A Private Function

*****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

A Private Function
"Bennett's script gently mocks his characters, while also maintaining a level of understanding."

"I saw another verruca today..."

"Don't bring feet to the table!"

Copy picture

This tea-time exchange between meek chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers (Michael Palin) and his social climber wife Joyce (Maggie Smith) is indicative of much of Alan Bennett's script for A Private Function, combining absurdism and obsessional British mores in one exchange, while simultaneously telling us all we need to know about their relationship.

Bennett, along with director Malcolm Mowbray, perfectly recreates the he world of post-war rationing in a northern town in a way that acknowledges the Ealing comedies that went before and - looking at it in the rear view mirror - anticipates the more modern humour of The Royle Family and even the darker comedy of A League Of Gentlemen. The Chilvers are making do, as my gran used to say, with Gilbert cycling around the town, fixing the feet of clients and dreaming of a shop on the high street parade, while Joyce, in between looking after their mother (Liz Smith), plays organ for the local cinema and teaches kids on the side.

When the news breaks that Queen Elizabeth is set to wed, some of the local businessmen - already no strangers to dirty tricks - decide to rear an illegal pig for a banquet. Chief among them is greedy butcher Nuttall (Pete Postlethwaite), hapless accountant Allardyce (Richard Griffiths) and supercilious Dr Swaby (Denholm Elliot). The men soon find themselves trying to save their bacon after Chilvers accidentally gets wind of the animal and, once Bennett has thrown in a nasally challenged eccentric Ministry of Food inspecter (Bill Paterson), the stage is perfectly poised for farce.

With the sort of knockout cast most directors would dream of, everyone here is on the top of their game. Although the double act of Liz Smith and Maggie Smith is perhaps the black market cherry on the cake - every look they exchange is hilarious - there is talent running right through the cast, with the likes of Tony Haygarth, Alison Steadman and Jim Carter all turning in sharply observed performances in smaller roles. Palin, always a generous actor, just let's his open expression do the job as the female characters run rings around Gilbert.

The chief delight is in the details. Food, for example, has a key role to play, not just because, as Joyce puts it, "Pork is power!" or in naming the pig Betty after our dear old queen, but in the acknowledgement of people genuinely doing without. Her mother seems to be constantly nibbling on things she has found in pockets, while Joyce takes keeping up appearances to Olympic lengths when she opens a tin of peaches just so she can include them in scraps for the pigs.

Bennett's script gently mocks his characters, while also maintaining a level of understanding. So when Joyce declares: "I want a future that's going to be up to my past." it's funny but also poignant, a woman doing what she can to keep the family on track. There's also whispers of what has gone on to be a major consideration in cinema of late - dementia - with Mother permanently petrified she's going to be carted off.

This, blended with the obvious slapstick of letting a pig loose in a small house, is a winning combination that has lost none of its humour down the years. Whether you watch it for the joys of its strong women, its laugh-out loud script or its snapshot of post-War Britain, by the end, you'll want to pig out on it all over again.

Reviewed on: 19 Jun 2017
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In post-war Britain, a couple become involved in the bacon black market.

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