Friday, 27 September 2013

Who's Who (1979)

Who's Who is the last full length film I've set aside to watch on the Mike Leigh at the BBC DVD box set I've been working my way though, and it's a bit of a detour for Leigh. Spurred on by a request to tackle the upper middles classes rather than mine his usual working class/middle class field, Leigh crafted a film that is essentially of two halves focusing on three sets of characters; some embryonic yuppies, the genuine titled city gentry and a low class dreamer  - you see, he couldn't resist including his usual class tropes. And thank God he did because there's quite a comedic gold mine in that dreamer, his central character Alan. He's a boring wheedling snob who chooses to live his life vicariously through the upper classes; obsessively writing off for autographs from the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Russell Harty (and even keeping, in frames, the rejection letters he has received from numerous members of the Royal family) and sucking up to his high born superiors at work.  He actually reminds me of a commissionaire I used to know who did exactly the same, had the same delusions of grandeur and even had the same little moustache! The scenes of his homelife, a frustrated existence with his cat breeding wife April (the several cats who litter the tiny terraced house are clearly child substitutes) each vying to flaunt their mutual obsessions to one another and anyone unfortunate enough to drop by, are brilliant examples of the kind of painful comedy of embarrassment that Leigh was experimenting with a good 20 years before that other exponent Ricky Gervais. They are splendidly played by Richard Kane (who wrote off to these people for real, in character, the results of which are shown in the film) and Joolia Cappleman - both managing that fine line between grotesques and a sympathetic 3D character study of two people you wouldn't want to be stuck in a lift with. 

That's not to say Leigh fails in depicting the upper middle classes as such, just that the attempts at satire don't really sit as well in the film.  His brief look at Alan's boss advising David Neville's young Lord Crouchurst on his mother's gambling debts make for amusing enough but ultimately basic satire albeit with convincing enough characters on display. There's also a canny accurate depiction of 'Sloane Rangers' (played by a young Simon Chandler, Adam Norton, Graham Seed, Catherine Hall and Felicity Dean) at an 'informal' dinner party that, due to time constraints, was actually improvised in front of the camera, which works really well as a social dissection of that group of well to do, well educated but ultimately dense and boorish people who appeared in the late 70s/early 80s. Who's Who has been criticised for being too broad, but I think that's unfair, as the characters on display here are depicted well enough - Dean clearly just wants to look nice and is inoffensive and thereby doomed to be used, Hall is by Sloaney standards a punk, desperately trying to shock or stand out from her peers but equally doomed to remain trapped, whilst Chandler gives a brilliantly vulnerable anally retentive turn which is an interesting counterpoint to his affable, clumsy and unintentionally irritating housemate played by Norton.  It's only Seed who is beyond help; a sleazy snotty nosed type with form for feeling up the clerical assistants at the firm he works at with Alan. But where Who's Who fails is in Leigh not fully integrating them into the world of the film and as such they remain a tantalising missed opportunity. Any other writer/director or 'devisor' as Leigh would have it at the time, would probably go down the route of having both worlds collide, ingratiating Alan with the Sloanes at the dinner party. But Leigh clearly felt that too pat or obvious. So why then did he chose to explore the same social comedy by lifting another upper class type played by Geraldine James and dropping her into Alan and April's home with the rather unlikely conceit of her buying a cat from them because Harrods had let her down? It's very amusing watching him fawn over her but it rings about as true as it would have been to see him do exactly the same at the dinner party. That said, if Leigh had taken that more obvious route, he would have missed out on giving Alan, once Geraldine James makes good her escape, a captive audience in Sam Kelly's hapless Mr Shakespeare; a man who had come round to photograph April's cats and whom Alan previously treated with contempt when the 'real class' was still in the room but now harangues and ingratiates just as much, so happy is he to have someone to show off in front of/appear glamourous to.

I feel I may have been a little too hard on Who's Who because for what it is worth it is a genuinely funny film with a couple of laugh out loud moments. It's just that tonally, it is one of Leigh's weaker efforts. It is perhaps most notable now for marking the start of Leigh's collaborations with one of his favourite actors, Phil Davis, who puts in a lovely and likeable turn here as one of Alan's colleagues, determined to get a rise out of him each day.

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