Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Ragman's Daughter (1972)

Whilst away last week I got up to one of my favourite pastimes, scouring the vintage bookshops the little Yorkshire market towns and villages have to offer. I managed to pick up a couple of Alan Sillitoe books, an author I first read in my teen years.

The Ragman's Daughter is just one short story in a collection of the same name dating from 1963. Reading it back last week transported me to when I first read it in what must be almost twenty years ago now, but I was surprised to read in the book's blurb that a film had been made from the tale. On getting back home I searched online and found out that in 1972 Sillitoe adapted the story for a film starring the young Simon Rouse (The Bill) and Victoria Tennant (The Winds of War and the former Mrs Steve Martin) in their first roles as Tony, a young thief and Doris, the ragman's daughter of the title.  The young lovers lead an adrenaline-fuelled existence of thieving and adventure. Taunting the grim grey world around them with their mad acts - he with his motor bike, she with her horse - until the day when their luck runs out.

Simon Rouse and Victoria Tennant as Tony and Doris

Sillitoe opens up his story for the 90 minute feature by fleshing out the role of the narrator, which is Rouse's character Tony several years on. He's played here by Patrick O'Connell, an actor with a tremendously dour, weary face. It needs to be too, for Sillitoe really ramps up the cynicism in his bittersweet tale by having Tony haunted by his time with Doris, making it clear it was the only time he was ever truly happy. This is in contrast to the original story which, for all its reflective style, did at least show Tony as someone who had made amends with his past.

Patrick O'Connell as Tony at 35

Overall, despite being a good enough little movie I would recommend the printed page over this cinematic adaptation. Sillitoe's original clearly established Tony and Doris' youth as occurring in the 1950s, but the film sets it in the then present day of the 1970s (making O'Connell's Tony at the age of 35 a rather strange experience, as that's clearly the 1970s too!) As such the film struggles with the implicit nature of the story, as it can't help but feel a little dated and out of time. Reading the story, I can well imagine the cobbled streets that Doris traverses down on horseback with their rows of Nottingham terraces and outdoor toilets, unchanged since Victorian times as the 1950s. But seeing them as the '70s, with Tennant looking more like a sun kissed modern day Lady Godiva vision of beauty or shampoo commercial model (Doris was attractive in the story but not I feel to this extent!) just makes it feel a little unreal and realism was always where Sillitoe excelled. 

The Ragman's Daughter comes a-calling

I'm not disputing that cobbled streets, outdoor loos and horses didn't appear in the North or the Midlands in the 70s, after all they filmed in just such a place! (plus I grew up a stone's throw away from a still cobbled street, have fond memories of the local rag and bone man still using his horse into the early 90s and my late granddad still had an outdoor loo until his death last year) But it just doesn't sit right to see her on the horse on such streets up there on the screen in this production somehow. It feels dated, yet strangely in showing Tony getting sent down to Borstal it feels like it preempts later fare such as Scum.

Borstal bound

An enjoyable enough experience, The Ragman's Daughter is an overlooked and unfairly forgotten British movie that whilst deserving of more attention cannot help but feel inferior alongside Sillitoe's other cinematic forays; Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner.

The book I bought

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