British film (1962)

"...we might be chucking pots at one another inside a couple of months, but at least there'll be nobody to blame but us."

Directed by John Schlesinger, this film from the "angry young man" genre takes a long look at love, relationships and responsibility against the backdrop of early 1960s Manchester. It has something of the kitchen sink drama associated with many British films of the time, and tells the tale of Vic Brown, a draughtsman in a local firm, who falls in love with Ingrid Rothwell, a typist from the same firm. Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse work their screenplay magic on a Stan Barstow novel, and produce a tale as dark as the sooty buildings of the city.

The film follows the development of their relationship and the effects of their working-class parents on their lives. It's a grim tale, set in the changing world of the industrial Northwest of England in a time of great change, and Schlesinger uses many scenes of demolition and rebuilding to reflect the changes in the protagonist's lives. It explores the issues of manhood and sexuality, as well as the misgivings that arise in relationships when the pressure is on. There is a lot of pressure on the couple to conform in the changing moral climate, and the consequences of their actions build to a climax as their love waxes and wanes.

The Characters

"Lasses like this are ten a penny, these are the kind you joke about with your mates. When it comes to marrying a bird, you want something different..."

Alan Bates is magnificent as the moody Vic, whose weakness is evident from the first. His parents are generally proud and supportive of him, and his younger brother, Jim, looks up to him. Having made the first move to ask Ingrid (June Ritchie) out for a date, he reacts badly when things go wrong, and fails to take control of himself or the situation. Two scenes highlight this tension: one when a date with Ingrid is spoiled by her bringing a girl friend along (he responds by stomping off childishly), and another when he arrives home drunk, to be confronted by Ingrid's mother (with whom he argues violently before throwing up behind the sofa). Despite this, I had a great sense of sympathy with the character, driven by his sexual needs and yet feeling obliged to do the "right thing".

"All the girls I knew at school are married or settling down by now"

Ingrid, coming from semi-detached suburbia, is struggling to conform to her mother's view of life, and at the same time, forge ahead in her own, as well as try to keep her man happy. The compromises she makes creates the tension that drives the second half of the film, as clinging to her mother and siding with her in arguments with Vic, she alienates him and almost destroys the relationship.

"What do you know about him? What does his father do?"

Thora Hird is brilliant as Mrs Rothwell, the aloof and somewhat snooty mother, playing the classic mother-in-law for Vic. Yet even as she is an unlovable character, I had some sympathy for her, striving to protect her only daughter. Demanding and outspokenly critical, she cannot take criticism herself, proudly upper middle-class, with a downer of the bus drivers, rail workers and miners "holding the country to ransom". The final straw for Vic occurs when she fails to inform him that Ingrid has been taken to hospital.

"Tea? White-collar workers don't get tea"

Somewhat set in their ways, Geoffrey and Mrs Brown provide the classic working-class background, as well as the kitchen-sink setting of Vic's home. The father, an engine driver who also plays in a brass band, has down-to-earth advice for the young Vic throughout the development of the story, and Mrs Brown (interestingly, no first name given) makes the home and cements the morality when things go downhill.

"You want to write her nickname down while you're about it...the praying mantis"

Vic's workmates are an eclectic mix, from James Bolam's Jack, happy-go-lucky girlchaser and "Jack-the-lad" to Leonard Rossiter's Whymper, the dour and phlegmatic "old hand", keen on keeping his head down and seeking security. They provide the chaotic element, especially Conroy, who taunts Vic sufficiently to get him into a fight, then later on, gets him drunk.

The Plot

Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl, and vice versa. Boy wants sex, but tends to shy away from responsibility. Boy argues with girl, boy stops talking to girl, girl apologises. Girl finds boy's mucky magazine and gives up her virginity, after coyly asking boy to wait in the bathroom while she disrobes. Girl gets pregnant, boy proposes to "do the right thing by her", they marry, and together they live with crotchety mother-in-law.

From here their relationship slowly deteriorates. Mrs Rothwell's disapproval of the registry office wedding ("When I think of the nice wedding I wanted her to have - all in white...if her father had been alive, I doubt there'd have been a wedding at all") sets the scene for her treatment of Vic, and she slowly niggles at his self-esteem and temper until he explodes with rage, and begins to criticise not just her, but Ingrid. When Ingrid has an accident and has a miscarriage, she fails to let Vic know, and yet Ingrid, unable to stand up against her mother, buckles under and falls increasingly under her control.

Vic also crumbles, but into rage, and finally comes home one evening after a night of drinking, has a fierce row with his mother-in-law before embarrasing himself by not just vomiting in the living room, but storming out of the house with suitcase in hand, after failing to shoutingly persuade his wife to sleep with him.

Stunned by his own family's lack of total sympathy and support, but bolstered by his father's pragmatic advice, he returns and finally persuades Ingrid that he loves her. Convincing her that she needs to stand up for herself, and be free from mother's apron strings, they go to look for a place to live on their own, and the film closes on a somewhat optimistic note as they come from viewing a particularly dismal flat, to walk off into the sunset in the park where they spent much of their courtship.

What's to like?

There is a somewhat nostalgic quality to the film, which shows a snapshot of Northern British life during a social, political and physical transition. The simple life of football matches, brass band concerts and film matinees overlaps with the new technology of television, and behind it all, the nagging uncertainty regarding whether to surge ahead or stay still. The early Sixties gave an easy route to middle-class trappings, provided one was ready and able to apply oneself, and this film clearly shows how the divide worked.

There's a great look into the heart of morality change - Vic goes into a chemist's shop to buy condoms, only to back out when he is approached by a female member of staff - a plot mechanism to ensure Ingrid's pregnancy, yet a powerful comment on the slightly troubled social times.

The photography is simple, monochrome - shades of grey match the spectrum of status, black and white show the dramatic changes. Schlesinger's handling of the story, along with the simple, occasionally documentary approach make it an important historical document, too.

Despite the dark, satanic mills of Lancashire's industrial landscape, with the grime and noise, there's a gentle hopefulness at the close, although the "into the sunset" ending is somewhat cheesy, it's forgivable - there have certainly been worse endings to films. Overall, it reflects the need for people to survive and work things through, not to despair. After all, if we survived the sixties, with all the change (social and political) inherent in that, we can survive anything. Beginning as "a kind of loving", the audience is left with the hope that finally, love and a simple life together, will help them find happiness.

Finally, the film shows many of Britain's up-and-coming better actors in first, or at least early, roles - for Leonard Rossiter (later of Rising Damp fame) and Kathy Staff (Nora Batty of Last of the Summer Wine) it was their first excursion. James Bolam is excellent in his second film role, and it was Alan Bates' fifth outing, and yet each of them shows the promise of future careers with superb acting, timing and maturity.

The Players

Alan Bates        Victor Arthur 'Vic' Brown
June Ritchie      Ingrid Rothwell
Thora Hird        Mrs. Rothwell
Bert Palmer       Mr. Geoffrey Brown
Malcolm Patton    Jim Brown
Gwen Nelson       Mrs. Brown
Pat Keen          Christine
David Mahlowe     David
Jack Smethurst    Conroy
James Bolam       Jeff
Michael Deacon    Les
John Ronane       Draughtsman
David Cook        Draughtsman
Norman Heyes      Laisterdyke
Leonard Rossiter  Whymper

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