Film stirs memories of wartime service

By Jo Scrivin in Local People

A discussion about starting a new film club for residents at Ross Court took a strange turn when one of the residents, Mrs Margaret Brewin, said that she has appeared as an extra in a film. The title of the film, The Gentle Sex, provoked quite a few jokes about what its subject could be, however it is a 1943, black-and-white war film.

The Gentle Sex tells the story of seven women from different backgrounds who meet at an Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) training camp. The film shows how men’s perceptions of women, and what they are capable of achieving, changed through the course of the war.

The story reflects Margaret’s own experiences at this time. Brought up in the small town of Cwmcarn, near Newport, in South Wales, Margaret expected to stay at home until she married. But in 1942, when she was 20, she received the letter which was to change the course of her life. She was told to report for medical checks in Newport as she was being called on to serve her country. Her father took her and Margaret remembers coming home to tell her mother that she had been passed A1 (in perfect health). Margaret was to go into the ATS, part of the Army.

Margaret said that when she started her training there were feelings of nervousness at what they would be expected to do, but there was also excitement at being away from home for the first time.

Margaret completed her initial training in Wrexham and was then sent to London, where she was given further training. It was while Margaret was in London that she had her moment of film stardom.

The Army received a request for a group of ATS to take part in filming for one day at the Elstree Studios. Margaret was one of the group chosen and vividly recalls travelling across London in an open top Army truck. The women were to be extras in a scene filmed in the NAAFI, (the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes). A dance was taking place and it was during this dance that two of the film’s stars, John Justin, as David, and Joyce Howard, as Anne, meet and fall in love.

Margaret remembers that the day was very long and mainly involved just waiting around while the stars rehearsed their roles.

She said: “We just had to stand and wait until we were told to dance, then after they had filmed we waited again until the next time.”

Margaret told the Gazette that the best thing about the day was being able to use the film studio’s canteen without being charged. She was also thrilled at being able to collect several of the stars’ autographs, which she still treasures. These include John Justin, who Margaret said was ‘very handsome’, and the ‘Mere Man’ in the film, Leslie Howard, who also directed The Gentle Sex.

In the introduction to the book, which was produced to accompany the film, and to raise funds for the ATS Benevolent Fund, the Director of the ATS said: “There have been countless stories of individual women who have studded the pages of world history, but never before has a feature film been made portraying the lives of women today who have been given a new opportunity to serve.”

The women in the film portray the sense of urgency which resulted in short engagements, and how they dealt with the continual fear of what might happen to themselves and their loved ones.

Margaret said it was hard for everyone, “We were all in the same boat.” Her mother had a hard time, with her son in the Navy and Margaret spending the war in Oxford. She served for three years and Margret said that both she and her mother was very distressed that she spent three Christmases away from home.

It was while she was in Oxford that Margaret met her future husband, Ken.

By this time Margaret was working in an office at the Drill Hall where soldiers returning from service stayed, before finding out their next place of service. Just after Christmas in 1945 Ken returned from the Middle East, and it was decided by the Army that he was to stay in Oxford for a short time.

Ken and Margaret had their first date on February 3rd and within five weeks and three days they were engaged. Margaret said her parents were not very happy, but the couple went on to be married for 48 years.

When her son Geoffry retired and moved to Ross, Margaret moved in with him, but following his death two years ago, she moved to Ross Court where staff and residents are continually finding out new things about her.

To read the full feature about Margaret, see this week’s edition of the Ross Gazette.

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