An awkward age: representing childhood in 1950s Britain

The Second World War was a period of massive disruption for family life in Britain. Almost half a million military personnel and civilians were killed, tearing apart families and communities. On the home front, basic foodstuffs and clothing were in short supply. Many urban areas were devastated by aerial bombardment, and over half of school-age children were evacuated to the countryside. Women stepped outside of their traditional domestic roles, moving away to join the armed forces or take on hard manual jobs in industry and agriculture.

After the turbulence of the war, the 1950s is often seen as a period of relative stability for British families. The emergence of the welfare state provided greater equality and security in health care and education, and guaranteed a basic standard of living. Women were encouraged back into the home, as child-care experts reasserted the value of the traditional nuclear family. As the decade progressed, hints of the counter-cultural movements that followed it began to emerge. But for children and families, this was a conservative period, a time of growing affluence, safety and security.

At least, this is the widely accepted story. In this series of posts, I want to question this account by exploring a diverse set of novels and films that offer more troubling accounts. Released during a five year period in the mid-1950s, they were all very popular in their time, and have mostly remained so. None of them was primarily produced for a child audience: rather, they contain representations of childhood created by and for adults. Yet they all use the figure of the child – and the idea of childhood – as a vehicle for much broader concerns. In different ways, they raise fundamental questions about the future of human society and civilization, yet they do so by focusing on the relationships between adults and children. Taken together, they may not accurately represent British childhood in the 1950s, but they do reflect some of the anxieties and fears that surrounded it.



The film Mandy, directed by Alexander MacKendrick at Ealing Studios and released in 1952, is the most optimistic of the texts I will be looking at here. In its conclusion, it offers a moving vision of hope for the future, although it is one that emerges only through a process of struggle and dislocation within the family.

The film begins with a young couple, Harry and Christine Garland, gradually discovering that their two-year-old daughter Mandy is deaf and dumb. While Harry wants to keep Mandy with them at his parents’ home in London and employ a private governess, Christine is determined that she will be educated at a special school in Manchester. After several arguments, she eventually moves to Manchester, where Mandy (now aged five) is enrolled in the school, which is led by a committed headteacher, Dick Searle. Mandy is initially unhappy, but gradually learns to speak her first words. However, Harry is opposed to this arrangement, and Searle has an enemy on the school’s governing body who is keen to discredit him: they gather information about a possible affair between Christine and Searle, and Harry travels to Manchester to confront them. Harry takes Mandy back to his parents’ house, but he is eventually convinced of the success of Searle’s approach when Mandy says her own name for the first time.

In some ways, Mandy is a strange hybrid, combining social realism with melodrama. The scenes in which the parents discover Mandy’s disability, and then the sequences shot in the school, have the air of a public information film, which is heightened by the use of voice-over (spoken by the mother). The classroom scenes were shot in the real-life Manchester School for the Deaf, using untrained child actors; and the sequences demonstrating lip-reading and other teaching methods are so naturalistic, they might have come from a National Health Service documentary. In one key scene, Christine meets the semi-retired founder of the school, Miss Ellis, and discovers that she too is deaf, which convinces her that the school can help Mandy to live a normal life. In all these respects, the film has a strongly educational function.

Yet in other respects, it is also a powerful emotional drama. Mandy becomes the focus of intrigue, jealousy and suspicion among the adult characters. We ‘know’ that the special school is best for Mandy, but it is the outcomes of these misguided adult struggles – rather than her own needs – that will ultimately determine whether she can continue to attend. The narrative hinges on moments where misunderstandings between characters emerge, and are then resolved at the last minute. Especially in the scenes within the family home, the cinematography is highly expressionistic, with large close-ups, low-key lighting and some distorted camera angles. Faces are crossed with light and shadow, and there are frequent shots of the backs of heads, to connote that people cannot (or will not) listen. Along with some powerful but sparing use of music, these visual and narrative elements are reminiscent of Hollywood melodramas of the period. The critic Annette Kuhn has written eloquently of her own intense emotional response to the film, both as a child viewer and as an adult, and I share her feelings. This is a film that (for me at least) requires quite a few tissues, even on repeated viewing.

On one level, Mandy could be read as a film about the modern welfare state. It teaches us about the need for up-to-date, humanitarian teaching methods that will more effectively meet the needs of the disabled. In one key scene, we see Mandy being taught to press her lips against a balloon, as she gradually comes to understand what sound is. It is this that apparently convinces a somewhat disillusioned trainee teacher to remain at the school. The headteacher, Searle, is single-mindedly committed to his mission, to the extent that he is seen to have something of a chip on his shoulder, and his own marriage appears to have failed. He struggles to keep the school running against the objections of some of his governors, one of whom seems determined to bring him down.

However, as the critic Charles Barr observes, the film is not just about the education of the deaf: ‘Mandy stands for all children, for the potential locked up inside the new (English) generation, all of whom have, after all, to learn to communicate and relate to others.’ As he points out, Mandy’s struggle to communicate is paralleled by that of the adult characters, especially Harry and his parents. The film, Barr argues, ‘takes up issues of communication and education (in the widest sense) that are crucial to the operation of the whole society’.

Thus, while Mandy is obviously a film about the child’s entry into language, it is also about the child’s entry into the social world – a process that every child has to undergo. Mandy does not only learn to speak, but to name herself and the world, and to communicate. In the process, she overcomes her isolation and becomes a social being.

Perhaps the most memorable images in the film are of the back garden of Harry’s parents’ house. The garden has crazy paving, as though it is dried up, an arid space; and it is bounded by a wall and parts of a wire fence, behind which Mandy is effectively imprisoned. Beyond the wall, we see children playing on what appears to be a bomb-site, a reminder of the continuing legacy of the War.

Early in the film, Mandy follows the family dog out of the garden and into the road, where she is almost run down by a passing lorry. Later, we see children taunting her because she doesn’t want (or isn’t allowed) to come outside. But in the final scene, she goes through the garden gate again, and returns their ball to the children. She is invited to play, and is able to say her own name. In the closing shot, filmed from a high angle that clearly shows the barriers between the garden and the wider world, we see her parents leave Mandy to run off on her own with her new friends. Mandy is released, but so too are her parents, now standing outside the confinement of the house and the garden.

These final shots might be interpreted as looking forwards with hope to the years of post-war reconstruction. They offer a sense of renewal and future possibility, in which the children playing can build a new order on the ruins of the old. Progress will involve a continuing struggle – not least within and against the family – but it will come. Yet for the contemporary observer, as the historian Mathew Thomson has argued, these post-war images of children at play in the city streets also remind us of a ‘lost freedom’, before anxieties about children’s safety began to dominate public debate.

At the same time, the ending also reflects the child’s liberation from the narrow confines of the family. After Mandy is diagnosed at the start of the film, Christine and Harry are in need of space: they are forced to abandon their light, modern flat, and move into Harry’s parents’ old Victorian house. The house is shot in an almost Gothic manner, and portrayed as a dark and stifling environment. In a sense, Harry’s family represents a constraint on Mandy’s growth: it is a repressive force, especially when contrasted with the open space of the school. When Harry takes Mandy back from Manchester to his parents’ house, it appears that Christine has lost her struggle to help her daughter learn to speak, and that Mandy will be imprisoned once more. However, the breaking point comes when Harry’s father, a silent and brooding presence for much of the film, finally looks up from his chess game to realize that Mandy is speaking; and it is this that prompts him to release her.

To some extent, Mandy’s liberation is also Christine’s. Christine risks her marriage and her reputation by moving north to Manchester so that Mandy can attend the school: she gets a job and lives in a rooming house, which the sounds of tinkling pianos clearly signify as lower class. Significantly, she avoids entering into an affair with Searle, although there is a hint that both of them might be tempted. As the critic Lisa Cartwright suggests, Christine becomes the guardian of a modern, post-war ethic of social care. This might be seen as a traditional maternal role, in line with some of the influential ideas about child-care and attachment that were being developed at the time by John Bowlby and others. Yet in doing so, Christine also has to take on an independent public role. It is she who diagnoses Mandy’s deafness, and who champions Searle’s modern teaching methods, against the wishes of her husband and his parents. It is also notable that it is she – at the start of the film and intermittently throughout – who narrates the film’s voice-over.

Ultimately, Mandy uses the figure of the child as a means to express broader hopes and fears about social progress; and it has this in common with the other texts I will be considering. As Annette Kuhn argues, ‘its connotations… reach outwards to embrace issues concerning what it is to be a child, not only at a particular moment in history, but in general’. Yet in its concluding optimism, it makes a striking contrast with the other films and books of the same period that I will go on to discuss.


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