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Voyage Round My Father, A (1982)

Courtesy of FremantleThames

Main image of Voyage Round My Father, A (1982)
Thames for ITV, tx. 2/3/1982
90 minutes, colour
Director / ProducerAlvin Rakoff
Adaptation/Original PlayJohn Mortimer
PhotographyTony Pierce-Roberts
EditorOscar Webb
MusicMarc Wilkinson

Cast: Laurence Olivier (father); Alan Bates (son); Elizabeth Sellars (mother); Jane Asher (Elizabeth); Michael Aldridge (headmaster); Alan Cox (son as a boy)

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A son looks back over his difficult relationship with his father, a successful lawyer who was struck with blindness in middle age, but continued to work.

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In 1981, Thames Television was riding high on the success of John Mortimer's Rumpole of the Bailey series (ITV, 1978-83, 1987-92), which had been based on a 1975 BBC1 Play for Today. Aiming to repeat the trick, Thames commissioned Mortimer to adapt an earlier BBC production, the autobiographical A Voyage Round My Father, which had originated on radio in 1963, progressing via a 1969 television version to become a West End stage hit with Alec Guinness in the title role. Laurence Olivier agreed to take time out of writing his autobiography to interpret 'Father' - Clifford Mortimer in everything but name - while Alan Bates took on 'Son', John Mortimer's surrogate.

Filmed and chiefly set in the "small house surrounded, as if for protection, by an enormous garden" which was Mortimer's Buckinghamshire home for much of his life, the film unfolds broadly chronologically with the unhurried tempo of a summer afternoon. The garden is where most of the son's encounters with his father take place, and it provides a comforting continuity between the generations, especially in the intriguing evening ritual of the earwig hunt. The father and his only son may remain sources of frustration to each other, but a respect and barely expressed affection underpins their relationship: when the son announces his desire to become a writer, his father gently entreats, "Do a little law, won't you, just to please me?" The son, naturally, obliges.

The majority of scenes that take place outside of this idyll are beautifully scripted comic episodes, from the absurdities of the son's public school reminiscences (featuring a scene-stealing Michael Aldridge as the headmaster, Noah) to the theatrics of the father's courtroom divorce cases. The sharp humour that characterises most of the film seeps away in the closing scenes as the father's health declines, and the final scene is remarkable in its stillness and poignancy.

The piece hinges on a compelling performance from Olivier. Despite the more literal medium of television making some of the scenes between the lead actors jarringly age-inappropriate, Olivier embraces the theatricality with his full-blooded portrayal of an irascible barrister, railing against life's inconveniences and never admitting to his blindness. The director Alvin Rakoff has told of the actor's own ill-health at the time and his consequent difficulty remembering lines, yet it remains a late television triumph for Olivier, matched only by the following year's King Lear (Channel 4, tx. 3/4/1983).

Fintan McDonagh

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Video Clips
1. The divorce court (3:36)
2. The facts of life (3:49)
3. Starting arguments (4:15)
Asher, Jane (1946-)
Bates, Alan (1934-2003)
Knight, Esmond (1906-1987)
Mortimer, Sir John (1923-2009)
Olivier, Laurence (1907-1989)
Thames Television