Monday, 2 May 2016

Barney Platts-Mills Double Bill: Private Road (1971) St Christopher (1967)

"I might have known he'd be lurking in the bloody herbaceous borders" 

I last watched this in April 2012. A couple of effusive reviews from a friend on Letterboxd reminded me that I really needed to return to this as I felt I wasn't truly fair to it four years ago - which naturally pained me, being such a fan of Bruce Robinson.

It works better on a rewatch and I enjoyed it much more. Like a pleasing mix of Orwell's Keep The Aspidistra Flying, the late 70s sitcom Shelley and Bruce Robinson's own Withnail and I, Private Road is a gentle satire of what it means to grow up in our society. Bruce Robinson and Susan Penhaligon are both beautiful and charmingly inept as our young lovers 'playing' at setting up home and setting out in life, and finding many obstacles in their way; including a disastrous cottage holiday in the wilds of Scotland (which would shadow similar scenes in Withnail over a decade later) rejections from publishers, a friend succumbing to heroin addiction, and an unwanted pregnancy. The playful semi-improvised interplay between the characters - especially Robinson and his real life friend and flatmate Michael Feast (who performs the wonderfully twee, tongue in cheek and memorable score) - is a winningly natural and convincing and makes up for the occasionally stilted approach of others.

Overall though I am still not convinced the film hangs together as cohesively as it perhaps ought to. What we have instead is a series of great scenes such as the holiday-by-mistake in all but name, the easy chemistry between Robinson and Penhaligon, their bemusement at being confronted by a friend's extremely right-on feminist and political girlfriend clutching copies of Black Dwarf ("What do you write for?" she asks Robinson on learning he is a writer, "Money" he replies) a soul destroying meeting at an advertising agency, where not even the philosophy of working styles in the agency is original, and that wonderful closing scene which sees Robinson perform the most ineffectual 'stick up' alongside Feast for a typewriter to return him to creativity. But you know what? That's OK. It's fine to have several good vignettes as opposed to one well structured film, and its took me four years to realise that I guess.

Private Road's release by BFI Flipside in 2011 couldn't have been more timely. Films like fashions are often cyclical and this captured the boho mentality of the early 70s at the same time that such a culture blossomed again amongst the trendy cliques of London hipsterdom. For the instagram generation, Private Road is something of a treat - providing those hipsters can laugh at themselves I guess.

An extra on that BFI Flipside release of Private Road is St. Christopher; a documentary film made four years previously by that film's writer director, Barney Platts-Mills.

It's an absorbing documentary that sheds light on something that is still very much kept away from societies eye; namely the education and care of children and young adults with special educational needs or, as called at the less PC time, 'mentally handicapped'. The film is divided into two parts; the first at the titular St Christopher's, a school in Bristol run by the inspirational Miss Catherine Grace, a former medical secretary and teacher, the second at the Camphill community village in Botton, Yorkshire, an equally admirable project which offers homes and work to young adults with special needs (often directly referred from St Christopher's) to their individual abilities.

Platts-Mills' documentary technique is observational, which certainly shadows his later fictional work too. He's also clearly good at engaging with young people, which would also hold him in good stead with his first 'proper film' Bronco Bullfrog shot two years later with young non-professional actors from Joan Littlewood's Playbarn project. This is especially evident in the scene featuring Ruth, an emotionally troubled child described as 'psychotic' on her arrival at St Christopher's - a condition which seemed to manifest itself in her being unruly and abusive and imitating cats, her favourite animal. He manages to gain her confidence and, over her emotive and vivid drawings, he gets her to open up.

The teachings and practices witnessed in the film stem from the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who believed that each child should learn at their own pace to help fulfill their destiny. Tragically, a spot of research after watching this documentary suggests that St Christopher's is, as of March 2016, no more after 71 years of service because of financial difficulties. Links to the school's site take you to something called 'The Aurora Group' which purports to be 'coming soon'. I am therefore relieved to see that Botton Village still exists, but only just; please sign this petition to preserve this vital community.

The other extra on this BFI Flipside release is the 1974 short film The Last Chapter starring Susan Penhaligon and Denholm Elliot which I have previously reviewed here


  1. I remember these from their first release dates, very cult items. Like BRONCO BULLFROG, or Skolimowski's DEEP END, so very turn of the Seventies.

  2. In 1987, Channel 4 screened this late one night as a schedule filler. Perhaps they were cashing in on 'Withnail', which had just been released in the Cinemas and yet had to obtain cult status? I don't know.

    I remember being transfixed by both. I was surviving on a nefarious income of £8 per week (yes - just 'eight' quid -- remarkable really) in an unheated shithole of a flat with two other guys above a butchers shop in Norwich. And that's what it was - futile, directionless survival -- and having to live 'in the moment'. But, looking back, they were halycon days ...

    Both films spoke to me on many levels. I have only revisited Road once after obtaining a copy on a privately pressed DVD made available by Mr P-Mills sometime back (I'm guessing this is the release that Michael O'Sullivan refers to?). The drudgery is well caught. Yes, guys and gals, the best parts of life are 'here and now' experiences, regardless of what other supposedly worthwhile goals anyone else tries to set.

    And I also developed a bit of crush on young Miss Penhaligon.

    Which was nice ...

    1. Thanks for sharing such a great memory Nick! I just watched and reviewed BPM's Bronco Bullfrog yesterday and loved it