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Posts Tagged ‘Yorkshire TV’


Jim Broadbent as Kempton Bunton — in one of his more anxious moments as he tries to decide what he can get away with for the good of mankind (The Duke, 2020)

Dear friends,

A few weeks ago my daughter, a freelance reviewer for (among others) WETA and NBC, who keeps up with things (in order to make her fees) told me one of my favorite young actresses, Charlotte Spencer (known to me thus far from seeing Sanditon 1 & 2 where she plays Esther Denham inimitably despite it’s being a ridiculous role), was to be in a movie (or had been in a movie) with the great older actor, Hugh Bonneville (another actor with super powers who ends up in the easy drivel role of Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey). I said I’d look out for it, but this information slipped my mind until I saw Charlotte Spencer in The Duke as the hard, mean working class young woman, pregnant and unmarried, living with a young man trying to escape a subpoena to be a witness against a friend, which friend has found a temporary sanctuary in the house of the Buntons.


Charlotte Spencer as Pammy reading a Yorkshire newspaper with her perpetual sense of superiority

He has been let in by his friend, Jackie Bunton (Fionn Whitehead), the son of the house, pictured here in a typically good-natured, but unusually anxiety-free mood with his girlfriend, Irene (Aimee Kelly),

It wasn’t Hugh Bonneville, after all, I thought, it was the yet more wonderful (good at comedy) Jim Broadbent whom I’ve never seen in a bad movie. Spenser’s presence clinched it for me: I had lucked into a supreme talent-loaded movie in the old tradition of Yorkshire TV. Yorkshire TV was once a continual TV program making outfit in Northern England producing gems like the Biederbecke Tapes (I know, I know, you’ve never heard of it). The opening credits listed as producer Yorkshire Screen.  These films were known for the rich humor, off-the-cuff, off-beat ironic wit, combined with a genuine labor-left POV. And that is just what this was, a late revival of a type long gone.

It’s my knowledge that the mood of the film, which is part of what delighted me (and the person I was with) into sudden not easy to explain laughter, that has enabled me to understand the clueless reviews, which are anything from lukewarm to slightly puzzled or dismissive (“typical British”). At first I thought the disdain and also the sentimental language in which it was discussed as a “tall tale” was the result of the reactionary stupidity (what these characters are not super-rich) of contemporary mainstream US life, but then I realized the poor way it’s been advertised (what could the title mean?), as in “come for this one actor,” so that I had no idea what it was about is due to most US reviewers knowing nothing either of earlier peculiar formula Yorkshire TV. The title might mislead you into thinking this another upper-class macho male worshipping product. Mark Kermode who knows a lot about film got it right in the Guardian: a true-tale of an art-stealing pensioner

The basis for the film is a real person, Kempton Bunton, an aging pensioner, who is trying to get together money for his campaign against old-age pensioners having to pay a license fee to the BBC for having a TV. Roger Michell has long produced interesting films using this kind of material (this was his last film), especially with Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette). He also wrote the script for one of the best Austen adaptations, the 1996 BBC Persuasion.  Broadbent recently played a similar role in Le Week-end. The fun or comedy comes from a broad but kindly and sympathetic caricature of working class life and Bunton’s own self-regarding inadequate methods against entrenched systems. He and his son sit in chairs under an umbrella in the pouring rain in front of a bank with a sign demanding “No BBC licenses for OAPs.” Needing the money, he gets a job in a bread factor and notices the boss singles out for abuse a Pakistani man working there, and speaks out on the young man’s behalf; he is abruptly fired.


The incident happens over lunch where the white men are playing cards with the Pakistani man (not listed in the wikipedia credits!)

His long-suffering law-abiding wife, Dorothy, played by Helen Mirren as a combination of exasperation, bored weariness (she cleans for the living that supports them), and, along with a tender love for him, genuine fear they’ll get into trouble (he has been in prison briefly once before) lends the film an astringency (the way Barbara Flynn did her man in Beiderbecke) that the reviewers overlook. Dorothy (by the way) does not approve of Pammy because she is pregnant outside marriage, and she tries to keep the couple out of the house. But she failed against Kempton’s sense of obligation to all mankind. Besides which, the young man is his son’s friend and is on the moral side, loyalty to friends and all that (alas E. M. Forster is not quoted)


The married pair talking — of course Dorothy knits — while Mirren keeps her face flat, grim most of the time, here you can see in her held yet flexible face her incipient rising distress

The storyline: we think that Bunton has stolen a famous Goya painting of the Duke of Wellington (whence the film’s title), and, together with his son, has hidden it in a wardrobe upstairs, while he proceeds to demand a ransom from the British authorities. It’s spied out (somewhat ironically) by Pammy, who is not impressed by anyone not solely motivated by self-interest. She wants to sell the Goya for a big sum and offers to split the ill-gotten gains with Kempton, her threats precipitating him into returning the painting.

He is (naturally) easily caught, put into prison and then tried for theft, and for being a public nuisance. It was when I saw Matthew Goode was playing his lawyer — Goode often plays effective kindly upper class people — I realized there would be a deus ex machina and Bunton would not be seriously punished.

It’s a kindly fable, for we are to believe Bunton won a light sentence because the jury was moved by his goodness.


Kempton is putting flowers on his daughter’s grave with son Jackie in the background

There is a secondary plot. We slowly discover years ago the couple had a daughter who died in a bicycle accident for which Bunton blames himself as he bought the bicycle. He is writing a play in the Chekhov mode, The Girl on the Bicycle. He is self-educated, reads Orwell we see, says Shakespeare is overrated because he has all these kings and dukes in his stories. Dorothy also disapproves of his having written the play, and worse yet, sent it out to be published.  They should keep their grief private. She herself refuses to discuss their loss. This play is one of several things he sends to others (newspapers, the BBC, the museum), hinting at his identity as the man who took the painting — he wants to be found out. He wants attention to be paid to his campaign and to him. Experts in these places pronounce him an amateur, third-rate based on his handwriting. The most touching moments in the movie (and there are many) concern this girl’s death. Both parents visit her grave. As a sign of reconciliation at the end of the film, Dorothy takes the photograph of Marion out of her husband’s drawer (where he keeps it to look at), has it framed and puts it on a wall in their house.

Along the way I recognized other wonderful actors I’ve often seen in secondary and occasionally primary roles on BBC and less hyped but excellent dramas. Anna Maxwell Martin is there as Dorothy’s benign boss, married to a Yorkshire politician; she comes to court and loudly roots for Kempton, as she sits alongside the Pakistani man (grateful to Kempton he shows up) — she was the heroine in Andrew Davies’s film adaptation of Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, my favorite Elizabeth Bennet in Death Comes to Pemberley; and taught me to love Esther Summerson in Andrew Davies’ Bleak House.  James Wilby is the judge (he was Maurice in the Merchant-Ivory film of the same name). Richard McCabe is the Home Secretary (he is just such a fine actor, most recently I’ve watched him in Foyle’s War). John Hefferman as prosecuting barrister (a typical role for him). I couldn’t catch who they all were.

There are reviews which praise the film as funny and warm-hearted (populist used positively), or very British, charming, but few take it at all seriously. Yet in the tradition of Yorkshire TV, it is both semi-oddball (no one surely would act this half-mad way) and socially critical.

Don’t miss it if you are longing for some reassurance there is still decency among people today, or recognition of what counts in life and how singularly unjust, obtuse and self-regardingly punitive most gov’ts are more and more without any mitigation. The Buntons have a hard time making ends meet and this gov’t does nothing about that. Think of the price rises in the UK and US over the past year and how nothing fundamental is done to control these. The humor and situations in this comedy reach there.

Dancing in the kitchen (there is a similar scene in Last Orders where Michael Caine is husband to Helen Mirren as long-suffering but genuinely angry wife)

At the end of the film the son confesses to an authority figure we’ve seen before, apparently the head of the National Gallery (played by Andrew Havill), that he, Kempton’s son actually did the stealing of the painting. He is told (after a while) he will not be prosecuted and then sternly warned not to tell anyone or he will regret it. Like the Pakistani man but unlike his father, Jackie is all submissive gratitude. This film is not typical or very British: it’s typical or very old-style Yorkshire TV.

Ellen

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