LONDON — "Poooor Meeester Chumley--all he needs ees someone to take care of heem," purrs the lady of a certain age. What with her Mediterranean voice, honey-colored hair and heavy-lidded eyes, plus her superabundance of flounces and a cargo of jewelry, she's probably what you would get if you put the Melina Mercouri of 15 years ago on "Dynasty."
"Oh, Mrs. Garza, if only you would!" replies the even more mature, florid-faced, mutton-chop-whiskered industrialist seated alongside her at the banquet table.
She proves her willingness by encircling his upper torso with paper streamers--not that any proof is needed. By this point in the story of "Consuming Passions" where Vanessa Redgrave's Mrs. Garza puts the make on Freddie Jones' Chumley, she has already worked her way through two of his yuppie-type managers (played by Jonathan Pryce and Tyler Butterworth).
Samuel Goldwyn Jr., whose company is co-financing the recently wrapped $3.5-million film with Britain's Euston Films, and the director, Giles Foster, call it "an Ealing comedy for the '90s." Ealing is the now-defunct English studio responsible for a series of delightfully eccentric Alec Guinness comedies in the '50s. Others around the set at Pinewood Studios call it "Monty Python Meets Sweeney Todd Meets the World's Greatest Living Actress." The last, of course, is the erstwhile tragedienne Redgrave.
In the script, expanded by Paul Zimmerman ("King of Comedy") and Andrew Davies from original materials by Pythoners Michael Palin and Terry Jones, the family-owned Chumley Chocolate Factory has been taken over by a conglomerate. In another sign of the times, conglomerate whiz-kid Pryce ("Brazil") comes up with an all-new, all-synthetic chocolate recipe, which is a disaster with the public. Then his bumbling, eager-beaver trainee, Tyler Butterworth, accidentally shoves Redgrave's husband--a Chumley employee--into a vat of the ersatz stuff. Horribly enough, the shipment of bonbons containing his remains is a wild success.
The problem then arises of how to continue the magic formula--or, more precisely, where to get the magic ingredient. (One suggestion, advanced by Pryce as good for Chumley's and for England, too, is "school leavers," the high school graduates who each June flood a labor market that can't accommodate them and who, too often, end up on the dole.) And then there's the ancillary problem of how to shut widow Redgrave up.
Butterworth's Guinness-like Ian Littleton character is the first to try, risking his relationship with the Chumley quality controller played by Sammi Davis ("A Prayer for the Dying"). It is through the eyes of Ian that the entire black comedy is seen. As the son of actor Peter Butterworth (who was in several of the raucous, internationally popular films in the English "Carry on" genre films of the early '60s) and locally famous Margaret Thatcher impersonator Janet Brown, Butterworth should be blase about the perks and vagaries of show biz. Yet the 27-year-old veteran of many a stage and TV role brings a Candide-like wonderment to this, his feature-film debut.
"It was terrifying, the idea of lying in bed with an international film star," he said of the scene in which he gets it on with Redgrave. "Having only done a little scene together in a furniture store, we got into bed and they lined up the lights. I said, 'I thought it might be a bit of a turn-on, a bit sensuous.' Vanessa said, 'Oh no, there's no time for that, no time for sensuality.' But it was wonderful. With no puns intended, she guided me through everything. You know when you play tennis with someone who's better than you and your game improves? That's what happened with Vanessa."
In fact, puns and double-entendres fly fast and free on this giddy set: Jonathan Pryce joked that he and Redgrave "secretly" took their "Consuming Passions" roles to "consummate" the relationship they had on the London stage two years ago in Chekhov's "The Seagull." More seriously, Pryce said that Butterworth now has the equivalent of "my role in 'Brazil,' " directed by Pythoner Terry Gilliam, "while I'm now one of the grotesques.
"And the film's overview of the world is not dissimilar to that of 'Brazil,' " he added. Even though other hands have "opened it up" and introduced shifts from broad to subtle comedy, "often in one line," the script "retains a lot of the Palin-Jones aspect. It's a very black comedy, but it is still based in some sort of reality about the ruthlessness of big business."
The reality at the heart of the piece is actually what attracted Redgrave, though on the surface Mrs. Garza seems by far the wildest, most cut-loose comic role she's ever done. (Others, in plays by Shakespeare and Noel Coward, are best known to English theatergoers, even while her 20-odd variations on the word dear in "Prick Up Your Ears" gave U.S. moviegoers an idea of her devastating timing.)