Lunch Hour, a short tale directed by the prolific James Hill and released in 1961, depicts an affair between a young girl and an older married man, a relationship instigated in the workplace and furthered within the constraints of their daily lunch hour. Despite its minimal length—barely over sixty minutes—it is a picture with a great deal more substance than this simple description might imply. With a screenplay adapted by John Mortimer from his own stage play (1), Lunch Hour is set in the capital but pre-dates the 'swinging London' genre. In terms of narrative and atmosphere it is a film generally considered to have far more in common with David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945) than the raft of English 'sixties' movies that would follow in its wake.
The male lead, un-named, is played by once-vaunted Olivier successor Robert Stephens (who would later in life receive a knighthood for services to drama). Stephens' portrayal of a polite, bumbling and somewhat misplaced executive is comfortably above par, but throughout the duration of Lunch Hour it resides firmly in the shadow of Shirley Anne Field: her inscrutable and fiery art graduate, embarking on a design career in a 1960s wallpaper factory, is an exceptional piece of work. Initially flat and slightly naive, the character comes to acquire extra dimensions and a definite edge. For Shirley Anne Field, the contrast between this and probably her most famous role - that of Doreen, the girl who only wants to settle down and get married in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning - is stark.Lunch Hour has a different agenda for womanhood than that, and Doreen's worldview is in fact quite at odds with that of her counterpart here.
The pair must endure prying eyes at work, but are uncomfortable with openly canoodling, as others do in a nearby park. Their attempts at privacy, whether at a table for lunch or on a museum visit, are doomed to interference. Stephens' performance is admirable here, his demeanour betraying a man frustrated by these circumstances, yet at the same time ever so slightly disbelieving of his luck. Field's 'girl,' meanwhile, alternates between displays of passion and bouts of complete indifference. Eventually he suggests the idea of a room, to which she instantly agrees, and it is upon this premise that the film, and the development of Field's character, dramatically turns.
The male lead's efforts to further the relationship are tellingly clumsy. Why, the viewer cries, won't he simply arrange a romantic weekend away, or at least organise a proper overnight stay in a decent London hotel? The eventual one-hour slot in a shabby room, with its bothersome gas fire and interfering landlady (brought to irksome life with aplomb by Kay Walsh), is more than a dash reminiscent of the novelist Patrick Hamilton and his gloomy bed-sit moribundia. The time arrives, and it dawns upon the girl that her boyfriend has fed a convoluted web of lies to the landlady in order-fruitlessly, one suspects-to make the liaison appear legitimate. It is from this point that Lunch Hour begins to declare its feminist angle and anti-marriage undertones.
Stephens' character thinks that he can spin any old yarn and not have to think about it, but to the girl his fiction suggests clues (of the worrying sort) to his personality traits and attitudes. While the man wonders why his pretty young girlfriend is becoming fascinated with what is merely a convenient lie, especially when they should be in bed together, she opts to examine their invented marriage as lunch hour ticks by. Before long obsessed, she starts to imagine her misgivings in great detail, presented in the film as an inverted Billy Liar-type Ambrosia. The utopian world of Billy Fisher (where, of course, everything always goes right) is instead filled with clattering rail tracks, demanding children, endless chores and an absent husband - one who suspiciously claims that he must work in London while she lives in the North. His unwise embellishment of a frightening 'Aunty' figure (a short but terrifyingly good performance by Hazel Hughes), who prides herself on issuing mammoth blasts of passive aggression, completes a miserable portrait of matrimony and motherhood.
Some might argue that the girl has simply become unhinged in this hotel room. Instead of consummating the affair-as both had planned-she is acting bizarrely and wasting precious time in picking away at the story. It is merely a case of cold feet, perhaps, or some hitherto unknown relationship issue. But this would be to miss the aims of the film. The concept of a young woman's growing confusion is not the peg on which Lunch Hour hangs: it is instead a foray into an area of writing and film-making that wants to question attitudes towards the roles and rights of women, and to question women themselves over notions of expectation and acceptance. For some at the time, it must have made for uncomfortable viewing. Even now, there are safer 'first date' movies to select. An intriguing final scene is worthy of mention: an ambiguous sequence as the credits roll, free of dialogue but marvellously acted by Field, invoking just the faintest suggestion that her character's personality and motives may not have been quite as first thought.
The challenge for director James Hill was to add value to what began first as a radio play and then became a stage production. While not an entirely unqualified success -some of the film's most important scenes, those set in 'the room,' are rather static- he makes good use of imagery (the consumption of food plays a meaningful role, especially in the closing scene). Also, his examination of the social and professional strata of a large factory in the early 1960s is well done. This element of the film really does add value to the play, in the sense that it accentuates the difference between the two main characters' official status and their actual status. It is clear, well before the end of the picture, that it is the girl who is very much the alpha of the pair. The man, conversely, turns demonstrably more pathetic as time goes on, both in terms of the relationship and (we can extrapolate) life in general. The girl's burgeoning horror at the prospect of married life with this person is well evoked by Hill, using a series of hallucinatory cut-aways that are invariably noisy and claustrophobic. Eyeline Films, the production company, employed a collective approach to film-making, and had a penchant for attempting to do something a little different. Bearing in mind its 1961 date-stamp, and recalling the prevailing mores of the time, that remit was certainly achieved with Lunch Hour. Its running time of just over an hour, however, was too short to secure any kind of general release. As a result, the movie became a very high-quality curio, making it ideal for inclusion in the BFI's Flipside series.--Neil Jackson
(1) Mortimer is best known for the long-running television series Rumpole of the Bailey. This too was originally a play, albeit a television one for the BBC's Play for Today series.
Patrick Keiller's Robinson in Ruins
Dir. Patrick Keiller (2010, BFI DVD)
The premise for this, the third in Patrick Keiller's series of Robinson films (following London and Robinson in Space, 1994 and 1997 respectively), is that the itinerant Robinson, a geographical theorist and observer of the English system, has come to leave nineteen cans of film and a notebook in a derelict caravan—his last known place of residence following his release from imprisonment for unrevealed crimes. This material, left by Robinson to be discovered and assembled by others at a later date, is an attempt to resolve the question of modern England subsequent to both the financial meltdown and the end of the New Labour government, via the making of a set of images. It is the eternal Robinsonian quest: attempting to address a designated problem from the margins, occasionally immersing himself in it, yet generally remaining aloof. His thoughts, relayed to the viewer in all three films via an acquainted narrator, often consist of bald academic or statistical facts. Perennially unseen, Robinson is merely a workable delivery system for the essays and ideas of Patrick Keiller and his collaborators. This is why the narrating character can sometimes jar slightly in the context of the film in general. With Robinson in Ruins especially, it is wholly possible to forget about the narrator/Robinson sub-plot for significant periods, only to be jolted back into it. However, one can understand Keiller's perseverance with the device, lending as it does a human aspect and a certain fictional art that, if absent, would leave a rather chilly space.
The late Paul Scofield performed Keiller's first-person narrator for both London and Robinson in Space. For Robinson in Ruins he has been replaced by Vanessa Redgrave, and necessarily the character has changed: Scofield played Robinson's academic colleague and lover, whereas Redgrave's narrator is the Scofield character's partner. The direct relationship between the narrator and Robinson himself, therefore, has been pushed back a degree and the element of intimacy is gone. That said, the current occupier of the role tells us the most interesting thing about Robinson in all three films: that he is in fact not English. Robinson arrived in London from Berlin in 1966, further origins unknown. No one should be shocked at this—the information that he is an outsider makes nothing but sense in the context of his calling as a margin-walker and analyst of the English condition.
Redgrave's narrator is a member of an organisation keen on presenting Robinson's findings, and so it is from this perspective that the footage unfolds. There are no surprises in terms of the photography, which, shot on 35mm film, employs the same 'moving stills' technique of the other Robinson films. The camera position is insistently fixed, alert like a hawk to anything that is happening, or might be about to happen, within the frame. There is never any tracking: we simply take up position and observe, and when things are gone, they are gone. As in all the Robinson films, the photography in Ruins is stunning, yet there are some new stylistic developments. Keiller appears interested in making a deliberate point through the use of radically extended scenes. In a film where nothing dramatic happens in any scene at all, where the gradual appearance of a combine harvester in a wheat field is about as 'action' as it gets, this could be thought a brave move. Because the extended shots in question are usually focused on plants, flowers, bees and the like (in addition to a treatise on lichen which acquires greater relevance as the film goes on), it is fair to assume that Keiller wants us to consider 'green' themes in relation to England's current state. Golden, swaying wheat is given centre stage while the financial catastrophe of 2008 is discussed in clinical terms. The countryside, in particular Greenham, is shown to be eerily corrupted—even now—by England's past dalliance with the USA's nuclear weapons programme: there has been a selling of the country's soul, surely contained in its rural core. We see odd, quasi-mystical posts signifying the pathway of an underground oil pipeline that services military establishments.
Doreen Massey, Emeritus Professor of Geography at the Open University, has collaborated with Keiller and others (such as Patrick Wright) on the themes explored in Robinson in Ruins. From her essays and discussions, it is evidently a great bugbear for Massey that people describe market forces as in some way 'natural' - for example, they are said to be distorted from their 'natural levels.' Nature, she would contend, has nothing to do with it, and this viewpoint is endorsed by Robinson in Ruins, with its lingering scenes of natural beauty combined with a discourse on dubious economics. On the whole (and again, this is perhaps why the Robinson character and the associated narrative occasionally go missing in action), Robinson in Ruins strikes the viewer as more concerned with the idea of plain geography than with its predecessors' psychogeographical focus.
Robinson is in Ruins - or at least in a ruin. The film returns time and again to the derelict house that he has decided to 'haunt' following his release from prison, so that we see the building in various states of redevelopment at the hands of a building contractor. Clearly, someone has bought the wreck and is in the process of creating an improved version to sell on in the hope of a tidy profit, but in the meantime it is being put to use as Robinson's temporary home. In what are essentially repetitions of the same shot, we see the house embarking on a process of change: at one point, incongruously bright red boards hide its crumbling walls and overgrown garden. Robinson is ultimately ousted to another unoccupied house in the suburbs, a sub-plot that is fairly typical of the way Keiller makes political points throughout all the Robinson films. On this occasion he reminds us that with what is termed 'gentrification' comes displacement, and that such developments are not 'natural' change but change of a forced, capitalistic sort.
The fact that Robinson has amassed his prolonged and unapologetic footage of natural phenomena, with no element of irony attached by those who have found and assembled it, increasingly appears to be a statement in favour of a move away from today's economic constructs. Post-financial meltdown, it would be difficult for anyone without a vested interest in the status quo to argue against some kind of reform- but of course the power to effect change lies in just that area. Robinson is saying that our best efforts are erroneously expended, that there is nothing for society at large to gain from, for example, the painfully slow, laborious and costly reconstruction of his home. In contrast, we are shown the methodical and useful progress of a combine harvester, cutting down a field of wheat and producing results that are tangible, there for all to see. This type of business, Robinson seems to be arguing, should be considered a template for the future instead of some antiquated struggle. The real antiquated struggle is more likely the one aimed at propping up the system of capitalism that so badly collapsed in 2008, and the titular 'ruins' are not a portent of things to come: they are a signpost to the here and now. (Robinson has filmed a notice, vivid white on red against the greenery of an English field, observing: "Danger: Failed Road.") Never far away from a flight of fancy, however, he believes that the country's salvation lies in collaboration with "non-human intelligence." Perhaps this is why the film concludes with lichen, one of the planet's longest-living organisms, colourfully spreading over a milestone on the road to London. --Neil Jackson