A ‘borstal’ kind of librarian

Surprise to me, the librarian continues to pop up throughout ‘Borstal Boy’

The 2000 film Borstal Boy is based upon the autobiography of (in)famous Irish writer and activist Brendan Behan, and it focuses on his time in a borstal (a kind of youth prison/labor camp in the UK) during WWII. I didn’t personally know anything about Behan before watching this film… and after watching the film? I still didn’t know much about him. So I looked up a little bit about him on the interwebs. His works are Irish classics, as are his spirited appearances on talk shows. He died of alcohol poisoning at the age of 41. None of this is apparent in this tame-by-numbers biopic.

About twenty-three minutes into the film, we spy the prison library. Which looks like, from the outside, a combination of outhouse and shed (see below).

Library entrance in Borstal Boy
Inviting, no?

The camera quickly cuts to a male librarian (Arthur Riordan), sitting down behind a makeshift Circulation desk. He wearily asks two young lads, including Behan (Shawn Hatosy), “What are you looking for?” The boys mumble something about pictures, so the librarian points and says, “Comic books over there.” He looks puzzled as the boys scurry off. (And he has reason to be puzzled — the boys are trying to find resources to help plot an escape.)

He’s a white, middle-aged male, with thinning brownish grey hair, no glasses. He dresses quite well, although conservatively, with a dark blazer, tan waistcoat, white button-down. The only bit of flash about him is his polka-dot bow tie.

Borstal Boy librarian
Borstal Boy librarian

We then see a wider shot of the library, a small room with faded white painted walls, with a few low shelves and pieces of furniture with books stacked up. There’s a hexagonal table in the middle — looks like a card table — with some chairs. Most of the windows are painted over or blocked in some way (because of blackout regulations during the war?), so the light inside the room is relatively dim. In one wide angle, a large ledger is visible on the shelf behind the librarian, most likely the ledger where he records what’s checked out. There are a few bookcases filed with books behind the Circulation desk. Despite the bookcases, it still looks like a converted store room.

A borstal library
A borstal library

At this point, I thought this was going to be it for the prison librarian. I was thinking he would turn out to be your standard  Librarian as Failure character type (who else would work in this makeshift prison library?). But I was wrong! Surprise to me, the librarian continues to pop up throughout the film.

In this first library scene, he starts a conversation with Behan:

“And you are an Irish rebel, am I right?” the librarian asks as he stands up.

“Only one, as far as I know.”

“Very thing for you.” The librarian turns to a tall bookcase beside his desk. “Life of Oscar Wilde, by Frank Harris.” (Note: The Life and Confessions of Oscar Wilde by Frank Harris was published in 1914.)

“Not interested in Oscar Wilde.”

The librarian responds: “Blasphemy. A fellow Irishman, a fellow jailbird and rebel.”

“You know what he was down for, don’t you?”

“He was put in jail for buggering the son of the Marquis of Queensbury. Shocking.”

“No Irishman if he was a black caper.” (Aside: Is this a reference to The Black Cap, a famous gay pub in London, dating back to the 1700s?)

What is the librarian’s aim in this exchange? He was definitely smirking at Behan during this little talk (see screenshot below). The issue of homosexuality — and Behan’s evolving response to it — is a theme explored throughout the film.

Borstal Boy librarian
Borstal Boy librarian

Behan then starts putting his escape plan into action and asks the librarian, “What do you got in local history?” The librarian tosses his head, “Ah… let’s see” and turns back to the shelves.

A few minutes later, Behan is using a book about local history to trace a map for an escape route. Using a flashlight to shine down on the book, he’s obviously doing this in secret, after lights out.

The warden’s daughter makes a stir upon her arrival — and Behan immediately sets his sights on her. When the girl quotes Oscar Wilde to him and recommends, “You should read it,” Behan immediately (!) gets a copy of the book. This is, of course, based on the girl’s suggestion, NOT the librarian’s. He even steals lines from the librarian:  “He’s a jailbird like myself.”

Apparently, bonding with the fellow Irish jailbird agrees with him, as he decides to put on an Oscar Wilde play for the benefit of the camp. The play in question? The Importance of Being Earnest, of course! The film then cuts to the auditions. And who is there? The librarian, of course! He’s there to provide copies of the play, most likely, but he’s also the one Behan confers with about casting. Behan asks who they’re going to get to play the girls.

The librarian — maroon bow tie quite erect and legs crossed — gives him a sidelong glance. “Well, frankly, I’ve always felt I was born to play a great lady… So perhaps I could be your Lady Bracknell.”

Librarian dressed up as a woman in a play scene in Borstal Boy
Dude looks like a lady

We then are treated to a close-up of the librarian in drag (see above), along with a fellow gay Borstal boy playing the role of Gwendolyn. When introduced, the audience members laugh uproariously. The librarian — indeed, born to play a great lady — talks in a suitably high-pitched voice and properly haughty demeanor.

Apparently, the play is a hit. And in the joyous after-party, the librarian is seen complimenting the boy who played the butler.

Toward the end of film, about an hour and fifteen minutes in, another scene takes place in the library. Behan (obviously reformed, by the looks of his turtleneck sweater and earnest expression, which has replaced his usual sullen expression) is helping another boy read. The book in question is about “the man that I loved” (another Oscar Wilde tome?). The boy asks how a man can love another man.

A lasting impression of the Borstal librarian
A lasting impression of the Borstal librarian

The librarian, standing behind them at the tall bookcase, seen above, turns to join the conversation.

“You love your father?”

“I love my wee brother.”

“You love a man then, don’t you?” the librarian sums up, hands on hips, with a scornful gaze. He then turns back to reshelving books.

This reel librarian ultimately serves two main roles, primarily as an Information Provider, and in the play scene, as Comic Relief.

At the end of this film — which feels much longer than its 93 minutes — Behan seems to be on his way to being a writer. All due to Oscar Wilde’s — and the librarian’s — influence!


Sources used:


  • Borstal Boy. Dir. Peter Sheridan. Perf. Shawn Hatosy, Danny Dyer, Michael York. Strand Releasing, 2000.

My precious, my archives in ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’

Disorganization in the archives

About a half hour into The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) needs some info about the ring, and he needs it fast. So next we see the Gondorian Archivist (Michael Elsworth) leading Gandalf down a winding staircase to the archives. The elderly archivist is clothed in dark robes and hat, with no glasses. He serves as an Information Provider, although he has no dialogue. He provides directions only. The archivist shows Gandalf the way with an open torch (flames near old papers? insert internal scream here!).

Gondorian Archivist in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
The Gondorian Archivist

The archives themselves have no apparent organization; as you can see below, some papers and books are stacked vertically, while others are loose on shelves.

Gandalf feverishly paws through archives, spilling pipe smoke and ash everywhere. He bends old scrolls and parchment in his haste of reading, amidst dripping candle wax and drinking cups (seen below). And after several hours or days, Gandalf does find the info he needs concerning the ring, from an obviously rare scroll of parchment.

First off, I love love love LOTR — the books and the films. The trilogy is a fantastic cinematic achievement. It deserved all the Oscars it got, and even some it didn’t get (mental hugs to you, Ian McKellen).

BUT.

The librarian in me cannot help wondering how much quicker — if not cinematically dramatic, of course — the process would have been if:

(a) the archives had been in some kind of order, and

(b) the archivist was put to any use other than giving directions.

Disorganization in the archives of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Disorganization in the archives
Open flames amidst the archives in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Open flames amidst the archives

And, of course, I wanted to climb into the frame and clean up those archives. First step: no open flames or smoking! For me, “my precious” would describe not the ring but the priceless information contained in those archives.

And if you’re wondering, no, the librarian in me never has a day off. Once a librarian, always a librarian!


Sources used:


A ‘brief encounter’ with a librarian

Chemist’s shops, lending libraries, and lies

The 1945 film Brief Encounter is one of the greats. Yet it’s one of those films that still flies pretty low under the radar — but those who have seen it and share it with each other light up in remembrance. It’s a simple, quiet film, heartbreakingly beautiful. With the best use of Rachmaninoff EVER.

The film, based on Noel Coward’s 1935 one-act play Still Life, stars Celia Johnson (luminous in an Oscar-nominated role) as Laura Jesson, an ordinary English wife and mother, and Trevor Howard as Dr. Alec Harvey, an ordinary English husband and father. They meet one day by chance and fall in love. It’s that simple. But life is never really that simple, is it?

Almost twenty minutes into the film, Laura’s going about her usual shopping day in nearby Milford. She walks past a display window, full of new “holiday reads.” We then see her in what looks to be a kind of public library, smiling with a friendly female librarian (uncredited). The library is lined with shelves, with a main desk in the center stacked with books. The librarian is a white female with short, wavy blonde hair. She looks to be in her 30’s, appears quite friendly, and is dressed in a quite stylish cardigan (yes, there ARE some out there) with what looks to be military-style embellishments.

Boot's Lending Library in Brief Encounter
Boot’s Lending Library

Laura narrates:  “I changed my book at Boots. Miss Lewis had at last managed to get the new Kate O’Brien for me. I believe she’d kept it hidden under the counter for two days.”

Note:  Kate O’Brien was an Irish novelist and playwright (1897-1974), who explored gay/lesbian themes in several of her works. Some of her work was quite controversial, as two of her books were banned in her native Ireland. It is also interesting to note that upon its initial release, Brief Encounter was itself banned in Ireland, due to its sympathetic portrayal of adultery.

But then we see Laura turn and step from the library into a chemist’s shop (see below). What??? From our travels overseas, I knew that Boots is a British pharmacy chain. What’s the deal? Is this library actually a bookstore? Is this just an odd film set?

Laura walks from the library into the chemist's shop in Brief Encounter
Laura walks from the library into the chemist’s shop

Doing a little more digging (thanks, IMDb!), there’s an interesting answer:

Laura borrows books from the Boots Lending Library. Such Lending Libraries were an offshoot of Boots Pharmacies. Boots is a major pharmacy chain in the UK. It was founded in 1849 and still exists, although in a much different, more diversified form. The Lending Libraries were started in 1898.

Boots is still around, but their lending libraries ceased in the late 1960s. The Boots Lending Library was an example of a subscription library. You’d pay a small monthly or annual fee to the library — or a small fee per item — to be able to check out materials. Sound familiar? It’s basically the same idea as video rental stores or Netflix.

Library label for Boots Booklovers Library by alan.98 via Flickr is licensed under CC BY NC SA 2.0
Library label for Boots Booklovers Library by alan.98 via Flickr is licensed under CC BY NC SA 2.0

Ok, back to the film. That’s the only time we see the librarian, Miss Lewis — a typical Information Provider seen only for a few seconds — but her character still plays a role in the film, as you’ll see.

The library books are also mentioned a few more times throughout. A couple of minutes later, Laura and Alec are enjoying lunch, and he asks if she comes into town every week.

“Yes, I do the week’s shopping. Change my library book, have lunch and generally go to the pictures. Not a very exciting routine, but it makes a change.”

After spending the afternoon together, Laura is thinking about Alec as she boards the train to go back home. She sees a clergyman in the corner and flushes: “I felt myself blushing and opened my library book and pretended to read.”

Just over an hour into the film, their would-be love affair comes to a head. We see Laura running down the wet streets, with her library book under her arm. She knows she’s late and ducks into a tobacco shop to phone her husband.

No librarian in this phone booth in a scene from Brief Encounter
No librarian in this phone booth

We hear only her side of the conversation:

“Yes, everything’s perfectly all right, but I shan’t be home to dinner.

—–

I’m with Miss Lewis. Miss Lewis, dear. You know, the librarian I told you about at Boots.

—–

Yes, I can’t explain in any detail because she’s outside the box now.

—–

I met her in the High Street a little while ago in a terrible state. Her mother’s been taken ill, and I’ve promised to stay with her until the doctor comes.

—–

Yes, I know, but she’s always been awfully kind to me, and I feel so sorry for her.”

So she uses poor Miss Lewis (“Miss” – of course) as an excuse for being late!!!

Why? Most likely, the library book she had with her provided the inspiration. Also, being with a librarian MUST be respectable and above board, right? 😉 There would be no questions asked (and really, why WOULDN’T one feel sorry for a poor librarian?), and as Laura says, “It’s awfully easy to lie when you know that you’re trusted implicitly.”

I can’t help but wonder how Laura will react to Miss Lewis the next time she visits the lending library…


Sources used:


Moving mountains — all in a day’s work in ‘Dear Frankie’

“Pick any book, and if we don’t have it here, I will move mountains to get it for you.”

The 2004 film Dear Frankie is one that I visit time and again — it’s a beautiful, touching film that never gets treacly or sentimental. The bracing Scottish backdrop helps, of course. Plus, it boasts a quietly stellar cast, including a young(er) Gerard Butler and the always intriguing Emily Mortimer.

The Frankie of the title is a deaf boy (Jack McElhone) who receives a lot of letters from his seafaring dad — but all those letters have actually come from his mom (Mortimer). His dad’s (fictional) ship is about to come into town, so his mom hires a stranger (Butler) to pose as Frankie’s father.

In one early scene, his mom composes a letter in what appears to be a library — or perhaps an archives room or historical society. No librarian in sight, but there looks to be the standard library prop of a shelving cart stacked with folders and boxes.

Frankie's mom writing a letter in Dear Frankie
Frankie’s mom writing a letter

In another scene about fifteen minutes into the film, Frankie visits the local library — it’s called the “lending library” by the sign on the glass door — which has a light, cheerful atmosphere with its stained-glass windows.

Frankie browses the shelves and catches the attention of the librarian.  The librarian (Elaine Mackenzie Ellis) is a white female, with short dark hair, and a shorter, rounder frame. She wears glasses, modest clothing (a light blue top and matching cardigan), and minimal jewelry (small earrings and silver necklace). She’s also holding a book, the most obvious prop to mark a reel librarian!

Librarian look in Dear Frankie
We know that look…

The librarian — unnamed in this film and listed only as “Librarian” in the credits — starts speaking to him, not realizing he’s deaf. “Yes? Can I help you? Hello? Hello, I’m talking to you.”

Obviously offended at the boy’s seemingly defiant inattention, she steps out around the desk. “Come back here, please. I’m talking to you. Cheeky wee devil, you!”

So she tracks the boy down and says, “I am well aware that a wee boy your age should be at school at this time of day.”

Getting ready to move mountains, librarian in Dear Frankie
Ready to move mountains

Frankie then puts in his hearing aid. When she realizes he’s deaf, the librarian’s tone and demeanor completely change. “I didn’t realize. I’m so sorry.” Her tone becomes encouraging, her facial expression quickly softens, and she starts exaggerating and over-enunciating her words.

“Pick a book. Pick any book, and if we don’t have it here, I will move mountains to get it for you.”

The next shot cuts to Frankie leaving the library, holding an armful of books (and a slight smirk on his face).

Leaving the library with a mountain of books in Dear Frankie
Leaving the library with a mountain of books

Surely he’s pulled this kind of trick before? Frankie must find it a bit amusing to see how people’s reactions change after they realize his handicap. The librarian here fulfills the role of the Information Provider — no surprise there — as she helps Frankie find books he wants. She also serves as a typical example for how a majority of the public treats Frankie and other children with physical handicaps.


Sources used:


  • Dear Frankie. Dir. Shona Auerbach. Perf. Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone, Gerard Butler, Sharon Small. Miramax, 2004.

The fastest librarian in the West, as seen in ‘The Changeling’

He personifies the concept of “efficiency” for all librarians ever after.

My vote for the quickest reel librarian EVER? The Microfilm Clerk in The Changeling (1980). Behold (and please excuse the grainy quality of my screenshots):

Microfilm librarian in The Changeling
The clerk takes the microfilm box… starting the timer…
Microfilm in The Changeling
… and 4 seconds later!

If this library clerk (played by David Peevers) had set up this microfilm in 4 minutes, I would have been impressed! But this scene demands suspension of disbelief, as the young clerk is able to take the microfilm box out of the drawer (top screenshot), roll the microfilm out of its box, thread it through the microfilm reader in the next room, AND spin it through to the requested article — all in 4 seconds (!!!!). WOW. He personifies the concept of “efficiency” for all librarians ever after.

Not sure what microfilm is? Read more about it here. The microfilm reader — kind of looks like a computer, right? — can be seen in the 2nd screenshot above.

Where were we? Oh yes, the fastest reel librarian ever. The library clerk is a young, white male with short brown hair and mustache, and he wears a fairly conservative brown sweater and dark collared shirt. He begins the reference interview with “1909? I’ll set it up for you” and leaves them with “It’s all ready to go, and the scanner’s on the right.” They thank him for his help (yay!).

Ok, a little context. In this atmospheric thriller, George C. Scott plays John Russell, whose wife and daughter are killed in a freak road accident. He rents a house with a mysterious — and murderous — past and goes about researching the tragedy he believes the house is trying to communicate to him. John first goes to the local Historical Preservation Society and meets Claire (played by then-wife in real life, Trish Van Devere), who joins him on his research quest. Their next step is the local library, to look up newspaper articles from 1909.

Note: This is in a time period before full-text articles become available through electronic library databases — but some newspaper archives are still only available through microfilm or microfiche. Not sure what an electronic library database is? Read all about ’em here.

The label on the microfilm box? It reads “Seattle Daily Times, Jan. 13, 1909 thru Feb. 22, 1909,” which fits John’s inquiry. However, this drawer of microfilm is not organized very well, as one box of the Seattle Daily Times sits next to Farm Electrical Studies in the Pacific Northwest. But hey, with the fastest librarian in the West on your staff, who needs organization?!

John gets more help when he goes to the Hall of Records. The Archives Clerk (Robert Monroe), an older white male with glasses, thinning hair, and white beard and mustache, is quite tall and wears a dark shirt and grey blazer. He shows John property atlases of Seattle and helps explain the system of maps and legends.

Although the two male librarians in this film combine for very little screen time, they are helpful and efficient Information Providers — supplying information vital to John’s discovery of the film’s central mystery. It is also refreshing how the film showcases an effective research strategy. Remember, ask a librarian!


Sources used:


  • The Changeling. Dir. Peter Medak. Perf. George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas. Image Entertainment, 1980.