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Crompton’s Mule… May 27, 2011

Posted by John Hodson in : Comedy, Film & DVD Reviews, British Film , 1 comment so far

Spring and Port Wine

Bill Naughton’s Spring and Port Wine was filmed in 1969, released early 1970, but based on a story conceived and written by the Bolton based playwright in mid-1950s austerity Britain.

Spring and Port Wine

As such, it’s ever so slightly out of time; this tale of a gentle, yet strict and starched collar stiff, family man coming to terms with the new liberalism of his post-war universe perhaps struck a chord even as the swinging ’60s drew to a close, but the synchronicity of the piece is more in tune with it’s origins. The muleish Rafe Crompton - played to perfection by Huddersfield born James Mason - reminded me of my grandfather’s generation; tightly-laced Edwardians who worked as slaves, who placed the highest value on family and thrift. Who loved deeply, but were ever so slightly horrified by waste or overt displays of affection.

Indeed, there’s a clue to the real anchor stone of the setting when Rafe talks of the the Hunger Marches of the early 1930s, being “20 years ago”. And I know of no working family of the era who would have gathered, as the Cromptons do, round the piano (piano? There’s posh…) to lustily sing their songs of praise - by 1970 it was, more likely, to have been the Dansette to join in with ‘All You Need Is Love’

Sring and Port Wine - around the Piano

Still, that caveat aside - the same also, I feel, applies to the film of Naughton’s The Family Way by the way - it is a rather beautiful, gentle comedy from the Irish born author. Hilda Crompton (Susan George) seemingly makes a bid for independence from the iron rule of her father, Rafe, when she refuses to eat a fried herring mum Daisy (Diana Coupland) has prepared for supper (or tea; depending on which part of Lancashire you may be from, gentle reader). Rafe is adamant Hilda will eat the fish; Hilda digs in her heels. Impasse.

The herring at the centre of the plot is slightly red - and as we come to see, not quite what it appears - for here is a tale wherein not only does Rafe come to terms with a nascent feminism (although that may be overstating things slightly), but his family also comes to terms with him, this chap who fully realises the solemn responsibility of being head of a home, and all that entails; both the great weight and the immense joy.

“A home can become a prison where there isn’t love.”
Rafe Crompton

Set and filmed on location not a mile from where I sit, Spring and Port Wine is the remedial nephew of the kitchen sink drama; the happier, less angry nephew, who knows his place in the world and is content with it. Reasonably.

It is undoubtedly a golden-hued portrayal of working people that’s both true and an outright lie; life was like this, the communities, the good neighbours toiling together, the neatly painted front doors, the proud little gardens. Perhaps though, only on good days.

Spring and Port Wine - the herring

But Spring and Port Wine doesn’t condescend - it’s a piece aimed squarely at those working classes, the film’s audience turning the glass on themselves and liking what they see. And after years of being shown that it’s all a bit grim up north - This Sporting Life, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner, the inestimably brilliant but ultimately miserable Kes, et al - Peter Hammond’s film is something of a throwback in terms of a ‘poor but happy’ ethos. Yet there’s a vein of genuine affection to be seen.

It is a sweet, simple slice of ‘feel good’ propaganda showing that the toiling masses had more going on than at first meets the eye. Rafe might be an old dog, but he’s familiar with poetry, can play the piano - has a parlour big enough to hold such an instrument - and lives by an almost unbendable moral code. However, in a fast changing world, he’s not adverse to learning new tricks. He’s a role model for a new age.

Billy Fisher hasn’t the guts to get out of small town Yorkshire, Arthur Seaton has to better himself or become the withered old man Nottingham has made his father, for Colin Smith, perhaps nothing more is accomplished other than a pyrrhic victory. Rafe Crompton, with a few tweaks here and there, is comfortable in his skin and with his lot.

What the rest of the Comptons achieve is the nod from dad to help themselves to a modicum of independence, and be safe in the knowledge that family, ultimately, is all that most of us have to truly depend on, for love, for comfort. For happiness. When you get down to it, what more can you ask?

Spring and Port Wine - love conquers all

The cast is wonderful; Diana Coupland, Susan George, Rodney Bewes, Hannah Gordon and a host of familiar faces sneak in and out, Arthur Lowe, Bernard Bresslaw, Frank Windsor, Ken Parry.

It is almost wholly Mason’s show; the Yorkshireman breathes life into this patriarchal Lancastrian whether he’s striding across Bolton’s moorland, almost guiltily strutting in his new 40 guinea overcoat, or - and it’s a tiny detail but, like all Mason’s acting, so true - luxuriously washing his hands, fingernails and creases blackened by a day at the mill, in machine oil.

I’ve long liked Spring and Port Wine, but now I fancy I love it in an almost wistful fashion. As I approach Rafe’s age, I hanker after simpler times. Incidentally, Roy Baird executive produced this and If…., and both Michael Medwin (who also produced If….) and Albert Finney - ‘Arthur Seaton’ himself - were producers. There’s pedigree here.

Spring and Port Wine DVD

Released in the UK a couple of years ago, apparently after an exhaustive search for elements decent enough to transfer to DVD, the not always reliable Optimum Entertainment have really come up with the goods. The transfer is simply wonderful; presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, the colours are true, it’s virtually unmarked, sharp as a tack and very film-like; only a high-definition presentation could better it and then, I fancy for most viewers, only marginally.

The mono soundtrack is adequate with Douglas Gamley’s simple but perfectly apposite score well represented.

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