Monday, 13 August 2012

The L-Shaped Room

 
Having searched for many days for accommodation, Jane Fossett (Leslie Caron) arrives in the wrong end of town, and to the residence of landlady Doris (Avis Bunnage).  An "Alien" in London, Jane comes from France and finds herself all alone, and with a dark secret. It's 1962 and single women do not find themselves pregnant out of wedlock, well those that do are hidden away. In Doris' lodging house however in the misery of her predicament she finds herself in a new family, but the dramas are far from over.

The L-Shaped Room is one of the movies I clearly remember from my youth, I remember being at school in the early 1980's and feigning illness to have the afternoon off. Back in the day when the BBC would show classic movies of an afternoon, I found myself watching this highly entertaining but very dark story. The L-Shape Room is described by many as the original kitchen sink drama, a term used to describe fairly mild realistic storylines, that were not far removed from normal everyday life. The L-Shape Room has also been described as being one of the dullest movies of all time. I cannot deny, the movie is pretty grim, but it's very far from being dull. Taking into account the fact that the movie was set and released in 1962, the movie contains a young pregnant woman, a black musician pretty much kept in a box, an aging lesbian, a monstrous landlady, a whorehouse with two very popular prostitutes, and a love story that is by appearance is doomed to fail; hardly the sort of plot devices that come to mind when you describe a movie as dull. For me, to remember a movie so clearly that I watched 25 odd years ago, and to see it again this very day and remembered every single aspect makes this a movie that I'm telling you, you really should see.



One thing did amaze me today when I settled down to watch the movie again, was that it carried a 15 certificate (a strict code applied to the movie by The British Board Of Film Classification); the reason I say it surprises me, was because when I settled down all those years ago on a cold and windy afternoon to watch this movie, we were deep in the centre of a massive censorship row, and at that point in time the movie had been classified suitable for viewing by those aged 15 years and over, yet it sat at 1.30 pm on a weekday afternoon, on British television and in a completely uncensored form. The question from this I guess would be does the movie deserve its certification? The answer is very much no, you'll find more to concern you in episode of Diagnosis Murder, the certification completely confuses me. I won't deny there are some adult references in the movie, but you need to be an adult to see them; while I remembered many of the subjects addressed I cannot say that back in the early 1980's I knew what they meant, what they were driving at, and to be blunt I thought they were referring to something very different.

Shot in black and white the movie gives off a blinding depiction of a very hot summer. It's a curious offering that really shocks you when you watch it; the reason being is that it shows you how far society has moved on in the last 46 years. The reception Jane receives when she tells people she is pregnant is antiquated to say the least, doctors assume the only alternative is that she either has an abortion or that has the child adopted, never once the thought that she might raise the child herself.  But the movie is all about putting people into boxes; when Jane first meets Doris, the landlady nods towards the wall of the room she is about to let to Jane "I like you, I'm not like other landlords I take in everyone even the Nigs!" The room Jane rents is curiously L-Shaped, the reason being is that she has had a box type room made for Johnny, a young black musician played by Brock Peters best known for the movie To Kill A Mockingbird.  Johnny is treated somewhat differently, his room is literally a large wooden box, a sign of the segregation of London during that time. Downstairs is Mavis (Cicely Courtneidge) an aging wartime entertainer who lives a lonely life with her cat, holding a candle to her one time lover, a woman. While in the basement legendary Coronation Street actress Pat Phoenix stars Sonia, her basement flat is a brothel and she is barely given the time to rest, various men visiting all through the night. When Johnny discovers the truth about Jane, realising that she is pregnant he exacts his own stereotypical views; single, young, and pregnant in his mind Jane is nothing more than a whore, and he tells her as much. All these characters are effectively seen, but not heard, almost ignored by normal every day society.



Living one floor below Jane is Toby, played by Tom Bell. Toby forms the romance side of the movie, taking an immediate shine to the new French lodger, but for Toby he is the last one bought in to discover Jane's little secret.

One of the saddest aspects of the movie despite its somewhat sobering storyline is the abundance of lost talent. Pat Phoenix, Brock Peters, Tom Bell, Avis Bunnage, and Cicely Courtneidge have all died, and were all very familiar faces in the movie industry on both sides of the Atlantic. Tom Bell to me, was a particularly sad loss, I remember his passing so clearly because on the day he died, his character in the long running series Prime Suspect also died. Bell had starred in one of my favourite movies Wish You Were Here. But Bell usually portrayed as the villain in everything he starred in during his later career was far from that here, witty, charming, and charismatic.

Back to the movie, and I find myself really loving everything about the movie; the grim nature of the story is sweetened by a little love, some acceptance, and a lot of understanding. The doom and gloom is never far from a little humour. But most of all this storm in a teacup movie, and its 2 hours and 6 minute running time seem to pass in the blink of an eye leaving you desperately wanting to follow the adventures of the characters you have just been given a unique snapshot into the lives of. Of all these classic British movies of the 1960's this is the one you should go out of your way to watch.

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