East of Ipswich (UK, 1987)
Directed by Tristram Powell
Starring John Nettleton, Pat Heywood, Joan Sanderson, Edward Rawle-Hicks
In my review of The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash, I commented on the post-Python career of Eric Idle and his reputation as something of a cynical, money-grubbing sell-out. If anything, the career of Michael Palin has proceeded in the opposite direction. The comedian who has now been dubbed ‘Britain’s nicest man’ has become elevated to the status of national treasure, something that he would never have dreamed of (or indeed tolerated) when the Pythons were in their rebellious prime.
While I do not begrudge Palin any of the success that he has achieved, in comedy or his travel documentaries, it is rather depressing to see him associated with something as pedestrian as East of Ipswich. This insipid, paltry coming-of-age drama based on his memories of childhood holidays sees Palin trading the vibrant, unpredictable comedy of his youth for something so uninspired and unadventurous, that it makes even the weakest parts of Ripping Yarns seem as radical as Luis Bunuel.
As with The Rutles or Death of a Salesman, it is important not to prematurely look down on TV films. Certain stories are better suited to the small screen because of their scope or limited amount of content. But whereas The Rutles occasionally used the format to its advantage (or at least thought about it), this film has no visual ambition whatsoever. Everything about the film from the lighting and camerawork to the pace at which it unfolds feels like it was made to be just about good enough, and nothing more.
The first big problem lies in the choice of director. Tristram Powell would later make a name for himself in TV crime dramas, directing episodes of Kavanagh QC, Judge John Deed, Trial and Retribution and Foyle’s War. While he seems to be adept at directing older gentlemen talking about important matters in rooms, he is completely at sea when it comes to capturing the energy of teenagers and the awkwardness of young love. Any time we cut to someone under the age of 25, the camera just sits on them, waiting for them to do something and then cutting back to the annoyingly dull parents when nothing happens.
The film is trying to occupy the same kind of territory of Alan Bennett, with whom Palin worked on the great Handmade Films comedy, A Private Function. Bennett’s works are renowned for their dry, earthy humour, which can turn the most normal and insignificant event into a genuinely affectionate laugh. Suffice to say, East of Ipswich doesn’t have any of the substance, insight or character development of Bennett’s work. It doesn’t swell gradually to a bittersweet reveal like the Talking Heads monologues, but just treads water for an hour before things ever get going.
The second problem with the film is its indecision over what tone to take. On the one hand it wants to be a film about repression and sexual awakening, demonstrating how mind-numbingly dull and grey Britain had become in the 1950s. On the other hand, it wants to be a feel-good film with uplifting jokes and light-hearted whimsy. It is possible but difficult to achieve a blend of these two, but Powell never makes up his mind as to which one he wants to emphasise. As a result the repression is present but goes nowhere, and we never feel good enough to genuinely enjoy ourselves.
A side effect of this indecision is that the film can appear to be celebrating the very thing it is supposed to be rebelling against. Because the direction is so flat, we never get to empathise enough with any of the young characters. Julia is pretty and charming in her own way, but the rest are either so annoying that you want to punch them or so boring you want to throttle them. Even when the rebellious and obnoxious Anna makes her speech in the coffee shop about people choosing to live life their way, it feels like something which has escaped from a far more interesting film.
With none of the young actors being particularly engaging, we are left with the adults who are completely oblivious to the needs of their children. The film may have a recognisable cast of British screen actors, including two alumni of Fawlty Towers, but none of them are given anything to do out of their comfort zone. Joan Sanderson is still crotchety and abrupt, Allan Cuthbertson is still upright and slightly pompous, and John Nettleton (who was very good in The New Statesman) still casts a slightly shambling figure. It’s as though the actors were bussed in and told to play to type until Powell felt inclined at shout “cut!”.
You might make the argument that, by making us so irate about the boring nature of the characters, East of Ipswich is actually doing its job. You might argue that Anna is a harbinger of the 1960s, and in order for her character to work it is necessary that we should feel distant from the others, who will either not go through the sexual revolution or will come to it rather late. While it’s a fairly cogent argument, very little of it is borne out by the events of the film, which seems a lot more preoccupied with depicting tedium rather than putting it to any use.
The few touchstones of rebellion which crop up in the film feel like complete (if welcome) non-sequiturs, cut from more interesting cloth and clumsily stitched into the plot. The recurring shots of the motorcyclists, who congregate under the pier and gate-crash the jazz club, feel like outtakes from Quadrophenia – and to be honest, a battle between mods and rockers would have livened up the beach scenes no end. The final encounter between Anna and Richard makes no real sense considering the characters’ relationship, and the scene where the boys are seduced by the vicar’s twin daughters is a total Big Lipped Alligator Moment – it happens for no reason, and then no-one ever speaks of it again.
You could equally argue that the film is part of the British coming-of-age tradition, which is more understated and self-consciously modest than American offerings like Porky’s and Animal House. In which case, the kindest thing we could say about East of Ipswich is that it is not Gregory’s Girl. Not by a long distance. It get barely half-right what Bill Forsyth got totally spot on, capturing the look of its time period without explaining its appeal to those of us who didn’t grow up at the same time as the characters. There is nothing to endear Richard’s childhood to us beyond a misplaced, Just William-like nostalgia, and that’s not enough to see us through 70 minutes.If…., let alone his psychotic Professor Millar, his presence lends a fleeting spark to the conversations between Richard and his headmaster.
Verdict: Depressingly dull and poorly directed