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The Start of The Eighties As It Was
on 29 August 2011
There a moment towards the end of the movie where the camera focuses on James Penfield (Jonathan Pryce) as Margaret Thatcher says something like "when the young people of today are like this, we have no reason to worry about tomorrow". This is Author's Message time, as we are supposed to heartily dislike Penfield at that point. Except they got the wrong Bad Guys. It wasn't social climbers like Penfield, it was the more entitled and amoral Hancock (Tim Curry) and Susan Barrington (Charlie Dore) who turned out to be the Bad Guys. The story is about the falsification, or at the least politicised interpretation, of history, and the ease with which the past can be faked. "The Ploughman's Lunch" of the title turns out not to be a real traditional bread-and-cheese lunch, but a marketing gimmick from the mid-Sixties. No wonder the Left in Britain were routed so easily by Thatcher: it saw her, but as a politician, not as someone with her thumb firmly on the pulse of the zietgiest.
Anyway, that aside, this movie is How It Was. They get just enough of the details right. The Brixton address for James Penfield (today it would be Shoreditch); live footage from that post-Falklands Conservative Party conference; the tiny house his parents live in; his scruffy flat, Susan's smarter, larger flat, and the rambling country house her mother lives in. The way Susan cuts Penfield's evening at her place short by calling a taxi without telling him; and I'm going to assume the BBC newsroom is accurate. The way that people thought that a little tinge of cynicism and self-pity was a turn-on, and a rather neat scene where Penfield visits a university to interview a lecturer: the slot machines are on the ground floor, while the lecture theatre is in the basement, along what looks like an utility corridor. The film makes Britain feels... strange and distant.
As ever, the central character is a contradiction: for someone who is supposed to be a social climber, Penfield lacks the required charm and easy insincerity, we don't dislike him because he's an historical revisionist, but because he's socially inept and a touch callous. However, Pryce makes his character work.
And this movie has one of my favourite lines, from the Frank Finley character, who directs TV commercials: "I make so much money at what I do, I can't even begin to justify it".
If you get this movie, get Close My Eyes, with Saskia Reeves, Clive Owen and Alan Rickman, as well. The two films frame the Eighties and capture it at the start and end perfectly.