by Allan Fish
(UK 1979 75m) DVD2
The land of lost content
p Kenith Trodd d Brian Gibson w Dennis Potter
Colin Welland (Willie), Michael Elphick (Peter), Helen Mirren (Angela), Janine Duvitski (Audrey), Robin Ellis (John), Colin Jeavons (Donald Duck), John Bird (Raymond),
With its title derived from A.E.Housman’s 19th century poem “The Shropshire Lad”, one would be forgiven for expecting a nostalgic study of childhood, the type of which Hollywood was so fond. Yet nostalgic isn’t really the word for this. It does look back fondly at childhood, that much is true, yet it rather inverts the very notion of childhood, makes us see childhood through different eyes. Among the individual plays written by Dennis Potter, none are so fondly remembered as this, which in many ways sums up the very double-layered appeal of the film. It provokes nostalgia for nostalgia, and the way that it does so is truly unique; we don’t see children at all, what we see are a group of adults playing the roles of children – that simple notion changing the very fabric of the drama and twisting it on its head. It succeeds, as Philip Purser wrote, in “throwing a whole new light on the business of being young.”
1943. World War II is raging. Two seven year old boys meet up in the Forest of Dean to discuss what they’re going to do, each one revelling in the one-upmanship, playacting and fibs that come from innocence. Along the way they spot a squirrel, which they endeavour, with the help of two other boys who happen upon them, to kill. They then decide to go off and look for another of their number, Donald, who they cruelly call Donald Duck, who is at that moment playing families with two girls in a barn.
The location and setting add definite autobiographical elements to the piece – Potter himself turned eight in 1943 and was raised in the self same forest. To recall that opening scene brings a smile to anyone’s face; Welland dressed up in forties best – red sleeveless pullover, shorts held up by braces – munching on an apple while doing his best impression of a swooping divebomber through the forest, puffing around and providing his own sound effects until he’s so tired he looks like he’s about to combust. All under the watchful eye of friend Elphick up high in the tree, who himself does a parachute jump on top of him. A marvellous sequence follows with Welland and Elphick discussing how the RAF bombers drop dirty apples to kill the German population, but one arguably topped by that in which we first see the girls, with Mirren’s Angela playing mother to Jeavons’ Donald’s father, and Duvitski wanting to be the nurse. Jeavons, as father, plays it by simply punctuating his talk with ‘bloodys’ and ‘buggers’ every few words, while Mirren and Duvitski eventually leave him to it and discuss their friends, the former murmuring, with delightful self-contradiction, “I’m best friends with lots and lots.” Up until now, we had simply seen childhood observed through the eyes of adults, each enjoying the opportunity to release their inner infant. Almost subliminally, Potter has turned the mirror back on itself, and what we now have are adults playing children playing adults. On one level it shows the innocence of childhood and their inventions of their own fantasy worlds in mimicry of a real one, but also shows their naivety of the seriousness of their games. Just as they barely realise the horror of their killing the squirrel, it becomes a metaphor for how savage and cruel children can be, exemplified by the tragic finale. Each has that most accurate of short attention spans, conversations going off on tangent upon tangent. That this feeling is so successfully conveyed is of course not just down to Potter, but his cast. Bird, Duvitski, Ellis and Jeavons are only perfect, while Mirren is a capricious, sulky joy as Angela, sucking thumbs, crying, prancing about and generally nailing old-fashioned little girldom; Welland is particularly amusing as the scaredy-cat Willie – his facial expressions are a pleasure in themselves. Final word, however, to the much missed Elphick, a delightful little horror, personifying the very spirit of the thing with relish. This is one that stays with you, and remains the most insightful study of childhood ever made. Right, last one in the barn is a sissy!