By David Ryan
Few British television dramatists inspire quite as much affection as Alan Plater. From his early work on Z-Cars to the Beiderbecke Trilogy and beyond, his name “guaranteed a quality of humour, heart and humanity” – words taken from The Guardian’s obituary in 2010.
Born in 1930s Jarrow and raised in Hull during the Blitz, he was, naturally enough, a devotee of Orwell’s. “He loved Orwell,” says his widow, Shirley Rubinstein. “He called himself an old-fashioned socialist. He admired Orwell enormously.”
In addition to being an early trustee of the Orwell Prize, Plater wrote two Orwell-related scripts: a Bafta-nominated BBC play, The Crystal Spirit, about his hero’s days on Jura writing Nineteen Eighty-Four; and a feature film of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, starring Richard E Grant and Helena Bonham Carter.
It so happens that one led directly to the other. Watching the Jura play at home – it was shown, bizarrely, as part of the Christmas 1983 festivities – was director Robert Bierman, a fan of the 1936 novel and owner of the screen rights since the early 1980s. Here’s a man who understands Orwell, he thought, and contacted Plater’s agent.
In early 1984, the writer set to work on what would be the second screen adaptation of the novel. (The first, made by the BBC in 1965, is missing from the archives.) In an outline for the proposed film, he wrote: “Its central character, Gordon Comstock, is an anti-hero supreme – an Angry Young Man, twenty years ahead of the fashion.” The industry’s response was underwhelming.
Eleven years later, however, in part thanks to National Lottery funding, the prospects for modest British films were looking a great deal more promising. Bierman therefore approached producer Peter Shaw, who thought that with Arts Council backing and co-production money, he could finance an arthouse film.
Plater dusted off his first draft and announced that, after some trepidation, he’d enjoyed reading it. “It seems to have caught that characteristic Orwell stance: merciless observation redeemed by irony and the merest hint of compassion. And all a bit dark, which seems to be the spirit of our times.”
However much purists may wince, he’d always envisaged the film as a romantic comedy. “Orwell did the social message and Alan did the wit,” says Rubinstein. Polishing the script, he intensified the focus on Gordon’s relationship with girlfriend Rosemary; this meant jettisoning characters such as Flaxman, the bawdy salesman who lives in the same boarding house as Comstock.
Grant, in the lead role, was a decade older than the 29-year-old poet of the novel, though on the plus side, his upbringing in Swaziland had given him the accent and mannerisms of a 1930s Englishman. Perhaps more surprising was the feistiness and ambition of Bonham Carter’s Rosemary. A “doormat” like the character in the book, argued Plater, simply wouldn’t be accepted by audiences.
Keep the Aspidistra Flying kicked off the 41st London Film Festival on 6 November 1997 and was instantly attacked by newspaper critics, who saw it as a waste of public money. The Daily Mail‘s Christopher Tookey called it “a disastrous choice” of opener. It had, he wrote, “an air of having been made for television, with no thought of the movie-going public”.
Retitled A Merry War, from a line in the novel, it had a warmer welcome in the United States, where Time magazine declared it one of the ten best movies of the year. “They just took the film for what it was,” says Shaw. “I think the British critics were very stuffy about it, to be honest.”
Mike Batt’s score includes tracks such as “Bugger the blasted daffodils”, “Find the editor and kill him” and”The Aspidistra Quickstep”, as well as the more directly named “Sad bit after Gordon is sacked” and “At last Gordon gives Rosemary a really good seeing to”. A year later Batt re-worked his material into The Aspidstra Suite in three movements: Poetry and Torment; Love and Passion and A Bright Future. Both score and suite are available on one album on which Batt conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
[David Ryan is a freelance journalist. He is currently writing a book about Orwell on screen.]
[If you enjoyed this article you might like to read others as it is one of a series sponsored by the Orwell Society to mark the 80th anniversary of George Orwell’s novel Keep The Aspidistra Flying.]