A Private Function Review
Alan Bennett is such an unassuming chap that it seems incredible that he's become one of the very few reliable figures in British drama. Originally dismissed as the one with the specs from "Beyond The Fringe" who wrote nice comedies that were a bit old-fashioned, he's become an incisive and intelligent commentator on our society, as it is now and how it has been for the past fifty years. His "Talking Heads" are a model of the monologue form and his TV plays, such as The Insurance Man and the superb An Englishman Abroad hold up remarkably well as explorations of specific times and places. But my favourite work of his is A Private Function because it combines his gift for social comedy with an acute examination of snobbery and the austerity of the post-war years.
Set in Yorkshire in 1947, the film deals with a chiropodist, Gilbert Chilvers (Palin), who is tired of travelling to his wealthy customers and dreams of a shop on the main street of his small town. His wife (Smith), would-be social climber who despises her husband's weakness, dreams of the social position such a move will grant her and hopes that it may allow her to send her geriatric mother (Smith) off to a maximum security twilight home in Bridlington. The only fly in the ointment is Dr Swaby (Elliott), a powerful force in the town who isn't about to let a chiropodist - whom he sees as a competitor for his services - get pride of place on the Parade. Gilbert's hopes of status seem dashed until he discovers that Swaby, along with other social luminaries, is planning to celebrate the marriage of Princess Elizabeth with a 'private function' for the town's elite. As strict rationing is still in force (on the surface at any rate), a pig has been reared for this specific purpose, to be slaughtered on the day of the meal and consumed before anyone can find out. Gilbert, encouraged by his wife who proves to be something of a Lady Macbeth to his Thane, plans to kidnap the pig and hold the forces of snobbery to ransom. What he doesn't expect is that the pig, fed on rhubarb leaves, has become incontinent, just as it arrives in their kitchen.
It's hard to think of many comedies, certainly since the best days of Ealing, that work on so many levels, as the double-entendre title suggests. Bennett's superlative screenplay deals with the social observations as successfully as with the scatological comedy of a kitchen covered in pig shit. There's a broadly farcical element at work here too and a surprisingly angry account of the post-war deprivations of a country which thought it deserved better for its austerity during the war. Bennett grew up as the son of a butcher in Headingley, near Leeds, and observed at first hand the social divisions which lie at the bottom of this comedy. A suburb where rich and poor have always lived near each other, Headingley is close enough to industrial Leeds to be a working class environment but also close enough to Harrogate and the Dales to be attractive to the middle and upper-middle class. He has explained that after the war, the divisions between the haves and have-nots which were supposed to have been ironed out simply continued in slightly different ways - the people who kept to the rationing rules and those who got stuff under the counter for example, and the men who felt they ruled the town and had to keep anyone 'common' well out of things. The scene where Gilbert is informed his shop is no longer available is uncomfortable because it's so cruel and obviously comes out of genuine anger on Bennett's part. The following scene, when he goes (along with large foot display sign) to get his wife and her mother out of the posh hotel were they have gone to afternoon tea, is a lovely bit of social mortification and leads directly to the kidnapping plot, but it's also based on observations from his youth. When his parents took him and his brother out for afternoon tea at a posh cafe, they couldn't afford to eat anything so they would have one cream cake between them all and his mother would slip him bits of bread and butter when the head waiter wasn't looking. In this comedy, Bennett is, as ever, working his ability to take a scalpel to social divisions at the highest level without turning it into a bland message movie.
However, the film is also extremely funny. Virtually every single line that Maggie Smith delivers is a classic - "Don't bring feet to the table Gilbert" - and her character is a rich source of all the ridiculous snobbery that is the property of a certain kind of Yorkshire woman. She's like a cross between Lucrezia Borgia and Margaret Thatcher and she manages to be simultaneously terrifying and oddly attractive. The villainous Dr Swaby is a wonderfully horrible villain, sneering at everyone and everything with venom, especially in his classic speech about the impending welfare state - "Soon, any poorly pillock will be able to knock on my door and say 'I'm ill, treat me'.... god, what a nasty piss-stained little country this is." Bennett has always been good at respectability hiding misanthropy and Denholm Elliott is a perfect match for this gift. He also has fun with the broader characters, such as Richard Griffiths' portly solicitor who rummages through his wife's nail clippings for a chocolate she's discarded and, most memorably, with Mother whose derangement is just enough to be funny without being too much to be tragic. Liz Smith is unforgettable, hanging around the sitting room doorway like Banquo's ghost and wittering on endlessly about Bridlington and the unmentionable pig. As usual with Bennett, the little details are often as funny as the gags - a scene with mother and the pig staring out of a window is weirdly poetic and there's a delicious moment when the two Smiths are sitting regally in a car - "I thought we might have a run out to Harrogate" - which won't run due to petrol rationing.
It's true that the film begins to sag a little once the kidnap plot gets into motion and there's something odd at the centre of the film. Michael Palin gives a performance which is, necessarily, passive but he's a bit too ineffectual and this means that the second half of the film doesn't have the tension that it should have. He's also such a good comic actor that it seems a shame to have him in the straight man role. Nor am I entirely convinced about the ending. It's funny, and Maggie Smith is magnificent as the victorious wife, but it's also a bit too pat, not making the most of the suggestion that she's about to prostitute herself to Dr Swaby in return for social status. As for the last moments, I will merely say that they are as sentimentally inappropriate as the rest of the film is bang on target. Malcolm Mowbray, whose career seemed to stall after the amusing but critically savaged farce Out Cold, does an efficient and uninspired job of direction, serving script and actors in professional enough fashion. The main misstep in the production is John Du Prez's much too whimsical score which belongs in a much sillier film.
Much has been made, especially by uncomprehending American critics, about the nastiness and cruelty of the film. As we more enlightened Brits realise, this is the precise reason why the film is so effective. Most of the best British comedy has been based, in one way or another, on cruelty (from Chaucer to A Fish Called Wanda) and it's this essential darkness that allows Bennett's comedy to work. It's not just the contrast of light and dark, it's the sleaziness that arises out of venal little people grubbing around for pathetic scraps of social status that is funny. It's also the hopeless divide between ambitions and reality that inspires laughter because the tightrope walking between comedy and tragedy is so precise. Mrs Chilvers is a monster, but she's a realistic monster who we can understand and, sneakingly, sympathise with, perhaps because those of us who grew up in Yorkshire are so familiar with the type. As always with Alan Bennett's best work, it's the awareness of how nasty the world can be that makes us cherish all the more the moments of rich, generous comedy.
This was a Hand Made Films production and, having been in the care of more video labels than it would be polite to mention, it's now been released on DVD by the ever impressive Anchor Bay.
The picture quality is generally good. The film is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1. It's a crisp and clean transfer with occasional signs of print damage. A thorough remastering would have helped but it's not a disgrace by any means. The muted colours come across very nicely and there are no serious artifacting problems, although the scene in the hotel toilet could have looked better. This isn't a visually distinguished film and the transfer serves it more than adequately.
The soundtrack is a basic Dolby Digital 2.0 transfer of the original Dolby Stereo recording. It's perfectly fine and there's nothing much more to say about it. Some crackling in the early part of the film would be my only criticism.
The main extra feature is a commentary featuring Alan Bennett, Michael Palin, Mark Shivas (the producer) and Malcolm Mowbray. This is an excellent track largely because it's moderated with intelligence by the invaluable (love him or hate him) Mark Kermode. He keeps the discussion going nicely and encourages a somewhat grumpy Alan Bennett to share some amusing observations. Palin is as pleasant and talkative as you'd expect and the other two men share their memories with affection. They talk about the film but also the social background and the reaction to it, which is interesting as a comment on the different reactions of the British and Americans to black comedy.
The only other extras are some film notes and biographies, neither of which are anything other than standard.
This is a good presentation of an excellent film. It's as funny as any comedy made in England since The Ladykillers and a fine example of why Alan Bennett is one of our finest writers. The DVD contains a great commentary and a reasonable transfer so it is generally recommended.