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« Coming to DVD: Magic Roundabout's Dougal and the Blue Cat movie (1972) | Main | Limited edition Goonies posters for the Manchester Cornerhouse cinema 25th anniversary »

Reviewed: Private Road – with writer and director Barney Platts-Mills at the NFT


Following on from the National Film Theatre's popular screening of Barney Platts-Mills' Bronco Bullfrog a few months ago, Vic and Will Flipsider managed to secure a print of the very rare Private Road, by the same director. What made the evening extra special, was an appearance by the director for an interview and a Q&A session after the viewing.

Where Bronco Bullfrog concentrated on the activities of young petty criminals in an impoverished East end of London environment, Private Road, as its name suggests, moved us into a more comfortable social milieu, that of upper middle class suburbia and its bohemian fringes. We meet an aspiring young author, Peter Morissey, played with floppy-curled insouciance by Bruce Robinson, whose early success with his first novel and getting stories published in Woman’s Own, has spurred him on to begin his next novel. With his cheerful disregard for regular effort, and his sordid digs, shared with another dope-smoking slacker, you are immediately reminded of the two 'resting' actor characters who proved to be an enduring comedy creation, Withnail and (the unnamed) I. Written by Bruce Robinson in later life and career, there are several scenes in 'Private Road which bring Withnail and I affectionately to mind.

Peter takes up with young secretary Anne Halpern, (Susan Penhaligon) whom he casually picks up at a party, and their affair quickly leads them to set up home together on the proceeds of Peter's recent success. Susan's upper middle class parents are not unnaturally worried about her newfound boyfriend, and the speed of their decision to live together proves a shock, but this doesn’t deter the modern girl, who seems more than eager to leave her ordered existence behind her.

The pressures of urban life soon get to our young couple, and they decide that a few days rest and recuperation in the country (Withnail & I again) is what’s needed to put them right. In a more isolated setting, Peter decides, he can get on with his next great novel much more easily. Their farcical attempts to live in the small farmhouse without modern facilities and their assumption that food would be as easily got as in London, leads Peter to go out, shotgun in hand, to try and hunt for food. His lack of experience means he bags nothing at all on day one, and one rabbit on day two, which Susan refuses to skin, clean and cook. The scene where he tries to shoot fish in the stream had me chuckling in the same way as when I first saw it in Withnail and I, many years ago.

Their inevitable swift departure back to the city puts more pressure on the young couple, compounded by the rejection of his poorly prepared second novel by his agent, and sends Peter into depression, jeopardising his relationship with Susan. He soon goes back to his dope-smoking, slacker ways, but is jolted back into cold reality by the news that Susan is pregnant. This news is greatly by neither of them warmly, but to ensure he does not lose her, Peter offers to marry Susan and starts to look for a more regular form of income. Finding a job at an advertising agency through a friend, he muddles his way through the world of work, eventually compromising his principles close to the point of no return; spearheading an advertising campaign to sell dessert foods for dogs.

The work colleague who led him to this unusual career choice is, we learn, a political radical, an anarchist, and it's here that Barney Platts-Mills has a great deal of fun mocking the pretensions of such 'radicals', on the one hand, giving out revolutionary pamphlets, and on the other, helping companies to selling bland consumer products at a terrific profit, to the hapless proletarian workforce whose best interests he claims to have at heart. Our radical's equally committed girlfriend displays all the charm of a running sore on a rat's behind when she sneers at Peter’s conventional language and manners. 

Private Road may not be 1971’s best rip-roaring comedy, or the most coruscating class critique ever written, but there's a lot to like about it. The sense of period is acute, when the 60s dream of permanent prosperity and a carefree lifestyle for all failed to be realised, leading to a scrabble for the leftovers by the 'old guard', a drift to the 'hard' left by many intellectuals and union leaders, and a period in political confusion for the working and middle classes. The old class divisions are still very marked, Peter and his friends able to get away with behaviour that would be most viciously stamped on by the authorities, were they more humbly born. The offer of a house as a present to Anne and Peter by Anne's successful businessman father raised quite a few eyebrows in the audience, and probably produced utter disbelief in anyone there under the age of thirty-five.

At the Q & A afterwards, I asked Barney whether he had intended the political satire to form a larger part of the script, but he said he didn't. He simply wanted to make a point about the futility of following leaders, and the undesirable violent intent that often went hand-in-hand with radical politics of the period, however well intentioned it may have started out.

Another question from the floor was answered with a very definite affirmative; 'Do you think Bruce Robinson was making notes for Withnail and I when he was playing Peter?

Barney’s anecdotes about some of the characters he has met in the course of his career kept us laughing, especially the one about Francois Mitterand still owing him money, and as the evening drew to a close, I was reminded once again of why I don’t spend my evenings gawping at YouTube for my entertainment: stuff like this simply isn't on it. Another priceless evening at the NFT thanks to Will and Vic Flipsider, and may there be many more.

The Scenester


Jonathan Melville

Thanks for the review of what sounds like a great event. I was lucky enough to be at the recent Edinburgh screening of the film during the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Barney coming up here to do the introduction.

Michael Feast was a standout for me, a fine actor, and I'm looking forward to the DVD release.

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