Thirty-five years on, Ian McNeice — possibly best known now for his turns as a bigger-than-the-original Churchill on Doctor Who and the bloated Baron Harkonnen in the TV miniseries version of Dune – must look back and wonder why he was cast as a character called ‘Fats’ in a film made when he was skeletal compared to the plus-size balloon character actor star he became. And Christopher Monger might wonder how he got from being the near-underground auteur of something as odd and committed as this to directing the dire Britcom Just Like a Woman, the Hugh Grant midlist title The Englishman Who blah blah (also with McNeice) and episodes of the US sitcom That’s Life. In 1983, writer-director Monger seemed to have more in common with Steven Dwoskin, Chris Petit and Peter Greenaway – though, at a pinch, this collapse-of-a-psyche picture could be seen as the British version of The Driller Killer.
Fats Bannerman (McNeice), a divorced slob, lives in a squat-like warehouse but has a rising celebrity as the creator of Thus Engaged, an Austen knock-off soap on an indie radio station which consists (as in King of Marvin Gardens) of him reading his script with an effects track provided by the loyal FX (John Cassady). His marginal comfort is shattered by two encounters with aggressive women – a journalist (Sarah Martin) who aggressively shreds his sense of worth by saying he only has a camp following and dismissing the series as imitative, and a couple of New Wave birds (Bish Nethercote, Carol Owen) who invite him back to their flat while he’s drunk and ramble on sending up his work while crawling over him before turning vicious and abusive when he responds. Drinking more, and putting on dark glasses, he changes the tone of Thus Engaged, making its heroine a vampire and hero a vampire-hunter in what sounds much like a radio take on Dark Shadows. This earns more audiences, an award from ‘The Horror Society’ and the disapproval of FX and station management – suggesting that Monger doesn’t value the gothic much, even as his film mutates (he might say descends) into creepier areas. Fats finds a stabbed girl (Nethercote, in perhaps another role – she also plays Elizabeth of Thus Engaged in fantasy flashes) and brings her home to look after while she’s comatose, though it’s ambiguous as to whether he stabbed her. He changes her like a baby and accepts from her grunt that her name is ‘Bitch’ and they enter into a symbiotic relationship even as his mind and work cracks – at a new radio station (more luxurious offices and studios), his show goes from horror to confrontational art as his childhood stutter returns and he starts fracturing his voice via tape-edits to deliver aural soundscapes which presumably alienate his audience. He winds up in an abandoned office building, stabbing Bitch to death and falling apart as the camera pulls back from the murder.
The world is credible and yet unusual: the tiny, makeshift studio full of people is like places I’ve worked. There’s an early instance of how art comes from experience as a brush with a lout on the tube playing loud music is translated in Thus Engaged into an incident where Elizabeth doesn’t enjoy a coach trip because someone wants to sing bawdy songs – though Fats doesn’t come back at an interviewer who accuses him of wallowing in nostalgia and escapist fantasy with anything like a defence of historical romance (or, later, horror) as valid forms (again, a certain prissiness from Monger meshes with his main character’s woolliness). McNeice remains a compelling player with a wide range of interesting credits and a penchant for the macabre, and seizes the rare opportunity to dominate a film – Fats is a shabby, stained, wavering character, losing everything and going into very dark places, but the performance makes him compelling and there’s a sense that the main character’s worldview (a post-divorce misogyny) seeps throughout the film so that all the supporting players merely reflect what Fats feels and expects of them (the initially sweet, then harpy-like women – with his ideal being a meat doll who is baby and dependent and victim but never lover).
Made in Cardiff – with a lot of support from the Chapter Arts Centre – it seems not to be set there. It’s one of those one-off films: aside from McNeice (latterly Baron Harkonnen on the TV Dune and Winston Churchill on Doctor Who), none of the actors are familiar faces and quite a few only have this credit. Voice Over came out the year I was first seeing and reviewing most new releases, but I missed it: I wish I’d seen it then: I might well have highlighted it in Nightmare Movies – and I’d certainly have paid more attention to Monger’s later, downfall credits. It’s out on a BluRay/DVD combo from the Flipside – though not stressed as such, the release is a double bill, including Monger’s 1979 feature Repeater.
I’m migrating a bunch of these reviews from Facebook’s Notes section. I’ll include comments left, if any: this, from CJ Lines ‘Good review. I watched this one and Repeater myself a couple of weekends ago. Absolutely loved Voice Over – a real lost gem and your Greenaway comparison is bang-on (early Greenaway, at least). Repeater suffered a little from being pretty much a student film, but still has some interesting ideas. It is baffling where Monger’s career eventually took him.’