BRITISH CULT CLASSICS - Private Road / BFI Flipside BD Review

More from director Barney Platts-Mills again in January from the BFI Flipside range. After the charming rawness of Bronco Bullfrog comes this more commercial but nonetheless equally interesting film, Private Road. Released in 1971, Platts-Mills eschews the grainy black and white of his debut feature for widescreen Eastmancolour and here uses professional actors. It introduces a very different aesthetic into his work but Platts-Mills desire for naturalism is still very much to the fore and he generates some sensitive performances from Susan Penhaligon and Bruce Robinson.

However his themes are very consistent. The anxieties about the generation gap are writ even larger in Private Road and he also uses his main characters of young writer Peter Morrisey (a cherubic Robinson) and his girlfriend Anne Halpern (Susan Penhaligon) to look at the concerns of not only Anne's parents about her relationship with someone her father certainly deems unsuitable but he also shifts his sociological impetus away from poor, working class families to upper-middle class mores and finds greater tensions, greater fractures occurring in the society of the early 1970s.

...one of the major themes here is about conformity
Here, the focus is on well-educated young people, drifting around in the rather sullied remnants of bohemianism and drug-fueled 'hippydom' of the 1970s, yearning to find themselves and stay true to their causes and beliefs away from authority figures such as fathers, literary agents and ad-agency bosses. Morrisey is determined to be a writer and at the start of the film it seems he is that rare thing: a young writer heading for success, living independently and without the support of 'mummy' and 'daddy'.

On the back of this success, Peter meets and persuades Anne, who works as a secretary to the agent that represents him, to come and live with him in a newly rented flat. As the relationship develops, he finds himself gradually seeing less of the two other young men he shared his old flat with - Stephen, a rather haphazard, free-wheeling hippy and Henry, a slightly more respectable but seemingly political individual. He moves away from the disordered life he had with them just as Anne seeks her independence away from the stultifying confines of suburbia and her parents. As with the young couple in Bronco Bullfrog, Platts-Mills symbolises this desire for independence from any constraints - be they parental, societal, political - by removing Peter and Anne into the countryside, where their relaxed interplay with nature and the landscape represents a symbolic rebirth and realignment of their beliefs.

Peter is played by actor turned writer/director Bruce Robinson and it is abundantly clear that the character's situation - both in suburbia and out in the countryside - had a definite effect on the development of his two characters in Withnail and I and many scenes, particularly of Peter ineptly attempting to hunt animals with a shotgun, keenly resemble similar scenes in his own cult creation. As Peter whiles away time with Anne in the countryside, he writes a novel that is rejected by his agent.

His creativity in crisis, he finds himself foundering and the relationship with Anne is complicated when she reveals that she is pregnant. One of the major themes here is about conformity and whether you do the right thing because society or your parents, friends or bosses tell you to do so.

Both Anne and Peter go on a journey that sees Anne make decisions about her own body, her own life, having an abortion when she reasonably comes to the conclusion she is not ready to be a mother. This also sees Peter, although successful as a copywriter in an ad agency, reject it in favour of returning to the more honest creativity of a freelance writer. The saddest thing in the film is that we really don't know what happens to Anne beyond her recuperation from the abortion and her spoken desire to eventually marry Peter.
...aggressive, anti-social forces enter and break up the romantic scene
Perhaps Platts-Mills is suggesting that it was simply another conformist principle that was abandoned as soon as they both saw what marriage and parenthood entailed through the characters of Anne's father and mother, brilliantly played by Robert Brown and Kathleen Byron.  The dichotomy between both sets of figures - parents and their children, old and young generations - is keenly felt in the film. Adult responsibilities and creative compromises (designing a campaign to sell dog treats) in his ad agency job make Peter a rather duller boy than the exciting, edgy, sexually powerful person we see at the beginning of Private Road.

Anne is even more sexually precocious but is made to understand the consequences of this with the pregnancy and abortion. When faced with it, she returns to the protection of her parents and the relationship with Peter disintegrates. Visually, this pressure between social responsibility and personal freedom is also marked out by the vandalising of their flat and the disrupting figure of Stephen, where aggressive, anti-social forces try to enter and break up the romantic scene.

Stephen, played by the great character actor Michael Feast, becomes an addict and rather callously visits the couple, as they host a dinner with Anne's horrified parents, to find a place where he can shoot up, much to the eventual distress of Anne.  There is a suggestion that perhaps it may have been Stephen who broke into the flat, vandalised it and stole property in order to pay for his habit but that's never made distinct. When Peter attempts to get Stephen to clean himself up, their friendship apparently is at an end. Again, social responsibility is rejected by the counter-cultural desire towards anarchism.

The theme is also revisited when Peter goes to see his other friend Henry, who also works at the advertising agency, and meets his girlfriend Iverna. Iverna is the stereotypical counter-cultural political revolutionary and is rather disdainful of what she perceives as the 'sell-out' that Anne and Peter are clearly engaged with. Platts-Mills clearly ridicules the situation as Iverna launches into agit-prop mode in front of Henry, a compromised rebel if ever there was one.
...how much social control is really necessary for the price of freedom
It's a witty and thought-provoking film, catching that moment when some ex-revolutionaries would end up conforming (symbolised brilliantly in the appearance of Trevor Adams as the 'cool' writer Alex Marvel, clearly an empty-headed antecedent of the long-haired 'yes-man' he played in David Nobbs' The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin) and others would continue to define their roots and hold on to their moral and political self-expression. In terms of class and generation the final offer from Anne's father to the couple of a house as a wedding present seals the deal on Platt-Mills rather acerbic view of these middle class drop-outs who, if they choose, could have it all in the end despite their arguments against it.

As this set of values is articulated in the film, Platts-Mills is also keen to alert us to the backlash to the counter-culturalism of the 1970s that would take the form of the ultra-conservatism of the 1980s and offers that we still do not know how much social control is really necessary for the price of freedom. You only have to look at how much the current generation appears to 'get away with' in comparison to the shenanigans of this group to see how far along the private road we've travelled since 1971. The private road is simply one where the transcendental power of individual moral choice still holds some sway as when Stephen liberates a typewriter from a local office block and encourages Peter to get back to what he does best. At that moment, his job, Anne and her parents, the thought of marriage and a new house have vanished from his concerns and this absorbing film ends.

Private Road benefits from a gorgeous HD transfer, especially evident in the sojourn into the country where the landscapes and foliage look vibrant, and throughout skin tones, contrast and detail are very good indeed. There are some fascinating extra features, including Platts-Mills' sensitive documentary about mentally handicapped children and a very odd little film, The Last Chapter, that takes a wonderful side-swipe at the machismo of thriller writers that will also please fans of the wonderful Denholm Elliot.

Special features 
 - Two never-before-released extras, sourced from the BFI National Archive:  
St Christopher (1967, 48 mins): Barney Platts-Mills’ affecting observational documentary about the education of mentally handicapped youngsters 
The Last Chapter (David Tringham, 1974, 29 mins): dark tale in which a successful middle-aged writer (Denholm Elliot) is unbalanced by an assured young fan (Private Road’s Susan Penhaligon)
- Presented in both High Definition and Standard Definition
- Illustrated booklet with newly commissioned essays and reviews

Private Road (Flipside 014)
Released 17 January 2011 / Cat no: BFIB1065 / UK / 1971 / Cert 15 / colour / English language (optional hard-of-hearing subtitles) / 89 mins / Original aspect ratio 1.85:1

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