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Eskimo Day (1996)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Eskimo Day (1996)
For Screen One, Greenpoint Films for BBC1, tx. 5/4/1996
85 minutes, colour
DirectorPiers Haggard
ProducerAnn Scott
ScreenplayJack Rosenthal
PhotographyMichael Coulter
EditorMichael Parker

Cast: Maureen Lipman (Shani); David Ross (Bevis); Tom Wilkinson (Hugh); Anna Carteret (Harriet); Alec Guinness (James); James Fleet (Simon)

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Three young would-be students arrive with their families at Cambridge University on interview day.

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At the end of a stressful day spent chaperoning her son to his Cambridge University entrance interview, Maureen Lipman's Shani expresses her fear for the future: "It's Eskimos, in't it, that, when they get old and no use to no-one no more, they just quietly sling their hooks and toddle off into the snow. For good. And their kids don't much bother because they're all too busy catching fish in holes and hoovering their igloos. And life goes on. Theirs does. Not the poor old useless bugger lying in the snow. Theirs doesn't." Writer Jack Rosenthal, with characteristic flair, puts into the mouth of his actress wife the feelings of parental redundancy that he suffered after just such a trip to Cambridge with their son Adam. Not for the first time, Rosenthal was able to transform an episode from his own life into a gem of comic observation and genuine pathos.

Eskimo Day is a tightly woven ensemble piece observing a diverse range of parent-child groupings on a single day of Cambridge interviews. As ever, Rosenthal's primary sympathies lie with the Northern working-class family, and Lipman grabs her role of superstitious matriarch with gusto. Anna Carteret and Tom Wilkinson portray middle-class parents whose marriage is less than secure and undermined by Wilkinson's dishonesty. When the offspring of these two couples meet outside the office of their interviewer (James Fleet), class differences and parental loyalties fade away, and the prospect of a new relationship suddenly seems more important than getting into Cambridge. If Rosenthal is guarded in his support for the Cambridge institution, he is clear in his affection for these principled young people, as yet unafflicted by their parents' foibles.

An astute touch is the storyline involving the interviewer visiting a prospective care home for his elderly father, played by Alec Guinness. At the other end of the age spectrum, the burden of care has switched, yet the incident proves a watershed for the son in recognising his father's dignity and independence. This strand of the film is particularly poignant, featuring as it does Guinness's last screen appearance.

Piers Haggard also directed a sequel, Cold Enough for Snow (tx. 31/12/1997), in which Shani's husband Bevis (David Ross) comes close to a nervous breakdown when, as Lipman put it, the Empty Nest becomes a chasm - another case of Rosenthal's art echoing life.

Fintan McDonagh

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Video Clips
1. The agony of waiting (2:52)
2. A Cambridge man (3:43)
3. Divining the future (3:08)
4. 'Ask me another' (1:16)
Guinness, Alec (1914-2000)
Rosenthal, Jack (1931-2004)
Wilkinson, Tom (1948-)