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Insurance Man, The (1986)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Insurance Man, The (1986)
For Screen Two, BBC, tx. 23/2/1986, colour, 75 mins
DirectorRichard Eyre
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerInnes Lloyd
ScriptAlan Bennett
PhotographyNat Crosby
MusicIlona Sekacz

Cast: Daniel Day Lewis (Kafka); Robert Hines (Young Franz); Geoffrey Palmer (Angry Doctor); Alan MacNaughtan (Doctor); Jim Broadbent (Gutling)

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A dye worker, dismissed from his job because of a suspicious rash, finds himself caught up in the nightmarish bureaucracy of an insurance company, one of whose employees is Franz Kafka.

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Given that Alan Bennett's screenplay for A Private Function (d. Malcolm Mowbray, 1984) turned postwar rationing into full-blown Kafkaesque paranoia, it comes as little surprise that he would turn to the novelist himself as a subject. In fact, he did so twice: his play Kafka's Dick (a rather more overtly comic portrait) was also staged in 1986.

It's not so much Franz Kafka who is the subject of The Insurance Man (BBC, tx. 23/2/1986) as what he created - poor Franz (no relation) is caught up in a web of bureaucratic complexity that readers of The Trial will recognise immediately as he tries not just to get compensation for an industrial injury but also to establish whether he's even entitled to it.

Journeying through seemingly endless corridors, up and down straight and spiral staircases, passed from one unnamed functionary to the next, Franz (Robert Hines) encounters fellow victims at every stage, from the eternally optimistic Lily (Vivien Pickles), convinced that the door she's patiently waiting beside holds the answer (it opens into a stairwell) to the embittered tribunal doctor (Geoffrey Palmer), whose grimly funny speech about the virtues of pessimism clearly mirrors his own personal journey from idealist to cynic.

This is the least-known of the three performances with which Daniel Day Lewis made a spectacular splash in 1986 - My Beautiful Laundrette (d. Stephen Frears) and A Room with a View (d. James Ivory) were the others - but his star quality is evident even in a minor part: his Kafka isn't on screen for long, but he holds it effortlessly, seen to best effect when his calm stillness beautifully counterpoints the blustering Gutling (Jim Broadbent).

Kafka's problem is that he is more sensitive than his colleagues to his clients' problems - which makes it worse if he does nothing about it. Out of guilt, Kafka arranges for Franz to take a job in his brother-in-law's new factory, which solves the short-term problem but, in a perfect example of Kafkaesque irony, creates a long-term one as it's producing asbestos (the dangers of which weren't known at the time).

Richard Eyre had been directing television since the 1970s, but his reputation primarily came from his work at the National Theatre, and The Insurance Man is 'theatrical' in the best sense, using the full panoply of Expressionist techniques in lighting and design to create an off-kilter world that perfectly matches Bennett's edgy, paranoid script.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. On the warpath (3:13)
2. Curing optimism (3:49)
3. Kafka's dilemma (4:50)
Smokescreen (1964)
Bennett, Alan (1934-)
Broadbent, Jim (1949-)
Day Lewis, Daniel (1957-)
Palmer, Geoffrey (1927-)