31 March 2018 | DPMay
A universal tale of love
Through their collaborations on TV in the 1960s and 1970s, writer Jack Rosenthal and director Michael Apted had crafted a number of popular and acute studies of human character through plays, sitcoms and even episodes of Coronation Street. Little wonder then that by the 1980s when the new fourth British television channel was being planned, that these two talents should be earmarked for the first project of its film wing.
Rosenthal returns to the landscape of his own youth for this story, a middle-class British school of the 1940s. In simple terms, it is the story of a fourteen-year-old boy, Alan Duckworth, and his two great loves: a very public passion for cricket and a more private, unrequited adoration of one of his female classmates, Ann Lawton. In the transitional stage between childhood and adulthood, he is able to maintain a friendship with the school groundsman, Tommy, and discuss intelligent topics with him, yet is still something of an unruly pupil, larking about with his 'gang' friends at inappropriate moments. It is the club greeting of this gang, an obligatory exchange of the password "P'Tang, Yang, Kipperbang - uhh!" that gives this film its title, one to rank among the most bizarre in the history of cinema along with Laughing Gravy (1930) and The Film That Rises To The Surface Of Clarified Butter (1968).
Duckworth's growing infatuation with Ann seems doomed to progress no further than longing gazes across the classroom until an unexpected turn of events propels him along a course whereupon it seems inevitable that he must declare his feelings to her. However, as this is a course of action he is now being pressured into, he begins to wonder if asking God to bring him this opportunity was such a good idea after all.
But this is a Jack Rosenthal script, so although this tale of adolescence is told in a quite charming way, there is so much more going on in the film and it explores love and sex as driving forces for most of the other characters in the film also, and how it differs for each. Tommy, recently back from serving overseas during the war, is now working the land at the school and has also been 'working' Miss Land, Alan's teacher. Miss Land, rather prim and proper in class, has quite an appetite for men, and when all the young eligible ones were away fighting it is revealed that she took on older men for lovers rather than remain celibate. The boys in Alan's class have reached an age where they want sex but haven't achieved it, and thus even a claim to have groped a girl's chest over her clothes affords a boy some superior status over his peers. But even the girls seem rather obsessed too, having a poll to see which is the most desirable boy in the class. The juxtaposition of these events help to illustrate that Alan is truly motivated more by love than mere lust. And just as they also demonstrate a depth to Alan, the events also show this unexpected depth of Alan's character to Ann Lawton, who had never previously given him a second thought.
There's a top-notch cast at work here, many of them just starting out on what have turned out to be successful screen careers. Watch out for one-time Eurovision entrant Frances Ruffelle as the girl who offers out hugs for all the boys in the class.
The film is not full of action or incident and although it explores some adult themes, it is subtle rather than explicit. As a snapshot of British life just after the war, I am not sure how much this will appeal to audiences of different ages or from different cultures but as its themes are so fundamentally human, the underlying story should surely be appreciated universally. And in its approach to exploring those themes, the film is practically faultless.