Essays: Brilliant banality |
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Brilliant banality

The latest film for television to be devised and directed by Mike Leigh, Home Sweet Home (BBC1), was assessed by an unusually obtuse Times critic as having nothing in it. It had everything in it.

With ‘Abigail’s Party,’ Leigh’s unique talent was firmly hinted at, but not, I thought, fully confirmed. He obviously had a terrific eye and ear for human banality, but you wanted to be sure that the observations would shape up: art, after all, is more than just registration. In ‘Home Sweet Home,’ the gripping story of three postmen and how practically nothing happened to them, every tortured inarticulacy took its place in a fearfully symmetrical confection.

There were arias of loneliness and struggling pretension, in which daydreaming wives haltingly poured out their anguish. ‘It’s like a band of steel pulled tight across my temples.’ There were passionless duets in which hang-dog husbands were brought even further to heel. ‘Stop treading on the rug! You’re squashing it!’ There were long, Mozartian, end-of-the-act ensembles in which everybody said nothing.

If you can imagine ‘Così fan tutte’ with the music taken out, and then with the words taken out, and then with all the decor and costumes replaced by the tackiest fabrics and furniture known to mortal man, you’ve got a movie by Mike Leigh. That there should be two such original artists as him and Bill Forsyth loose in Britain at the same time is a remarkable thing.

In one of Forsyth’s films about hopeless Glasgow youth, ‘That Sinking Feeling,’ there is a small but resonant sequence showing the boys sitting in a car. It has already been established that the boys are skint and have no prospects, unless their projected robbery of a warehouse full of stainless steel sink-units pays off. How could they be sitting in a car? And then the camera pulls back to show that the car is an abandoned wreck. The single camera movement that advances the story is a mark of Forsyth’s work and equally of Leigh’s. ‘Home Sweet Home’ was full of invisibly precise long shots that told you about the isolation of the characters without anybody having to say a word — which was lucky, because nobody in the story could tell you much about himself or anyone else.

A more noticeable piece of directorial flair happened when the second most hopeless postman took some time to park his bicycle. You knew it would not stay upright, but the question was when it would choose to fall down. The camera panned with the postman and the bike fell gently somewhere off screen. Tati used similar tricks in ‘Mr Hulot’s Holiday’: the image of the swing door that went sproing, for example, was often conveyed merely by the soundtrack.

Craft on this level of subtlety is a particular delight to watch at a time when some young directors, through no fault of their own, are being called geniuses for having their names on vast adaptations full of star actors and historic buildings. Such generalship should never be undervalued, but it is not necessarily the same thing as creative talent. Mike Leigh is making something out of nothing — or, rather, showing you that what superficially looks like nothing is really something.

His communities of zombies speak clichés when they speak at all, but their emotions are real. Even if they feign passion there is genuine deprivation underneath. The inability to talk is revealed as a kind of language, into which any half-way normal utterance must be translated before it can be understood. ‘So it was a mutual separation.’ ‘Nar, she just runs off with some geezer.’ Even more hopeless than the second most hopeless postman, the third most hopeless postman was incapable of taking in the news that his wife was having an affair with the first most hopeless postman. ‘Why?’ he asked. He couldn’t see why anyone would want to.

The first most hopeless postman’s daughter was in care because he did not know how to look after her. He knew he did not know how and worried about it, but did not know how to turn the worry into action, mainly because he did not have the words. The social workers had the words, but they were all the wrong ones. A terrible girl called Melody was full of uncomprehending cheer. ‘Fair enough?’ Finally she ran off to London and left them all to it.

Melody’s boyfriend, another social worker, ended the film with an extended sociological recitative about ‘contributing infrastructural causes.’ Not a word he said meant a thing, but the first most hopeless postman did not know that. We knew it was nonsense, but to him it was a blank. Mike Leigh is conducting the most daring raid on the inarticulate yet. Harold Pinter is Christopher Fry beside him.

While in an expansive mood, let me record my, and I hope your, gratitude for Manon (BBC2), the Kenneth MacMillan ballet transmitted from Covent Garden. Lately I have spent quite a lot of time hailing MacMillan as a man of genius and won’t pile the bouquets any higher here, but it still needs to be said that Jennifer Penney and Anthony Dowell in the first pas de deux were enough to make you hope that Manon would see sense and stick with Des Grieux, instead of screwing everything up and being shipped off to croak in Louisiana.

The Manon story is perhaps to be appreciated in its ideal form by seeing the English National Opera production of the Massenet version at the London Coliseum, but not everyone can hope to do that, whereas with the ballet all you had to do was touch a button and there they were, dancing their little hearts out.

So did Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean in the World Figure Skating Championships (BBC1), but the Beeb got its skates twisted. Our couple danced first in the final group and were interviewed in depth (‘Did the cup of tea help?’) while the next pair were dancing, thereby depriving us of a chance to compare. British champions bring television madness in their train. Robin Cousins used to be a victim, but now he has joined the persecutors. If he is to go on commentating, he must try harder not to describe what we can already see. ‘Look at the flowers! It’s almost like a florist’s shop!’

The whole style of Esther Rantzen’s That’s Life (BBC1) affects me like being trapped in a lift with a warm-up man, but her marathon programme on how to have a baby was almost certainly a boon for millions of women. There were harrowing stories of visits to the clinic in which nothing was accomplished except a long wait and an insulting word from the doctor. One woman overheard a consultant tell his students that her baby might be dead in there. ‘He told me I had big ears and that it didn’t concern me.’ A nurse who thought, correctly, that her baby was in distress was told by the doctor that she was over-reacting because she was a nurse. For those of us who have been well-treated in this respect, here was a shaking up.

Colin Welland would not be the first name that sprang to mind if you were compiling a list of people suffering from excessive humility, but from now on he should assert himself and never go on screen unless he is writing his dialogue. In beer commercials it does not matter so much, because while uttering other people’s lines his moustache is under the foamy surface of the product. But in the Labour Party Political Broadcast (all channels) his mouth was clearly visible, coping with such locutions as ‘a carefully thought-out package of radical alternatives.’ It transpired that the package of radical alternatives would be financed by borrowing money.

The Observer, 21st March 1982
[ This piece also appears in Glued to the Box ]