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The Guardian (05/Mar/1999) - Stalking the master

(c) The Guardian (05/Mar/1999)

Stalking the master

He was born 100 years ago this summer in lowly Leytonstone. He was famously guarded about his origins, but are there still clues to the great director's work in East London? John Cunningham goes in search of Alfred Hitchcock

There's one movie Alfred Hitchcock spent years planning in forensic, obsessive detail but never made. The Fat Man Vanishes would have belonged to a rare genre, an autobiopic. Starring Hitch himself, it would have told how a boy born 100 years ago above the family fruit and veg shop in east London artfully covered his tracks - like the vanished tramlines of the street he grew up in -- and went on to a career of mystery and menace in Hollywood.

Fantasy, of course. But it would help the organisers of celebrations marking the centenary of his birth on August 13, 1899 if such a film existed to help them fully document Hitchcock's early years. He was notoriously secretive about his roots - mother an Irish Catholic; father a Cockney trader -- and his early years in Leytonstone, dealing adamantly with biographers and imposing a legacy of silence on relatives when he died in 1980.

Even Donald Spoto, who was awarded the honour of an audience over lunch, a sign that the great man approved the writer's study of his work, The Art Of Alfred Hitchcock, found that behind the cordiality there was always a cautionary coolness: Hitch was as skilful at directing conversations as he was films.

"Very easily, this most public of popular cultural figures withdrew into a secret shell when one showed interest in the deepest levels of his work, or his background or inner life or certain large periods of his career," Spoto writes in his biography, The Dark Side Of Genius, published after its subject died. Hitch "was smoothly adept, at these times, in changing the subject".

And at disappearing from the scene, as researchers found when they publically appealed for mementoes and reminiscences about the family for an exhibition which opens at Vestry House Museum, Walthamstow, in June. Vestry House already has a big Hitchcock collection, but "new information about him in the last few years has been anecdotal or very questionable," says museum manager Nigel Sadler. The search turned up no forgotten relatives, old friends, no gossip. Just some holiday snaps of a plump young man in swimming trunks.

Local history played a part in obliterating traces of Hitchcock. For a start, Leytonstone no longer exists as a separate entity; now it's part of Waltham Forest. To confuse the case further, the family moved into neighbouring Poplar and Stepney. It's known that in widowhood, Mrs Emma Hitchcock moved back to Leytonstone, and it's presumed that Alfred lived with her until he was 26, when he married Alma Reville, the one partner (she was a film-cutter, editor and script girl when they met) he consistently trusted in his long career. But, as Sadler points out, there's no record of his mother's later address.

One of the Roman Catholic schools he went to, St Ignatius College, has moved from Stamford Hill to Enfield. One of Cocky's (as he was known as a kid) fellow pupils, Robert Goold, was the victim of possibly the first of the sadistic practical jokes Hitch was to play, off-screen and on, for much of his life. Trying to find Fr Goold, I was told he'd died last year. But here's what he told Spoto. The 12-year-old Cocky had bundled the nine-year-old Goold into the school's basement boiler room, blindfolded and trussed up; his pants were taken down and... firecrackers pinned to his underwear.

Curiously, while his Catholic parents no doubt infused him with guilt, it was Jesuit teachers who introduced the young Hitchcock to a more exquisite form of suffering - the delayed terror that filled cinemas with goosepimples. Staff at St Ignatius kindly dug out an interview which its famous old boy gave to the college mag in the seventies.

In answer to a question about Jesuit influence on him, Hitch replied: "The method of punishment, of course, was highly dramatic because the form master would tell the pupil of his wrongdoing, and he would have to go before the priest [who administered up to 12 strokes with a rubber strap] and it was left to the pupil to decide when to go. He would keep putting it off and then he would go at the end of the day to a special room where there would be a priest or a lay brother who would administer the punishment -- like... in a minor way, going for execution."

Plump, shy, clever, friendless: the evidence compounds the adjectives Spoto choses to sum up Hitchcock's childhood and young manhood. He was a sly bully -- as he was to prove in his dealings with actors -- but he was a victim as well. His strict father, to punish bad behaviour, once sent him along to the local police station with a note to put him in the cells for a few minutes.

It certainly chimes with Hitch's interest in the theme of wrongfully accused (and imprisoned) characters in his films. But as Spoto points out, it's just the sort of incident the director used in interviews, offering an apparently revealing piece of his personal jigsaw -- but intended to stop further probing.

So one of the most intriguing attractions for fans and researchers might well be something that's not on the official programme. You could call it Looking For Mr Hitchcock (all right, pedants, he was knighted in the Universal Studios, Hollywood, by the British Consul on January 3, 1980) and you'd start at Hitch's birthplace, 519 Leytonstone High Road. Or rather you would if it hadn't been demolished. In its place there's a Jet petrol station. Where the parade of shops resumes, you can see that the Hitchcock home would have been a prim-faced three-storey house. Its clean but dingy rooms were probably on Hitchcock's mind when he filmed Sabotage (based on Conrad's The Secret Agent, but not to be confused with Hitchcock's own Secret Agent) in 1936. He puts the anarchist, Verloc, and his family in a working-class dwelling, with a shop at the front and a scullery behind.

We know that Alfred came from a well-run home and Mrs H was a dutiful mum, to the point of getting Alfred to stand at the end of her bed every night and tell her how he's spent the day. But more interesting even than Mrs H's boudoir would have been the lavatory. Was it in the house, or out the back? This isn't idle speculation. There's a thesis to be done (Pedants, don't write in, scores already have) on the WC in Hitch's movies. Spoto notes that loo scenes occur in Psycho, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Marnie, Torn Curtain and at least 10 others -- in the days when lavatories were rarely seen on screen.

To enter the secret cell of a toilet is to become invisible: no wonder they might have fascinated the solitary, podgy scholboy. The family home had other mysteries, too. Young Hitch would almost have had to tunnel claustrophobically between stacks of produce to reach the living quarters behind and above the shop. Did this engender fantasies about dead bodies in bulbous potato sacks, which emerged in Frenzy?

In making that film, Hitch turned the old Covent Garden wholesale market into a grisly necropolis. In a weird way it's possible to imagine that his local High Street has undergone a similarly ghoulish transformation. There is a shop selling prints of photographs of the area about 1900.

But they might as well show Leytonstone at the beginning of the last millennium for all its resemblance to the present. Opposite the site of the family home, there's a fortress-like structure through whose huge, darkened windows banks of lights glow. A film studio, culturally regenerating the area to a degree beyond the dreams of the local council? Nope: it's Sainsbury's Garden Centre.

If Leytonstone's high street mimics Hitch's taste for the macabre, it also mocks his other addiction - to food. On his first visit to New York in 1937, he famously scoffed three steaks for dinner at a New York Club, delicately interspersing a helping of ice-cream between each plate of meat. The high street now would be his purgatory. It caters to greedy feeders, not discriminating diners. Hitch could bloat himself on burgers and all-day breakfasts beyond the capacity of hardened bulimics.

Maybe Waltham Forest Council and the London Film and Video Development Agency, which offer four or five #5,000 awards for a celebration on film of any aspect of Hitch's life and work, will reap a rich trawl of entries. Point a camera at a lamp-post bearing the warning "Feeding is bad for pigeons", and imagine an ironic laugh from the master who made The Birds. Imagine a sepulchral sigh from the Fat Man as the camera pans the hearses sleekly parked outside the corner premises of C Selby and Sons - undertakers who opened in Leytonstone when Hitch was a seven-year-old. For instant confusion, film-makers should seek out a notice on the door of a business called Spice And Span, which says: "Wrong address. 587 not 571". For a Hitch-style awful pun, try Leytonstone's idea of a good night out billed as "Ladies of the Night, hosted by Cher Travisty"

All good fun, but there is a sombre point as you walk past the shutters of empty shops and the charity clothes shops: this has the look of a hand-me-down bit of London in a threadbare economic present. It was no place for Hitchcock's professional ambitions as a young man - even though there were film studios in nearby Wood Street; Islington was where it was all happening film-wise, and there he went to work.

Spoto begins one of his chapters with this sentence: "He was almost twenty-one. And the film industry was not much older." British film-making was under a double shadow - of the brilliance of American output, and of the dominance of British theatre, and it had a stop-go start. But Hitchcock soared away from the East End, and the West End, to Hollywood.

Like other London-born stars, when fame and fortune came, he did nothing for the patch of the capital he abandoned - Charlie Chaplin came from the Elephant and Castle and Bob Hope from Eltham. It would be a pity if a faint spookiness were the film industry's solitary bequest to Leytonstone. As part of the Hitch Fest, the organisers hope to persuade Universal Studios to take on secondment a local film or video student. The tight-fisted Hitch would be enraged at so open-handed a scheme. Come on, Universal, go for it.