‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’
More than ever, we need more films named after sandwiches. And more seriously, we need more films conceived and executed like Richard Eyre’s 1983 drama, a film which regularly comes up in conversation about the kind of film that simply doesn’t get made anymore. There will always be teen movies, horror movies, rom-coms, comic-books, sci-fi, but the modern drama, the film that addresses the world we live in now, is simply a lost art. The Ploughman’s Lunch was a cause celebre at the time, and popping up on Film 4’s player in the UK provides a chance to see why.
Breaking what was then an established three year window between cinema screenings and television premieres, The Ploughman’s Lunch appeared on Channel 4 months after a successful cinema release and much critical praise. The first film written by popular British novelist Ian McEwan, the film is set largely in a BBC newsroom during and after the Falkland War crisis that happened the previous year. Jonathan Pryce plays James Penfield, a man with a feel for the nuances of news; his function, taking reports from PA and translating them into BBC speak, is a slightly more reputable version of the streamlining/dumbing down of news that gathered pace over the millennium.
Penfield is upwardly mobile; he develops a crush on Susan Barrington (Charlie Dore), an eminent historian who he hopes to impress with his well developed plans for a book about the Suez crisis. Mutual friend Jeremy Hancock (Tim Curry) pins down Penfield’s motivations as carnal, and suggests he’s only interested in her ‘Suez canal’, but Penfield seeks higher ground, and develops an intellectually fruitful friendship with Susan’s esteemed mother Ann (Rosemary Harris) with disastrous results.
What’s going on here? With surgical precision, McEwan and Eyre rip the moral vacuity of the young urban professional of the early 80’s, or yuppies as they were known. Penfield is a highly intelligent man, knowledgeable about Sir Anthony Eden’s amphetamine addiction, yet his desire for status and recognition dooms him to spiritual bankruptcy. Illegally filmed scenes show the central three characters attending the Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1982, rubbing shoulders with John Major, Francis Pym and Margaret Thatcher. That Penfield is engaged in his own personal betrayals as she speaks makes this an explosive political film.
The Kundera quote at the top of this post spells out why this film has gained in relevance over the years; a film that deals explicitly with the national memory and the agreed definition of reality is crucial in the way of the internal terrorism against the American government seen this year. But McEwan’s script is also rich in literary meaning; a play on the word ‘allies’ is exemplary in the use of casual language to capture substantial ideas, while trips to Barbican art exhibitions and poetry readings capture the febrile atmosphere of the time. Today there is seemingly no will from studios or film-makers to rock the boat, change the world, or make films that deal with what’s happening. The platforms, the mechanism of distribution, are all in place, and it’s never been cheaper to make quality images. But although several million Brits saw The Ploughman’s Lunch on the first TV screening alone, the UK film industry now depends on government subsidies, its development permanently arrested in the long-distant past, uninterested in anything but following party lines.