If monochrome British cinema of the mid 50s to early 60s is the hidden ‘holy grail’ of our cultural heritage, then Lunch Hour, a film which literally defies categorisation, is the diamond of untraceable origin somewhere to the rear of the stem, and James Hill (a man of impeccable pedigree whose contributions are still largely unrecognised) its architect. Listed in some reference texts as a comedy, in others as drama, it is both and neither, and stands, for me personally, as one of the earliest of a series of pigeonhole-defying, preconception-altering pictures which would later grow to define everything adventurous, unconventional and memorable about British cinema over the ensuing decade, such as The Leather Boys (1964) Morgan! (1966) Accident (1967)Negatives (1968) and Goodbye Gemini (1970) all of which (bar the latter) are non-genre specific but borrow readily from the conventions of others.
In this particular case, the plot, as read on paper, and reproduced in the accompanying booklet, could easily read like that of a romantic comedy of errors- married man and woman begin illicit workplace affair in their lunchtimes, are constantly interrupted and prevented from being alone, so hire a hotel room in central London on the pretence of being a married couple living in different cities due to the pressures of work who need to be ‘alone to discuss something important’ and have dumped their (non existent) kids at a nearby relatives house. The hotel manageress (Kay Walsh) still constantly interrupts them: in the meantime, the woman starts believing the fantasy, and imagining herself in the role of the cuckolded wife (realised in full onscreen, with the viewer seeing things through her eyes), and subconsciously sympathising with the man’s real , unseen, wife, thus causing a massive argument with the man, leading to the wastage of the hour in the hotel, and ultimately, the end of the affair. All sounding like the basis for a good, ribald comedy of the sort favoured by Brian Rix, and, viewed through 21st century eyes, perfectly innocuous- except that it isn’t.
Somehow, the end result is far more than the mere sum of those parts, and this is why, although little more than a quota quickie, the film’s legend is well cemented among aficionados, even those aware of its full name (if ever there was a movie deserving and fully receiving of the “what’s that film, you know the one with him out of thingy” status bestowed upon cinematic works by human vagueness, then this is it). Like many of its counterparts, it was screened regularly enough on television between 1967 and 1997 to lodge itself in our collective consciousnesses: unlike many still awaiting a decent release, it is now available for the first time from Flipside in both DVD and blu-ray formats with a variety of tantalising extras added. Why it was chosen out of all possible titles is a question probably best answered by a long ramble about rights availability and package deals, although I’m glad that it has been.
Like similar releases from the same label (That Kind Of Girl, The Pleasure Girls, The Party’s Over) part of the film’s charm is its depiction of a metropolis long gone, a shiny, clean world full of burgeoning opportunities and new ideals, with quite different social mores from those of today. In fact, the plot of Lunch Hour would be unworkable in 2011 London: its central tenets stem from indiscretion, social pressure, ideas of ‘public decency’ and sexual inhibitions which are all absent from today’s mindset, some of which we are well rid of and others which we could maybe do with reviving, and its logic would be undermined today by both the lack of affordable, quiet hotels in the inner city and the preponderance of technology available to most. For these reasons, the film is likely to appeal to those of us who long for a return to a saner, more well ordered world, but who have ironically benefited from some of the knock-on effects of the last 50 years’ cultural chaos since its release. Life, you see, since the revolutions that shaped the 1960s, has been a series of contradictions, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than within these 62 minutes.
In an early shot, the principal male character (simply referred to as ‘The Man’ and played by the distinguished Robert Stephens) stands above London’s skyline and comments to ‘The Girl’ (Shirley Anne Field in a defining role) on the sheer size of the city, how many people live in it, and the constant state of flux and redevelopment it appears to be in. 50 years on, these concerns are still present but magnified: what makes Lunch Hour all the more pertinent, even in 2011, is that while illicit liaisons of the kind The Man and The Girl conduct, or at least attempt to conduct, on screen here still happen now, the social pressure which would have necessitated such clandestine circumstance back then has long since passed, replaced by a blatancy and near-revelry in such acts celebrated by the internet and the tabloid press (at least as long as it continues to exist, which, judging by events occurring as this article went to print, may not be much longer at all). Likewise, while flaneurs, people-watchers and wry observers of the human condition have always delighted in the knowledge that within any sizeable city there are thousands of lives, maybe millions of stories, and such is indeed the fabric on which the grand storytelling traditions of Britain are built, there still seems something more serene and less overwhelming about this conceit as viewed through early 1960s eyes, aided by the crisp black and white photography of Wolfgang Suchitzsky and the tight editing skills of director Hill himself.
After all, the London of 1961, while still the capital of Britain and probably the greatest city in Europe, even after having weathered two world wars and a depression, was still in some ways a city in infancy. Sure, its buildings and its people may date back to the Dark Ages, and its historic parks (in two of which several scenes from this film are set) maybe even further, but practically everything we now take for granted about it and mention almost synonymously with its name- the Swinging Sixties, the new media, social types such as the “yuppie”, punk rock, Canary Wharf, 24-hour conveniences, multiculturalism- were yet to happen. Thus, while some critics have derided Stephens’ character as being a stuffy, dull uninteresting and unaccomplished spectacle of manhood, and therefore quite unsuitable for a ‘new woman’ such as that portrayed here by Field, we should maybe remember that most men in his position at the time would have been cut from similar cloth, married out of social duty more than anything else to an incompatible partner and spending most evenings dreaming of escape. The liberation that was to begin a year later in the wake of the Beatles affected, lest we forget (and a lot of people do forget, either deliberately or accidentally) both sexes, and therefore to castigate Stephens’ character simply for being male is missing the point- he is in need of as much liberation as Field, as the rather telling comment “I used to make up stories when I was a child, and write them down, but there’s no time for that now” infers.
Similarly, much has been made of the idea that the final shot of Field sitting alone to paint, relaxed in her creative idiom without an “unworthy mate” is a foretelling of soon-come women’s liberation, but in truth she is just as unworthy of him as he her, with an inability to separate fact from fiction and subsequent total immersion in a fantasy (not even of her own devising) that hints at latent psychopathic tendencies. For this same reason, it would also be unwise to class Lunch Hour as a pro-feminist film or, as the writer puts it, a “scream of female rage”: it was, after all, written and directed by two men who, one may safely attest, being raised in the 1910s and 1920s respectively, would have had little time for such concepts. What may be bang on the mark, though, is the supposition that male guilt over infidelity, on behalf of both writer John Mortimer and director Hill, lies at the root of its raison detre- the formers treatment of his novelist wife Penelope, in particular, is well documented, and one can see a cry of disappointment at the many directionless dalliances brought about by the social entrapments of the time, which often prevented people from airing their true feelings and realising their true potential. And that, for me, is the overriding theme- the frustrated scream of people, rather than persons of any gender, caught in a stifling world. It’s there in the tired and world weary dialogue of Stephens’ work colleagues (Michael Robbins and Nigel Davenport), in Field’s marriage-obsessed circle of friends, in the stuffy attitudes espoused by Walsh (“I’ve had politicians and dignitaries in this room, even Indians…all very nicely spoken”) in her equally drab and stuffy hotel, the weary dialogue of the imaginary Auntie and her sleepy, train-lagged charges, and the nagging interruptions of an elderly Yorkshireman whose life appears to be based entirely around his dog. A world in slumber, waiting to awake: although, having said that, a fascinating one which I’d still gladly swop for the high-speed bling-bling booyakka mood of today.
The end result, therefore, is that our sympathies lie with both characters, regardless of which side the viewer takes (which, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t what appreciating cinema is about anyway) and we find ourselves wanting to watch it again and again- the mark of any great film. In the BBC’s tribute to Vivian Stanshall, The Canyons Of His Mind, Stephen Fry refers to the great singer/writer’s ability to alert people to the pleasure and crunch of “language for the sake of language”: Lunch Hour, by this same token, is a film which alerts us to the joys of dialogue and interaction, even in a negative context, and not only between characters, but actors. Field and Stephens both give, in a film which by its origins was never originally destined for such greatness, the performances of their lives, both utterly believable and perfect in diction and timing, and in Field’s case it’s a shame that while still very much alive and working today, her talents as an actress have never been fully recognised by either the public or the industry. Her work in Peeping Tom, These Are The Damned, Beat Girl , Alfie, The Entertainer and Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, together with a series of memorable television appearances, have ensured her immortality among those of us in the know, but the public remain largely unaware, and even though this release is one of Flipside’s best yet, with brilliant extras in the form of Hill’s great BP shorts Skyhook, Guiseppina and the incredible Home Made Car, I imagine its sales will be minor compared to those of the better-known and more culturally pigeon-holeable Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush, Bronco Bullfrog or Privilege. Similarly, seeing Stephens so assured and in control here, in a role that chronologically pre-dates his best-remembered efforts such as The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes and The Shout by several years, only serves to remind us what a loss to cinema his premature death in 1995 at only 64 was.
On the other hand, in this day and age, with our best performers dropping like flies (in between receiving and reviewing this disc, I personally had the death of my own favourite actress, Anna Massey, to contend with) it’s uplifting to see a company like Flipside allow us to remember them in this way, and if you too have a spare lunch hour (the synchronicity between the film’s length and subject matter being another of its most adroit attributes) then I can think of few better ways to spend it- especially as, in 2011, having an affair with one of your co-workers or betraying your partner is a lot easier than it used to be. PS- if my missus is reading this, the last bit is merely an observation, not a suggestion…