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Private Function, A (1984)

Courtesy of HandMade plc

Main image of Private Function, A (1984)
35mm, colour, 94 mins
DirectorMalcolm Mowbray
Production CompanyHandmade Films
ProducerMark Shivas
ScreenplayAlan Bennett
StoryAlan Bennett
 Malcolm Mowbray
PhotographyTony Pierce-Roberts

Cast: Michael Palin (Gilbert Chilvers); Maggie Smith (Joyce Chilvers); Denholm Elliott (Dr Charles Swaby); Richard Griffiths (Henry Allardyce); Tony Haygarth (Bernard Sutcliff)

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A chiropodist and his ambitious wife are eager to gain acceptance among the establishment of a small town in Yorkshire just after WWII.

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A Private Function (d. Malcolm Mowbray, 1984) may be the closest that 1980s British cinema came to recapturing the spirit of the great Ealing comedies. There may be more emphasis on sex and lower bodily functions, but it's still a perfect double-bill partner for Passport to Pimlico (d. Henry Cornelius, 1949).

Both films are set in the postwar 1940s, a time when government food rationing was at its height. Whereas Pimlico's inhabitants declared independence, their Yorkshire counterparts practice gentler subversion, with almost everyone involved in the production or trading of black market meat.

There's something Kafkaesque about this - faces look in windows, malicious gossip is whispered in queues, butchers are hauled off to prison and innocent chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers (Michael Palin) has his shop closed on the say-so of local dignitary Dr Swaby (Denholm Elliott). Kafka must have been on writer Alan Bennett's mind: he wrote Kafka's Dick for the stage and The Insurance Man (BBC, 1986) for television shortly afterwards.

But when it becomes clear that almost everyone (barring incorruptible food inspector Wormold (Bill Paterson)) could be a blackmail target, suspicion turns to camaraderie as the conspirators realise that they're on the same side, and that the success of the title's private function - an illicit feast to celebrate the marriage of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip - is the most important thing.

The large cast is uniformly superb - others include Jim Carter's saturnine police inspector, Pete Postlethwaite's lugubrious butcher, Liz Smith's dotty old mother, Richard Griffiths' sentimental accountant married to Alison Steadman, above all Maggie Smith as the snobbish, pernickety Joyce Chilvers, desperate for social elevation at any price ("My father wore a carnation in his buttonhole every day of his life"), even if it means sacrificing her spotless kitchen to a rampaging pig. ("That was a wedding present!", she gasps as an heirloom is destroyed. "It's not to know that", says Gilbert, reasonably).

But the real star is Bennett's script, bristling with funny, poignant one-liners (Mother's aside to Joyce, "You should have married that sanitary engineer", underscores her present misery) and absurd yet strangely convincing situations, such as Wormold drawing the seam of a nonexistent but longed-for pair of nylon tights onto Mrs Forbes' (Rachel Davies) leg with an eyebrow pencil. Bennett was a Yorkshire teenager in 1947, and although the film may often teeter into farce, individual elements seem very much drawn from real life.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. The raid (3:52)
2. An awkward guest (4:14)
3. Socialist scum (1:56)
4. An unfortunate slip (1:56)
Alan Bennett: The Guardian Interview (1984)
Rationing in Britain (1945)
Bennett, Alan (1934-)
Elliott, Denholm (1922-1992)
Griffiths, Richard (1947-2013)
Palin, Michael (1943-)
Postlethwaite, Pete (1945-2011)
Smith, Liz (1921-)
Smith, Maggie (1934-)
HandMade Films