Monday, 23 August 2010

A Private Function, Richard Mowbray, UK 1984

Calling A Private Function a romp would not do it justice for despite its fair share of bathroom humour, far too clever and subtle in its observations is the screenplay by Alan Bennett to be dismissed as being merely a romp. However, A Private Function is indeed hilarious, but it is also full of wicked little comments and allusions to post-war misery, the British class system and its upshot, snobbery.

A Private Function is set in 1947 in rural Yorkshire at the time of the royal wedding of the future Queen Elizabeth to Prince Phillip. Michael Palin plays Gilbert Chilvers, the town's chiropodist married to Joyce - portrayed by Maggie Smith - a piano teacher who also plays the Wurlitzer at the local cinema on the side. I admit being a huge - I mean HUGE! - fan of Maggie Smith's. She probably is the only actress with the ability to make me laugh uproariously even if she was just reading out the phone book. However, Maggie Smith really is hysterical in her role as Joyce since much of A Private Function's humour derives from Joyce's social ambitions. Joyce, unlike her husband, who passively gets on with his life, intends "to take this town". As we learn somewhere along the line, Joyce's father used to own a chain of dry-cleaners and so Joyce "wants a future that lives up to her past". Never mind that looking at Joyce's mother - whose dottiness and social ineptness can't just be a result of her age - it is hard to believe that Joyce's past is little more than a product of her fantasy. But this discrepancy between Joyce's social aspirations and the Chilvers' reality gives rise to A Private Function's funniest lines, and Maggie Smith the opportunity to be at her camp best! With post-war rationing still in full swing, Gilbert, egged on by Joyce, steals a pig. With a private function to commemorate the royal wedding coming up - to which, of course, neither Joyce nor Gilbert are invited - possessing said pig, which would provide plenty of meat to feed the dinner guests, Joyce senses her opportunity to schmooze their way into the town's upper crust from which they have thus far been so blatantly excluded. Once the pig is in the Chilvers' house, that's when A Private Function is at its riotous best, although what follows may not be for the faint-hearted. Unbeknownst to the unsuspecting Joyce, who hopes that "the pig will be a clean one", the poor animal suffers from a severe case of diarrhoea for having previously been fed a rat!

But the ensuing mess in the Chilvers' house notwithstanding, in the end Joyce emerges victorious. Finding out that the pig is unlicensed, she knows she has the upper hand and that there's little the pig's rightful owners can do. These are none other than the members of the town's upper crust, among them the town doctor who so staunchly tries to prevent the Chilvers' ascent into society. But having them by the tail, Joyce rolls in the cocktail trolley, herself dressed up to the nines, and nips on a glass of sherry while proposing a deal.

And so Joyce gets her invitation to the private function after all. Never mind that they are seated next to the toilets. Though when, in the very last scene, we see Joyce dancing with the doctor, whose hand wanders slowly from her back down to her bottom, we know that come the next such function Joyce will be seated at the very front - be that with Gilbert or someone else.