An outstanding and memorable performance by Ian McNeice, as radio presenter Ed 'Fats' Bannerman, is the fulcrum of this absorbing, awkward, and in parts troubling account of a man's loosening grip on reality. When we meet Bannerman he is ostensibly enjoying life, experiencing a slightly improbable degree of success with his placid, self-penned nineteenth-century romantic drama pastiche, Thus Engaged. But when the serial wins the first in what becomes a string of radio awards, and Bannerman grants an interview to journalist Celia Krane, he is cruelly disabused of his illusion that the show's success is due to its Austen-esque literacy and emotional depth: instead, it attracts an unexpectedly youthful audience, who enjoy it for ironic reasons. Later, fragile and irretrievably drunk, 'Fats' chances on a pair of young female fans who tease and insult him violently. It can either be seen as a twist of fate, then, or as an alarming signifier of his own involvement, that we find Bannerman eventually tending to the comatose body of one of these women, badly attacked but still alive in an alleyway. Ignoring advice, 'Fats' takes the unconventional step of keeping her in his barely habitable living accommodation, his initial aim of rehabilitation giving way to a doomed tilt at homely domestic life. (Both characters, it is clear, are psychologically incapable of that.)
Because of this main narrative, Voice Over, and by association its director Christopher Monger (1), received brickbats at the 1981 film festival in Edinburgh (and for some time after, in various media), when a feminist group released a statement railing against its 'brutal misogyny,' a line that seems to condemn Voice Over for a perceived 'revenge on womanhood' theme. At face value, there is ammunition to support this view: the assertive interview by Krane, and the unseemly debacle with his 'fans,' are followed by Bannerman seizing an opportunity to control and shape one of the very women who so upset him. The fact that this woman becomes known - at her own behest - by an abusive name most bolsters the Edinburgh argument. Yet, as the film critic Steve Jenkins (2) pointed out in a 1982 Monthly Film Bulletin, "a film (possibly) about brutal misogyny is not necessarily the same as a brutally misogynist film." One could also argue that a truly misogynist film would hold up Bannerman as a hero, or at least some kind of anti-hero - which Voice Over assuredly does not. Perhaps the film's true concern, to theorise in another direction, is the idea of human communication and, more appositely, its failure or breakdown, and the impossibility of relationships afflicted in this way. Its generally brutalist approach can then be seen as a figurative depiction of the characters' emotions.
Monger's own view (not necessarily definitive, by his own admission) of Ed 'Fats' Bannerman is that he is a sad loner, a man projecting himself into a fantasy world, and in caring for the attacked woman is seeking a kind of atonement, for both his own sake and others'. Although his motivations remain ambiguous to the end, the character has a back-story of a failed and possibly violent marriage, and spirals into drink with little provocation - such as Celia Krane's refusal to play along with the vapid puff-piece that he was clearly expecting. Bleakly, 'Fats' is often shown recording ideas and dialogue for Thus Engaged in a selection of incongruously morbid and desolate locations. As for the show itself, the contrast between the first episode that we hear and the last is stark. By the end, mirroring Bannerman's state of mind, Thus Engaged has been bludgeoned into an oppressive cacophony of Burroughs-style cut-ups and looping phrases, the total antithesis of its original self, broadcast live to air. However, Bannerman has already been subverting Thus Engaged long before this point, albeit a touch more subtly: disillusioned now with any notions of traditional literary craft, his small team joins a new radio station, prompting a spirit of experimentation including the random introduction of vampires into the world of Miss Elizabeth, his heroine, and the somewhat Martin Amis-like invocation of himself, the narrator, as a character. Amidst this tinkering, 'Fats' sees great humour in a chance re-acquaintance with journalist Celia Krane, discovering that she now greatly admires his new direction (which in his eyes is simply wilful destruction) and has apparently come to hold the show in genuine high regard. Moments of comic relief are rare in Voice Over, yet this is one of them - a pithy aside on the power of the critic in art, and the culture of received wisdom that it so often brings. Thus Engaged continues to win awards even as it is, as far as Bannerman is concerned, being driven into the ground.
McNeice's performance is beyond reproach, and by itself makes the film worthwhile. The viewer, though, cannot help but wonder (a) what Monger is attempting to achieve with this, and (b) whether or not it works. On an aesthetic level it certainly provides plenty of the squalor, grime and claustrophobia required to adequately reflect Bannerman's mentality, and also the initially numb, ultimately resigned attitude of his speechless 'captive.' Not much at all is seen of the wider country: we get dereliction, cramped studios, grey, howling seas, and dark streets by night, bathed in neon. One might, now, expect a British movie from 1981 to automatically double as an historical document, but this is not particularly so with Voice Over. The music in a dive bar is otherworldly, and when Bannerman gets drunk in a pub it feels more like Scorcese's New York (and impressively so) than a nascent Thatcher's Britain. Christopher Monger's personal account (3) of making Voice Over speaks of the characters and the story having an "organic life," and offers the admission that even he himself could not say what the picture is about: "What I can say is that what it really represents for me is me becoming a filmmaker." It may be due to this implied learning curve that Voice Over sometimes treads the path of heavy-handed imagery-- portentous shots of recorders, microphones and reams of tape are never far away. More subtly, Bannerman's ostensibly cosy new-build home is left barren and unfurnished, becoming just as squalid as his erstwhile 'flat.' Also of note is a sequence in which his captive woman hacks the lacy cuffs off a new blouse, a refusal to adapt to the role of 'Regency sweetheart' from the show that he begs her to listen to (the boundaries of Thus Engaged and Bannerman's own reality are beginning to blur).
When a filmmaker uses symbolism to a noticeable extent we can consider meanings other than the superficial, and in the case of Voice Over the premise of human communication, particularly within relationships, is a fairly good bet. The couple's time in Bannerman's shabby living quarters can be interpreted as a tentative courtship phase -setting allegory aside, 'Fats' even seems to persuade himself of this- and likewise their move to a generic 'Ideal Homes' estate (which, incidentally, is hardly the type of property purchase that one would expect of a rising media star) can be viewed as the corresponding marriage. A shared journey has commenced; familiarity may even have established a kind of love; but the pair's perennial inability to bring themselves to communicate, to say anything real, is never resolved. They make quite touching attempts at doing this, but the effect is only ever akin to sporadically connecting wires. Ed 'Fats' Bannerman's abject disillusionment has left him unable to bond, even on the most basic level, with anyone or anything. Denied peace, he is condemned to the disintegrating world of Thus Engaged and its unobtainable fantasies.
It must be said that, approaching its conclusion, Voice Over slips into being a drawn-out affair. Scenes can crawl: the implosion of Thus Engaged, for example, is a deeply laboured business, and a similarly overdone feel dogs the picture's climactic ending. These technical quibbles, however, cannot and do not interfere with the fact that this is an immensely - strangely - powerful film that leaves a permanent impression. It invokes the spirit of Mike Leigh and his many troubled characters for whom, because the world simply refuses to behave as they would wish, human communication is a trial at best and impossible at worst. Voice Over, along with Naked, Career Girls, Happy Go Lucky, and the likes of Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth, helps to perpetuate a line resulting most recently in Tyrannosaur by Paddy Considine. It easily warrants its place in the treasure trove that is the BFI Flipside catalogue. The DVD release, as ever, contains a host of interesting essays and interviews, plus an early Christopher Monger film, Repeater, which happens to feature a young Alexei Sayle. --Neil Jackson
(1) Christopher Monger went on to direct The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain. (2) Steve Jenkins' article is featured in the DVD booklet that accompanies the BFI Flipside release of Voice Over. (3) As Far as I Remember: Making Repeater and Voice Over is included in the DVD booklet.