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Private Road

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Barney Platts-Mills
Bruce Robinson
Susan Penhaligon
Michael Feast
George Fenton
Robert Brown
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The BFI’s Flipside label unearths yet another previously lost classic of cult British cinema and trumpets it loudly in a luxurious, dual format special edition, featuring a Blu-ray and a DVD version of the film in the same box for the price of one, and several interesting short films in support.

Barney Platts-Mills’ 1971 tale of young love in the early seventies, “Private Road,” gets the meticulous BFI restoration and a luminous high definition transfer this time out -- and the results are like looking through a polished window that’s become a portal back into early-1970s London.  Although the film is presented as a low-key intimate drama, cataloguing the simple everyday pleasures and tensions of a love affair between a nonchalant, young, up-and-coming writer (played by “Withnail  & I” scribe Bruce Robinson) and one of the bored receptionists at the small publishing firm that’s set to procure his first novel (a pouty twenty-year-old Susan Penhaligon), there is a sense in which their relationship also charts the demise of the halcyon days of high-sixties optimism and freedom, and the slow slide into dull, grey stagnation represented by the glum reality of life under Edward Heath’s Government of the early-seventies.

Platts-Mills favours a quiet, unassuming documentary realism approach to his subject matter, occasionally coloured by a terminally ‘70s soundtrack of fey, Nick Drake-like acoustic pop noodling. We get to understand as much as we need to know about young Ann Halpern (Penhaligon) simply by watching her slouched at her desk munching on a bread-roll in silence for almost a minute at the start of the film. For a morose, bored but prettily attractive young woman -- living with her parents still in a backwater of Suburban Surrey -- the wafer-thin, Jagger-esque good-looks of Peter Morrissey (Robinson) represent a liberating escape from the constraints and pinched values of her doting middleclass parents. Soon she’s staying out all night, wandering the streets of Notting Hill with her new, tousle-haired beau or smoking dope with his student drop-out friends back at their coolly unkempt bachelor pad. Without ever mentioning anything much of Peter Morrissey’s past, we can see that this well-spoken, well-to-do, casually cool young man (if transported in time to the present day, Robinson would’ve probably ended up playing second guitar in Razorlight!) probably comes from a well-off, upper-middle class family, and appears not to want for anything much, only really bothering to occasionally knock out the odd short story for Woman’s Own Magazine to keep him in ready cash.

The first half hour of the film relays the woozy joys of early-days romance, as Peter and Ann embark on their charmingly chaste courtship, while Ann’s dad imagines all sorts of debaucheries are going on behind the scenes. A key moment comes when Mr Halpern (Peter Brown) attempts to have a cosy bedside fathers’ chat with his daughter (in a bedroom still adorned with magazine posters of the girl’s childhood pop-idols) about her recent nocturnal habits, and is soon given short shrift via a curt ‘fuck off!’ – the first sign that daddy’s little girl is off to broaden her horizons.

Peter and Ann’s attempts to throw off the shackles and expectations and conventional ‘50s-derived values of Ann’s parents, forms the main theme of the second half of the film. Even when Peter acquires a house so that the two of them can live together while he attempts to finish his novel, the parents continue to ‘drop by’ and interfere. Eventually the two of them drive off on an extended, Withnail & I-like sojourn to the Scottish countryside, intending to live a carefree Suburbia-free rural life in a quaint stone farmhouse borrowed from one of Peter’s off-screen friends.

This almost whimsical middle section in fact suggests an incipient change in the relationship, with the original dichotomy between the old-fashioned, hard-work ethic of Ann’s parents, and the floating, alternative, bohemian lifestyle Peter is intent on pursuing, becoming complicated and eventually ruptured by the two young people unknowingly falling into stereotypical roles that enact the very values they claim to be rejecting and escaping from. Peter begins to spend his days hunting for rabbits on the moors and expects Ann to cook his catch for him when he gets back from a hard day’s shoot. It never occurs to him that she hasn’t the slightest idea how to skin a rabbit, and not much inclination to find out. Ann meanwhile becomes concerned that Peter hasn’t been working enough on his novel, and that he needs to get it published soon to earn some more money. When they eventually move back home to London, Ann almost immediately attempts a reconciliation with her parents by organising a dinner party, both of whom then proceed to bore Peter with their views on contemporary art and on how the younger generation lack disciple. When one of Peter’s old friends from his former flat-sharing days calls round, and it emerges that he has graduated from recreational dope smoking to shooting-up cocaine in their bathroom, Ann is just as distraught and outraged as her parents by such activity. The final section of the film sees Ann identifying more and more with her parents’ values once she falls pregnant, while Peter, after his novel is unexpectedly rejected by his publisher, drifts into a conventional nine-to-five job with an advertising firm in order to pay for the baby, and the marriage he assumes Ann will want along with it.

The story unfolds against the backdrop of the late-sixties. Peter’s drug-addled friend Stephen (Michael Feast) berates him for slipping into an acceptance of the bourgeois values of the ‘straights’, and assuming that he has to look after and provide for Ann via a conventional job while not even stopping to think what she actually wants from their relationship. His other former flatmate, Henry (George Fenton), becomes a middle-class leftist radical, despite working by day at the same advertising firm as Peter. The only really sharp piece of satire comes at the expense of Henry’s left wing feminist girlfriend Iverna (Catherine Howe), who calls round while Ann and Peter are visiting to deliver the latest issue of ‘Black Dwarf’ (a hip, counter cultural, left wing news sheet of the era). The film seems broadly to endorse Peter’s increasingly petulant quest for self-expression and artistic fulfilment, but it also depicts a masculinity that is unsure how to react to the newfound potential of women (only now just beginning to be realised during this period) to express a far greater degree of control over their own bodies and lives than had been possible for previous generations. In choosing to have an abortion when Peter simply assumes she will want to keep the child, Ann is, ironically, drawn back into the orbit of  her parents, whose values she has inherited more of than she had previously realised.

The film proceeds in a light and a breezy episodic style, and has the look of improvisation even if that wasn’t the case. Director and writer Barney Platts-Mills had created a unique cinematic style on his previous slice-of-life work, “Bronco Bulldog” (1969), where he employed a cast of non-professional actors to give the feature a life-like verisimilitude. Here, though, he is working with the young, talented and photogenic Robinson and Penhaligon as well as such giants of the British screen as Kathleen Byron (“Black Narcissus”), who plays Mrs Halpern. Despite this, the resulting style is broadly similar; the first half of the movie in particular is very observational in style, with pauses and embarrassed silences often counting for more than melodrama or scripted clichés. The film ends with a wryly comedic episode in which Peter and Stephen, the latter seemingly now having given up on accommodating the values of Ann’s parents, attempt to ‘liberate’ a typewriter from an office block (Peter’s own having been stolen when their flat was burgled) – staged as a sort of metaphor for Peter’s newfound resolve to return to the purity of his carefree bohemian values. The film is ambiguous about whether this counts as an optimistic restatement of a commitment to artistic and cultural freedom, or a heinous flight from responsibility.

Accompanying the main feature are two interesting related pieces of work from the BFI film archive, both also delivered in high definition transfers. “The Last Chapter” (1974) provides us with another chance to watch the young Susan Penhaligon in her full glory, here starring opposite the late great Denholm Elliott in a 29 minute support film, directed by David Tringham from a short story idea by John Fowles (“The French Lieutenant’s Woman”). This was, in fact, Tringham’s only time in the director’s chair before he returned to his usual role as assistant director. The list of films he has acted as AD on during the course of his career is prodigious, and includes such diverse titles as “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter”, “Highlander” and “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”. It’s doubtful that this bewitching short film would have ever again seen the light of day if it were not for this BFI release; and, as it turns out, it’s a thoroughly engrossing little oddity shot at Shepperton Studios, with both Elliott and Penhaligon in top form, and showcasing some attractive photography by Jack Hildyard.

Elliott stars as popular author Robert Murray, a writer somewhat in the Ian Fleming mould, who knocks out best-selling Bond-style spy capers, tinged with a similar undercurrent of misogyny. Murray’s morning writing ritual – carefully placing his writing materials and cigarettes in the correct position on his desk, methodically preparing the typewriter – is the prelude to an amusing sequence in which he imagines himself as the hero of his own book, suggesting the writing process is really just a form erotic role-playing fantasy for the aging hack author. When a young fan called Penny (Susan Penhaligon) interrupts his efforts to complete his latest potboiler, the film at first looks as though it’s developing into a light, whimsical farce, as the gauche young teen’s clumsy attempts to conduct an interview with her author hero lead to increasing irritability and consternation from Murray. However, all is not quite as it seems, and as the relationship curdles and darkens, Murray begins to find his whole life as an author called into question and challenged by this mocking yet erotically beguiling intrusion into his hermetic little world. The film is highly reminiscent of some of Dennis Potter’s work, questioning the base longings that might thinly lie behind the creative process involved in such works of popular fiction as the kind that Murray has made his fortune in perpetuating (he keeps stacks of his own hardbacks piled up in his office) and suggesting they are fantasy substitutes for their author never having had much of a life to begin with. The film begins to play like a nightmare in which the younger generation and its apparent uninhibited practice of a sexual freedom the likes of Murray have never known, comes to be seen as a threat, and partly also the fuel for Murray’s misogynistic fantasy role play. The film’s ambiguous conclusion presents the now self-enlightened author with a dilemma: whether to go on knowingly perpetuating the same best-selling hack work for a hefty fee from a proposed American publishing deal, or to follow the muses and aim for a higher form of art.

The second short film included on the disc is director Barney Platts-Mills’ very first full directorial outing: a moving documentary portrait of the work carried out at St Christopher’s School for the Mentally Handicapped and at Botton Village in Yorkshire in the mid-sixties – a community set up to provide young adult handicapped people with an experience of work and a sense of belonging after they leave the educational environment. This forty-nine minute black and white piece, shot in 1967, might sound grim and rather depressing, but, remarkably, it leaves you feeling the opposite of downcast.  “St Christopher” not only gives the viewer an insight into the progressive educational methods of the time, the personal development of some of the pupils over the course of their stay, and an appreciation of the way of life enabled for those lucky enough to attend the school (when not in lessons, the pupils are shown living with each other in small groups designed specifically to provide them with a sense of family) but -- because the director and his team evidently spent a great deal of time getting to know the children and then engaging with them extensively over a long period of filming – we come to feel a real sense of the individual personalities and characters of the interviewees beginning to emerge and open up as the film progresses. While Platts-Mills himself provides a voice-over narration to give the basic background information for the viewer, it is the school’s Principle and founder, Catherine Grace, who provides an engaging commentary explaining the kind of work that goes on in the establishment. The voices of the children themselves are what really make the film a special, memorable piece of work though; it’s a quiet, intelligent and subtle film, which avoids all trace of sentimentality yet leaves you feeling hopeful by the end of it, without in anyway downplaying the difficulties these children and young adults must go on to face. 

BFI’s disc comes with an excellent booklet of reviews, essays, production notes and biographies of Barney Platts-Mills, Bruce Robinson and Susan Penhaligon. A wonderful trio of British-made rarities have been given an evocative new life here, thanks once again to the Flipside collection.

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