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Ploughman's Lunch, The (1983)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

London, 1982. James Penfield is an editor for BBC Radio News. To better his position, he has written a chapter on the Berlin Air Lift for a new history book, taking most of the information from a friend, tabloid journalist Jeremy. He proposes a new project to his editor, on the Suez Crisis of 1956, and backed down when the Americans refused to give their support. James aims to look at the crisis from a new angle, seeing not as a failure, but as a victory for diplomacy. James is also pursuing an attractive TV researcher, Susan, who is old friends with Jeremy.

As the Falklands War breaks out, James is busy reporting the war, preparing his book and chatting up the elusive Susan. He visits his father, who now takes care of his sick, bedridden mother. James is ashamed of his working-class parents, and is reluctant to visit, or to stay long when he does. He tells Susan they are dead.

Through Jeremy, James discovers that Susan's mother, Ann, is a historian who once researched a book on Suez, but never published it. James visits Ann in Norfolk, where she lives with her second husband and Susan's stepfather, Matthew. James spends a great deal of time with Ann, soliciting information for his book and using the occasion to continue to try and get Susan to go out with him, or at least sleep with him. In the end, however, his plan backfires when Susan's mother forms a romantic attachment to James, and she comes to him in the middle of the night. He sleeps with her because she has the information he needs to finish his book.

On his way home to London, he gets a flat tyre and while looking for help, finds a group of women camped outside an American Air-force base, protesting against its use as a site for Nuclear weapons. They ask him for help publicising their cause. He promises to help, but does nothing. In London, Matthew, who directs advertisements, takes James out for a ploughman's lunch, telling him how this supposed 18th Century tradition was actually invented in the 1960s by an advertising agency to encourage British people to eat pub food. Matthew also tells James that he is welcome to continue to sleep with Ann, since Matthew has a string of mistresses anyway. Later, however, James asks a friend to call Ann and break it off.

James continues with his book, too busy to visit his mother despite his father's frequent prompting. In another attempt to woo Susan, he accompanies her and Jeremy to the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, the first after the Falklands War. There he tries to get Susan alone so he can speak with her, but fails. Finally, during the Prime Minister's speech, he sees Jeremy and Susan kissing, and realises that they have got together behind his back. He angrily accuses Jeremy, who admits that he and Susan set James up with Ann, and that Susan never had any intention of going out with him.

James throws himself into his work and finishes his book, which his publisher considers a great success. As he and colleagues toast his success, James learns that his mother has died. At the funeral he looks impatiently at his watch, anxious to move on.