Mick Martin’s play Broken Time is the first dramatic treatment of the historic events that led to the 1895 rugby split.
It’s the latest in a small but highly important series of dramas that have rugby league at their heart, most notably David Storey’s The Changing Room, Alan Plater’s Trinity Tales and John Godber’s Up and Under. The most famous of course is the 1963 film adaptation of This Sporting Life.
But long before any of these landmarks in film and theatre, rugby league hit the silver screen with Where’s George?, a 1935 comedy starring the comedian Sydney Howard.
Unlike those that came after it, this production did not aspire to be a work of art. It was a typical 1930s British comedy, firmly in the tradition of George Formby, Will Hay and Gracie Fields. And, as always in British comedy, class was central to the plot.
Where’s George? was the latest in a series of British films that sought to appeal to the northern industrial working classes. The introduction of talkies in the late 1920s had highlighted a particular problem for the British film industry.
All of its stars spoke with upper-class English accents (‘received pronunciation’) and there were almost no stars with whom the millions of people in northern cities could identify.
Comedy and sport were felt to be the best ways to appeal to this huge market. Numerous northern comedians found themselves making films that were basically vehicles for their stage personas. Films with sporting themes were particularly popular with film producers.
The first of these genre films seems to have been the 1931 Up For The Cup, in which a soccer supporter from Yorkshire comes to London for the FA Cup Final but loses his ticket. The plot, insofar as there is one, revolves around his inevitably comic antics as he tries to find it. This was followed, perhaps inevitably, by Up For The Derby.
The most popular of the sports comedies in the 1930s were those featuring George Formby. Born in Wigan, Formby was easily the most bankable British star of the 1930s. In 1935 he was a rider at the Isle of Man TT races in No Limit. Two years later he was a boxer in Keep Fit and in 1939’s Come on George he was a jockey.
So it was perhaps not surprising in 1935 when the British & Dominions Film Corporation decided that they wanted to make a comedy centred on rugby league.
Losing the plot
Where’s George? was modeled on 1931’s Up for the Cup. It was directed by the same person, Jack Raymond, and featured the same star, Yeadon-born Sydney Howard as Alf Scodger.
Howard had started as a music hall comedian in the early 1900s and came to fame during World War One, but by the 1930s had become a regular in low budget comedies, including Up For The Derby.
Most interestingly, the script was written by Walter Greenwood, the Salford novelist who had achieved overnight success with his 1932 novel (and later film) Love on the Dole. Where’s George? had none of the social commentary of Greenwood’s other work.
In fact, it is difficult to find anything of Greenwood in the script. The plot revolves around Scodger’s attempts to outwit his overbearing wife. As a consequence, he accidentally discovers a talent for rugby and turns out for his local Yorcaster club against Lancastrian rivals Oldcastle.
The George of the title is a foal that Alf buys and then loses. However, while playing in the match, Alf spots George in a neighbouring field and as he runs towards the foal, catches the ball and scores the match-winning try.
The benevolent local dignitary - obligatory in almost all comedies featuring working-class characters - attends the match and sees Alf triumph, which leads to Alf and his wife being reconciled.
The Clark connection
Despite clearly having little knowledge of the game, the film’s producers did make links with rugby league. Both Walter Greenwood and Sydney Howard were fans of the game.
In early 1935, the producers had asked the RFL if two sides could go down to London to film action sequences. The RFL, mindful of the deep economic depression that gripped the north, especially the mining regions, asked if parts of the film could be shot in the north.
So in the summer of 1935 the film crew went to Featherstone to record crowd scenes. Two hundred unemployed miners were hired as extras for crowd scenes at the rate of ten shillings a day, which was probably more than most of them received in unemployment assistance. Rovers and Huddersfield players were used for the action scenes.
There was one more connection too. Carver Doone, a six feet, eight inches tall Devonshire wrestler, played the unfeasibly large full-back around whom Alf has to dodge to score the winning try (oversized rugby league players were a cartoon staple of the day). But Doone himself was a highly successful wrestler who fought Douglas Clark, the English All-In Wrestling champion, no less than six times.
Duggie Clark was of course better know as the Huddersfield and Great Britain prop forward, hero of the 1914 Rorkes’ Drift test match and a future member of the Rugby League Hall of Fame.
Wrong time, wrong George...
There is an unconsciously surreal quality to the plot, which appears to have crammed as many cliches into the film as possible. It is a veritable compendium of cliche - harridan wife, cutesy animals, unassuming northern male, upper-class patron, dim-witted northerners, all of which appear bang on cue.
The film’s publicity material reveled in its stereotypes. Howard, it claimed, was a ‘lovable, homely Yorkshireman with a large appetite for roast beef and Yorkshire pudding’.
It’s difficult to know what audiences made of it. George Formby’s films were wildly popular and made millions, but Where’s George? seems to have been a flop at the box office.
It did suffer from one unforeseen problem, however. It went on general release in late 1935 but just a few weeks later, in January 1936, the reigning monarch, George V, died.
Posters asking ‘Where’s George?’ were not felt to be appropriate in the circumstances and the title of the film was quickly changed to The Hope of His Side.
Thus renamed, the film sank without trace.
[This post originally appeared in Forty-20 magazine in 2012]