The Mystery Of My ‘Uncle’
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.