THE MAN WHO WASN’T A MUPPET

The next post will be on or before Thursday 3rd January

THE MAN WHO WASN’T A MUPPET

There is a riotous vignette in Mike Leigh’s 1983 TV film Meantime where Mark Pollock, a young unemployed Londoner, living in an ugly high-rise East End flat, is signing on at the dole office, and when the harassed woman fronting the desk, asks him if he has done any work recently, he immediately breaks into ranting sarcastic fantasies about baroque and impossible jobs. The dowdy DHSS woman (as they were then called) patiently asks him for her pen back, once he has signed on (interesting postposition that eh, why ‘on’?) whereupon Mark aka Phil Daniels (born 1958) counters her ‘my pen’ with ‘OUR pen!’ just to show her she is a public servant paid for in theory by such as him. The film is set in 1983, meaning 4 years after Margaret Thatcher had been in power, and had informed the world there was no such thing as ‘society’. Other indicators of the time are that these days if you gave any lip in the dole office you would have your money stopped forthwith. Daniels, veteran of the excellent 1979 mods and rockers movie Quadrophenia and sad to say the dolorous and dreary TV series EastEnders, plays the part with great skill, sullenly rhetorical, permanently enraged at his also workless Dad, Frank (gruff and sour Jeffrey Robert on top form) and greeting all statements by everyone with dextrous ironic inversions. The one love in his life is his younger brother Colin who has learning difficulties, though the love is buried in his repetitive taunts of ‘Muppet’ and ‘Kermit’. Colin, permanently clad in a shapeless and depressing anorak, is played by Tim Roth (born 1961) and this is only his second TV appearance.  Everyone acts astoundingly in this film but perhaps Roth is the truly shining star, for he sniffs and squints and shuffles and freezes and looks vacant, and stays mute when asked for information, till you almost sympathise with his angry and pitiless Mum, Mavis (Pam Ferris, born 1948 and Darling Buds of May TV star) when she resorts to bawling at and even clouting him.

The film unfolds qua typical early Leigh as a set of uneasy set pieces, and there is much for the viewer to squirm about and reflect on when it comes to acknowledging that some folks’ lives are an unmitigated hell and especially if you combine poverty with the extreme dependence of a family member. All three males are unemployed, Mavis being the only Pollock with a job, which perhaps explains her foul temper and permanent resentment at everyone around her. She and Frank are ceaselessly bawling at each other to shut up, and Mark goes ballistic at his Dad when taunted with his unemployment. When Mark points out their common condition, Frank asserts he has done his stint already thank you very much, whereas his idle son hasn’t even got started in the honourable world of honest graft (Frank also opines obligatory conscription is a good thing). The dramatic foil to the hopeless Pollock family is Mavis’s sister Barbara, married to respectable office manager John and living childless in suburban splendour in Chigwell. Barbara is played with a touching finesse by Marion Bailey (born 1951) a Leigh regular who also portrayed the widowed landlady and lover of the artist in Mr Turner (2014). Barbara has been to college and has trained in office studies, and is proud of the fact, but her self-esteem isn’t helped by the fact she is stuck at home in semi-detached boredom and that John (Alfred Molina born 1957) is studiously polite but not remotely passionate, indeed far more like a work colleague than a loving husband. Towards the end of the film she acknowledges as much by getting very drunk, and for the first time in their marriage uttering the unsayable words fuck off to her sanguine and antiseptic husband, who for the first time in his life has nil reply to offer.

Tension between the posh couple and the Pollocks is heightened when Barbara breezes round to ask nephew Colin to come and help her decorate the desirable semi. Frank and Mavis are baffled at first and not pleased to hear the wages offered are a scant £1.20 an hour, plus travel expenses between the East End and Chigwell. Barbara insists it is fair and that she will also give him excellent meals and Colin may choose the menu (burgers, please, Aunty Barbara!) whereupon Mavis gracelessly decides she will take half of every £1.20.This comedy of strained manners is heightened by the fact a council repairs official (Leigh veteran Peter Wight, born 1950) is also present, for the Pollocks’ high rise kitchen window is downright dangerous and Frank is worried it might land on someone’s head and kill them. Like all Leigh’s officials, social workers etc (qv the 2 child welfare idiots in the 1982 Home Sweet Home) he makes entertaining caricature of these token liberals with their God-awful diction

“Money, yeh, money, right? Money yeh  is power, right?” burbles silken Wight.

Barbara instantly perks up at that, and preening in the presence of another educated person, tells him straight that everyone needs money. But then she swiftly departs in case Mark should return home, for Mark would surely take angry exception to someone exploiting his defenceless brother for a wage rate appropriate to 1975.

In fact, Mark goes all out to subvert Colin’s first ever paid job. Colin is supposed to make his way to Chigwell via a succession of tubes, and predictably gets hopelessly lost. Mark turns up well before him and brushes off Barbara’s indignation at the surprise visit, with taunting insinuations about her childlessness and the obvious lovelessness of her marriage. He mockingly addresses her as Aunty Barbara, then insolently asks her what she will make him for lunch, though she bats him off with spirit and orders him into the car to go and find Colin. They cannot spot him anywhere, but when they return to Chigwell he is there in the garden, irritatingly expressionless, unable to explain how he went astray, but possibly unsettled by the presence of his brother. Barbara tries to cajole him into starting the decorating but he stays motionless and mute, and eventually accuses Mark of trying to steal his job. He then stalks off leaving Barbara to do her own decorating and makes his way with a far surer sense of navigation, to what we have earlier seen as his nascent love interest. The girl in question is Hayley who is largely speechless and inarticulate like Colin, but is so by choice rather than genetics or family influence. Played by Tilly Vosburgh (born 1960) who featured in Leigh’s 2004 abortion movie Vera Drake, she takes pity on Colin as he tries to use the launderette when deputised to do the family wash by Mavis, and for obscure reasons, even stony Mark flatters Colin that Hayley fancies him. But Hayley’s real passion is for a vagabond skinhead in a woolly hat and Doc Martens called Coxy, an acquaintance of Mark’s, who also likes to meet a question with a second unnerving question, rather than give a straight answer. Coxy is only Gary Oldman’s second TV appearance, and it is indicative of his remarkable versatility that we have also seen him as a blustering inimitable Winston Churchill in the powerful and moving WW2 film Darkest Hour (2017). Oldman (born 1958) plays a jesting antisocial rebel who whiles away his time rolling around in empty barrels on barren deserted streets, or alternatively tolerating Colin in Hayley’s flat (he’s my mate!) but then shutting him in her wardrobe with his Doc Martens as a wedge (Hayley laughs unkindly at Colin’s imprisonment, take note). But Coxy also has a threatening and vicious side, and at one stage starts clambering all over her furniture and offers to do unspecified violence to Hayley, before retracting it and making out it was just a joke. The depiction of terrifying male violence is a sustained thread in Leigh’s work and is prominently showcased in Naked (1993) about Johnny/ David Thewlis the feverishly articulate, damaged and very damaging Mancunian loner at large in night time London, as well as via Eddie Marsan’s ranting driving instructor in Happy Go Lucky, and even the artist Turner in his regular and loveless borderline rape of his infatuated house servant  

Having abandoned his job, Colin turns up hopefully at Hayley’s flat, but she refuses entry despite his pleading. Cue then his going home to disclose he did no decorating for Aunty Barbara, and his refusal to explain how and why to incensed Mavis, who true to form tries to clout it out of him. An incendiary row ensues, where Frank accuses Mark of fraternal jealousy and sabotaging his brother’s honest work, then Mavis pursuing Colin into his bedroom where for the first time ever he stuns and even silences her, by shouting at her to get out of the room that belongs to him! Later, by way of understated epilogue, Mark steals into Colin’s room and as he is sleeping, he lifts up the anorak hood to behold a completely shaved head, which of course his brother does not wish Frank and Mavis to learn about too soon. Colin has evidently decided he needed to look like crazy Coxy to win beautiful Hayley, and had taken appropriate and even you might say craftily intelligent action.

“How much did it cost for the haircut…?”

“What? Oh £1.20…”

The only mystery is where the new East End skinhead got the necessary money from, for of course he did not strike a bat at Aunty Barbara’s…

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