A big, serious, detailed film about British politics – scripted by Nicholas Phipps and Mordecai Richler, from a novel by Wilfred Fienburgh – this must have been revelatory and shocking on its release … but, like a lot of inside politics movies, it balances insightful and convincing accounts of the workings of parliamentary democracy (and the Labour Party) with just-plain-wrong guesses about the way things were going at the time and a crucial mistrust of the audience and the subject matter which means that every time a phone rings the viewer hopes it’ll be more political chicanery rather than further developments in the protagonist’s miserable love life and three-quarters of the time they’re disappointed to be dropped back in a sub-plot that has metastatised to ruin the film. It almost calculatedly does things that would not have been acceptable in a comparable Hollywood film like Advise and Consent or The Best Man – a visit to a strip club where middle-aged men ogle a dancer’s pasties, use of trigger words (‘queer’, ‘bitch’, ’bastard’, even ‘lavatories’), and fictional politicians who own up not only to which party they’re in but which wing of which party (American political films, from Mr Smith Goes to Washington on, are very coy about the exact party affiliations of made-up politicians).
Suspended somewhere between Hamer Radshaw from Fame is the Spur and Nigel Barton from Dennis Potter’s TV plays, Johnnie Byrne (Peter Finch) is a left-leaning Labour MP who has eradicated his Yorkshire accent while rising from the ranks during the War and aligns with a cabal – headed by the Cassius-like Roger Renfrew (Donald Pleasence) – undermining a middle-of-the-road Labour Prime Minster (Geoffrey Keen), but only because he’s been left out of the newly-formed government. The shenanigans around a possible military intervention in the Middle East and a crucial parliamentary question Johnnie doesn’t ask because he’s in bed with his girlfriend at the time are intriguing, but his actual affair – which includes rowing on the Thames and a lot of irritation that much younger model Pauline (Mary Peach) can’t remember the war – drops dull, puddingy spots throughout the movie and Finch’s middle-aged self-pity, a sketch of the type he’d return to in Sunday Bloody Sunday and even Network, is as enervating to us as to Pauline. Just after the election, Johnnie’s chilly wife Alice (Rosalie Crutchley) walks out on him … which leads him to that strip club and an abortive encounter with a prostitute, then a prolonged flirtation with smitten upstairs neighbour Mary (Billie Whitelaw) that has a horribly convincing outcome, when she pushes away his drunken advances and he instantly turns hostile. Mary takes Johnnie to a boho party – hosted by Fenella Fielding, where Oliver Reed cameos as ‘Man with a Bucket on his Head’ – and meets Pauline, with whom he becomes tiresomely obsessed. In her own sub-plot, Mary Peach at least gets to exchange waspish dialogue with a coded-as-gay photographer played by Dennis Price … in scenes with Finch, she’s just stuck with being wide-eyed and fed-up.
Director Ralph Thomas, trying to get away from his light comedy streak (the Doctor films), just wasn’t cynical enough to draw out the House of Cards-type bitter satire of the thrust of the film … at the end, Johnnie learns it wasn’t his politics that kept him out of government but his communist-affiliated wife’s and now they’re splitsville he can get ahead, which prompts him to scotch a reconciliation that might be his only chance for personal happiness in order to get that prize political plum, the job of Assistant Postmaster-General. Along the way, Johnnie has to go North to the constituency he seldom visits in order to face a vote of no confidence from his local Labour party, who are depicted as a crowd of whiners, stirrers and cranks he can barely be civil to (including Gladys Henson, Avis Bunnage and George Rose). And there are great thumbnail sketches from a cast of terrific character actors as political types whose roles out to have been expanded – Mervyn Johns as an ageing radical firebrand, Hugh Burden as a connving creep, Peter Barkworth as a not-yet-cynical new bug, Peter Sallis as a long-time boot-licker, Stanley Holloway as a genial fixer. Also with … Conrad Phillips, Michael Goodliffe, Paul Rogers, Derek Francis, William Mervyn, Norman Rossington, Mark Dignam, Jack Gwillim, Mona Washbourne and some great grey widescreen actuality footage of the Palace of Westmister and the old Euston Station.