairy story which abysmally failed in its representation of Soho:
The ‘miracle’ of the title of Pressburger’s sentimental little fairy story, Miracle in Soho, at the Odeon, Leicester Square, is LOVE. It hits philandering, unpleasantly-cocksure labourer John Gregson while he’s digging up the road and overnight magically makes a new man of him. Equally miraculously it hits Italian Belinda Lee, who gives up going to Canada with her family in order to woo him. Silly girl. Of course, this isn’t really Soho at all, but I don’t suppose that’s going to worry anyone except a few fussy Sohoians.[ii]
But the film’s cross-promotion with the Soho Fair and film impresario J. Arthur Rank’s Euro-centric approach during the mid 1950s (with Miracle, the Italian film market) provides the film with a further complexity in the context of British film history.
In July of 1955 the Mayor of Westminster officially re-launched Cosmopolitan Soho to the world. The fair was co-organised by the Soho Association and the proprietor of the York Minster pub Gaston Berlemont who conveyed to a reporter from The Spectator that he got the idea at the deconsecration service at St. Anne’s, Soho’s parish church until it was bombed. He recalls to the reporter: “Now there was no church […] there should be a fair in her honour.”
Soho’s multifarious reputation in the public sphere as a cosmopolitan space continued to publicly obstruct the new planning philosophy and technique which was transformed during the Second World War. Drawing on Soho’s reputation for cultural and ethnic diversity the fair’s organisers were able to “create an idiosyncratic mood of celebration that could be marketed to local and national audiences via the media and entertainment industries” (Mort, 2010, 198).
The week-long Soho Fair was recorded by Pathé News in the form of short newsreels such as Soho Goes Gay! (British Pathé, 1955) and was screened in British cinemas throughout the summer. “A good place which can do fine things” declared a promotional piece published in The Observer titled “A Fair Week’s Run for the Real Soho.” The same publication would later report: “The idea that Soho is a romantic little ‘Continental Quarter’ in the heart of innocent England – a myth – almost became reality yesterday afternoon.”
The New Statesman was horrified: “There used to be – I daresay there still is – an admirable honesty about Soho. It does not pretend to be something: it just was. But the bell is tolling. Soho is having a Fair […] Someone has had the idea of producing Soho to the world so that it is not only to be Soho, but also to pretend to be.”[iii] In the same hyperbolic vein, The Spectator magazine reported the fair to be filled with absurdities:
There are many absurdities at the Soho Fair…A garish Dutch organ plays in Golden Square, painted with Elizabethan musicians and Victorian odalisques: a band of West Indians pours out Latin-American rhythms…Bohemian young Frenchman…a dark, Celtic Lady plies a spinning-wheel in Shaftesbury Avenue. [iv]
In 1956 J. Arthur Rank “supped with the devil” in extending his efforts in promotion by advertising on new platforms which included purchasing advertising slots in commercial television and popular magazines. Rank produced a 20-min promotional film Full Screen Ahead (1957) to be screened in Rank’s cinemas. The film took the audience on a day out at Pinewood [Studios] with a visit to the set of Miracle in Soho. Fan magazine Picturegoer ran several profiles of the then twenty-one-year-old Belinda Lee in an attempt to reinvent Rank’s star:
Belinda Lee has set the Rank Organisation quite a problem. All because she wants to live down her past. At twenty-one, the nicest, least-spoiled star in Britain really has a past…Miss Lee is making Miracle in London. And the talk around Pinewood is that it gives her the sort of dramatic role that could change her whole career. Belinda Lee sees it that way, too.[v]
Penned by Derek Walker, his series of articles for Picturegoer “Belinda Lee Covers Up Her Past”, “Lee – a Star by Friendly Persuasion and “A Star By Friendly Persuasion – Part II. Why She’s Not a Blonde Bombshell” legitimizes Lee as a serious actor and in Part II accounts for Pressburger’s casting of Lee in the role of Julia Gozzi as merely happenstance.
Pressburger saw her photograph outside of his offices at Pinewood and there and then decided “that, is just what I want for Miracle in Soho.”[vi] Steve Chibnall recounts the Rank Organisation’s big idea of 1955 – 1957 which involved forgoing the American film market for Europe where “British-based actors such as Herbert Lom and Belinda Lee would play sympathetic Italian characters.”
When Rank had a star such as Belinda Lee, who they believed would appeal to the Italian market, they used the most talented of Studio Favalli’s illustrators to promote her films. Arnaldo Putzu painted his first British posters for her breakthrough role in the social realist crime film The Secret Place (1957), Cesselon depicted her as an Anglo-Italian girl in Miracle in Soho (1957).[vii] (Steve Chibnall, 2016)
In the year of Miracle in Soho’s release Belinda Lee endorsed cosmetics such as Vitapointe of Paris in The Daily Express. Marketing for the product even managed to incorporate Pressburger’s film for the tagline reads: “I want to tell the world! I’ve found a hair dressing cream that works miracles!”[viii]
Despite the film’s resolution, the redemption of the self-serving, philanderer Michael Morgan through the love-of-a-good-woman manifested through Julia’s prayer, the doubts vehemently expressed by Julia Gozzi’s siblings Mafalda (Rosalie Crutchley) and Fillipo (Ian Bannen) on emigrating to Canada are never fully developed and their initial reservations on leaving Soho and their desires to cultivate new businesses in Soho there are abruptly dropped by the film. The failed redevelopment of the Soho lane is also abandoned in favour of the title love story.
Miracle in Soho may not have achieved Pressburger’s intentions, and one wonders what the final film contained within his earlier scripts set in a Berlin synagogue would have been like, but the film is a welcomed addition to a metropolis massively riven by discord and furthermore contributes to a post-war Soho film canon (and one I have found to be larger than most expect!) that contains an exhaustive array of crime narratives following Spivs and prostitutes.
[i] Films of that year included the Oscar-winning David Lean’s The Bridge on The River Kwai. Clem. “Review: Miracle in Soho.” Variety. Jul 24 (1957): 26. “MIRACLE IN SOHO.” Monthly Film Bulletin 24, no. 276 (1957): 104. “Miracle in Soho”, Picturegoer. London 34.1161 (Aug 3, 1957), 14.
[ii] “Miracle in Soho”. What’s On in London. July 12th, 1957. Courtesy of Steve Crook. The Powell & Pressburger Pages Online.
[iii] Interview with the Soho locals and the Fair’s origins see “A Fair Week’s Run for the Real Soho.” The Observer (1901- 2003); Jul 10 (1955), 10. Edward Hyams laments the old Soho where you could “if you had the odd taste for it, see actors, artists and writers eating.” See his piece “Pretending to be Soho”, The New Statesman and Nation 50, Jul 16 (1955), 65 – 66.
[iv] Part of The Spectator’s Notebook, this amusing short piece gives a first-hand look at the origins of the Soho Fair. See “THERE ARE MANY Absurdities at the Soho Fair.” The Spectator 195, no. 6629 (Jul 15, 1955): 86.
[v] Derek Walker’s profile is accompanied by several images of Lee as “pin-up” in “Belinda Lee Covers Up Her Past.” Picturegoer. March 16, 1967, 5.
[vii] Ironically says Chibnall, Rank’s big ideas would be made possible in the 1960s by American investment based on the success of British films in the USA. See Steve Chibnall, “Banging the Gong: The Promotional Strategies of Britain’s J. Arthur Rank Organisation in the 1950s.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television (2016), 12.
[viii] The black-and-white advertisement uses a large photograph of Lee to promote Vitapointe of Paris with a tagline below that reads “Just 1 minute brushing – and my hair is shining! By Belinda Lee.”, The Daily Express. September 26, 1957, 13.
Jingan Young is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter. She holds a BA (Hons) in English with Film Studies from King’s College London and a Master of Studies in Creative Writing from the University of Oxford. She is currently reading for a PhD in Film Studies at King’s College London where her thesis examines the cinematic representations of London’s Soho in post-war British cinema. She welcomes anyone who may wish to add to her ever-extending list of Soho films. She also blogs and tweets about her research @sohoonscreen and sohoonscreen.wordpress.com
Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.
Cinema has always been irresistibly attracted to monarchy. Films have simultaneously mythologized and humanized their royal subjects – mythologized by casting famous screen stars as famous monarchs and humanized by showing them experiencing the same emotions as their subjects. In his book Biopics (1992), George Custen points out that a recurrent theme in female biopics is ‘the conflict between the fulfilment of heterosexual desire through romance and marriage and professional duty’. This is nowhere more apparent than in Elizabeth I biopics in most of which love affairs have played a major role, duty has been eventually affirmed and she has been celebrated as The Virgin Queen. As Custen argues ‘Gender is one of the most powerful frames informing the construction of fame’. Gender, in Victoria’s case, meant something very different from Elizabeth. Victoria’s authority derived not from avoiding marriage and romance but from the fact that during her reign she moved successively through the various phases of approved nineteenth century models of womenhood-youthful virgin queen, devoted young wife and mother, grieving widow and grandmother of the nation. Her longevity coinciding with the zenith of the British Empire made her by the end of her reign a living imperial icon. Personally Victoria was strong-willed, stubborn and passionate. But her recognition of her own nature led her to defer to masculine guidance. Throughout her reign she depended on the support and advice of a succession of men: Lord Melbourne, King Leopold of the Belgians, her beloved husband, Albert, the Prince Consort, the highland ghillie John Brown and Benjamin Disraeli. She also opposed the idea of votes for women. Her marriage to Albert and the birth of their nine children firmly fixed her in the role of wife and mother and the royal family, with their musical evenings, seaside and highland holidays and annual Christmas festivities, became the epitome of the bourgeois family.
The last years of Victoria’s reign coincided with the development of film as the new medium of communication and Victoria became the obvious candidate for a biopic. The first was the now lost film Sixty Years a Queen (1913) which interspersed the great events of the reign with sentimental domestic scenes. But there were no more biopics until 1937. For at the request of King George V the British Board of Film Censors banned any film featuring Queen Victoria while any of her children were still alive. The ban was lifted on 20 June 1937, the centenary of Victoria’s accession. Producer Herbert Wilcox was given permission by King Edward VIII to make a biopic. Victoria the Great (1937) which teamed Anna Neagle as Victoria and Anton Walbrook as Albert concentrated on the first half of the reign, emphasizing his training of her to become a dutiful Queen.
But it was more than just a respectable version of ‘the private life’ film, pioneered by The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). After the Empire had been rocked by the abdication of King Edward VIII over his love for a twice divorced American Wallis Simpson, Victoria the Great demonstrated the essential soundness of the monarchy by depicting a perfect royal marriage and a dedicated partnership in the service of the nation. It was such a critical and box office success that Wilcox promptly remade it in Technicolor as Sixty Glorious Years (1938). Released at the time of Munich, it stressed the need for peace with preparedness and emphasized the strength of the British Empire.
There have been two films specifically concerned with Victoria’s long seclusion and her eventual emergence from it, the years when she was popularly known as ‘The Widow of Windsor’. In the fictional but enchanting The Mudlark (1950) the devotion to Victoria (Irene Dunne) of a homeless waif Wheeler (Andrew Ray) persuades her to reappear in public. In the moving Mrs Brown (1997) the true story is told of the friendship that developed between Victoria (Judi Dench) and John Brown (Billy Connolly), who provides the masculine presence in her life lacking since the death of Albert.
While virtually all cinematic portrayals of Victoria have been sympathetic, there has been one notable exception, the thirteen part ATV series Edward the Seventh (1975). It covered his entire sixty nine years of life from birth to death. Ten of the thirteen episodes feature Annette Crosbie giving the most unsympathetic portrayal of Victoria ever seen. Virtually unbalanced, she is prone to hysterical rage, is bitterly jealous of the popularity of Edward (Timothy West) and his wife Alexandra, wallows in her grief after the death of Albert at the expense of her duties and implacably opposed all attempts to get her to devolve some of her public functions on Edward. Edward by contrast emerges as humane, kindly, decent, enjoying life to the full while seeking ways to serve and tirelessly endeavouring to maintain the peace of Europe. The shift of sympathies reflects the cultural upheavals of the 1960s when the old nineteenth century values, certainties and social controls were overturned.
The more recent Victoria biopics have returned to the themes of Anna Neagle films: the early years of the marriage and Albert’s training of Victoria to fulfil the duties of a constitutional monarch. The BBC miniseries Victoria and Albert (2001) with Victoria Hamilton and Jonathan Firth, the feature film The Young Victoria (2008) with Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend and the ITV series Victoria (2016) with Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes all cover more or less the same events.
But Victoria uniquely interweaves the life of the royals upstairs and the lives of the servants, with their amours, rivalries and secrets, downstairs. In this it recalls Downton Abbey which may explain why 4.5 million people tuned in to watch and a second series was commissioned.
Jeffrey Richards is Emeritus Professor of Cultural History, Lancaster University, where he has taught since the early 1970s. He has published widely on the history of cinema and popular culture. His books include – but are not limited to – Visions of Yesterday (1973), Swordsmen of the Screen: From Douglas Fairbanks to Michael York (1977), The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in Britain, 1930-1939 (1984), Films and British National Identity: From Dickens to Dad’s Army (1997), Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds (2008) and China and the Chinese in Popular Film: From Fu Manchu to Charlie Chan (2017). Jeffrey is also General Editor of I.B.Tauris’ Cinema and Society series, and Manchester University Press’ Studies in Popular Culture series.
In Australia the majority of our public understanding of history comes not from reading the work of historians but from watching film and television productions based on history. Performance has also become a key interpretative strategy for museum and heritage sites, and digital programs and web-series are playing a growing role in school curriculums.
My PhD explores the process of adapting history through performance – how it could or should be done, and what the opportunities or challenges might be in adapting the work of historians through different performance mediums. My research is practice-based and I’m building upon my background as a theatre-maker and heritage interpreter to develop a series of performance texts that are adaptations of the Founders and Survivors Project, a quantitative history research project analysing the experiences and legacy of Tasmania’s convicts.
In 1803 the British invasion of Australia spread southwards to a lush heart-shaped island named Van Diemen’s Land by Europeans, known today as Tasmania. The island soon teemed with red-coated soldiers, record-obsessed colonial bureaucrats, and ambitious free settlers who over the next fifty years would whittle it into a ‘little England.’ This feat was only made possible thanks to a devastating process of land dispossession from local Aboriginal groups and the forced labour of around 73,000 men, women and children convicted of crimes in British courts and transported from the far reaches of the Empire as convicts.
For the purposes of the colonial administration these convicts were comprehensively documented:
As unfree migrants, the convicts sent to Britain’s Australian penal colonies were described in extraordinary detail that proliferated over time. We know the colour of their eyes and hair, their place of birth, age, religion and literacy as well as the names of their parents and brothers and sisters. We also know much about their former criminal and work histories and the disorders for which they were treated on the long voyage to Australia. So minutely were their bodies examined that we have a record of their scars, inoculation marks and tattoos.
– Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, Founders and Survivors Project [i]
The Tasmanian convict archive contains some of the most detailed data about 19th century working classes in the world. As well as describing the convicts, the archive also traces each convict whilst under sentence, keeping track of any work done, punishments borne, marriages sought or babies born.
When convict transportation to Van Diemen’s Land ended in 1853 locals began unburdening themselves of the past and scrubbing clean the ‘convict stain’ that many felt had tainted the island. The convict archive was literally locked away, with some records actively destroyed, and society developed an unofficial ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy about the convict past. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Tasmanian convict archive was made available to the public, and it was only near the end of the 20th Century that it became a point of pride, not public shame, to have found a convict in your family tree. In 2007 the Tasmanian Convict archive was inscribed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.
The Founders and Survivors Project is an ongoing collaborative research project between a number of institutions involving historians, genealogists, demographers and population health researchers who are interrogating this UNESCO listed convict archive. Convict records are gradually being transcribed and uploaded by researchers into a massive database, and quantitative analysis techniques are unearthing some ground breaking ‘big picture’ stories about the convict experience. Instead of seeing the archive as a record of convicts’ individual failings and experiences, which has long shaped our understanding of convict history, we can ‘read against the grain’ en masse and see the attitudes and systems of the colonial administration and how convicts’ lives were influenced by political, social or economic factors.
The project’s findings cover diverse territory – from myth-busting entrenched attitudes towards Irish convicts to analyzing height data to gauge whether the children of convicts were at a health disadvantage. Big data is changing the way we do history, and significantly shifting our understanding of the Tasmanian convict experience.
Port Arthur Historic Site, Tasmania
When adapting this research for performance a key challenge has been negotiating the warring needs of accuracy, artistry and accessibility in developing a performance text for a particular audience. For each performance text I have decided how much fidelity to the original historical research I need (or want) to maintain and what role the slippery and subjective term ‘authenticity’ should play in my choices. Quantitative history enjoys a relatively small audience thanks to the complexity of the methods used by researchers, and one of the aims of my research has been to interpret the data analysis process in ways that allow it to be accessible and engaging for wider public audiences without losing accuracy or misrepresenting the findings. I’ve been exploring techniques around simplification, prioritisation, and providing extra informative scaffolding, and have been experimenting with ways of visually representing the data, inserting the data into narratives and finding ways to perform ‘a likelihood’ rather than an outcome.
The early exploration of performing a Gaussian curve
Because the Founders and Survivors Project is so dependent on digital technology, and the database provides such a highly mediated window through which to view the Tasmanian convict experience, I have used similar digital-based mediums in my performance texts. I am developing a vlog-style series that uses visual representations of data and builds upon contemporary forms of educational storytelling to communicate some of the key findings of the Founders and Survivors Project. I’m also exploring online digital engagement with the Founders and Survivors research and how digital data visualisation might also be integrated into live theatrical performance.
My findings might be used to inform museum and heritage performance practice or performance adaptation projects for stage, film or television, but might also influence the communication practices of quantitative historians, and I’m looking forward to publicly releasing my performance texts and gauging how they bring this exciting new research into Tasmanian convict history to new audiences.
[i] Maxwell-Stewart, Hamish ‘And All My Great Hardships Endured’?: Irish Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land’ in Transnational Perspectives on Modern Irish History, Routledge, Niall Whelehan (ed), United Kingdom (2015)
Lydia Nicholson is a theatre-maker and heritage interpreter and is currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Tasmania. She studied at Flinders University and the University of Sydney, has worked with a range of theatre companies in South Australia and New South Wales and developed public programs with the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, the Australian Museum, National Trust Tasmania and the British Museum.