Bitter Harvest is a film version of Patrick Hamilton’s 20,000 Streets Under The Sky, which is a collection of three novels set in London at the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s.
Its setting is The Midnight Bell pub in Fitzrovia in the West End of London, where the lives of three characters, Bob, Jenny and Ella, intertwine.
Bob the waiter falls hook line and sinker for Jenny, a prostitute who is constantly in need of money for her rent.
Ella, the barmaid, tries to hide her love for Bob, and cannot conceal her jealousy and disapproval of Jenny. She is susceptible to the attentions of her elderly suitor, the creepy and rather pathetic Mr Eccles.
No one finds happiness or fulfilment in Hamilton’s compelling account of the longings and frustrations of ordinary people.
Bitter Harvest is a 1963 British film directed by Peter Graham Scott and starring Janet Munro and John Stride. It updates the novel by giving it a 1960s’ setting, which sounds promising.
How will the issues of class, work and morality be reflected in the social context of the shiny decade? What changes have occurred in the thirty years which separate the original and the movie?
Sadly, the film by-passes these possibilities, and opts for a version of Hamilton’s work that makes arbitrary changes to the source, some of which detract from its purpose and power.
This is most apparent in the depiction of Jenny. At the beginning of of Patrick Hamilton’s book 20,000 Streets Under The Sky she is a working-class girl in service in Chiswick, one of the few options open to poor, uneducated women. In next to no time, she is working as a prostitute, driven down this path by quantities of drink and exploitative men.
Her situation highlights the ‘one pay cheque from disaster’ precariousness of existence which resonates through the decades.
At the same time, Jenny makes choices which contribute to her situation. Hamilton says ‘It is doubtful whether Jenny could be said to be the owner of either character or conscience’.
What about working-class young women in 1963, the year in which Bitter Harvest is set?
The film Bitter Harvest relocates Jenny to a Welsh village and as far as Wales and most of the rest of the UK were concerned, it might as well been 1953, or 1933.
Jenny’s dreams and aspirations, as she serves in her father’s village shop and cooks his tea, are strangely old-fashioned. Her longing for nice things and the good life is formed by television advertisements, epitomised in the advert for Rose Petal soap.
Jenny wants to be the woman on the screen, resplendent in an evening gown with her hair piled high, the one who gets ahead and gets the most from life, the one whose glow of stardom is, naturally, connected with her use of Rose Petal.
Jenny’s desire to make something of herself, to be someone, to experience something good happen to her, finds its focus in these and other images of fabulous bathrooms and long white cars. Why do they show us these things, she asks, if we’re not supposed to have them?
You want to tell her it’s 1963! Get on a train to soon-to-be-swinging London! Get a job! Buy yourself a snappy little outfit from Etam or Neatawear, and start working for the life you want.
But Jenny doesn’t need to do anything like this, because she is very pretty and she can get money from men. She sees the power she has when the father of her babysitting charge catches her in the bath (bath bubbles! a lovely negligee!), does a bit of sleazy flirting and offers her a fiver to buy her own peignoir, which she pockets and earmarks for a nice spring coat.
Jenny gets to London, but it’s the result of picking up a couple of men in Cardiff, drinking too much and being driven to town by the man who seduces her.
It’s all downhill from here. Bob rescues her, falls for her and her story that she is pregnant, and for a short time she seems to enjoy domestic harmony in his rented room.
But the glittering lights beckon, and in another strangely old-fashioned context, she wangles her way into a theatrical party, hoping to be spotted as a model or an actress. She catches the eye of a vile producer, who makes her his mistress and, we assume, sets her off on the road which leads to her sad demise.
In Bitter Harvest, Jenny’s story is framed by opening and closing scenes of her miserable last hours, which make it clear that she achieved the glamorous trappings which she longed for, but paid the ultimate price.
She arrives home after an evening out, decked out in furs and jewellery and very much the worse for wear. She goes on a drunken rampage through her apartment, throwing out of the window the expensive dresses, her purse and her keys, which are the mark of her so-called success, and takes an overdose. Jenny dies alone, although her address book is crammed with men’s phone numbers.
The film rather underplays the role of Ella, whose story is in many ways the most affecting. Her innate good nature and cheerful disposition reflect her sound character.
In the original work by Patrick Hamilton, when she is faced with a choice, we feel that, unlike Jenny, she makes the right decision.
Ella is repulsed by her elderly suitor, the creepy and pathetic Mr Eccles, but is also aware of the financial security he offers. We see her options for happiness and a better life fall away one by one like a row of dominoes.
Bob, dumped by Jenny, is leaving the pub and going back to sea.
There is the fleeting hope that Elsa might be relieved of her obligation to financially support her mother when her stepfather becomes seriously ill and an inheritance looms in sight. But he recovers, darn it.
And Elsa doesn’t get the job in India which she applied for.
Who wouldn’t understand if she decided to crawl under the Eccles umbrella? But she doesn’t. We see her back in the pub wiping tables and pulling pints, a figure of stoicism, quiet endurance and vulnerable humanity.
Bitter Harvest presents a different fate for Ella and Bob, rewarding them with true love. The final shot is of Bob and Ella holding hands and laughing as they run across a road, dodging the ambulance which is taking Jenny’s body away. Although the film makes you long for a feelgood moment, it’s a heavy-handed ending to this sour morality tale.
If you want a sensitive, faithful dramatised version of the book, the 2005 BBC TV series is first-rate, subtly directed and superbly acted.