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Walter (1982)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Walter (1982)
Central Independent Television/Randel Evans Prod'ns for Channel 4, tx. 2/11/1982
75 min, colour
DirectorStephen Frears
ProducersNigel Evans
 Richard Creasey
ScriptDavid Cook
PhotographyChris Menges

Cast: Barbara Jefford (Mother), Ian McKellen (Walter), Tony Melody (Mr Hingley), Arthur Whybrow (Father), David Ryall (Mr Richards), Linda Polan (Miss Rushden)

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A mentally handicapped man, Walter, is taken to live in a long-stay mental hospital after the death of his mother.

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Stephen Frears won international acclaim with My Beautiful Laundrette (1986), but it was Walter (tx. 2/11/1982) shown on Channel Four's opening night, which made his name at home.

Walter is both a celebration of individual spirit and a critique of social responses to disability, as well as an expression of disillusionment with the Thatcher government's call for a return to Victorian values. The brutality of 'Victorian' responses to otherness is echoed in Walter's bleak experience in the institution he is sent to after the death of his parents.

The play is also a response and a resistance to the heritage genre gaining ground during the early 1980s. Series like Upstairs-Downstairs (ITV, 1970-75); Brideshead Revisited (ITV, 1981) and The Jewel in the Crown (ITV, 1984) had, Frears claimed, "perpetuated myths about an England that no longer exists, while failing to illuminate British life as it is." Frears' interest in confronting these narratives with portrayals of Britain's underclass was never more poignant than in Walter, and Ian McKellen's touching portrait of abandonment and loneliness.

McKellen is quite remarkable; his nuanced glances quickly switch to grandiose, explosive rages, touched with a child-like hysteria only his mother (Barbara Jefford) seems able to calm. The harsh, stoical mother is both a champion and a bully, whose combination of tenderness with a bitter sense of fate and punishment explains much of her son's imbalance. The silent father - a feature of Frears' previous work with Alan Bennett - reappears here briefly, but his function is to drive the plot rather than add to the depth of the story. It is the father's death that precipitates Walter's slide toward institutionalised life.

Within the institution, there is a matter-of-factness in the staff's attitude that evokes the kind of lived reality Frears aimed to portray during the '80s. Their moments of apparent rudeness or insensitivity are leavened with compassion, suggesting that it is the systems, not the people, that have failed the 'inmates', an impression underscored by the heartening tenderness with which nurse Joseph (Jim Broadbent) speaks to Walter in the final scenes. Where a more mainstream filmmaker might have ended on a note of hope, Frears prefers to close with Walter's inevitable assimilation into the institution, as we watch him walk back to take his seat among his new peers.

David Parker

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Video Clips
1. After Mother's death (1:34)
2. A final goodbye (2:50)
3. In the asylum (1:53)
4. A shaving accident (1:49)
Audsley, Mick (1949-)
Broadbent, Jim (1949-)
Frears, Stephen (1941-)
McKellen, Ian (1939-)
Menges, Chris (1940-)
Shaban, Nabil (1953-)
Channel 4 Drama
Channel 4 at 25