Playing Away Review
The Brixton Conquistadores accept an invitation to play a friendly cricket match in the small rural Suffolk village of Sneddington, for charity as part of the village's Third World Week. When the Conquistadores, led by Willie-Boy (Norman Beaton), arrive in a battered minibus, they're not what the villagers expect...
Written by Caryl Phillips, Playing Away is a mild, innocuous, not especially funny comedy. It’s notable as the second, and to date last, fiction feature by Trinidad-born director Horace Ové (born 1939). Ové is in the record books for becoming the first black British director of a feature film with Pressure in 1975 (also released on DVD by the BFI). In between these two features, he has worked extensively on television and in documentary. With the advent of Channel 4, he was not the only director who had not made a feature in some years who was given the opportunity to do so. Playing Away might have had the usual one or two showings on its parent channel before disappearing into obscurity – as rather too many 1980s Films on Four have done, including some which won awards in their day – but it was given a slot in the 1986 London Film Festival and a cinema release early in the following year.
Playing Away feels a little of its time in that you sense that the premise and certain plot points are there to impart lessons to the audience – which means that those unsympathetic may find it overly politically correct, however much the film is played for light entertainment. (Another Film Four cinema release, 1987’s Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, immediately springs to mind, a film that frequently congratulates itself on its right-onness.) Having said that, I'm writing this soon after the leader of the British National Party appeared on BBC's Question Time, so no doubt they are lessons that could bear repeating. Your mileage may vary, to use an expression not current in 1986. (Someone whose mileage clearly varies is critic Stephen Bourne, who in the essay included in this DVD's booklet describes the film as “a real winner” and even “a minor classic”.)
Norman Beaton shines in the leading role, making Willie-Boy a complex and sympathetic figure. Beaton was undoubtedly one of the leading black British actors of his time, and you could easily make a case that he was too often marginalised. He also died too young. Given prominence in the DVD packaging, due to their early small roles here, are Ross Kemp and Neil Morrissey. (Morrissey, wearing a very 80s mullet haircut, even gets his profile on the front cover, though to be fair that was a publicity still at the time, and maybe even the poster as well.) Technically, the film is well made, with Nic Knowland's camerawork particularly attractive, and it does have its place in history as one of the very few British films ever made by a black director and a black writer.
Playing Away is released by the BFI on a single dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only.
The transfer is in the ratio of 1.33:1 and therefore not anamorphically enhanced. The usual BFI notes on the transfer aren't present in the booklet, but due to the graininess of the image I suspect this film was shot in 16mm. Given that, and the film's televisual origins, I suspect the ratio is correct. Like Mr Beautiful Laundrette before it, and Truly Madly Deeply after it, this would seem to be a film made for television in 16mm and Academy Ratio, which was given a 35mm blow-up and shown in cinemas. I wonder how many were able to show it in Academy? Probably not many. (I should add that the IMDB claims the film was shot in 35mm, but as ever technical information on that site should be treated with caution.) As for the image itself, it's grainy and a little soft as is to be expected, but colours seem lifelike and blacks are solid.
The soundtrack is the original mono (Channel Four did not broadcast in stereo until 1991), on this DVD as uncompressed LPCM 2.0. Absolutely no complaints here – the sound is warm and full and well-balanced. English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are optionally available.
There is one extra on the disc, an interview of Horace Ové by Mike Phillips (30:01), recorded in August 2009. Ové talks about his childhood and upbringing in Trinidad and his arrival in Europe, and discusses the making of Pressure, his other work, and particularly Playing Away. He also talks about the attitudes and prejudice he received as a black man in a predominantly white industry. Normally the BFI are scrupulous in providing subtitles for their English language-extras as well as their English-language features, and it's surprising and disappointing that they are not available for this item.
Also in package is a sixteen-page booklet containing the Stephen Bourne essay referred to above, biographies of Ové and Norman Beaton, and film credits.