by Allan Fish
(UK 1990 175m) DVD1/2
Heathens in hot places
p Philippa Giles d Beeban Kidron w/novel Jeanette Winterson ph Ian Punter ed John Strickland m Rachel Portman art Cecilia Brereton cos Les Lansdown
Charlotte Coleman (Jess), Emily Aston (small Jess), Geraldine McEwan (mother), Celia Imrie (Miss Jewsbury), Cathryn Bradshaw (Melanie), Kenneth Cranham (Pastor Finch), Margery Withers (Elsie), Freda Dowie (Mrs Green), Elizabeth Spriggs (May), Pam Ferris (Mrs Arkwright), David Thewlis (doctor), Katy Murphy (Mrs Virtue), Tania Rodrigues (Katy),
News of the death of Charlotte Coleman in late 2001 – I dimly recall hearing about it in the news following the latest details of the aftermath of 9-11, which so dominated the news that fateful autumn – was received with a shock. Shocking enough that she had died, and so tragically young (of an asthma attack) at just 33. Yet somehow she seemed part of growing up, part of my growing up, or at least my generation. I can still see her as the horrid child Marmalade Atkins in Children’s ITV’s Educating Marmalade when I was a kid as the sort of girl who would have been head girl at St Trinian’s if luck had been with her. She exemplified something rebellious, and it’s that rebellion, that fierce, stubborn determination that exemplified what remains her finest hour.
Jeanette Winterson’s tale depicts a young girl growing up under the iron fists of matriarchal hard-line evangelism in a Lancashire town – Accrington, we can assume – in the 1960s. (There were autobiographical portions of the piece, though Winterson herself grew up a decade later). Jess is a flame-haired child, adopted from an orphanage by a fiercely religious, childless woman whose husband has been reduced to an empty shell. Jess is brought up to believe in the fear of the wrath of God, and the sins of the world, but in coming out into the world, first at school – the devil’s place – and later in the wider world, she finds it’s so much better than the repression at home. Her mother and pastor, however, have different ideas, and when Jess’ forbidden lesbian love for another girl, Melanie, becomes known, Jess undergoes a purging quite literally from hell.
Winterson does an exemplary job of adapting her work for television, and the mood, almost dreamlike, is captured perfectly in the woodwind score of Rachel Portman which is still possibly the best thing she’s done. The location shooting also affords itself the savage beauty one might expect from a kitchen sink film of the sixties, but in colour one can better savour the smog, grime and general malaise at the heart of so many such towns, built in the 19th century industrial boom, to support factories and coal mines, with rows of terraced houses up and down steep slopes, and hills overlooking the whole sorry thing for miles around. This panoramic view contrasts sharply with the suffocating small-town mentality, not only of religion but of community, and traditions of going to church, singing round the out-of-tune piano while licking ice cream cones, and, of course, praying for heathens in hot places, and exclaiming everything to be the devil’s work that’s new (my own favourite, “you don’t need an airing cupboard when you’ve got Jesus!”).
The nude love scenes were always going to be controversial, and yet luckily The Rainbow had paved the way on that score a year or so earlier, and it afforded more column inches to its quality, as well as the initial innocence of the lesbian fumblings, mixed with looking out of the window at night like children looking up at the stars, or performing shadow plays on the wall. The drama is also helped by a veritable gorgon gallery among the supporting cast of redeemed, from Celia Imrie to Freda Dowie to dear old Liz Spriggs. There’s a memorably high octane performance from Cranham as the fierce pastor and a lovely turn from little Emily Aston (did she really grow up to appear in Funland?) as young Jess. Yet at its heart it’s Coleman and McEwan who dominate, both giving performances worthy of awards and never better than in their scenes together. In many ways, the roles personified their screen personas; one as religious sadist (carried forward to The Magdalene Sisters), the other as non-conforming rebel.