When all the men go off to war, copywriter Catrin Cole is suddenly pulled into the world of propaganda film. She soon discovers that the drama on set is enough to rival anything going on outside the studio...
From a distance, the Ministry of Information looked almost elemental, a chalk cliff rearing above the choppy roofs of Fitzrovia. From the main entrance, where Catrin stopped to tweak one stocking so that the darn was concealed by her coat, it looked more like a vast mausoleum.
'Authority?' said the policeman at the door, and Catrin handed over her letter (H/HI/F Division, Room 717d, Swain) and was nodded through.
Room 717d had clearly been part of a corridor before three sections of plywood had transformed it into a space only just large enough to hold a desk and two chairs. Catrin had been waiting there alone for nearly ten minutes when a young man whose name she didn't quite catch poked his head round the door, checked that she was unoccupied, and proceeded to sit down, open a file and - without explanation or preamble - read her a series of jokes. Each time he finished a punchline he looked at her sharply, hoping, presumably, for laughter, but since his delivery possessed all the comic flair of a platform announcer it was hard to oblige, and Catrin could feel her mouth stiffening into a dreadful fake grin.
'Just one more,' he said, after the fourth. 'An ARP warden goes into a butchers and looks at what he's got on the slab. He's got a liver, he's got kidneys, he's got sheep's hearts and he's got a lovely great tongue. "I'm going to get you summonsed," says the warden. "Why?" says the butcher. "I haven't done nothing wrong" "Oh you, yes has-" ' The young man frowned, and there was a pause while he re-read the line, lips moving soundlessly. 'I'm so sorry,' he said, 'these are, of course, transcribed from actual conversations, hence the ungrammatical element which does tend to make them rather difficult to read. So anyway, the butcher says "I haven't done nothing wrong", and then the warden says, "Oh yes, you has, you haven't put your lights out." '
He say back and gazed at Catrin expectantly. There was a long moment. 'Did you understand the pun?' he asked, frowning.
'Yes, I did.'
'You understood that "lights" is a synonym for some form of offal? Lungs, I believe.'
'And therefore the warden's final comment is a play on the ARP's habitual call to "put your lights out".'
'But you didn't find the joke amusing?'
'Not really, no. Perhaps . . . in context.'
'In a more jovial forum, such as a public house, you mean?'
He made a note. 'And would you say that your opinion of the authority and/or ability of air-raid precaution wardens would be adversely affected by hearing this particular piece of humour?'
'I don't think so, no, but then my husband's a part-time warden.'
'I see.' He made another note. 'And if this particular piece of humour was broadcast on the wireless, do you think that would affect your opinion on the authority and/or the ability of the BBC to-'
The door from the corridor opened suddenly, admitting two men. 'Off you go, Flaxton,' said the younger and better-looking of the two, 'no one wants to hear your jokes.'
Flaxton slammed the file shut and stood up. 'We all have work to do, Roger,' he said, with something akin to a flounce. 'Morale happens to be mine, whereas undermining morale appears to be yours.'
'No, telling rotten jokes badly is yours, and trying actually to get something done is mine. Heard the one about the junior under-assistant in Home Intelligence who got transferred to Reception and Facilities?'
'No,' said Flaxton, endeavouring to reach the door.
'You will.' The door closed, and the speaker turned back to Catrin, smiled charmingly and offered a hand. 'Roger Swain, assistant deputy sub-controller film division. I'm so sorry we were late and that you were subjected to Flaxton. His department's conducting a humour survey to examine public attitudes toward the civil defence services and he's run out of internal victims. Did you laugh?'
'Not much, I'm afraid.'
'That's correct. It's Miss Cole, is it? Or Mrs?'
'Your husband's in the forces? Or is he another one of us pen pushers?'
'He's an artist.' She said the word with pride.
'An artist?' Roger raised an eyebrow. 'Would I have heard of him?'
'Rings a bell. Pit wheels, belching chimneys, that type of thing?'
'And is he keeping busy?'
'He's working on a short contract from the War Artists Committee - four paintings for the Ministry of Supply.'
It didn't sound much, she knew, but Roger nodded politely. 'Splendid. Well, we'd better get started, I suppose. This-'
'Buckley,' said the older man, laconically, seating himself on one corner of the desk and folding his arms across the shelf of his paunch; he had a slab of fair hair, a narrow ginger moustache and teeth that looked rather sharp. He was smiling, but the effect was more predatory than welcoming. 'I've been told I'm a special advisor,' he said, 'though not, it transpires, special enough to actually get paid. Welsh, are you?'
'Can't be helped. And you're much younger than I thought you'd be. What are you, twenty-one, twenty-two?' His tone was accusatory; she felt herself beginning to redden.
'Nearly twenty,' she said.
'Saints preserve us. Here.' He slid a thin sheak of paper across the desk top. 'Read it. Tell me what you think.'
She looked at him uncertainly. 'Read it,' he said, with deliberation, and she hurriedly bent her head. It was a short script, carelessly typed on paper so thin that she could see the shadow of her fingers through every sheet.
BITING THE BULLET
1. EXTERIOR. BROWN'S ARMARMENTS FACTORY, EVENNG
Noise of machines etc.
2. INTERIOR FACTORY
Rows of production lines, women working away producing bullet casings. Close up of 2 young women in partic. Shouting at each other over the noise of the machines.
Are you going out somewhere special tonight, Joan?
Yes I am, I'm meeting Charlie at the Palais, he's got a weekend pass and I can't wait for a dance. What about you?
No, I'm simply too tired, I've been working seven days straight. I'm staying in and going to bed early.
I don't blame you, I could sleep for a whole wek. Roll on the end of the shift.
There's only another five minutes to go.
Just five minutes to go, girls!
The other women cheer and then carry on working.
3. INTERIOR GLASS-WALLED OFFICE TO ONE SIDE OF THE FACTORY FLOOR
A manageress is doing paperwork. The clock behind her shows one minute to eight. The phone rings.
Day mangeress speaking. Oh, hello Mr Carr. Yes, yes, we had no problems making that order. Yes, that's right.
The clock hand moves to eight o'clock, and a bell rings.
4. INTERIOR FACTORY
The women on the production line start to shut down their machie.s and leave the floor, hurrying past the office.
5. INTERIOR OFFICE
I'm sorry, Mr Carr, what was that you said? An emergency order? You need a hundred gross of bullets? By tomorrow morning?
Josh and Ruby, passing the open office door, overhear this and grimace at each other.
They wait to hear what the manageress says.
I'm afraid that's simply imposssible. My girls have worked hard all day, they're dead-beat.
A whole group of girls are listening at the door now.
No, I can't ask them to stay on, even if it is for the sake of our soldiers.
Ruby bites her lip.
No, I'm sorry, Mr Carr, I know our troops are in desperate need, but you're asking me to push my workers beyond what is physically possible, and I can't-
Ruby makes a decision.
Come on girls! The job's got to be done and we're the ones who can do it!
6. INTRIOR FACTORY
With a loud cheer, the women rush back to their machines and switch them on again.
7. INTRIOR OFFICE
(smiling) Mr Carr, you're not going to believe this, but something quite wonderul has hppened . . .
8. INTERIOR FACTORY
Production lin going full pelt.
'What do you think?' asked Buckley.
Catrin looked up at him, trying to gauge the level of his question. 'You mean, what do I think of the patriotic message?' she asked tentatively, aiming high. There was no reply; she lowered her sights. 'The way it's set out, do you mean? I'm not familiar with this sort of thing, but I can see that it's inconsistent, I'm sure I . . . or do you mean the typing? There are lots of errors, I could go through it with a-'
'I'm talking about the script,' he said. His voice had a trace of northern accent, imperfectly concealed. 'Is it a good script? Would it make a good film?'
She shrugged, helplessly. 'I don't know anything about films. Are you sure-'
'Read it again,' he said. 'Pretend to yourself these are real girls having a real conversation and tell me exactly what you think of what Joan says to Ruby and of what Ruby says to Joan.'
Self-consciously, Catrin complied.
'I don't think they sou-' she began to say, and then stopped, mid-syllable, hit by an awful thought.
'I didn't write it,' said Buckley, reading her expression. 'Say what you like.'
'I don't think they sound as if they're in a factory. It says that they're shouting over the machines but it reads as though they're somewhere quiet, talking over a cup of tea.'
'How would they talk in a factory, then?'
'In an abbreviated way, I'd imagine, to save their voices. Half-sentences. "You going out tonight?" That sort of thing.'
'All right. Anything else?'
She looked at the script again. 'The phone call.'
'What about it?'
'In real life nobody actually repeats what the person at the other end has just said - the emergency order, the hundred gross of bullets and so on. It sounds false.'
Roger leaned forward. 'And the patriotic message, as you phrased it? If you were making bullets do you think it would inspire you to put in an extra shift?'
'I think . . .' Was there a correct answer? She attempted a tactful one: 'I think I might find it too unrealistic.'
'Too unrealistic to take seriously?'
Roger nodded, and took a letter from his pocket. 'You're in company,' he said, drily, unfolding it. 'Let me read you something. Our current head of the film division receives regular reports from the field, so to speak, and this is from the manager of the Woolwich Granada. He writes: 'The MOI short Biting the Bullet was received by our audience, consisting of a very large portion of workers from the Arsenal (nearly all female), with satirical laughter and a chorus of "Oo's" and "Oh Yeah's".' He re-pocketed the letter and folded his arms. 'Our current head of the films division has said that he requires more emphasis on a convincing and realistic female angle in our short films. Buckley, who's written a script or two-'
'Thirty-three features, fourteen shorts and a serial,' said Buckley.
'. . . has seen your work-'
'Gravy ads,' said Buckley.
'. . . and seems to think you have something of an ear for women's dialogue.'
'Might,' said Buckley, picking at one of his nails. 'Might have something of an ear. Might eventually learn, given time and a great deal of knowledgeable and patient coaching, how to turn out a line or two.'
'And, obviously,' continued Roger, 'as we would never ignore such an overwhelmingly enthusiastic recommendation from an expert of his calibre, we thought we might as well get you on board. We're working on a series of domestic shorts for Home Security, co-producing with an outside company. You can join the scenario boys on the fifth floor on Monday and see how you get on. Any questions? Mrs Cole?'
'No.' It was all she could manage to say. During her five-minute walk between the entrance and Room 717d, past walls of files and crates of folders, past meetings so short of chairs that participants were seated on upturned waste-paper bins, past typists whose hands were a pallid blur, she thought she had seen her immediate future: a shared plywood hutch and an infinity of shorthand. The new reality was too strange to assimilate.
Roger got to his feet. 'You'll need to see personnel before you go, we can point you in the right direction. I heard a new name for us yesterday,' he added, to Buckley, as they filed out of the office.
'The Ministry of Malformation. Used seriously, by a woman on the bus.'
'My current favourite's the Mystery of Information. So apposite.'
'I heard Reith's gone.'
'Yes, last week, we're between ministers at the moment - this is public information, incidentally, Mrs Cole, so no need to worry about careless talk. I'm afraid it's like a fairground duck-shoot in here, we've had two ministers since September, and three heads of the films division in five months. The last but one came from the National Gallery - they thought they'd give us someone who knew all about pictures.' He sniggered at his own joke and then halted beside a bank of lifts. 'Take this to the sixth floor,' he said to Catrin, 'then ask again. And we'll see you next week.' He shook hands, and paused to wait for Buckley who was peering into another of the three-wall wooden shacks.
'Hell,' said Buckley. 'It's like an ant's nest.'
'No,' said Roger. 'Ants cooperate. Goodbye, Mrs Cole.'
More about the author
Now a major film starring Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin and Bill Nighy.
It's 1940. In a small advertising agency in Soho, Catrin Cole writes snappy lines for Vida Elastic and So-Bee-Fee gravy browning. But the nation is in peril, all skills are transferable and there's a place in the war effort for those who have a knack with words.
Catrin is conscripted into the world of propaganda films. After a short spell promoting the joy of swedes for the Ministry of Food, she finds herself writing dialogue for 'Just an Ordinary Wednesday', a heart-warming but largely fabricated 'true story' about rescue and romance on the beaches of Dunkirk. And as bombs start to fall on London, she discovers that there's just as much drama, comedy and passion behind the scenes as there is in front of the camera . . .
Originally published as Their Finest Hour and a Half