Simon Calder: Go west for screen gems – but not too far
The man who pays his way
Saturday 12 March 2011
Widcombe Hill in Bath is a road so steep that all but the most dedicated cyclists will be checking the bus timetable (you want the No 18, every six minutes or so). At the top, you find the city's original university. A short walk beyond lies Claverton Manor – an early 19th-century mansion presiding over 120 acres of grounds and offering fine views over the Limpley Stoke Valley. The perfect setting for a wide-screen period drama. Yet instead, starting today, it celebrates the monochromatic days when America existed, for the vast majority of British people, only on celluloid.
The manor is the location for the American Museum in Britain, which awakens this morning after its winter break – and celebrates its first 50 years. In 1961, when the collection first opened, the average wage-earner could only dream of the US; it would have taken about six months' pay to fly the Atlantic. But frustrated travellers could glimpse the cities, highways and beaches of the promised land at the cinema, often as a backdrop to a Marilyn Monroe movie.
The "Marilyn – Hollywood Icon" exhibition presents the studio costumes and personal effects of the woman born in Los Angeles, 85 years ago this summer, as Norma Jeane Mortenson. The extraordinary display has been assembled by a private collector, David Gainsborough Roberts, who resides on the island of Jersey.
Now, the American Museum is more usually devoted to folk art, from portraits to embroidery. So to feature risqué gowns that scandalised postwar America, plus bottles of pills prescribed during the filming of The Misfits, represents a transformation. I asked the museum's erudite director, Richard Wendorf, what a respectable chap like him was doing dallying with Marilyn?
"I'm trying to do what is best for our museum, which is to update the collections through temporary exhibitions and entice more people to make their pilgrimage to Bath and up the hill."
Some like it hotter than a breezy mid-March morning in the West of England, and may be tempted to explore the beach resort featured in Some Like It Hot – which, in the film, is Florida, but in reality is the marvellous Hotel del Coronado outside San Diego, close to California's border with Mexico.
San Diego is where surfers, scientists and sunseekers converge on an oasis of indulgence. As luck would have it, BA makes its third attempt to fly profitably to San Diego, starting 1 June. But while transatlantic fares this summer look more affordable than half a century ago, they are higher than in the past couple of years: using the benchmark date of the first Saturday in August for a week's stay, the fare to California is £858 (a fortnight's hard labour for the average British worker in 2010).
Add the airport indignities that were inconceivable in aviation's innocent age half a century ago, and perhaps you need go no further west than Bath to discover an America that is gentler and more profound than the one you might be able to find in reality.
Mr Wendorf puts it rather differently: "We can provide an absolutely first-rate introduction – not a replication of the variety of American culture you will find in a visit to the US, but a keen sense of what America can offer."
Marilyn – Hollywood Icon runs from today to 30 October; 01225 460503; americanmuseum.org
Mad dogs, Englishmen and August flights to Florida
Orlando represents the all-you-can-eat buffet for British travellers. We feast on its theme parks and over-indulge in the Florida sunshine. Some may fondly believe that they have seen America – even though, Las Vegas excepted, central Florida is about as far as you can get from the real US.
This summer, something of a bidding war appears to have broken out between Englishmen and their families desperate to get there at almost any cost. Plenty of us like it hot. Non-stop scheduled flights from Gatwick to Orlando on the first Saturday in August, coming home a week later, have soared to what can only be described as Mickey Mouse levels.
The cheapest economy-class fare is on Virgin Atlantic at £1,105. BA, flying the same route, is even more expensive. You could switch to Delta's new non-stop flights from Heathrow to Miami, for which you will pay £858 return, and drive from there. Better still, use that exact sum to fly to San Diego, the Some Like It Hot location whose noonday sun in August is far more benign for mad dogs and British tourists.
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