Spring and Port Wine (1970) is a film which can be viewed on several levels. It speaks volumes about the changes in British society occurring during the sixties, and in ways which are much more real than in some of the ‘Swinging London’ films of the same era. Although set in Bolton, it is not a gritty realist work in the mould of Saturday Night, Sunday Morning or This Sporting Life. It can be seen as a family-based comedy, and it certainly contains elements of that; the presence of Likely Lads stalwart Rodney Bewes would have been a strong signifier to the audience of that heritage. Yet it is also deeply serious and at times verging on the dark: the presence of James Mason as paterfamilias Rafe Crompton would have signalled this potential for darkness, given his cinematic pedigree. Spring and Port Wine deals with issues which were of great importance to the generations, and to families in that era: the weakening of parental writ, the more relaxed attitudes to sexual relations brought about by the pill, the disregard for the lessons of the past shown by the young. This latter is a strong theme throughout the film.
The film opens in silence with a panoramic view of a Bolton which is clearly undergoing changes, although its mills and factories are still prominent alongside the clearly visible demolition sites. The silence is quickly shattered by two contrasting sounds which symbolise the divisions which are to permeate the film: on the one hand a raucous party to celebrate someone’s engagement, on the other the clatter of machinery as Rafe Crompton – on his own – finishes of his week’s work and receives his pay packet. The following scene is of the mass exodus from the factory, seemingly all of young people, vivacious, joyous to be free of their workplace for the weekend.
The next few scenes are exposition and set up the premise of the film and introduce the main protagonists. Daisy Crompton (Diana Coupland), Rafe’s wife, is a gentle and easygoing soul who has trouble balancing the household accounts and relies on eldest daughter Florence (Hannah Gordon) to bale her out. We are introduced to neighbour Betsy-Jane Duckworth who is engaged in a raucous argument with two TV men who are attempting to repossess her set; a clear contrast between the ordered environment of the Cromptons with the chaotic world of the Duckworth’s is set up and will come into play at various points in the film. Daisy’s inability to lend Betsy-Jane the £6 needed to stave off repossession leads the latter to launch some fierce invective against her neighbour, the gist of which is that Daisy is utterly dominated by her husband who has sole and rigid control of the finances. Although this situation would still have been widespread in the Britain of the late sixties, these accusations clearly affect Daisy deeply, and lead her to borrow the £6 from eldest son Harold (Bewes) in order to allow her to make the loan to her less than gracious neighbour.
The rest of the family arrive home: younger daughter Hilda (Susan George) and younger son Wilfred (Len Jones). We are quickly aware that the children are deeply resentful, sometimes scornful of their father, yet equally terrified of him. Their attempts at rebellious behaviour – smoking, loud pop music on TV – are quickly subdued by their fear, and Rafe’s patriarchal dominance is emphasised by the manner in which he collects their housekeeping, before locking it firmly away in the cash box to which only he has access. Despite mutterings behind his back by all the children except the loyal Florence, everyone complies, although Harold does attempt to withhold a pound, only to be informed by his father that “I’m not one of those…Whatever it is you think I am.”
The tension between Rafe and his family is centred in the unlikely guise of a herring. Our first view of the Crompton’s home is of Daisy expertly gutting and filleting several herrings, the tradition of fish on Fridays still strong in those days even among those not of the Catholic faith. When Hilda comes in she remarks that she doesn’t much fancy herring, an aside which seems then completely innocuous. Where Rafe is concerned, nothing is ever that simple. When the family sit down at table following the ritual handing over of their earnings, Hilda’s casual statement reiterating her preference for something other than a herring, and Daisy’s laid back proposal of a fried or poached egg in its stead, is quickly countermanded by Dad as we see him flex his muscles for the first time. His enquiry as to whether there is something wrong with the previously neutral fish is met with Hilda’s reply that she just doesn’t fancy it. Bad mistake Hilda. “How any child of mine can say she doesn’t fancy it, I don’t know…” he thunders. Hilda’s attempt to leave the room is stopped by Rafe’s withering command to be seated: “Only pigs leave their troughs as it suits.” He orders the edict that the herring is to be served up for breakfast, lunch and tea until the recalcitrant daughter finally bows to his will and eats it. She is reminded, in no uncertain terms, that no-one in the house has ever bested him, and that she is sorely misguided if she tries to be first.
To the accompaniment of much eye rolling and sighing from his children, Rafe reminisces about some hunger marchers encountered by Daisy and himself, presumably during the Great Depression. Young people today don’t know they’re born is the rhetoric and the children, especially Harold, come out with the appropriate sarcastic put downs: but it is clear even at this stage that the encounter had great personal significance for Rafe as a symbol of something we are yet to discover. Hilda’s cavalier dismissal of “fresh herring fried in best butter” affects him deeply since it “makes little of the lives millions…like me have had to live.”
This is a crucial theme of Spring and Port Wine and sets up one side of the tension between the generations. It is very true to life that Rafe is unable – or unwilling – to articulate this to his family, who perceive him simply as a crusty tyrant dwelling in the past. This is true, of course, but we don’t discover the reason for this until events have spiralled almost out of control and are only resolved at the film’s conclusion.
As the film progresses, Rafe’s domination and iron will are given further prominence as the events unfold which will eventually provide a resolution. Florence’s suitor, Arthur Gasket (Keith Buckley), is offered the job of factory manager by the retiring incumbent (a typically bumbling cameo by Arthur Lowe) with the proviso that he marries. His less than romantic proposal to Florence is made under full scrutiny of the Crompton family, and Rafe is typically withering, reminding his eldest daughter that members of his family decide “when they get married, and to who.” Rafe’s made to measure Crombie overcoat arrives, provoking a customary mix of admiration and resentment: Hilda wonders if he should not have spent less on himself and bought Mum a new coat too, only to be informed that “your father would lay down his life for me.”
Tension is introduced when Hilda breaks down sobbing and is comforted by Arthur, leading Florence to suggest he has picked the wrong sister, to be reassured with “I’m fond of Hilda but I love you.” Several people remark that they don’t know what’s come over Hilda lately, or that they have noticed recent big changes in her behaviour, but the film is plotted in such a way that we are led to believe that this is due to her being thrown over by her last boyfriend, a subject of great amusement to the immature Harold, which causes further grief. Hilda’s stubbornness echoes that of her father, and Rafe is appreciative of this: “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Naturally, his own stubbornness prevents him from acting on this knowledge until it’s almost too late.
The scene in which Florence and Arthur visit their new home, and presumably make love for the first time, demonstrates nicely the tension between the new world of permissiveness and the old world of duty and restraint which lies at the core of Spring and Port Wine. Although the scene is extremely restrained by the standards of other contemporary films, it is all the more effective for that restraint. The tension on Florence’s face portrays the dichotomy between her natural desires and the strong sense of duty to her father whom she feels she is betraying by her actions. She will never be able to look her father in the eye again, she tells Arthur. On their return home, Daisy asks her “Was it everything you expected?” and both women are clear what is being referred to.
Rafe’s pig-headedness and absolute authority are exemplified in the scene where Wilfred feeds the herring to the cat in order to end the ongoing piscine saga. Ironically both parties have, unbeknown to the other, resolved to give way. Wilfred’s action, however, revives Rafe’s fanaticism – in this case to the truth at all costs. He bullies and browbeats the boy to the point of collapse, and Wilfred’s dissolution signifies, it seems, that of the rest of the family. Hilda leaves the house, closely followed by Arthur and Florence. The Cromptons, it seems, have finally had enough.
Hilda has decamped to the Duckworths and it is while she is here, avoiding the crude attentions of Ned (Frank Windsor), that her friend Betty clues her up to what is really happening – she can’t stand herrings, she’s gone off eggs and the smell of smoke makes her feel sick –and advises her to check her calendar. Hilda tells her mother and resolves to leave for London, asking Daisy for a loan until she can withdraw her factory savings. The established order starts to crumble as Daisy first enlists Betsy-Jane’s help to pick the lock to the bureau where Dad’s cashbox resides, and then loses her nerve and sends her neighbour to pawn the new Crombie instead. We know this will all end badly and, sure enough, Dad is persuaded to wear his new coat to a performance the Messiah. When he fails to find it, he comes downstairs to an empty house and finds a note from his wife expressing remorse.
Having been informed by Betsy-Jane that she’s seen a woman without a coat heading for the canal, Rafe is galvanised. He has earlier talked about men who threw themselves into the canal during the depression. He locates Daisy there, who begs forgiveness, and finally the truth about Rafe’s life emerges: why he is the way he is, why money and family and truth are so important to him. He reveals the truth of his own childhood, where debt collectors and bailiffs were forever hammering on the door, how as a child returning home from school he was forced to enter the house by the back door to avoid unwelcome visitors, how his mother lied to his father constantly about the direness of their position and finally, how he had arrived home from school one day to find two bailiffs playing cards in the parlour while his mother attempted suicide over the gas cooker in the kitchen – all for the sake of a few pounds.
Rafe and Daisy return to the house like lovers, unaware that the entire family are planning their departures. Rafe reveals to Daisy that he is sure Hilda is pregnant, reminding her there have been times when she has gone off herrings. He vows to stand by his daughter and give her all the love and support she needs. The rest of the family are amazed by the transformation in Rafe, who welcomes their efforts to leave, wishes he were in their place, offers to go in their stead since he is “more used to roughing it than them.” Harmony is restored, naturally, and the family is restored but there will be changes: Rafe symbolically hands his keys over to Daisy. There has been a shift, and a sharing, of power.
In the end, order is reasserted to the Crompton household, but there are accommodations and acceptances on both sides: Rafe recognises his family as individuals and will treat them as, in the words of the ever-astute Daisy, “God made us.” For their part, the children will be more understanding of their father’s bitter past experience and more appreciative of what he has built to ensure their security. The story of how the sixties morphed into the seventies, with the violent upheavals of the earlier decade gradually assimilated into the mainstream, is personalised and made credible by the metaphor of family life and struggle contained within Spring and Port Wine. It is made all the more understandable for that.