Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Nuts In May (1976)


Like all Mike Leigh films, Nuts In May is about relationships. Not just the relationship of the central protagonists and the relationships of (and their relationships with) the supporting characters , but also the relationship his characters have with the environment around them.


Keith and Candice-Marie Pratt are a couple whom you could actually describe as being ahead of their time. In 1976 their preoccupation with organic food was seen as eccentric, faddish and unnecessary - now, it's a valid, healthy alternative that is widely promoted. However, despite this progressiveness, they remain Pratt by name, prats by nature. And nature is of course very key to Nuts in May.


Keith for example is a very specific and all too familiar kind of man. Everyone knows a Keith Pratt - indeed I think he's there amongst the swimmers of Clevedon in the painfully naff 'on message' new BBC idents - y'know the one I mean; bearded, striking a pose that suggests he sees himself as the leader despite not quite being able to pull said pose off. In his natural habitat, Keith's a social worker and in all likelihood the pub bore (that's if Keith would ever actually venture into a pub) who lives his life via a series of tabulated systems and order. His character is largely derived from an understanding he has of the role of man in society and relationships, and a desire to be at one with nature and the countryside, but it is a role that - if he were to be honest with himself - he is not fully equipped to undertake. For Keith, the sense of enjoyment he takes from his holiday relies solely on everything going to plan - the plan he no doubt laboured over on his kitchen table at home - and the chance to tutor Candice-Marie in the way things ought to be. Spontaneity is not on Keith's radar and so, to arrive in a countryside of non-accredited herds, blase and unconcerned farmers and campsite proprietors, battery farmed hens, an authoritative policeman, and a quarryman after a quick buck from the tourists like him, it is as much of a crushing disappointment to Keith as finding himself sharing the same patch of grass with the likes of Ray and Honky and Finger - the 'tenement' class. Life is always going to be a disappointment to Keith Pratt and no matter how alternative he considers himself to be, he will always be confronted with the sobering notion that he is in fact as repressed, fascistic and deeply vulnerable as his father in all likelihood was before him.


Candice-Marie is, on the surface, an almost child-like spiritual cross between a diligent Girl Guide and a Joni Mitchell-esque hippy. She's tooth achingly sweet, and seemingly happy to play the student to Keith's tutor in their marital relationship, but scratch the veneer and it becomes clear that she's actually placing Keith up on the foot rest of the pedestal, rather than on the pedestal itself. There's an unhealthy degree of passive aggressiveness in meek, cute little Candice-Marie as she goads Keith into action; first in telling Ray to switch off his radio, and later into confrontation with Honky and Finger, all the time using their elusive holiday happiness as something that is precariously at risk because of the behaviour of these others. She knows that Keith will rise to the bait, to prove himself the authoritarian he presumes to be in their relationship, and she plays on it in a way that is satisfyingly left unexplored by Leigh. It's fair to say that of all the characters Leigh has given us, Keith and Candice-Marie are perhaps the two we'd have liked to have seen more of and could have certainly stood up to the sequel treatment.


In stark contrast, the freewheeling Brummie couple Honky and Finger are capable of spontaneous, unadulterated enjoyment in a way that will always remain elusive to Keith and Candice-Marie who remain tightly encased in their separate sleeping bags whilst they roll and frolic on the grass beneath their ramshackle, ill equipped tent. Their unabashed sense of fun is akin to that of a child's experience of a holiday, whilst Keith and Candice-Marie opt to play the disapproving adults. This invariably means that Honky and Finger fail to understand or comply with the rules, as excitable kids are oft to do (and how joyously ironic is it that the next scene sees the rules and regulations loving Keith as the one to have a brush with the law?) yet when arriving at the confrontation over them making a fire, it is Keith whose mask of maturity slips to reveal all his frailty and vulnerabilities in the face of such disobedience and it is Honky who instinctively understands on a mature, emotional level, the embarrassing consequences of such a lapse, whilst Finger appears both to gloat and be bemused by Keith's tears. In one telling scene that occurs before this (on the morning after their initial exchange of words) Keith pointedly ignores Ray's greeting of good morning, simply because Ray is standing next to (and therefore, in Keith's eyes, has pledged his allegiance to Finger, thereby showing the true colours Keith has clearly long suspected, despite Candice-Marie having warmed to the Welshman) whereas Candice-Marie and Honky share a moment of almost sisterly solidarity in the camp's toilet block. Again, the real adults in each relationship are clearly signposted.


The odd man out of course is the solitary camper, Ray. The young Welshman, training to become a PE teacher, is clearly a personable young man given his interactions with both Honky and Finger, as well as those with Candice-Marie away from Keith's suffocating hold and desire to appear superior, but there's a strong suggestion of loneliness in the man - a backstory that is satisfyingly left unexplored by Leigh - that makes his coercion into singing with the overbearing Keith and Candice-Marie all the more painful and noteworthy. The comic tragedy of Ray is that he's taken himself off to the wilds of the countryside, only to find himself in the stiflingly awkward company he in all likelihood has to endure or tries to avoid at home.  Again, like with Keith, the countryside offers something that Ray did not expect or desire.  


Beautifully shot and devised, as well as superbly acted by Roger Sloman, Alison Steadman, Anthony O'Donnell, Sheila Kelley and Stephen Bill, Nuts In May quite rightly takes its place as a comic masterpiece of British television. Just look at that final shot of Keith, carrying loo roll and spade, struggling to climb over a barbed-wire fence to go off for a shit amongst the dangerous free range pigs. The vulnerability on display in that moment is both hilarious and utterly honest - and that's essentially everything Mike Leigh ever sets out to do.

Nuts In May has been released many times to VHS and DVD and has received several repeats down the years too. Some other Play for Today's are not as fortunate alas and so, to get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays, please sign the petition I started here

(GIFS are from the Nuts In May tumblr page)

2 comments:

  1. We loved it at the time, Keith and Candice-Marie were painfully real, and I was really looking forward to seeing it again to show to friend, but it seemed rather tedious. It is a great influence though on modern stuff like the CAMPING series on Sky by Julia Davis. Candice Marie is the equal of Alison's Beverely in ABIGAIL'S PARTY. It is certainly a 70s classic from that era of earnest social workers and camping weekends. "Kiss Prudence".

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    1. It heavily influenced Ben Wheatley's Sightseers, if you haven't seen that Michael, I really recommend it

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