Their Finest Hour and a Half, By Lissa Evans

Luvvies... don't they know there's a war on?
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The Independent Culture

It's hard to write amusing fiction about film production; the lassitude of shooting is too familiar, the compromises are too easily parodied. Equally tricky is the creation of comedy from civilians in wartime; many shadows loom large, from Evelyn Waugh to Dad's Army. The fact that Lissa Evans has produced a comedy of manners that combines both without falling into either trap is nothing short of a miracle. Her tale of artistes attempting a morale-boosting low-budget British film in 1941 is a joy.

Junior copywriter Catrin researches the story of twin sisters, a pair of shy cockle-shell heroines who patriotically sailed to Dunkirk on a rescue mission, but finds the truth of their escapade rather less impressive. Ambrose, the third-most popular British film star of 1924, can't face up to the fact that he's now suited only to character roles. Edith, a seamstress at Madame Tussauds, has been bombed both at home and at work, and finds herself on location. Arthur, the catering manager, has been promoted to the post of special military adviser. What the production needs is an American and a dog. The story needs to be bigger, so veracity goes out the window, along with Catrin's attempts to present the girls as independent women. As script pages are blue-pencilled and the cameras roll, the question is less whether the film will be finished, than how these essentially well-meaning and likeable characters will be changed by their experience.

Evans knows exactly when to play scenes for their wry comedy and when to play things straight. Poor, self-obsessed Ambrose gets it in the neck at his ex-wife's party, and from his agent's plain-talking sister, who has him pegged as "playing age late fifties, early sixties, dissipated look". But the sensations of bomb damage are painfully real even in their absurdity. "In the next room a pink-quilted double bed protruded over the broken floorboards like a vulgar tongue." The monarchs' room in Tussauds takes a hit and Henry's wives collapse, "each lying on the legs of the next like a coxless six".

Likewise, the austerity of domestic life is beautifully caught. Here, mince pies are served at a Christmas party: "'The filling's made with grated parsnip,' she'd kept saying, as if that were in some way a recommendation." Best of all is the anatomy of film-making, a creative process that's required to please everyone. Catrin's neatly scripted scene in which "old-timer" Ambrose frees a snagged propellor is deflated by Parfitt, her boss, when he reads it and merely comments: "Needs a gag." There are no easy caricatures, though, and everyone gets a chance to shine. This is the truest and most enjoyable novel about home-front life I've read; it's touching and hilarious.