One of my favorite films might never have made it to the screen were it not for a happy bit of happenstance. As actress Anne Bancroft recalled in her introduction to the 1995 edition of 84, Charing Cross Road, “Some years ago, as I was sitting on the beach on Fire Island, a man strolling by approached me. I didn’t know the fellow, so his exclamation―’I’ve just read something that would be perfect for you!’―took me by surprise.”
She went on to say that he returned the following day with a copy of Helen Hanff’s best-seller. “His enthusiasm seemed so sincere,” she wrote, “I couldn’t help but be intrigued.”
It was kismet: a case of the right people being at the right place at the right time. Bancroft read and fell in love with the slim volume, which is nothing more or less than a thirty-year collection of letters between an American writer and British antiquarian bookseller.
Knowing how much Hanff’s book had come to mean to her, Bancroft’s husband―writer/ producer/actor Mel Brooks, bought the screen rights for her as an anniversary gift, and together they, along with an exceptional team of movie-making pros, would create what I can only describe as a love letter to friendship, the nearly lost art of letter writing, books, and the people who love them.
The film begins in the late 1940s, when television was new and based in Manhattan, where script writers like Helene Hanff eked out a living. When we meet her she is middle-aged single gal, living in a walk-up studio apartment in a Manhattan brownstone. Small though it may be, it is filled with the things that make her happy: photographs of loved ones, rows and rows of books, a cozy chair to curl up in, and a black manual typewriter, where we presume, she toils away reading and writing scripts for Ellery Queen and other now-vintage drama series, magazine articles and letters: lots and lots of letters.
If she longs for a bigger place, we wouldn’t know it. When asked by perspective neighbors how many rooms her apartment has, she replies cheerily, “I have a work room, a sitting room, a dining room and a kitchen.” And with that she opens the door for the big reveal. “―And her it is!”
Despite the financial uncertainty of life as a freelance writer (and a woman freelance writer at that), Ms. Hanff appears to be quite content, earning enough to pay the bills, buy a few small but thoughtful gifts for friends, and ‘good clean used copies’ of books she has read and loved for herself―if and when, she can find them.
And therein lies the rub. It seems that even in 1947 Manhattan, where small independent bookshops could be found on nearly every corner, finding the books on her wish list, is no easy task. Decades before the Internet and mega bookstores with their latte cafes and endless inventories, her only hope of finding these classics lies in an ad placed in the Saturday Review of Literature by Marks and Co., a small British antiquarian bookstore located on London’s Charing Cross Road.
With high hopes and a modest budget, Ms. Hanff writes the first of what will be many letters to the shop, asking if they can help her.
A dusty, throwback of a place even then, the shop at 84 Charing Cross Road is a study in understated earnestness, with stacks of books and prints unapologetically piled on large tables, and seemingly endless rows of gently used books lining its floor-to-ceiling shelves.
Frank Doel, answers Hanff’s letter, in a veddy British, impersonal tone that will warm over time as he, his co-workers and family slowly but surely become an important part of Hanff’s life, and she of theirs. Formal salutations give way to more informal greetings, as bits and pieces of their lives are shared along with book requests and confirmations.
As the stranger on the beach predicted, Bancroft was perfectly cast in the role of the slightly eccentric Ms. Hanff. Directed by David Jones, Produced by Mr. Brooks, and captured on film by David West, it boasts a stellar cast, music either written or conducted by George Fenton, and the look, feel and charm of a bygone era of movie-making.
I love the way this 1987 film is laid out; from the role the letters play, to the sets and bits and pieces of everyday living that give the viewer a real sense of the times. I love the simplicity of the dialogue and West’s cinematography: no quick cuts, no special effects, no four-letter words or hidden agendas: proof positive that good things do indeed come in small packages.
As previously noted, Anne Bancroft does a fine job of capturing Hanff’s gently sarcastic wit, genuine kindness and unabashed enthusiasm not only for British literature, but life itself. Anthony Hopkins, as Frank Doel, similarly fits comfortably into the role of the proper but genuinely decent British bookstore seller.
One of the joys of watching this 1987 film some twenty-eight years after its release is in seeing well-loved and long-established actors in small supporting roles. There’s Mercedes Ruehl as Helene’s actress friend, Veronica, a pre-Dame Judi Dench as Frank Doel’s wife, Nora, and a dark-haired, somewhat lighter version of Ian McNeice, cast as the bookshop’s cataloguer. Doc Martin fans know him as the series’ fumbling but good-natured plumber-turned-restaurateur, Bert Large.
One of my favorite scenes in the film features McNeice, as he and his great aunt (played with glee by the marvelous Gwen Nelson) enjoy a bit of tinned beef courtesy of Ms. Hanff. A holiday treat in post-war Britain, it’s part of a ‘CARE’ package of hard-to-get food stuffs the writer has sent to the shop’s employees. It is such small, well-written and acted moments that make the film a joy to watch.
As for the book that started it all; no one was more surprised at its success than Hanff herself. Published some two years after Frank Doel’s unexpected death in 1971, it would be developed into a small, two-person off-Broadway play before moving on to the “great white way” and the London stage in 1981. It was only when the book was turned into a film that the cast, sets, scenes and storyline were expanded, filling in the blanks with bits of conversation, charming us with on-location shots of New York and London, and taking us into the apartments, neighborhoods and cubbies of Hanff’s beloved bookshop.'
I was lucky enough to interview Helen Hanff a year or so before she passed away in 1997. I was hosting a radio talk show at the time, and had scheduled a one-hour interview with the author. Some twenty minutes in, a visiting nurse arrived at her bedside, cutting the conversation short. But in the time we had, she told of how the book had impacted her life, and noted that while the film may hint of an unfulfilled romance between the letter writers, there was none. What there was, was a real affection for not only Mr. Doel, but his family and the people who were the heart of the now long-gone bookshop.
Should you travel to Charing Cross Road―as I did some years ago, you’ll find a plaque where Marks & Co once stood, its words marking the fact that the shop truly existed, forever remembered in print, on stage, and film thanks to the late Ms. Hanff. It is a tribute the author, that, after reading the book and seeing the movie, people tend to head for the nearest used book shop, where they, like Hanff, look for good clean copies of books they read and loved, or meant to read.
“I love the inscriptions on the leaves and notes in the margins, and reading passages someone long gone has called to my attention” Hanff wrote. A sentiment that is at the very heart of this film.