Spring and Port Wine
To anyone who knows it only from their own knock-kneed, deskbound performance in the schoolroom, Bill Naughton’s drama SPRING AND PORT WINE sticks in the memory as a dry, two-dimensional tale of domestic patriarchy – a ”Peter and Jane” introduction to themes of social deprivation and teen pregnancy.
It is human nature to shun in adulthood the texts that were forced upon us as schoolchildren, and yet anyone who rediscovers the play in celluloid form will agree that James Mason brings far more to the central role than James Gore of 1SF, or the indeed the shouty local amateur theatre troupe. Director Peter Hammond’s take on Bill “ALFIE” Naughton’s screenplay is widely held in great affection by those viewers who lived in the North of England in the late 60s. It is frequently celebrated as an authentic depiction of Northern family life, at that time when the survivors of the Depression grew up and found themselves clashing with the privileged and ungrateful youth of the swinging 60s. However, Naughton’s focus was on the microcosm of the working-class kitchen, not the wider world of the socio-political. The patriarch of the piece preaches respect for the struggles of the forefather, and is dismissed as a nostalgic old ass. In all its incarnations, this classic is treasured as a nostalgic indulgence as much as it is appreciated by English teachers for its depiction of strong family values.
“[...]Perfection is not an aim. An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude.”
The cinematic adaptation of SPRING AND PORT WINE brings gingham and Vim to the kitchen sink, and its grit manifests in moral fortitude, not in grimy dystopia. No angry young men in this Bolton – only cheeky chappies and good-hearted labourers. The story covers a whole weekend, but it’s not Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. SPRING AND PORT WINE adheres to the principles of the Free Cinema: “No film can be too personal. The image speaks. Sound amplifies and comments. Size is irrelevant. Perfection is not an aim. An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude.” This rosy yet plausible family dynamic will bring great satisfaction to anyone who has ever been frustrated by the contrived deceit and impotence of a 20th century soap opera. The British Association for the Advancement of Science found that Boltonians are the friendliest people in Britain, and production designer Reece Pemberton reflects this in the set design – he illustrates the story with a pretty clutter of red brick, jaunty rooves and bright paint.
The interior decoration throws pattern against pattern as though it were deliberately contriving to madden – this was a conceit of production design in Park Chan-Wook’s OLDBOY and in recent seasons of the UK “Big Brother”, used in both cases to unsettle and disorientate those trapped within the walls. Of course the actual reason for such outrageous interior decoration was more due to necessity and the making do with tag ends of wallpaper (although one has to wonder whether the “yellow wallpaper” effect can exacerbate domestic rows). The open country and winding waterways of Lancashire ensconce the newly built council houses and busy streets just as the Crompton parents temper and protect their children’s youthful revolt with enduring love. The film opens on a group of girls who skip to a loom, dancing to its cheerful clatter as they celebrate a weaver’s wedding with wine and cheese. This North is authentic but light hearted, pre-empting the “aren’t common people cute?” appeal of more recent productions such as “Shameless” and THE FULL MONTY.
Mason might have been born in Huddersfield, but he subsequently played Brutus, Rommel, Nemo, Humbert Humbert and a baddy in NORTH BY NORTHWEST.
Theatrical portrayals often exaggerate the male characters of the play as bullies, the women and children as hysterics. The central character of Rafe Crompton is usually interpreted quite simply as fearsome, bigoted, tyrannical. (It’s a safe assumption that Naughton named him after the inventor of the revolutionary spinning mule). In the intimacy of a film set the performances are by necessity more subtle. Although there is great passion, any anger is tempered by much love, laughter and loyalty – and most of all, a great capacity for forgiveness. Mason’s Crompton is an apple cheeked, methodical, old-fashioned father. When his daughter defies his authority for the first time, his response is firm and strict but his eyes show both sorrow for lost law and order, and faith in a loving future. Perhaps the international superstar Mason is bringing too much openness and compassion to the character – in effect flattening the arc of the story. Mason might have been born in Huddersfield, but he subsequently played Brutus, Rommel, Nemo, Humbert Humbert and a baddy in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Is he the egg that spoils the pudding? Crompton usually treads the boards as an old goat who will surely disown his youngest when he finds out why she is off her kippers, and his actual reaction comes as a soft blow – whereas Mason has a twinkle in his eye from the very start.
Rafe Crompton’s understandable tyranny towards the telly has him urging his family to switch off the TV set and do something less boring instead.
If the warmth and candour of the Crompton family does not sit well with an English audience, it is worth bearing in mind that Naughton grew up in 1920s Lancashire as part of a thriving Irish immigrant community, and his experience of Bolton life was one of solidarity and fellow-feeling. No wonder that his fictionalised recreation of the neighbourhood was gentle and colourful, with no trace of what he described in his autobiography as “the cold uncommunicative English stare”. The focal point of the Bible in SPRING AND PORT WINE is of course neither an Irish nor a Catholic reference, and yet it symbolises Naughton’s value of the spiritual enrichment of daily life. Rafe Crompton’s use of the Bible to put his weedy young son Harold on mock-trial in the living room can be seen either as an act of bullying aggression, or as a father trying to make the point that his strength and spiritual leadership of the family should not be undermined by deceit, however trivial.
Pivotal points in the play touch on the hunger strikes and crises of poverty that marked the mid-20s but Naughton concerns himself more with the small world of the family dinner table, and the ramifications for society where 30s deprivation meets 60s depravation. In the spring of 1954 the Bolton media predicted that half the homes in town would soon own a television set, and so they did – and as SPRING AND PORT WINE shows, a television was often a compulsory and crippling albatross for families such as the Cromptons’ impoverished neighbours who live on tripe and gravy, and can barely spare an egg for an unexpected guest. Rafe Crompton’s understandable tyranny towards the telly has him urging his family to switch off the TV set and do something less boring instead.
Peter Hammond’s SPRING AND PORT WINE has a tenderness that might turn you off, and might be seen as a soft and unconvincing Utopia that does not sit well in the hard heart of Bolton. If so… get thee to Coronation Street, you cold fish.
This article originally appeared in issue 29 of Vertigo Magazine.
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