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From 'Beyond Fringe' To Curtain Call At Filmex

March 21, 1985|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Early in the 1960s, four young chaps out of Oxford and Cambridge were recruited to do a satirical revue as part of the Fringe, a sort of semi-disowned, semi-detached aspect of the Edinburgh Festival. The show, called "Beyond the Fringe," was such a hit that it went on to a long run in London and on Broadway.

It made stars of the quartet, who then dispersed to separate enterprises. Jonathan Miller, already a doctor, went back to brain research, with excursions into books, TV series and the directing of opera. Peter Cook continues to perform. Dudley Moore became Dudley Moore, and Alan Bennett has become a very successful dramatist, occasional performer and, now, film writer and producer.

Bennett's film, "A Private Function," which he produced and co-wrote, was the opening-night attraction at Filmex. Bennett, a tall and reddish-haired Yorkshireman, born and raised in Leeds, was here for the premiere.

"I always wanted to do a film about a chiropodist," Bennett said one morning last week, making it sound almost lyrical, in an accent that seems to be appropriately placed midway between Cockney and Scots.

"Malcolm Mowbray (the film's director and co-author) always wanted to do a film about a pig," Bennett added, "and the ideas just coalesced."

Yes. What they coalesced into was "A Private Function," a blazingly bizarre satirical farce set in the postwar but still heavily rationed England of 1947. The town fathers are raising an illicit hog to feed the guests at a banquet in honor of the wedding of Elizabeth and Philip. The pig is stolen by a chiropodist and his social-climbing wife.

(The town is tactfully unnamed but the film was shot in the two Yorkshire towns of Ilkley and Barnoldswick.)

I confess I was put in mind of those marvelous Ealing comedies of early postwar, "The Lavender Hill Mob," "The Man in the White Suit" and the rest of them, in which screwy and improbable events rest securely atop close notice of human nature, usually at its most larcenous, unprincipled and dubious.

There is not a character in "A Private Function," by my count, who is not grievously and aggressively flawed one way or another, although it could be said that Michael Palin as the chiropodist who is just trying to get on his feet, so to speak, is driven to do what he does by the seedy snobbery around him and by the awful and awesome social aspirations of Maggie Smith as his wife.

"I like it," Bennett says, smiling innocently behind his horn-rimmed glasses, "when people are nasty to each other. I've wondered if Americans would understand that the rationing went on for quite some time after the war. It was worse than it had been during the war. There was a gap in lend-lease, or something. My father was a butcher, and I remember it all quite clearly." (Butchers and queues figure importantly in the film.) "Still, it seemed to go nicely the other night. Nobody tells you the truth, of course."

The common effort inspired by the war had deteriorated with the arrival of peace; the class system had reasserted itself, a major theme in the film.

"Small towns don't change much," Bennett says. He still lives part of the time in Yorkshire, part in London. "The doctors are still high up in the social hierarchy. Chiropodists have, or had, a rather peculiar status. They used to go almost door to door, spreading their newspapers for the clippings. They later began to have surgeries with brass plates on the door to give them more status."

Bennett had seen a TV play that Mowbray had done and simply wrote to him, proposing a collaboration if a suitable theme could be found. Thus the coalescing of foot doctor and purloined pig.

"There were three pigs actually, just in case," Bennett says. "One was a bit better at climbing stairs, one was a spare. When the film was budgeted, the pig was calculated simply as another character. But in fact, of course, it wasn't anything like as easy as that. Once in a while you'd get it on the first take. But then there'd be 15 takes. Maggie was really very brave with them, climbing over them, pushing them around. They could be quite mean."

Bennett had been teaching medieval history at Oxford when "Beyond the Fringe" began and continued during its West End run. "I'm thought to be an expert on Richard the Second," he says. "But then we went to New York and that was the last I saw of university."

When the revue finally ended, Bennett wrote sketches for television, felt the need for less ephemeral work and did a first play, "Forty Years On," in which he co-starred with John Gielgud and which was revived last year for a substantial run. "It made me feel very old." (He is 50.)

Later he wrote (among other stage works) a play called "The Old Country," in which Alec Guinness played a defector. The actress Coral Browne came to see the play and told Bennett about a curious encounter she had had in Moscow with the British defector Guy Burgess. From the conversation came the remarkable film "An Englishman Abroad," shown on television here not long ago, which Bennett wrote and John Schlesinger directed, with Alan Bates as Burgess and Browne as herself.

Bennett had been collaborating with Schlesinger on a project I would give a lot to see happen--an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's "A Handful of Dust," that tough, economical comic novel about a crumbling English upper crust, with a ferociously ironic finale.

"Too expensive," Bennett says, regretfully. But the price was right for "A Private Function," and it would be nice to think there are more where it came from.

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