Sunday, August 12, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Eric and Ernie and "Hattie" from 26.1.2011

This piece is taken from my reviewblog in 2011
´╗┐The last month has been marked by two biographical films about three icons of British entertainment - or two if a double act counts as only one: Morecambe and Wise and Hattie Jacques.

On BBC 2 "Eric and Ernie," written by Pete Bowker, covered part of the lengthy careers of the nation's favourite double act Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise.

It began with their separate early years with Ernie enjoying considerable success and fast outstripping his father Harry, poignantly played by Reece Shearsmith, destined to be outshone in show business by his talented son.

Eric, initially Bartholomew, experienced less acclaim as a boy performer and did not enjoy the same early recognition as his eventual partner. He did however have the priceless advantage of a driven but level-headed mother, Sadie who seemed to provide just the right amount of encouragement and advice without becoming a monstrous stage mother out of "Gypsy" or a song by Noel Coward.

Played with great sensitivity by Victoria Wood, Sadie Bartholemew comes across as undoubtedly pushy, but principally as unselfish and fundamantally grounded and sane. Both the writing and her understated performance prevent the part turning into caricature.

Eric's father, George Bartholomew, was also portrayed with great restraint and good taste by Jim Moir/Vic Reeves. Less demonstrative than his energetic and dedicated wife, George was another pillar in Eric's life, never complaining when his wife disappeared on tour with his son and devoted most of her waking hours and thoughts to promoting his career.

The film was well written and depicted the pre and post war years authentically with excellent costumes and sets. The young and adult Eric and Ernie were recaptured with great accuracy and their life, ranging from digs on tour to middling theatres and even a circus tent was convincingly recreated.

Daniel Rigby as Eric and Brian Dick as Ernie portrayed the talent, drive and humour of their characters perfectly and the sheer decency of both men. Their early solo years were followed by the unforgettable double act based upon the premise: "You'll be short and bad tempered and I'll be tall and lazy - but we'll both be idiots". The film followed the progress of their career up to their TV break and focused on the inevitable process of growing up.

The key scenes showing the rehearsal and performance of their ill-fated television debut also worked well and the story telling was effective. The basic thrust of the narrative was two fold in showing first the sad inevitability that as their careers developed, the pair would increasingly make their own decisions, leaving Sadie behind, just as Ernie had moved on from his father.

Secondly, the failure of their first TV series demonstrated the need to be true to their own ideas and talents. When Eric and Ernie were later themselves, aided and abetted by excellent writers, such as Sid Green and Dick Hills and Eddie Braben, they would achieve lasting stellar success.

So, "Eric and Ernie" worked well. A lucid and evocative story featuring well-written characters perfectly performed. My only reservation is what perhaps we did not see. The drama might have been even more credible and rounded if a fuller indication was given of the effect on Ernie's father of the relative failure of his own stage career.

Similarly, Sadie Bartholomew takes her disappointment at being sidelined so nobly and in such an understated way. We do not really get to see the full impact of this upon her or indeed the the reality of her life with her husband when fully absorbed in Eric's career and later when excluded from it. At one point he remarks "Ooh, you know me. I don't go much on thinking". This ironic remark makes one want to know all the more how he really felt.

The film presents the duo's rise and early TV set back and shows an honest and talented pair without a darker side. I am not suggesting that Eric and Ernie were anything else, but one wonders if the film steers clear of some of the pressures experienced on a long and no doubt arduous show biz trail. We saw only the story of the career of a famous double act, but do not learn much of their relationship: they were nice chaps who got on well and that was that. It was almost as though the obtaining of the necessary clearances to undertake the project meant that the version reaching the screen had to assume some of the anaemic quality of an American biopic.

On the positive side, even without any hint of a subtext of the stresses often found in the lengthiest of professional partnerships, the film was an engaging reflection of the lives of a pair whose best work was more often than not the highlight of the nation's TV year.

Later in January, BBC 4 showed "Hattie," Stephen Russell's bittersweet bio-drama covering a period in the life of Junoesque film and television actress Hattie Jacques, played by the clever and charismatic Ruth Jones.

The film covered five years beginning in 1966, when Hattie was making "Carry On Cabbie" and ending with a dramatic parting in a hotel room in Rome. The story concerned sex which was in some ways "of its time", being three years after the invention of sex itself in 1963 - as intimated by Philip Larkin.

The viewer is presented with a film and TV actress at the height of her powers and already a national institution as battle-axe matron and foil of Sid James and Kenneth Williams in numerous "Carry On's", whilst on TV she was long suffering sister of Eric Sykes.

As well as sustaining a massively successful career on large and small screen, Hattie was married to leading actor John Le Mesurier and had two healthy young sons. Their London home was a convivial bohemian place full of friends and laughter with Hattie cooking and husband John extemporising on the piano or pottering round with a bottle of Chateau Talbot or gin, asking amiably if "anyone needed a top-up."

This personal and professional paradise was soon to be turned upside down by the advent of a viper in the form of randy second-hand car dealer John Schofeld (Aidan Turner), a decade her junior who turned her head in record time and moved into the family home. I suppose that makes him a cuckoo rather than a viper, but you get my drift...

The effect the handsome Schofield had on Hattie was positively convulsive. Some of the initial attraction seems to have stemmed from caring Hattie's sympathy for his loss of a child. This was compounded by his effortless charm, laid on with a trowel. The charisma worked on her sons as well as their mother for John could amuse them with football in the garden and silly invented games with a carrot, which appeared outside the capabilites of their middle-aged father who tended to be happier with a drink and a book.

The key to Schofied's appeal appears to have been his capacity to override Hattie's continuous self disparagement as someone always cast as "a silly frigid fat girl" - albeit "the nation's favourite silly frigid fat girl." Schofield made Hattie forget her insecurities and revel in her sensuous and passionate nature as "Call Me Irresponsible" played in the background. Hattie so enjoyed being desired, she lost all inhibition and admitted "everything else is irrelevant."

After a short period, their frantic lovemaking nearly rocked her shabby little caravan on the "Carry on Cabby" set off its rusty axle. Their very physical relationship was consummated regularly in the family home to Hattie's great satisfaction. She remarked proudly over drinks in the garden whilst admiring his glistening stripped torso: "He's unstoppable in bed."

All this might have been very well in the self indulgence had not involved victims. The greatest one was naturally the cuckolded husband John, played with requisite langour and diffidence by Robert Bathhurst.

Le Mesurier's tolerance and loyal devotion to his errant wife were spectacular. When coming upon the adulterers in flagrante delicto he is embarrassed and comments "I'm terribly sorry. I forgot my book" - just as though it were a line from the laconic Sergeant Wilson in "Dad's Army."

The scenes of Le Mesurier consigned to the grim attic bedroom - which looked more like 10 Rillington Place than part of a well-heeled actor's London residence - forced to listen to the energetic fornication below, were disturbing and moving.

Even more harrowing, was the pained expression on the face of the older son, overhearing the unmistakable sounds of enthusiastic copulation: an unhealthy and unkind imposition on a child.

Le Mesurier's saintly forbearance was manifested in the set piece appearance on "This Is your Life" which was toe-curlingly embarrassing for all concerned and a triumph of illusion and hypocrisy throughout.

He went on to top it all by volunteering to be named the guilty party in the inevitable divorce proceedings. This was ostensively to save his wife's career given the truism that the "British never forgive people who like a lot of sex." (Note: apart from Queen Victoria, I suppose..) With the advantage of hindsight, we know that history was to repeat itself after a fashion when John's new partner Joan subsequently left him for his best friend Tony Hancock.

This film seeks to tell the story of Hattie's affair which came to an explosive end in the hotel room in Rome when Schofield left. Ruth Jones evocation of Hattie was considered and affecting. Hattie was clearly a remarkable woman capable of instilling in her husband the hugest tolerance, forbearance and acts of kindness.

Clearly Hattie was riven by the most agonising of insecurities about her size and desirability, compounded by apparently strong sexual appetites. Be that as it may, however, the sequence of events as presented in this film and the trail of pain and havoc wrought by the adulterers simply does not compute.

Infidelity is one thing, but cruel humiliation another. One can conceive that Le Mesurier's adoration of his wife was strong enough for him to sacrifice his own pride in the way he did. From what we saw of Hattie though - given her manifest decency and kind, loving nature - it is very difficult to imagine how she could have inflicted such suffering upon those closest to her.

Can physical insecurity and a pronounced sex drive so entirely out weigh a caring nature? The viewer was left with no truly credible explanation as to how and why Hattie could have done this to her husband and children or indeed herself.

Despite exceptional performances by the central characters and excellent production values, it was this failure to offer a plausible solution to this fundamental conundrum on which the film ultimately foundered.

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