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An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: A Private Function (1984)

PUBLISHED: 10:33 27 July 2018 | UPDATED: 10:33 27 July 2018

Michael Palin and Maggie Smith in the Alan Bennett comedy A Private Function. Photo: Handmade Films

Michael Palin and Maggie Smith in the Alan Bennett comedy A Private Function. Photo: Handmade Films

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Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different

Michael Palin and Maggie Smith joining the smart set in the Alan Bennett comedy A Private Function. Photo: Handmade FilmsMichael Palin and Maggie Smith joining the smart set in the Alan Bennett comedy A Private Function. Photo: Handmade Films

A Private Function; dir: Malcolm Mowbray; starring: Michael Palin, Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliott, Richard Griffiths, Tony Haygarth, John Normington, Bill Paterson, Liz Smith, Alison Steadman, Jim Carter, Pete Postlethwaite Cert: 15 (1984)

Although, always connected with actor-writer Michael Palin, this huge comedy hit didn’t emerge from the typewriter of its star but rather was a collaboration between director Malcolm Mowbray and legendary playwright Alan Bennett.

This film, financed by ex-Beatle George Harrison’s handmade Films, the company he set up to get Life of Brian made, is the closest thing we have to the commendably dark social satires that Ealing produced during the late 1940s and early 50s – Kind Hearts and Coronets, Passport To Pimlico, The Man In The White Suit and the classic Ladykillers.

Michael Palin and Maggie Smith in the Alan Bennett comedy A Private Function. Photo: Handmade FilmsMichael Palin and Maggie Smith in the Alan Bennett comedy A Private Function. Photo: Handmade Films

The film is set in Yorkshire during the immediate aftermath of World War II. Britain is trying to recover its sense of social structure but the effects of the war have changed the class system forever. Also, severe rationing is threatening to make criminals of even the most upstanding citizens.

Although, the film is set during the run-up to the future Queen’s marriage to Prince Philip, the film is about our society today – how we are still obsessed with class, how we still chase social status, how we crave to be accepted by the right people and want to be admitted to the right clubs and be invited to the right dinner parties.

This is the life dreamed of by Joyce, the ambitious, social climbing wife of Gilbert Chilvers, the rather gentle chiropodist, thoughtfully played by Michael Palin.

Michael Palin and Maggie Smith in the Alan Bennett comedy A Private Function. Photo: Handmade FilmsMichael Palin and Maggie Smith in the Alan Bennett comedy A Private Function. Photo: Handmade Films

Joyce is brought vividly to life by Maggie Smith, who really lives and breathes the role. She will do anything to get ahead and in many ways resembles Lady Macbeth in Alan Bennett’s allegorical comedy.

She cajoles and goads Gilbert into action, at first, getting him to curry favour with the business leaders and elected officials of the town and then, when this fails, holding them to ransom.

Bennett, the son of a Leeds butcher, knows what he is writing about and has laced his screenplay with incidents of real snobbery drawn from his own childhood observations.

The town wants to celebrate the upcoming Royal marriage but meat is in limited supply and the local dignitaries arrange for an illegal pig to be bred for a civic banquet but unwittingly Gilbert stumbles across the plan and smuggles the prize porker home despite Joyce’s protests.

As with all Alan Bennett’s work, the setting merely provides the framework to allow a character comedy to grow and then blossom. The joy is in the relationships which Bennett allows the actors to explore while he develops the personalities with some rich lines of dialogue.

Michael Palin does well to hold his own, playing the shy, retiring chiropodist who enjoys cycling to outlying farms to tend to the needs of his female clients.

He manages to create a likeable, believeable quiet man who is surrounded by larger-than-life busy-bodies determined to make their mark on the world but, for all his mild-mannered nature, Gilbert is resourceful and has a steely resolve. He is not easily put down.

The echoes of Ealing are most plainly seen in Gilbert and Joyce’s relationships with the leading citizens of the town. These unapproachable figures in this seemingly closed society are greedy butcher Nuttall (Pete Postlethwaite), hapless accountant Allardyce (Richard Griffiths) and supercilious Dr Swaby (Denholm Elliot).

When their illegal scheme has been compromised its satisfying to see them panic and start turning on each other, particularly with the arrival in town of an eccentric Ministry of Food inspector, played with relish by Bill Paterson.

With the illegal pig tucked away at the Chilvers cramped terraced house, the film shifts gear from a witty character comedy into a well-drilled, perfectly timed farce.

Inside the house there is also the double act of Maggie Smith and The Royale Family’s Liz Smith. Liz Smith plays Joyce’s dodery mother and the frequently unspoken sparring is a delight to watch.

One of the real joys of an Alan Bennett film is that it attracts a dazzling coterie of talented actors who are happy to turn up and give life, and surprising depth, to seemingly throwaway supporting roles, making the whole thing much better than it otherwise would have been. Tony Haygarth, Alison Steadman and Jim Carter all turn in sharply observed performances.

A Private Function is a comedy gem because while it mocks our continuing need to ingraitate ourselves with the great and the good it is also understands our foibles and does not judge us too harshly. A true British comedy classic.


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