The Mystery Of My ‘Uncle’

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My mother came from an age when there were still unspoken family secrets. It took me years to realise that her mother was not her natural mother but a relative who had raised her. That was when I heard about my purported uncle Jeffrey. There were two many surnames floating around on my mother’s side of the family, one of which was, rather incredibly, ‘Flowers Dell’.

We were a typically British family of the time, not very close, not very religious, not very social, a bit conservative, full of things that weren’t discussed. Into this tangle was introduced the name of Jeffrey Flowers Dell. When I managed to track down his biography I discovered he was a humorous writer with a sense of the absurd remarkably like mine and a film director in the Ealing mould.

Here’s what his son has to say about him on Imdb:

Only son of John Edward Dell and Gertrude Flowers of Shoreham-On-Sea. Trained as an articled clerk in his father’s law firm Dell & Loader before signing up for the Royal Flying Corps in 1917, eventually invalided out of the service after a aeroplane crash in training.
Trained as a solicitor, and practiced in Shoreham until getting his break with “Payment Deferred” in 1932. He had married Brenda Maude Cullum in 1924, having one son Richard Flowers Dell (1926-2008). In addition to his film and stage work, Jeffrey wrote three novels: “Nobody Ordered Wolves”, “News From Heaven” and “The Hoffman Factor”.

I’ve cut out all the other marriages (one involving Michael Foot), and have worked out that Jeffrey Dell was most likely my step-uncle. He wrote a great many classic British comedies, including ‘Carlton-Browne of the F.O.’, starring Peter Sellars, ‘Rotten to the Core’, ‘Brothers In Law’ and ‘The Family Way’. I’ve been trying to track down a copy of his book ‘Nobody Ordered Wolves’ (about his film work) but can’t find one anywhere. There’s apparently a copy lurking in the US somewhere.

Dell seems to have shot at least a film a year right through the Second World War, mostly comedies. I tracked down a film he wrote and directed, ‘Don’t Take It To Heart’, a creaky but utterly delightful comedy about an old Manor House, a ghost and the dashing Richard Greene, later to play Robin Hood, here looking alarmingly like Jack Whitehall.

‘Don’t Take It To Heart’ is very slight but brimming with funny ideas that have since been stolen by others. The Bucket family wish to be seen as genteel so they pronounce their name ‘bouquet’, the ghosts/ country manor scenario was nicked by Neil Jordan for ‘High Spirits’ and the exhausted lost butler was swiped for Michael Palin’s ‘The Missionary’. And it’s peppered with peculiar dialogue; ‘If we’re to have guests I’ll get the owls out of the bathroom’. It also feels on the verge of bursting into song a lot of the time and is packed with familiar faces. And one of the minor roles (‘telegraph boy’) is an absurdly young and chipper-looking Harry Fowler.

I said ‘purported’ uncle Jeffrey at the start because I simply don’t know what relation he really is to me.As I look it becomes more distant, most likely only through marriage. My mother, the last keeper of secrets, has gone now, so it’s too late to ask her. The odd thing is that I feel as if I got my sense of humour from him. Could I even be related to Harry Fowler?

I guess I’ll never know the answer but at least I have the films – and I’ll keep searching for his books.

 

10 comments on “The Mystery Of My ‘Uncle’”

  1. Jo W says:

    I saw the film -Don’t take it to Heart’ on that lovely new channel,Talking Pictures,just a few weeks ago. I did enjoy it, b&w,simple humour, just entertainment,no need to exercise the brain matter at all.
    I love the way they introduce the films on that channel with a ‘coming soon’ board and opening curtains at the start of the film. You can almost smell the dusty seats and the waft of sea breezes from the Gents. I half expect the commissionaire to be walking round with his flit gun,the nearest you got to air conditioning in the old flea pits! 😉

  2. Chris G says:

    My third cousin, twice removed, apparently. His birth name was John Edward Flowers Dell – Jeffrey came later. He was married four times, one of the wives being Jill Craigie, film maker and future wife of Michael Foot.

    My connection is through his grandmother, born Louisa Mary Griggs in Brightlingsea, Essex. She was a child in of one of several families who moved from Brightlingsea to Shoreham. Who’d have thought it!

  3. Denise Treadwell says:

    We all have strange things in our families. Mine are interesting ( I have loads more ) as my son in an anthropology class had his DNA collected and he had 13% Native American, odd you might think, but I do come from Norfolk in England where Pochatatas went with her husband. I hate to be political but! :Suck that Elizabeth Warren who doesn’t want to take a DNA test! ! Really!

  4. Denise Treadwell says:

    Sorry to go off point!

  5. Ken Mann says:

    good god, been searching for a copy of that film for years for my father and I now I find it was broadcast on a channel he can get and neither of us noticed!

  6. Roger says:

    Admin!
    I picked up a copy of Nobody Ordered Wolves a few days ago. 1947 paperback. Give me your address and I’ll send it on when I’ve finished it/given up on it. The opening is autobiographical by the sound of it – the hero is a solicitor with ambitions/fantasies of a film career..

  7. Roger says:

    https://www.bookfinder.com/search/?ac=sl&st=sl&ref=bf_s2_a1_t1_1&qi=sXJzwbDmxR7TpddJNH9ZOPkwQyA_1497963026_1:41:45&bq=author%3Djeffrey%2520dell%26title%3Ddon%2527t%2520take%2520it%2520to%2520heart for Don’t Take It To Heart.

    Nobody ordered Wolves is mysterious – there are two other novels and assorted plays or screenplays on the net, but not that. Libellous and suppressed, perhaps?

  8. Chris G says:

    There should be a copy of “Nobody Ordered Wolves” in Fulham Library as part of their Joint Fiction Reserve. It’s certainly showing on their catalogue.

  9. Roger says:

    …but it manages to be a “classic 1939 satire of the British film industry” although – or because it’s unobtainable.http://www.nobodyorderedwolves.com/about/ and it gets into Wikipedia!

    The late, lamented Smallweed recalls both film and book: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/mar/10/1

    An interview with Jill Craigie who said ” Although I think he’s brilliant, and I still think he’s written the most
    brilliant book about the film industry, which should be reprinted. You’ve heard of it, have you?
    ‘Nobody Ordered Wolves’ was an absolute classic, really about Korda and working for Korda.
    But I got very browned off because he had this immense talent and wonderful notices, but he’d
    just make any old Saint(?) stories and any old scripts in order to make money…
    “He was a writer. He worked for Korda, he did ‘Sanders of the River’ and one or two
    other things. He had a terrible row with the Boultings. But anyway – that’s another story
    altogether.” https://historyproject.org.uk/sites/default/files/Jill%20Craigie.pdf

    Interestingly, Dell seems to have lopped a few years off his age – there are assorted references to his birth in 1904.

  10. admin says:

    Fulham Library,eh? Well, I’m not going on the nick to get it!

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