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It is fortunate that BAFTAs are restricted to humans
To celebrate my 1,400th review for IMDb I turn to another of my favourite films. One might have thought that the Ealing comedies of the forties and fifties represented a quite different style of humour from that of the Monty Python team of the seventies, and yet the Pythons had a high regard for Ealing and several of them paid tribute to the studio in their post-Python careers. "A Fish Called Wanda", starring John Cleese and Michael Palin, was made by the veteran Ealing director Charles Crichton. The plot of "Splitting Heirs", which starred Eric Idle and Cleese, paid quite deliberate tribute to Robert Hamer's "Kind Hearts and Coronets". And "A Private Function" has close thematic links with "Passport to Pimlico".
Like the earlier film, this one is set against the background of the post-war food rationing system of the late forties. Early on we see a fatuous cinema newsreel from the period, assuring its viewers that the British people, unlike their French neighbours who blatantly bought and sold food on the black market, were happy to accept rationing in the interests of Fair Shares For All. In reality, the system, accepted as a necessity in wartime, had become deeply unpopular in peacetime and the black market flourished in Britain just as much as in France. It is notable that Morris Wormold, the food inspector charged with enforcing the system, is referred to by the other characters as the "Gestapo".
The film is set in a small Yorkshire town in 1947, at the time of the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth (as she then was) to Prince Philip. A group of local businessmen and prominent citizens want to hold a formal dinner to celebrate the occasion, but the food rationing system makes it impossible to obtain enough food legally. They therefore decide to bribe a local farmer to raise an "unlicensed" pig- at this period every pig in the country had to be officially registered to prevent black-marketeering- so that they can feast on roast pork on the great day.
Unfortunately for them, word of their scheme reaches the ears of a third party- not Wormold but Gilbert Chilvers, the town's chiropodist. Although he is an established local tradesman, Gilbert has not been invited to the dinner, largely because Charles Swaby, the local doctor and one of the organisers of the dinner, has taken a dislike to him. Gilbert is a mild-mannered little man who, left to himself, would not really resent this snub, but his snobbish, social-climbing wife Joyce takes it as a personal insult. Goaded on by Joyce, Gilbert comes up with a plan to steal the pig and thereby hold Swaby and his associates to ransom.
The script was written by Alan Bennett, that great observer of English (especially Northern English) lower-middle-class life, who provided some brilliant opportunities for some of the best-known British actors of the period. Michael Palin is today perhaps best-known for his travel documentaries for British television, but in the eighties, after "Monty Python" had come to an end, he was re-inventing himself as a comic actor, and his portrayal of Gilbert, the archetypal "little man", forever put-upon both by a domineering wife and by those who consider themselves his social betters, is one of his finest efforts in this vein, perhaps only equalled by his performance in "The Missionary".
Maggie Smith also excels as Joyce, one of Bennett's finest characters. Joyce is, on the surface, a monstrous bully and snob, but underneath that surface it is clear that her snobbery arises from a sense of insecurity. She is the sort of person whose sense of self-worth is almost entirely defined by what she perceives to be her social standing, and her husband's social standing, in the eyes of society, and who has a massive inferiority complex about her social origins. There is a nice contrast between Joyce and Denholm Elliott's Dr Swaby. Swaby is just as snobbish as Joyce, but his snobbery arises not from an inferiority complex but rather from an equally massive superiority complex.
The other fine performances come from Richard Griffiths as the accountant Henry Allardyce, who develops a strange affection for the pig, Bill Paterson as the officious, humourless functionary Wormold, Pete Postlethwaite as the butcher charged with butchering the pig and Maggie's unrelated namesake Liz Smith as Joyce's half-mad, senile old mother. To say nothing of Betty the pig (or rather pigs, because six different individuals alternated in this role). Maggie (Best Actress) and Liz (Best Supporting Actress) both won acting BAFTAs, as did Elliott for Best Supporting Actor. It is, however, perhaps fortunate for Maggie Smith that BAFTAs are restricted to humans, otherwise Betty might have beaten her to her award.
Predictably, the Academy ignored the film altogether; if they ever saw it the Yorkshire accents probably made them wonder why a foreign- language film was being screened without subtitles. It is, however, a first-rate comedy and one of the best British films of the eighties. Bennett's powers of social observation are very sharp and his script is characterised by great wit and humour. (I recall my girlfriend almost rolling on the ground with laughter when we first saw it together, especially at the antics of the pig). If the Academy had taken it seriously it might even have challenged Milos Forman's wonderful "Amadeus" for "Best Picture". It seems a pity that its director Malcolm Mowbray has not made more feature films; about the only other one I have seen was "The Revengers' Comedies". 10/10
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