It’s not pork, it’s power!

Appetite for position, protein laid bare

Published: Apr 21 2017, 01:01:am

Wednesday, May 1, 1985.

A PRIVATE FUNCTION. Written by Alan Bennett. Music by John Du Prez. Directed by Malcolm Mowbray. Running time: 99 minutes. Mature entertainment with the B.C. Classifier’s warning: occasional nudity and suggestive scenes.
“MY WIFE HAS TWO TOPICS of conversation,” lawyer Frank Lockwood (John Normington) confides to his fellows in a moment of unexpected candour.
     “One is the Royal family, and the other is her bowels.”
    These hardly seem the basis for a promising relationship. And yet alimentary matters, the house of Windsor and wives are the specific subjects of A Private Function, a smashing new comedy from Britain’s HandMade Films.
    The time is November, 1947. Amidst the grimness of a new social order, fiscal austerity and food rationing, the English are preparing to celebrate the marriage of their Princess Elizabeth to naval officer Philip Mountbatten.
    In one small Yorkshire town, the provincial establishment plans to recognize the occasion with a proper banquet. To insure the success of the event, the local social leaders — lawyer Lockwood, Dr. Charles Swaby (Denholm Elliott) and accountant Henry Allardyce (Richard Griffiths) — have conspired to procure an unlicensed pig.
    Not on the function’s exclusive guest list is struggling young chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers (Michael Palin), a man Dr. Swaby dismisses as a “toenail clipping little sod.” Honest, eager-to-please Chilvers and his cinema organist wife Joyce (Maggie Smith) are not part of the local select set.
    The civic worthies underestimate the power of Mrs. Chilvers’s social aspirations. Joyce has already grasped the special importance of meat in postwar Britain.
     “It’s not just steak, Gilbert. It’s status.”
    They also underestimate the highly mobile foot surgeon's powers of observation. He’s on to their project and, driven to desperation by the combination of Swaby’s contempt and his wife’s determined nagging, Chilvers plots the pilferage of their precious pig.
    At a time when most American movie comedies are keyed to the tastes of the teenaged audience, it’s a relief to know that someone, somewhere is making fresh, funny films for adults.
     Thanks are due to screenwriter Alan Bennett, the fourth and, perhaps, least known of the original Beyond the Fringe comedy troupe, for cheerfully laying bare those appetites for position and protein that no amount of policing can suppress.
    Superbly cast and shrewdly observed, first-time director Malcolm Mowbray’s A Private Function abounds in period touches and a matter-of-fact madness that rings true throughout.
     “It’s not just pork, Gilbert. It’s power.”

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1985. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Though favourably reviewed in the big cities, A Private Function was less than a hit with the mass audience during its U.S. release. The Brits, on the other hand, got the joke, and it was a 1985 British Academy of Film and Television Awards nominee in the best picture and screenwriter categories. Maggie Smith took home the BAFTA best actress honour. A Private Function was the 13th of 27 features released by HandMade Films, a production company founded on a whim by former Beatle George Harrison in 1978 to finance Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
See also: Among the other wonderfully inventive films released by HandMade Films is director Terry Gilliam’s 1981 fantasy Time Bandits.