The second Bill Naughton play to get a big screen adaptation a few months after Alfie, The Family Way, stands up well today as a social comedy with a real heart. When it was released at the end of 1966 the film was given an X certificate (just like Alfie) but in 1970 the classification system changed and this was reduced to then new ‘AA’ (nobody under 14) with ‘X’ increasing its age restriction from ’16’ to ’18’. In a wonderful example of the difficulties of classifying films, the current DVD has a ’15’ certificate. Personally, I think 12A would be the most sensible.
When The Family Way was released in 1966, I ignored it for two reasons, I think. First, I mistakenly thought it would be a comedy about shotgun weddings with a young man forced to marry when he got his girlfriend pregnant. I don’t know how I got this impression. Second, the film starred John Mills and his daughter Hayley. Hayley Mills was in the process of trying to change her star image from children’s/Disney roles to adult roles and I think this put me off. In addition, I was not particularly a fan of John Mills who I associated with 1950s films. Again, I was wrong on both these counts but I think it’s interesting how strong and misleading impressions are formed. I’m less sure of whether I knew that this was a Boulting Brothers’ production at the time. The twin Boultings had been making films since the late 1930s, alternating roles as writer, producer and director. Post-1945 they had shown themselves as committed to mainstream Labour Party values and in the 1950s had begun to produce a series of satires on British institutions – Private’s Progress (1956), Brothers in Law (1957), Lucky Jim (1957) – from the Kingsley Amis novel about a university lecturer – Carlton-Browne of the FO (1959) (UK diplomats) and the brave satire on industrial relations I’m Alright Jack (1959). These were all productions by the Boultings as ‘independents’ but eventually they became involved in the machinations of the public funding agency for film in the UK, the National Film Finance Corporation, and its attempts to merge and support British Lion, the independent studio facility (Shepperton) and distributor. The Family Way is a Boultings production released in the UK through British Lion. Variety suggests that the film was successful in North America with over $2 million in rentals – equivalent to a box office gross of $3-4 million. The film was also notable as offering Paul McCartney his first chance to score a film. It was photographed (in colour) by the veteran UK cinematographer Harry Waxman.
Bill Naughton had originally written the story as an ‘Armchair Theatre’ play for ITV in 1961 titled Honeymoon Postponed. In 1963 it became a stage play All in Good Time before its film adaptation (by Naughton himself). In many ways the narrative takes the form of a traditional Lancashire social comedy (often referred to as ‘North Country comedy’ and popular as a stage comedy in theatres across the North). Arthur Fitton (Hywel Bennett) is a sensitive 20 year-old who works as a cinema projectionist (we see him projecting another British Lion hit of 1966, Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment). The film opens on the day of his wedding to Jenny Piper (20 year-old Hayley Mills). The couple are going to spend one night in Arthur’s old room in the Fitton household and then take off on their honeymoon to ‘Majorca’ (with a ‘j’). But next day they discover that the local travel agent has done a runner with all their cash and the trip is off – they are doomed to start married life in Arthur’s old bed. The first night has not gone well – a practical joke collapsed the bed beneath them and Arthur was put off his stride. One of the great things about the film is that the script avoids too many jokes about Arthur and Jenny’s predicament. Jenny is the sweetest of girls and truly loves Arthur, but she is human too and sometimes goes out with his brother when Arthur is at work.
The Lancashire comedy has several important elements. Here we have two contrasting families. The Pipers have the ‘hard’ mother (Avril Angers) and soft, doting father (John Comer). Arthur’s father is the impossible strutting working-class gamecock played to the hilt by John Mills and the understanding mother (the best role in the film) brilliantly presented by Marjorie Rhodes. Add in Arthur’s younger motorcycle-riding brother Geoffrey played by Murray Head and it isn’t difficult to see why Arthur feels under so much pressure in his old room with his young wife. In addition, his troubles with Jenny are bound to come to the notice of all the gossiping women in the neighbourhood who still discuss local events over the garden wall, in the queue at the fish and chip shop and when they are employed as cleaners at the Town Hall.
Really, the film shouldn’t work. Beautifully shot by Waxman, most of the photography is on location – in Rochdale according to Wikipedia with some scenes in Bolton and interiors at Shepperton. There is good use of night-time streets, record shops and the cinema etc. and I especially enjoyed a motorcycle ‘scrambling event’ – a genuine Pennine pursuit that Geoffrey takes Jenny to visit. But the casting is all ‘wrong’. Mills père and fille are from the UK cinema tradition of Southern actors playing Northern types. Murray Head is also a London lad and looks as if he is in a genuine 1966 film, not a 1961 comedy. (Head would later star as the young man in the middle in Sunday, Bloody Sunday with Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch in 1971.) Hywel Bennett was born in Wales but brought up in South London and Liz Fraser is another Londoner. Most of the rest of the cast are from across the North – the Ken Loach approach to local actors with a genuine identification with the characters they play seems some way away (although Kes would come out in 1969). But it does work. These are solid, professional actors and Naughton’s script is strong.
At the centre of the narrative is John Mills’ macho father, Ezra, the scourge of the local gas works and so ‘unreconstructed’ he could be a working man from the 1930s. I was amazed to realise that Mills was only 58 at the time. He leads the drinking and the singing at the wedding and berates his son for ‘book-reading’. As a balance to Mills, Wilfred Pickles plays Jenny’s uncle Fred who works as a ‘masseur’ – and is therefore deemed to know more about anything vaguely scientific/medical (and therefore ‘what’s up’ with Arthur). Pickles doesn’t have a long list of film credits but from the 1940s onwards he was a huge ‘personality’ presenter on radio and later television. A proud Yorkshireman despite settling in Lancashire, he may well have attracted older audiences to the film. A younger version of ‘macho man’ is played by Barry Foster, Arthur’s boss in the projection box. Arthur himself is a typical Lancashire comedy type. He looks so delicate. It’s only later that we learn that all did not go swimmingly on Ezra’s honeymoon and we might wonder whether Arthur is actually related to his father (on the other hand, we’ve noted that the younger son Geoffrey seems to be from another planet altogether). Arthur may well be a kind of ‘future man’.
It’s taken me a long time to realise it, but Naughton knew what he was about and his script is about a ‘real’ family – or at least a family I can recognise. It is arguably out of date for 1966, but memory is a strange device. When I attended a wedding only a few miles away from Rochdale/Bolton in 1970 it wasn’t too different from this one. I’m just grateful that DVD gives me the chance to relive it. Perhaps it will also help younger people to learn something about the Lancashire culture of the time.
I’d like to include a short extract from the film but StudioCanal (who bought the British Lion library) won’t allow it.
A big hit in France and now distributed around the world, La famille Bélier is notable for two reasons. First it deals with music and singing. This is topical in two ways. As in many other countries, French TV has picked up on the popularity of talent shows with viewer participation. This is how Louane Emera, the lead actor in La famille Bélier, first came to the attention of French audiences. She reached the semi-final of the French version of The Voice in 2013, after being ‘saved’ by the audience, possibly because of her own tragic story of being orphaned a few months earlier. The television appearances helped her to get the role of Paula in the film and since then she has won an award at the Césars (the French equivalent of the Oscars) and in 2015 has had a No 1 single.
In the film, Paula is a teenager who discovers she has a voice almost by accident and is forcibly encouraged to learn how to use it by her school’s music teacher who wants her to audition for a prestigious music school. The irony of the popularity of the film is that the songs that Paula learns are by Michel Sardou who was a giant of chanson in the 1990s but who is now thought old-fashioned. The film reminded audiences of the songs at a time when the French government is asking for more quotas on French radio to make sure the invasion of English language pop music is kept at bay. The chanson tradition puts great emphasis on the lyrics of songs and the main song in the film ‘Je vole’ (‘I fly’) was originally written about a teenage suicide but for the film the words were altered to refer to leaving home. The role of the music teacher is taken by Eric Elmosnino whose biggest success recently was as Serge Gainsbourg in Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) in 2010. Gainsbourg was perhaps the most notorious and most celebrated composer and performer of popular music in France in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
The other notable feature of La famille Bélier is that it is also a film about how discrimination affects hearing impaired people. It is quite a challenge to attempt to do this through the medium of comedy and perhaps predictably there has been a controversy about the casting of the film. Paula’s parents and her brother on the family farm in Normandy are all deaf mutes. Consequently she has to translate through sign language during all their encounters with officialdom, businesses and the general public. The film’s producers cast two well-known French actors without hearing impairments as the parents and a deaf actor as Paula’s brother. Campaigners for actors with hearing impairments have protested about this decision and such campaigns are not unusual across a range of films with characters in wheelchairs, characters of ‘small stature’ or other physical differences or with learning difficulties. The parents carry much of the comedy potential in the film (and this is even more noticeable through their signing actions compared to their son) and this perhaps aggravates the casting questions. Is the script the problem? Would the film be better without the comedy? If hearing impaired actors were cast would the film work in the same way? These are questions audiences might like to consider alongside an overall judgement as to what the film as it stands says about hearing impaired farmers in France.
Director Eric Lartigau does make one obvious attempt to draw the audience in to these questions when he cuts the sound of Paula’s singing voice at one point and effectively underlines the experience her parents have of her success as a singer. The other major element of the narrative is the political campaign – to become mayor of the local community – undertaken by Paula’s father. This does seem to lose in importance as a story towards the end of the film when Paula’s audition takes over. Lartigau’s two previous films, I Do (2006, a comedy with Charlotte Gainsbourg) and The Big Picture (2010, a thriller with Romain Duris) both got a UK release. Costing an estimated €11 million, La famille Bélier is a big budget film. A similar UK production might expect to work on less than half that amount. The budget difference is largely down to the higher fees paid to French film actors.
La famille Bélier was taken up for a UK release by the Canadian multinational group eOne – possibly through links to its French operation. However despite its popularity in France (where it was one of the major hits of Christmas 2014) the UK cinema release was only to a handful of cinemas and festival screenings. The DVD came out only a couple of weeks later. I was fortunate that our local community cinema was able to show the DVD to an appreciative audience only a few days after its release. We had a good discussion after the screening and various points came up. There was some concern about the casting of hearing actors in deaf roles, but also a suggestion that the comic exaggeration of signing as ‘performed’ by Karin Viard and François Damiens as the deaf parents was perhaps appropriate since as non-speakers it was otherwise difficult for them to express emotions. This seems a reasonable argument but the comedy in the film is often very broad and there is another signing character who is ‘laughed at’ partly because he has poor social skills. Many of the comic scenes depend on the potential embarrassment of parents who must have their teenage daughter translate for them with officialdom (e.g. questions about sexual health at the local surgery).
Part of the issue is connected, as one audience member pointed out, with the setting of the story in Normandy and therefore the conventions of rural comedy (e.g. comparisons with the sophistication of the Paris music school and characters from Paris ‘stuck’ in the sticks) and also the French tradition of stories about local politics and the importance of mayoral elections. These are mixed in with the ‘family comedy’. But there are at least two other generic repertoires in play. One is the youth picture involving teenage sex, school feuds etc. and the other is the ‘feelgood’ film built here around the nurturing of Paula’s talent and an inevitable dash to get to the conservatory audition.
In the end I watched this film three times, twice in community cinema settings. I enjoyed it each time, especially because of the singing and the performances, especially by Louane Emera. It is a manipulative feelgood film and I can understand the concerns of deaf actors but I think it could have attracted significant audience numbers given a proper cinema release (and some promotion). If that had happened, at least some people would have become more aware of issues within families with deaf members.
Finally, a few weeks after our screenings, one of the audience members gave me a copy of a German film called Beyond Silence which he said was very similar in its story. I’d heard suggestions that this German film existed but I’ve only just watched it and I’ll blog about it soon.
If you can find the DVD give La famille Bélier a chance. Here’s a trailer with English subs:
Alfie was the first of three Bill Naughton stories to reach cinema screens between 1966 and 1969 and it proved the most commercially successful – partly because of its popularity in North America. William Naughton (1910-1992) was born in Ireland but moved as a young child to Bolton and it is his Bolton experiences that inform the other two 1960s films, The Family Way (1966) and Spring and Port Wine (1969). I’ve watched these two films recently and I thought it might be useful to consider the three films together. The following notes on Alfie were first started several years ago for A Level Film Studies work on 60s British Cinema and I’ve updated them considerably for this posting.
American investment in British cinema
The Hollywood studios were active in the UK in the 1960s, partly as a result of industrial inertia which meant that they still had studio facilities and investments in UK film companies (e.g. MGM and Warner Bros.). But other Hollywood players were also attracted by the prospect of finding new talents and exploiting the growing reputation of London as the new capital of international pop culture – the so-called ‘Swinging’ London’ portrayed on the cover of Time Magazine in April 1966. Time was a little late with its cover and Hollywood interest in London had already been piqued by Dick Lester’s success with A Hard Day’s Night in 1964 and again with The Knack in 1965. These two films continued a successful run for United Artists in the UK, following Tom Jones (1963).
Alfie was financed by Paramount and like Tom Jones it was made in colour. Michael Caine was the ‘break-out’ star of 1964-5 in Zulu (1964) and The Ipcress File (1965) and the production was built around him. The cast included seven female roles (as Alfie’s ‘conquests’), all played by women who were well-known to British audiences of the time, and was filled out by a number of other familiar actors in supporting roles. Directed by Lewis Gilbert, a solid industry professional with a string of mainstream hits during the 1950s and early 1960s, and photographed by the veteran Otto Heller with a similarly impressive CV, the film also included a score by American jazzman Sonny Rollins. As a younger jazz musician (35 when the film was released), Rollins gave the film a bit more of a modern feel – which it definitely needed.
Naughton’s original play Alfie Elkins and His Little Life was first broadcast in January 1962 on what was then the Third Programme on BBC Radio and then appeared as a stage production in 1964. But the story events went back much further to the 1940s and 1950s. Alfie (played by Bill Owen) is a working-class lothario working his way through a stream of relationships with willing women. As Bob Murphy points out in Sixties British Cinema (BFI 1992), Alfie is less the new man of the 1960s – freed from class restrictions by the success of pop groups and working-class celebrities such as David Bailey and Terence Stamp – and more the spiv character from the 1940s surviving intact in the ‘new London’. Caine himself (in his early 30s ) is arguably too old, the actor having had his first youthful fling as a National Service conscript in Germany and Korea in 1952-4. Caine was three years older than Albert Finney who was already past the ‘youthful rebellion’ stage. This is compounded by Alfie’s dress sense – a military blazer was not exactly cool in 1966. The fact that Caine/Alfie is old enough to have experienced National Service marks him out from the younger men who would have been too young to have been conscripted (i.e. born after 1939). The history of National Service (1945-63), which took two years out of a young man’s life, is too often ignored in discussing British films of the 1960s. It helped to create three distinct generations of men with the National Service conscripts seeing the world differently than either the war-time soldiers or the post-war teenagers who followed them in the late 1950s.
The plot sees Alfie work his way through two young working-class women (Julia Foster and Jane Asher) three women closer to his own age (Millicent Martin, Eleanor Bron plus the beautiful Shirley-Ann Field from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) and two older women (Vivien Merchant and Shelley Winters). If you haven’t seen the film I won’t spoil who it is who brings Alfie’s game to an end.
Style and genre
Alfie is a comedy or more correctly a comedy-drama. While some of his conquests are equally ‘up for a good time’, in at least three cases the social reality of Alfie’s world intrudes, including in the infamous ‘back street abortion’ scene which deposits a foetus on his kitchen table. Did this make it into the American release? (Abortion was not legally available in the UK until David Steel’s Private Member’s Bill on Abortion Law Reform was passed in 1967, coming into effect in 1968.) Alfie is shot on location around London with both the typical tourist spots and areas of social housing featured. The main device to underpin Alfie’s chirpy demeanour is his straight to camera delivery of asides about each ‘bird’ he has bedded and whether ‘it’ is happy or not with her lot. This technique is borrowed from Albert Finney in Tom Jones (1963), but perhaps now makes the film feel old-fashioned rather than ‘modern’.
Reading the film
But if Alfie does not fit the description of ‘Swinging London’ films, does this mean it cannot ‘represent’ London? Far from it – ‘Swinging London’ was itself a construction by journalists to represent what was only a tiny group of successful people in the new world of the media and the either beautiful or rich followers that they attracted. There are around twenty films that might be described in this way. Alfie is arguably more representative of working-class and lower middle-class London in the 1960s than the other ‘Swinging London’ titles.
What Alfie does offer is a fascinating amalgam of the new ‘anti-hero’ of the post-Suez generation (i.e. post-1956), working-class but upwardly mobile, with a more traditional ‘cockney jack-the-lad’. Alfie sits incongruously next to Darling’s young middle-class woman on the make (Julie Christie in 1965) and Smashing Time’s young working-class girls taking on London (Rita Tushingham and Lynn Redgrave in 1967) – though in 1966 it sat slightly more easily alongside Georgy Girl, based on a slightly older novel by Margaret Forster. Five or six years later, when the Women’s Movement began to influence social interaction beyond a few university campuses, Alfie already seemed an unlikely character for a feature film (unless as a satire). But in 1966 the character’s charm deflected much of the possible criticism. This is what some of the critics said at the time:
‘ . . . talking about Alfie . . . Caine himself (said) . . . I want people to feel violently after they walk out of this film. Not just say, ‘Yes, a pleasant little laugh but why the abortion in the middle? . . . I wouldn’t have accepted the script if I hadn’t seen a real theme saying something in it.’
Jane Gaskell, Daily Sketch, 23 March 1966
‘When you see seven women in one film putting up the performances of their young or middle-aged careers, it is unusual enough to rouse a cheer. The fact that it happens in a British film deserves two cheers.’ [Shelley Winters was the oldest at 44 – hardly ‘middle-aged’ by modern standards.]
Alexander Walker, Evening Standard, 24 March 1966
‘At the end of it all, when his heart is heavy, and his soul as dark as the night which steals over the river, Alfie stands alone on the desolate Embankment. The wide-boy, the Cockney Casanova, the callous breaker of women’s hearts is finally face to face with ultimate sadness. Superlatively directed by Lewis Gilbert, this is a field study of sensual modern man and jungle morals, as played with a fleshy insidious charm by Michael Caine.’
Felix Barber, Evening News, 24 March 1966
‘From underneath a mop of tousled blond curls, a languorous, lazy-lidded pair of eyes look the girls coolly up and down. They belong to the latest and most outrageous of all our modern screen anti-heroes . . . who is he? He’s ALFIE.’
Michael Thornton, Sunday Express, 27 March 1966
‘Miss Merchant draws a beautiful portrait of reluctance and shame, all low voice, low temperature, low tones.’
Dilys Powell, Sunday Times, 27 March 1966
‘ . . . the women . . . are superbly played: by Vivien Merchant as the respectable wife he takes as casually as a cigarette, by Julia Foster as the scrubbed, adoring doormat, by ———- as the only one voracious enough to match and at least reject him, by Eleanor Bron as the woman doctor startled into an amused, reluctant response.’
Isabel Quigly, The Spectator, 1 April 1966
(all quotes originally from a BFI web page that has since moved)
Naughton as author
The intriguing question is to ask what Alfie has in common with the other two films from Naughton plays, both set in Bolton and one of which, The Family Way, came out only a few months later. Naughton was in his 50s in the mid 1960s and he’d had a wide range of ‘real jobs’, mostly in the North of England – his London experience had been in the 1940s during the war. His male characters are often strong and self-opinionated but there are always roles for women and in the other two films there are potential conflicts between working-class fathers and their grown-up children. There are also strong communities in Bolton and everybody has ‘proper jobs’. Alfie seems defined by his seeming rootlessness and his ‘jobs’ include chauffering and being a street photographer. However, what can’t be denied is that all three plays/films have strong narratives, well-drawn characters and roots in social reality of some kind – perhaps less so in the case of Alfie, but still there.
Amazingly, Alfie won the Jury Prize at Cannes, where it was in competition for the Palme d’Or, and it was nominated for five Oscars – including one for Best Song, written by Bacharach and David and sung by Cher in the US and Cilla Black in the UK. IMDB suggests that the film grossed over $18 million on its US release, which for a film with a production budget of less than $1 million was certainly an indicator of success.
I can only imagine that in North America Alfie was taken as an emblematic story of Swinging London. 1965-6 were key years on the front-line of popular cultural change in the UK – though ‘underneath’ the headline stories, change was much slower. Michael Caine moved into different kinds of roles very quickly after Alfie, though aspects of his working-class lad from Rotherhithe/Elephant and Castle battling with casting as a more neutral ‘British’ character can be distinguished in films such as the Second World War ‘action’ films Play Dirty (1969) and Too Late the Hero (1970), both imbued with a ‘post 1960s cynicism’.
The success of Alfie led to further versions. Naughton wrote a follow-up in the form of a novel, Alfie Darling (1970), that was made into a film in 1975 with Alan Price in the lead and Joan Collins and other well-known names among the female cast members. I haven’t seen this Ken Hughes film which came out at the end of the British film industry’s last studio era. Hughes was a mainstream writer and director of the 1960s with major credits such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).
Naughton’s original screenplay for Alfie was dusted off and updated/revised for a US/UK remake in 2004, starring Jude Law. Written by Elaine Pope and Charles Shyer and directed by Shyer this was marketed more as a ‘romantic comedy’. Budgeted at around $60 million, I’m assuming that this project lost Paramount a considerable sum. I haven’t seen the film but it was generally panned. Presumably the new version was meant to be ironic? That’s a dangerous game that was avoided in the original.
Here’s the original US trailer for Alfie:
(See Nick’s post on The Pleasure Girls (UK 1965) for a different take on sexual mores in London at this time.)
Here’s a film that while certainly an attractive prospect for an older audience seems to have cashed in at the UK box office and perhaps exceeded expectations. Today it was reported that after its third weekend the film had made over £9 million with strong midweek takings and the prospect of further profitable weeks ahead. I’m not sure if the main attraction is Alan Bennett’s writing or the star turn of Maggie Smith in the lead role. It occurs to me that Smith’s celebrity status associated with ITV’s Downton Abbey may have attracted an audience for whom Bennett’s more theatrical writing is not so attractive.
The worrying aspect of the film’s success is the essentially conservative nature of the production. The original events on which the story is based took place outside Bennett’s Camden house over a long period between the early 1970s and 1989. Bennett first wrote a slim book that was published in 1989, then a stage play which ran from 1999 and a radio adaptation in 2009. Maggie Smith appeared in both the theatre and radio adaptations. Nicholas Hytner directed the 1999 play and directed the film – just as he had for the two earlier Bennett adaptations, The Madness of King George and The History Boys. Bennett, Smith and Hytner are thus re-treading very familiar territory. I suppose it could be argued via the Downton Abbey link that this time they are potentially reaching a much wider audience. It does make me wonder how well the original play might have worked for a cinema audience if the ‘live screenings’ of West End plays had been available in 1999? I haven’t seen any of the previous versions so I don’t know how much is new or altered in this film version.
There are some obvious features that would not have been easily achieved in the theatre (though Wikipedia assures me that they were). Alex Jennings who plays Bennett is asked to have dialogues with himself. One character is Bennett the Camden resident who interacts with Margaret/Mary Shepherd and the other is the writer who observes and makes comments. As Bennett the writer remarks, some things that happened have been left out of the script and some have been invented (but in the spirit of the story). At the end of the film there is a rather fantastical sequence which could I think be staged in the theatre and which has generally got a bad press, though it didn’t bother me. Overall I don’t think this is a particularly ‘cinematic film’. I generally hate it when critics disparage films by referring to them being more suited to television but in this case I have to concur.
I have generally avoided Downton Abbey (although I did see chunks of the first series) and I don’t really enjoy Maggie Smith’s performances that much. I’m sure that they are very skilled but they don’t work for me. But I’m mainly disappointed that Alan Bennett hasn’t written more new material and explored different subject matter. I know he has been ill and he is now in his 80s but I do admire and respect him as a writer and this particular script seems to be very much concerned with the kinds of characters and social issues which informed his television plays of the 1970s and the monologues of the 1990s.
The Lady in the Van is sometimes very funny and with a cast that includes Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam, Jim Broadbent and Gwen Taylor and a host of others it can’t help being entertained – but it never really engaged me. Perhaps it’s all a bit too much ‘North London middle-class’. If this was a shlock horror film it might be dismissed as exploitation cinema – but actually that’s what it is, a new version of an old script for the audience that doesn’t usually go to the cinema. I have no problems with exploitation if it gives people want they want to see, but we should name it appropriately.