by Allan Fish
(UK 2001 487m) not on DVD
The writing on the wall
p Claire Hirsch d David Moore, Hettie MacDonald w Kevin Hood, Neil Biswas novel Tim Pears ph Alwin Kuchler ed Bill Diver m Jocelyn Pook, Harvey Brough art Mark Stevenson cos Pam Tait, Dinah Collin
Robert Pugh (Charles Freeman), Helen McCrory (Mary Freeman), Shaun Dingwall (James Freeman), Kaye Wragg (Laura), Hazel Monaghan (Mina), Susannah Wise (Alice Freeman), Tony Maudsley (Simon Freeman), James Bradshaw (young James), Charlotte Salt (young Laura), Ravi Kapoor, Shirley Henderson, Kathleen Byron,
The BBC’s still baffling decision to only release to VHS despite the year of release hasn’t helped this masterpiece. Nor did their decision to try and sneak it into the early year schedule like a wedding crasher. One would be forgiven for thinking they were ashamed of it. Yet let us make one thing perfectly clear, to say this is one of the great small screen achievements of the 21st century, despite being first shown only weeks into said century, does it a disservice. It’s one of the great works of either screen of the modern era.
At its centre we have the Freeman family, headed by engineering industrialist Charles, and covers their lives from around 1952 to the mid 1990s. Personal loves, hates and tragedies come and go, including a suicide and brutal murder, and continue to haunt not only the family but the fringe, in the shape of the housekeeper’s daughter.
If that seems a stingy summation of eight hours of drama, then it’s meant to be, for it’s not the plot in itself that merits its reputation. The early episodes are filled with the same sense of nostalgic, wistful memory – interspersed with old film clips – that recall the work of Terence Davies. The family matriarch and patriarch are deliberately unsympathetic, the latter refusing to accept anything that doesn’t conform to his hard facts view of the world, the other stifled by him but at the same time cruelly disparaging of her own children – most memorably when smirking at her son’s desire to go into sales and venomously retorting “why not be really ambitious and train as a cost accountant?”
Visually alone Plenty has a distinct other-worldly feel, intensified by the video-style shooting, and when one considers the part home movies, and unnoticed elements to them, play in the series as a whole. It’s filled with the echoes of disappointments (how to forget old Kathleen Byron, suffering from dementia, singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ at a funeral), and of dreams lost, of patriarchal pride reduced to wandering the estate of former glories. And as for the chief patriarch, though he may be too old for the opening episode or so, Pugh is magnificent as Charles, and he’s matched by McCrory as his doomed wife. Nonetheless the story really belongs to three people, two adults and one child. Dingwall is superb as the narrator of the piece, making one mourn his lack of opportunity since, but even more disheartening in the aftermath of the series’ neglect by its makers, is the overlooking of Wragg. It wasn’t her first iconic moment; we still cherish a conversation over a shared spliff by Ullswater with John Simm, when one would have been forgiven for predicting stardom for both. Here she exhibits a rare intelligence and a keen enigmatic glance. She and Dingwall’s handling of what amounts to foreplay during a food photographic shoot is one of the most touching seductions in recent memory. Finally, there’s Monaghan, the epitome of the shattering power of grief and silence, one of the most haunting child performances you will ever see. Yet even these performances do not capture the essence of Plenty. It’s the little things, like black and white pictures secured by the corners in old family albums, reflections in a prism, fingers traced along shadowy walls and peering through window drawings on steamy car windows. The image often seen that a solitary human face, and one that haunts and almost paralyses us. If one had to describe it on a personal level, in just two words, it would be ‘pears soap.’ The reasons are my own, and any viewer will have a different answer. The whisper campaign to have this magical tapestry released to DVD and get the respect it deserves starts here, and will get louder with each passing day.