27 February 2009 | JamesHitchcock
Might have worked better as a TV play
I am as keen a birdwatcher as I am a cinema-goer, but the paucity of films about birdwatching means that it is difficult to combine the two hobbies. The film version of Evelyn Waugh's "Decline and Fall" was released as "Decline and Fall of a Birdwatcher", presumably to avoid any confusion with Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", and many years ago, in the far-off days when British television stations still showed obscure foreign films and Estonia was still part of the Soviet Union, I came across a film from that country called "The Birdwatcher". Apart from that, however, there is not much.
"The Hide" is the latest addition to the slender corpus of birdwatching films. It is, ostensibly, set in a hide on a bird reserve on the Suffolk coast (an area I know well), although the exterior scenes were actually shot on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent (an area I know even better and where I often go on my own birdwatching expeditions).
Roy Tunt, a keen birdwatcher, has travelled to the reserve because of reports that a Sociable Plover has been seen in the area. Roy is a "twitcher" a word which needs some explanation. Among laymen, this expression is often simply used as a colloquial equivalent of "birdwatcher", but among the birdwatching fraternity itself a "twitcher" is someone who will travel long distances in order to see rare birds which can then be ticked off a list. Roy is hoping to see the Sociable Plover because, should he succeed, he will then have seen "all 568 birds on the British List".
There are, in fact, currently 583 species on the official British List, and it would not be possible for any individual to see them all, if only because one of those species, the Great Auk, has been extinct since the 1840s. A number of other species have not been seen in Britain for many years, and according to the twitcher's code of ethics one may only tick a bird off the British list if one actually sees it in Britain rather than abroad. For the purposes of the film, however, we have to accept that Roy is only one tick away from completing the list.
Roy is joined in the hide by Dave John, the only other character in the film. The two men are very different. Roy is middle aged, meticulous, seemingly mild-mannered, although he has his eccentricities; he has brought with him a photograph of his wife which he sets up on the bench in front of him. Dave is somewhat younger, scruffily dressed and rough-looking. It is clear that he has no knowledge of, or interest in, birds, which makes us wonder what he is doing wandering on an isolated bird reserve in bad weather. Although he never directly threatens Roy, there is something aggressive about his manner. News comes in on Roy's radio of a police manhunt in the area, and we begin to suspect that Dave may be the man they are looking for.
As the film progresses, however, we begin to learn more about the men as they converse together, and Roy shares his sandwiches and tea. Dave starts to seem more friendly and less threatening, whereas we find that Roy is gradually starting to seem more mysterious and sinister. The woman in the photograph, we learn, is not his wife, but his ex-wife. Could it be Roy who is hiding a guilty secret? The two roles were well played by Alex MacQueen and Phil Campbell, and the dialogue was often sharp, funny and to the point. I would, however, have two criticisms of the film. One would be about the characterisation of Roy. Certainly, birdwatchers are a fairly easy group to make fun of, but Roy bears little resemblance to any birdwatcher I have ever met. With his round face, his thick spectacles, his old-fashioned sleeveless pullover and his grammatical pedantry he seems more like a character from some 1960s satire show, the stereotypical boring, conventional, petit-bourgeois suburbanite who probably lives in a bungalow called "Dunroamin". To complete this picture Roy's hobby, apart from birdwatching, is making a collection of garden gnomes.
My other criticism is that the film is too long. This may seem a strange criticism to make of a film which is already considerably shorter than most recent feature films. It seemed to me, however, that this was a story which would have worked better as a television play of around an hour in length, the sort of thing that the BBC used to do in the days of "Play for Today" in the seventies and eighties. Today, unfortunately, one-off plays have fallen out of favour television executives, who prefer to spend drama budgets on sit-coms, soap operas, costume dramas and long-running serials which eventually become virtually indistinguishable from soaps, so stories like this have to be made as films rather than plays. 6/10