A Foreign Field – Simply Media DVD Review

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Cyril (Leo McKern) and Amos (Alec Guinness) are two British D-Day veterans who have returned to Normandy fifty years on in order to pay tribute to their fallen comrades. Whilst in the area, Cyril is determined to track down the alluring Angelique (Jeanne Moreau) who helped to keep the morale of the troops up during their stay back in 1944. The only problem is that he’s got competition – an abrasive American veteran, Waldo (John Randolph), has arrived on the same mission.

Roy Clarke might be best known for writing several comedy juggernauts (such as Last of the Summer Wine and Open/Still Open All Hours) but there are many less well known nuggets buried within his cv such as this Screen One, originally broadcast in September 1993. The ninety minute screenplay wastes no time in setting up the basics of the story – before we’ve reached the fifth minute we already understand that Amos is a shell of a man (possessing the mind of a child and a very limited vocabulary) with Cyril cast in the role of his exasperated carer. Meanwhile, Waldo is depicted as a short-tempered Limey-hating Yank ….

Amos is a gift of a role and Guinness milks it for all that it’s worth. With more than a touch of Stan Laurel, Amos breezes through the story with an air of benign innocence. As we proceed there are hints of hidden depths though – his skill with the mouth organ, say – whilst various mysteries (such as why he brought an empty jam jar all the way from Britain) are answered.

If Guinness’ screen presence is one reason why A Foreign Field is so compelling, then Leo McKern’s wonderfully judged performance as Cyril is another. Best known, of course, for Rumpole of the Bailey, there’s something of a Horace Rumpole feel about Cyril. They both might be abrasive on the surface but they contain hidden depths when you dig a little deeper. McKern was always a favourite actor of mine and this role – one of his final screen credits – only served to cement my respect for him. Cyril’s late monologue (where he explains to the others exactly why he’s so protective of Amos) is simply spine-tingling.

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John Randolph has a slightly less well defined role. Waldo and Cyril might both be grumpy, but there’s no doubt that we’re meant to side with Cyril and find Waldo to be somewhat insufferable. The introduction of Angelique strikes the only off-key note in the story – it’s barely credible that Cyril and Waldo would be so shocked to discover that fifty years on she’s not exactly the same beautiful young girl she once was (and their desperate attempts to get out of the date they’d both arranged with her leaves a slightly bitter taste). Luckily this only lasts a fleeting moment and soon Angelique joins their ever-growing party.

Along with Guinness, McKern and Jeanne Moreau, Lauren Bacall is another incredibly strong addition to the cast. Forever linked to Humphrey Bogart – both on screen and by marriage – there’s no doubt that her casting was something of a coup. Her character, Lisa, has one of the most intriguing roles to play. Like the others she’s come to pay her respects to a fallen war hero (in her case, her husband) but there’s a late twist which you may or may not have seen coming. This is resolved in a beautifully understated way which fits perfectly with the rest of the story.

If Cyril and Amos exist without family ties (except the bond between them) then Waldo is luckier on this score (or unlucky, depending on how you view things). He’s arrived in France with his strident daughter, Beverley (Geraldine Chaplin), and her put-upon husband Ralph (Edward Herrmann). They enjoy a decent share of the narrative and both end the story in different places from where they started – Beverley is more relaxed (thanks to the influence of Lisa and Angelique) whilst Ralph emerges as a more assertive type. As with the others, Roy Clarke is skilful at drawing out various nuances and character moments.

Whilst A Foreign Field is a sentimental piece, it never feels mawkish or false. Roy Clarke’s screenplay, and the efforts of the cast, combine to produce something quite special. I’ve come back to it on numerous occasions down the years and I’m sure that I’ll continue to do so in the future. If you’ve never seen it, then I would very strongly recommend picking up a copy.

Originally released in the UK on DVD by Acorn, it’s now been brought back into print by Simply. Picture quality (4:3 full frame) looks fine with no significant issues (subtitles are included).

A Foreign Field is released by Simply Media today, RRP £14.99, and can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC 1979). Episode Seven

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So after seven episodes, the identity of the mole is revealed.  It’s interesting that they didn’t pad it out for longer, instead the reveal happens at the ten minute mark.  Peter Guillam displays understandable anger at the lives lost. “You butchered my agents… How many since? How many? Two hundred?… Three?… FOUR?”  Smiley remains calm, although in his own undemonstrative way he does display the odd spasm of anger later on.

So Gerald the mole was Bill Haydon.  Smiley contacts Lacon, Alleline, Bland and Esterhase and plays them the incriminating recording which proves Haydon’s guilt.

Esterhase: Well, that’s that. Congratulations, George.
Lacon: Next step, gentlemen?
Smiley: Would you agree with me, Percy, that our best course of action is to make some positive use of Bill Haydon? We need to salvage what’s left of the networks he’s betrayed.
Alleline: [weakly] Yes…
Smiley: We sell Haydon to Moscow Centre for as many of our men in the field as can be saved – for humanitarian reasons. Professionally, of course, they’re finished.
Alleline: Quite.
Smiley: Then the sooner you open negotiations with Karla, the better. Well, you’re much better placed to talk terms than I am. Polyakov remains your direct link with Karla.
Lacon: The only difference is, this time you know it! It’s definitely your job, Percy. You’re still Chief, officially… for the moment.
Percy Alleline: Very well, George.

It’s a moment of triumph for Smiley, but there’s no overt display of emotion or triumphalism.  Indeed, as we’ll see, it’ll turn out to be something of a pyrrhic victory.  Although as the above dialogue extract indicates, he must have displayed some pleasure in Alleline’s discomfiture, who is clearly on borrowed time as Chief.

Before Haydon is sent back to Moscow, the interrogators are keen to extract every piece of information they can.  The next time we see him, his face is covered in bruises, there’s blood on his shirt and he’s walking unsteadily – a clear sign of how he’s been “encouraged”.

It’s felt that he may open up more to Smiley, and in a way he does.  This enables Guinness to take up his usual role as the largely unspeaking observer – but it’s nevertheless quite easy to understand exactly what he thinks and feels just by the expressions on his face.  Ian Richardson takes centre-stage in these scenes as he explains why he became a Russian agent.

Haydon: What do you want to know?
Smiley: Oh… why? How? When?
Haydon: Why? You ask that? Because it was NECESSARY, that’s why! Someone had to! We were bluffed, George. You, me, even Control. Those Circus talent spotters, all those years ago. They plucked us when we were golden with hope, told us we were on our way to the Holy Grail… freedom’s protectors! My God! What a question… “why?”

Smiley learns that when Haydon had the affair with Ann, it was on Karla’s orders. He also keen to know about whether Haydon expected Jim Prideaux to be sent on the abortive Czechoslovakia operation. As the friendship between Haydon and Prideaux has been stressed several times, there’s an undeniable sense of emotion as he replies to Smiley’s questioning.

Smiley: Did you expect Control to send Jim Prideaux?
Haydon: Well… obviously we needed to be certain Control would rise to the bait. We had to send in a big gun to make the story stick, and we knew he’d only settle for someone outside London Station, someone he trusted.
Smiley: And someone who spoke Czech, of course.
Haydon: Naturally. It had to be a man who was old Circus, to bring the temple down a bit.
Smiley: Yes, I see the logic of it. It was, perhaps, the most famous partnership the Circus ever had: you and him, back in the old days. The iron fist, and the iron glove. Who was it coined that?
Haydon: I got him home, didn’t I?
Smiley: Yes. That was good of you.

The clearest sign that Haydon has got under Smiley’s skin is demonstrated by the angry way Smiley opens the door after he’s finished his questioning.  A small moment, like many of Smiley’s brief displays of anger, but it’s quite telling.

Haydon never made it back to Moscow, he was murdered before the exchange could be made.  The novel implies (but doesn’t overly state) that Jim Prideaux killed him, the television adaptation is a little clearer on this point.

This leaves a final scene, which effectively acts as a coda, in which Smiley and Ann discuss her latest (completed) affair as well as Bill Haydon.  She tells Smiley that she never loved Bill, and her final words “Poor George. Life’s such a puzzle to you, isn’t it?” is a bittersweet ending to an exceptional drama serial.

Charles Sturridge discusses directing Lauren Bacall in A Foreign Field

Lauren Bacall (1924-2014)
Lauren Bacall (1924-2014)

Amongst the numerous tributes paid over the past week to screen legend Lauren Bacall was this one in the Guardian, written by Charles Sturridge who directed Bacall in the 1994 BBC Screen One production A Foreign Field.

Having recently watched and blogged about this drama here, it was a very interesting read.

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/aug/13/lauren-bacall-handbagged

Their name liveth for evermore – A Foreign Field (BBC Screen One – 1993)

Roy Clarke's A Foreign Field
Roy Clarke’s A Foreign Field

The recent centenary commemorations of the start of WW1 has inspired me to pull this Screen One production from September 1993 down from the shelf for a rewatch as although it’s concerned with the events of WW2, the themes of sacrifice and comradeship are universal and timeless.

Cyril (Leo McKern) and Amos (Alec Guinness) are two D-Day veterans who have returned to Normandy to visit the graves of their fallen comrades. Both of them have been scarred by those fateful days in 1944 – particularly Amos, who is virtually mute and seems to have the mind of a child.

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Alec Guinness and Leo McKern

Cyril has another reason for the trip, as he is looking to track down his wartime sweetheart Angelique (Jeanne Moreau). The fact he hasn’t seen her for nearly fifty years doesn’t discourage him, nor does the fact that he has a rival for her affection – Waldo (John Randolph), an American veteran visiting the area with his son (Edward Herrmann) and daughter-in-law Beverly (Geraldine Chaplin).

John Randolph
John Randolph

After fighting for Angelique’s affections, Cyril and Waldo decide to join forces as they both treat her to a day out and then together with the mysterious Lisa (Lauren Bacall) the mismatched party eventually find their way to the graves to remember those they have lost.

A Screen One production from 1993, A Foreign Field was written by Roy Clarke. Although he has a varied CV, the record-breaking Last of the Summer Wine is undoubtedly the series he is best remembered for. That series’ longevity and the critical mauling and polite indifference that the later runs generated have tended to mask that Clarke is a very talented writer with a keen ear for dialogue. This is a hallmark of A Foreign Field, particularly as Cyril and Waldo give full vent to their simmering Anglo-American resentment.

Lauren Bacall and Jeanne Moreau
Lauren Bacall and Jeanne Moreau

As good as Clarke’s teleplay is, it clearly doesn’t hurt that the likes of McKern, Guinness, Randolph, Moreau and Bacall are cast members. Frankly, this is a dream lineup, with particularly fine performances from Guinness and McKern. Alec Guinness has probably the showiest part – lacking virtually any dialogue he is able to insert various bits of business in order to steal any scene that takes his fancy. The eye is automatically focused on him because, well, he’s Alec Guinness, but he still manages to instil a sense of dignity into the character of Amos.

Best of all is Leo McKern. Well known for his long run in Rumpole of the Bailey, McKern here is able to produce a moment of subtlety and pathos that is heart stopping. Outwardly bluff, his mask slips when discussing the beachhead landings in a wonderful monologue.

The conclusion, with the mystery of Lisa’s pilgrimage solved, brings the story to a satisfactory conclusion and the point made, whilst subtle, is clearly understood. Available on DVD from Acorn, this is a fine production that could have so easily tipped over into mawkish sentimentally. The fact it doesn’t is a tribute both to the writing and the acting choices of the principal cast. A production that is well worth tracking down and treasuring.