The American Film Theatre was an ambitious enterprise with the aim of taking some of the most brilliant plays of the 20th century, often in the original stage productions, and preserving them not as stage plays, but as films in their own right. Almost without exception, the fourteen films that were made have enormous artistic value – even if unfortunately they didn’t have great commercial value – preserving some remarkable performances from some of the finest actors of the day. Such is certainly the case with Alan Bates’ portrayal of Ben Butley.
Ben Butley (Alan Bates) and Joey Keaston (Richard O’Callaghan) are teachers in the English department of a London College of Further Education. Butley has just broken-up with his wife and is staying with Joey, but living together and working together is beginning to take its toll on the relationship of the two men. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that Joey has just returned from a two-week break with a new boyfriend, Reg (Michael Byrne), who Butley parodies as a common Northerner. In between the merciless, caustic exchanges, Butley despatches unwelcome students looking for tutorials (“I haven’t got any legitimate students – they’re all bastards.”) and intrusive teaching colleagues. His world, both personally and professionally, is crashing down around him, but Butley, on a journey of self-destruction, aims to make that fall as spectacular as possible. He aims to go down in flames and take everyone along with him.
Butley – the character as played by Alan Bates – is a complex person – intelligent, witty and articulate, yet he seems to be unable to progress in his life while those around him move on, mature and form new relationships and meet with professional success. Butley stubbornly resists. More than that – he wilfully takes perverse pleasure in actually regressing. While his colleague Edna Shaft (Jessica Tandy) has successfully just got a book published, Butley’s book on T. S. Eliot isn’t going anywhere. He’s too busy reading Beatrix Potter. As his world crashes around him, he lashes out at what he sees as the hypocrisy of a comfortable conformity that hides real feelings – but the real hypocrisy is in Butley’s playing with words, in the repressed homosexuality that he can’t bring himself to admit to, that he hides behind barbed wit and bitter words. Yet, in his urge to self-destruct, he taunts and jibes, longing for someone with an equivalent wit and intelligence to match him, to find him out and expose him for what he is. The viewer can only sit back and be delighted and appalled at the character’s brilliant, articulate and darkly funny destruction.
Needless to say, Butley is very talky as a film and there is not much action or plot – at least not in cinematic terms. Being based faithfully on Simon Gray’s play (and adapted by the playwright himself), it’s very much character and dialogue driven, but what marvellously witty dialogue! Alan Bates attacks the role with almost Pythonesque characterisation, sardonically flippant, yet subtly nuanced and with an immaculate sense of comic timing. The film rarely breaks out of the two-person exchange of dialogue, although the entrance of the other cast members makes a welcome change of dynamic – and practically the whole film takes place in the one room – the English department staff-room. It’s a testament to the performances and the script, that this is barely noticed by the viewer. It’s also testament to the fine direction of Harold Pinter, who was very familiar with the material and sympathetic to its rhythms and moods, and makes the most of the mise en scène, focussing on the actors, knowing that they are more than capable of carrying the film through their flawless delivery.
Butley, along with The Homecoming are the first releases from the new inD label, which will be releasing all fourteen titles in the American Film Theatre Collection. Details of the collection can be found here. Each of the releases features a substantial number of high quality extra features. The DVDs are encoded for all regions.
The DVD transfer of the film is rather disappointing. The image is clear enough, with few marks or scratches and colours are bright, if a little unnatural, particularly in skin-tone, occasionally looking dull and washed out in places. There are hints of grain and a fair amount of compression artefacts visible throughout and the film never looks entirely sharp. The worst problem however is in the telecine transfer – the image wobbling for a fraction of a second around each edit. Looking closely at the problem the image seems to expand and stretch slightly at every cut. It’s very distracting and possibly even nauseating if watched for too long. The film just about survives the problems of the transfer, but it’s far from satisfactory.
The quality of the audio track is average. Presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, the soundtrack appears to be in mono, with no cleverness or effects at all in an exclusively dialogue-driven film. It’s generally clear enough to follow speech, but is somewhat whistley with sibilance and rather harsh and booming in louder passages. There are unfortunately no subtitles to help along anyone who may be hard of hearing or struggling to follow the dialogue. It’s pretty rapid-fire dialogue anyway, so I’m not sure that subtitles would have been successful in any case.
Interview with Sir Alan Bates (30:06)
All the interviews have been specially recorded for the ATF series of DVDs and all are presented in anamorphic widescreen. The late Alan Bates talks about playing the role, the key to the character of Butley and just how far it can be pushed. He compares the experience of working with Harold Pinter to another film he worked on in the series, In Celebration with Lindsay Anderson.
Interview with Simon Gray (22:06)
The playwright reveals the autobiographical elements in the play and talks about the various members of the cast and what they brought to their roles, his friendship with Harold Pinter and his thoughts on the screenplay vs. the actual play.
Interview with Otto Plaschkes (21:46)
The Executive Producer of the AFT series talks about the approach to putting famous plays onto the screen, with reference to Butley, The Homecoming, In Celebration and Galileo, this seems to be a catch-all interview which is duplicated on The Homecoming and possibly the other DVDs.
Interview with Edie Landau (22:26)
The Executive in charge of the AFT, Edie Landau explains how the project came about, how they chose which plays to film, how they got everyone involved, and how the enterprise eventually failed.
AFT Trailer Gallery
Trailers are included for Butley (2:53), <The Homecoming (2:29), and the next releases in the series, A Delicate Balance (3:19), The Ice Man Cometh (2:37) and The Man In The Glass Booth (2:27).
Programme notes basically, this is made up of a text interview with Harold Pinter and essays by Erich Segal (‘The Prof as Protagonist’) and Robert Benchley (‘What College Did To Me’).
Stills Gallery & Posters
Fourteen colour and black & white stills and two posters are included here.
“Simon Gray & Butley” by Michael Feingold, the Chief Theatre Critic for the Village Voice presents mainly facts about the production rather than any analysis.
You have to admire the American Film Theatre for having the foresight to preserve these terrific plays and performances, which would almost certainly have never been deemed filmable, and for doing the job so well. At the same time you have to feel sorry for any actor who has to perform these plays on stage in the future under the shadow of these recordings, and this is particularly the case with Alan Bates brilliant and definitive performance in Butley. The film itself and the extensive and worthwhile range of extra features on the DVD go a long way to helping you overlook the problems with the transfer on this particular release. On the strength of this and The Homecoming, the rest of the AFT series on DVD looks very promising indeed.