Cast: Hayley Mills, Hywel Bennett, John Mills, Marjorie Rhodes, and Murray Head
Director: Roy Boulting
115 minutes (15) 1966
Studio Canal DVD Region 2
Review by Andrew Darlington
With his floppy hair and high-buttoned jacket, Hywel Bennett is perfectly cast in this movie. Like David Hemmings and Malcolm McDowell, he’s one of those young actors who seem to embody that particularly strong and distinctive period of British film-making between the ‘angry young kitchen sink working class’ films and into the trendy Carnaby Street swinging London era that closely followed.
“Once upon a time there was a virgin... a rare bird.” The Family Way is not an insurrectionary film igniting the generational divide, although there are symptoms of it. It’s gentler than that. “Nobody believes anything nowadays,” complains mom Liz (Avril Angers). It’s not a subversive angry class-war film either, it has a softer-core centre despite inhabiting some of the same terrain. More like Stan Barstow’s Vic Brown in A Kind Of Loving (played by Alan Bates in the 1962 movie), Hywel Bennett’s Arthur Fitton is more the uncertain misfit. “You read about other people’s lives, what happens? You get to wondering about your own.” The kind of sensitive youth trapped in working class insensitivity that I imagined myself to be. Even when – unlike me, this involves the narrative shorthand of a fondness for classical music, with a Beethoven print on his bedroom wall, alongside his butterfly collection. “All this sitting and reading, it’s not natural,” father Ezra (John Mills) complains. “He lives in the clouds,” agrees friend Joe (Barry Foster).
As a Bill Naughton stage-play All In Good Time (1963), it was first brought to the small screen as an ABC weekend TV Armchair Theatre presentation Honeymoon Postponed (1961), with Trevor Bannister as Arthur, and Lois Daine as Jenny, using the familiar theatrical device of the wedding to draw characters together, with all the resulting humour and family revelations that ensue. Naughton later became the creative force behind Alfie (1966). First, the men play the arm-wrestling ‘elbow game’ in the front-room, ‘showing off’ father Ezra’s fiercely competitive nature. Father and son arm-wrestle, but sensing weakness, Arthur allows Ezra to win. While Jenny (Hayley Mills) looks ‘fab’ in her wedding dress as comic harpies dispense cynical marital advice over cups of tea in the kitchen. “Never show pleasure, you know what I mean, don’t you?” “Not that there ever is much.” “Never actually refuse though, it makes a man feel small, and they take it out of your housekeeping money,” concludes Molly (Liz Fraser of ‘Carry On’ fame).
Arthur fumbles the ring at the ceremony, and drops it – an ominous omen. There are sausage rolls at the reception as a Beat group plays over raucous innuendo and brittle family in-fighting. Prior to the honeymoon-proper the couple are to spend their wedding night upstairs in the Fitton home. But BSA motorcycle-riding brother Geoff (Murray Head) and film-projectionist friend Joe sabotage the bed as a prank. The couple have been ‘going steady’, but Arthur’s a ‘patient lad’ jokes Joe with ribald undertones. Alone at last in the bedroom, Jenny undresses behind a screen. Arthur watches her enticing underwear drape across it. But when his attempted romantic approach results in the bed collapsing, her immediate reaction is laughter. He defensively sees this as ridicule. When the morning factory sirens howl, he awakes in his dressing gown, in the chair where he’s spent the night.
They’ve booked a ‘romantic paradise moonlight special’ in Majorca – at the very beginning of the package holiday boom, but when they turn up at Hutton’s Happy Holidays beside the Town Hall fountain they find the police investigating a swindle. “He’s just done a bunk,” explains Windsor Davies, in a small un-credited role for the future It Ain’t Half Hot Mum actor. Symbolic thunder breaks out. So instead, Arthur sits in his chair looking out over the night terraces, listening to the cats, as Jenny lies in bed alone. He can correct her Shakespeare misquote – ‘breast’ not ‘beast’, but he’s “not being a proper husband.”
The period is perfectly captured. They hear Ezra coughing, and pissing in the adjoining bedroom’s chamber-pot. And Ezra, who is employed at the local gasworks, goes to the outside lav with braces dangling. Set in Gladstone Terrace where Coronation Street-houses and mill chimneys are reluctantly giving way to new town brutalism, it’s filmed predominantly in Rochdale, with thanks to ‘the people of Bolton’. And in case we’ve missed the point, there are brass bands on the soundtrack and the Coronation Street theme heard on the TV.
Yet the film also forms a unique part of the Mills family dynasty. John Mills, already an icon of British films, embodied the supposed English virtues of stoicism and grit as explorer in Scott Of The Antarctic (1948), and through the understated heroism of war movies The Colditz Story (1954), and Above Us The Waves (1955). Daughter Hayley became a child star with Whistle Down The Wind (1961) – adapted from the novel by her mother Mary Hayley Bell, and by her dual role in Disney’s The Parent Trap (1961), which also spun-off her only pop hit single Let’s Get Together c/w Cobbler Cobbler (Decca), a UK #17, November 1961. Inevitably, there were dynastic career cross-overs. Hayley made her screen debut as witness to a murder that father John’s police detective was investigating, in Tiger Bay (1959), following it as ne-er-do-well father Captain Tommy and tom-boy daughter Spring Tyler in The Truth About Spring (1965).
Yet there’s a nuanced ambiguity to his role as Ezra. Beneath the gruff blustering masculinity there’s an affecting androgyny to his memories of ‘pal’ Billy Stringfellow. “Always the three of us,” recalls wife Lucy (Marjorie Rhodes) ruefully, even in their honeymoon B&B. There’s a blunt tenderness to his soliloquy about him and Billy standing on the edge of the Blackpool beach, wearing “them new brown boots me and Billy bought” and the tide washing over the leather leaving glistening droplets of water. “That was the big moment of my honeymoon,” he sighs with guileless wistfulness. Lucy and Billy even have a subsequent moment of playful intimacy before he guiltily, or tactfully, disappears south, leaving both of them with a confused sense of loss. And doubt about Arthur’s true paternity.
Although again John and Hayley are predictably cast as father and daughter, The Family Way forms a significant shift in that the posters announce ‘Hayley Mills isn’t playing kids games anymore’ and ‘Hey there Hayley girl... you’re in a grown-up movie now’! And there’s a lingering shot of her – admittedly skinny, bare bottom as Geoff surprises her bathing in the tin hip-bath in the kitchen. Jenny works in a big store’s record department, surrounded by time-fixing album sleeves by Nancy Sinatra, Otis Redding, Francoise Hardy, the Spencer Davis Group, Muddy Waters, and the Rolling Stones. While Arthur works evenings with Joe as a cinema projectionist, sneaking a peak at erotic movies. This means that Jenny spends more time with Geoff, motorcycle scrambling, bowling, and at the disco club-dance. She becomes his ‘mascot’. “You know something,” he jokes suggestively, “you married the wrong brother.”
And after six weeks, the sexual impasse only intensifies. There’s a mail-order birth-control package, “they’ve come to the wrong address this time, haven’t they?” he snipes bitterly. There’s a pop art collage of taunting sexual images – “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matthew XXVI-4), ‘viroids stimulate strengthen’, and an ad on the bus for The People newspaper’s ‘sex in marriage’ expose. “What you’ve never had you never miss,” she tells him, hopefully. Refused a council house in a bureaucratic comic sequence, Arthur seeks marriage guidance, but cleaner-neighbour Mrs Lee is listening at the door. Then Jenny confides to mum that she’s “a wife in name only,” leading to a parental summit conference to discuss skeletons and closets and the fact that she’s ‘intact, a virgin’.
There’s a touching The Family Way cameo for veteran entertainer Wilfred Pickles, as Uncle Fred, who dispenses marital advice, but by now it’s too late, the state of their unconsummated marriage is common gossip on busses all around town. Joe cruelly taunts Arthur, until he breaks and fights back in the cinema car park, beside a Ford Anglia. In their room he then confronts Jenny, as a crowd of gawping women gather in the back yards outside (including the wonderful Diana Coupland). They argue, Jenny smacks Arthur in the face, they collapse onto the bed, struggles become embraces... and she’s a virgin no more.
Although he celebrates with a blast of Beethoven’s Fifth, the soundtrack proved another major movie selling point. The diverse ingredients within the Beatles’ writing partnership were already becoming apparent, with John Lennon pushing more towards extreme art-experimentation, while Paul was happy to become catering composer-on-call for the likes of winsome pop duo Peter & Gordon, or Opportunity Knocks’ songstrel Mary Hopkin, supplying catchy tunes for the Chris Barber Band (Cat Call), or the Black Dyke Mills Band (Thingumybob), which made movie commissions the obvious next commercial call. Although George Martin claims he had to badger Paul for the haunting melodic fragments that became the film motif, Love In The Open Air.