Friday, 23 October 2015

Walter (1982) and Walter and June (1983)

Famously, Walter was shown on the first night of Channel 4 in 1982. How's that for a mission statement? This is the kind of drama we're going to be doing. These are the stories we want to tell.

Based on the 1978 novel by David Cook, Stephen Frears' film is at once both deeply moving and unsettling - a much needed and damning criticism of our societies response to disability and how institutionalised care attempted to stamp out individuality.

Ian McKellen takes the title role of a young man with learning difficulties in the early 1960s whose life is thrown into chaos when his parents die in quick succession of one another. Unable to comprehend the situation fully, Walter keeps a vigil by his dead mother's bedside, waiting and hoping for Jesus to come and take him too, whilst surrounded by his late father's pigeons which he has brought in from the coop. When a neighbour stumbles across the scene, the authorities quickly swoop in and remove Walter from the only home he has ever known and place him into 'care' - though there's little of that to be found in his circumstance of being abandoned in the Victorian 'bedlam' style hospital. In the subsequent harrowing scenes Walter is molested by a paraplegic dwarf (Nabil Shaban - later to find fame as the villainous Sil in the Colin Baker era of Doctor Who) instructed to clean up after his incontinent fellow 'inmates' and witnesses a case of neglect that leads to tragedy.

Through it all, McKellen is quite remarkable as Walter; unpredictable, child-like, fearful, lonely but above all an individual who is naturally kind and compassionate and in need of love, care and support. His performance is deeply affecting and really tugs at the heartstrings. Frears' direction is impeccable, as is Chris Menges' innovative use of steadicam - which would go on to have a direct influence upon Alan Clarke. Several scenes linger in the memory, particularly the heartbreaking vigil Walter keeps by his mother's body as the pigeons flutter wildly around the room.

Despite it being set in the then recent past of the 1960s, much of Walter had a deliberately incendiary and important message for the 1980s, the era in which it was made and broadcast. It was a decade which saw the PM, Margaret Thatcher enthuse about and encourage a return to Victorian Values as if they were somehow something to aspire to. This resistance to a past that is all too often viewed by rose tinted spectacles is also prevalent when one thinks about the then growing passion for period drama in British film and TV - drama that specifically depicted the neat and orderly lives of yesteryear often seen from the view of the upper classes. With Walter, Channel 4 and Frears were reminding viewers that the past was just as bad as the present for those less fortunate and that we must learn from it and improve matters now to ensure a better future. Whilst care in the community proved to be cost effective rather than care effective, there can be no mistaking the fact that these Victorian institutions were no longer fit for purpose.  Sadly, much of Walter still holds resonance today - when you read in the papers of yet another care home for the elderly showing signs of clear and intentional neglect or harm you realise just how little we've progressed from the days of 'bedlam' Unfortunately, no one is making socially aware dramas of great impact along these lines any more.

A year later and Walter returned to our screens for a sequel, Walter and June, which once again saw Ian McKellen deliver another moving portrayal of the kindly, institutionalised man with learning difficulties, this time joined by Sarah Miles as June, a depressed and suicidal young mother who forms an attachment to him.

Based on David Cook's novel Winter Doves, was filmed virtually back to back with the original film - not that it particularly shows. Because, as a continuation of the story, Walter and June suffers distinctly from inferior sequelitis, losing much of the magic that made the first film so memorable. 

At its best, in moving almost twenty years on in Walter's life, the film allows director Stephen Frears' clear and justified anti-Thatcherite stance to become more relevant and contemporary, but on the whole this is considerably less affecting despite the continued assured performance from McKellan and an equally powerful turn from Sarah Miles. 

Primarily, the sequel is all about Walter's inherent kindness and how he characteristically responds to her cry for help, and is ultimately persuaded to leave the confines of the mental hospital he has come to know as home for the last nineteen years to run away to London with her, to play at being families. Naturally and somewhat pessimistically, this has disastrous and tragic consequences for them both which ultimately feels somewhat histrionic as opposed to the authentic feeling the original film had. Overall the storyline feels contrived and determined to go for your heart strings in a way that seems artificial to the natural poignancy the original film had.

Both films are available to buy on DVD from Network alongside a compilation film Loving Walter which comprises action from both productions. 

To get the BBC to consider repeating some of the classic plays, please sign the petition I started here

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