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Introduction
Alan Bennett has long been one of Britain’s best and most acclaimed writers. One of life’s great observers, Bennett is a playwright whose work has been adapted by himself, and others, for stage, small screen and the cinema. Few can hope to match his perceptive eye for wry serio-comic observations and ear for ‘true’ dialogue that can be found in any family unit up and down the land; it is just such qualities that leads to this 1984 adaptation of A Private Function.

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Movie
In post-war Britain, you have to pity poor Gilbert (Michael Palin). In 1947, not only does the heinously hen-pecked chap have to deal with his demanding wife Joyce (Maggie Smith) but must also suffer his senile mother-in-law (“she’s 74, you know”), try to get his chiropody business off the ground and contend with the tight constraints of rationing.

With Joyce forever fretting about their lowly social status, Gilbert battles to secure sources of meat over and above the strict rations enforced by the zealous government inspector Wormold (Bill Paterson). In this unnamed northern England town, class (perceived or real) is the key factor and impacts upon every aspect of daily life. In this way, as Gilbert make his rounds to the needy feet of various women, he comes into contact with the affluent accountant Allardyce (Richard Griffiths) and pompous general practitioner Dr. Swaby (Denholm Elliott).

Having been denied an invitation to a very private function to celebrate the forthcoming marriage of Princess Elizabeth to the Greek Prince Philip, by chance Gilbert stumbles across a plot to illegally rear an unlicensed pig to serve at the function banquet. Taking the plunge for the first time in his life, Gilbert steals the pig to silence his wife, only to find that slaughter is not so easy and, having grown attached to the garrulous new guest in his house (despite a quite disgusting stomach complaint), the coterie of society snobs will go to any lengths to ensure the safe return of their meal ticket…

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By any stretch of the imagination, it would definitely be difficult to dislike this film. Bennett’s acutely observed script is a stunner and the stellar cast give it their all in delivering the wonderful one liners with aplomb. Top of the tree is Dame Maggie Smith who, acknowledged by Bennett, bags most of the best lines to augment her staunch desire to survive in social circles. To his credit, Michael Palin does a very good job to hold a candle to his onscreen co-star, who has a relatively enormous amount of experience let’s not forget. Despite his rendition of Gilbert as an extension of Python’s recurring character Arthur Pewtey (glance again at the Ministry Of Silly Walks, Marriage Guidance Counsellor or Postbox Provisions sketches and you’ll see exactly what I mean) Palin makes a wonderful job of the “befuddled embarrassment” that Bennett has stated is the core of the script.

Denholm Elliott and Richard Griffiths are obviously having great fun in their respective roles but Liz Smith almost steals the show as the doddering old in-law with a turn that she’s effectively reprised wholesale in The Royle Family.

With all the star names on show there are a great deal of British actors who went on to make it big on the back of their performances here and, while there are too many to mention, Pete Postlethwaite, Bill Paterson, Rachel Davies, and Alison Steadman should share some of the plaudits. Malcolm Mowbray’s direction is unobtrusive and he even squeezes in the odd Monty Python reference (the giant foot for Gilbert’s store being the most obvious) with a sparse score that adds just enough to the onscreen events for an altogether magical movie experience.

Video
Anamorphically enhanced at a ratio of 1.85:1, this is a pleasantly warm transfer. With no vivid colours during the movie, presumably to accentuate the film’s central theme of post-war austerity but also betraying the low budget nature of the movie, there’s a palette of sludgy browns and greens with which to contend and the disc copes with this admirably. It’s not the sharpest transfer but contrast levels are fine with deep blacks and good shadow delineation in the suspenseful final third which takes place entirely at night.

During the opening titles there is a significant amount of print damage and scratches, very obvious against the off-white of the 1940’s style title cards, although this seems to clear up completely once this 45 second sequence ends and the film proper commences. Overall it’s another commendable effort from the Anchor Bay restoration team.

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Audio
Thankfully continuing their recent trend of top-notch audio presentation for older or more obscure titles (further examples can be found in the Stunt Man or Alligator 1 and 2 reviews here on this very site), Anchor Bay have provided a DTS track. Driven by dialogue with little incidental music as the movie is, such high performance audio is welcome but not strictly necessary as there are so few directional effects to occupy the surrounds.

That said, the period during which the pig endures a stomach upset is downright hilarious. A fart gag is a fart gag but experiencing uncontrollable porcine flatulence from the four corners of the room just makes it even more funny.

A substitute Dolby Digital 5.1 track is also here and, due to the reasons stated above, also seems a little over the top for the material. As far as I could tell, both surround tracks were exactly the same so if your home cinema system is not DTS capable, don’t worry as you’re not missing anything with the 5.1 track. Indeed, both tracks feature dialogue which is high in the mix and crystal clear from the central speaker.

An additional dedicated two channel stereo track also makes it onto the disc and, while the dialogue is a little less distinct by being spread across the two front speakers, it’s perfectly acceptable.

Extras
A group Audio Commentary is the main feature in the extras section and includes contributions from writer Alan Bennett, director Malcolm Mowbray, actor Michael Palin, moderated by critic Mark Kermode.

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Once again, Anchor Bay should be applauded for persuading the spectacularly shy Bennett into such an endeavour and he holds up well, offering insights into his peculiar working practices, the genesis of certain characters, as well as the influence of his mother in the many maternal figures in the film. Also, Palin is ideally placed to explain the difficulties in funding before the participation of George Harrison’s Handmade Films, for which Palin was partly responsible after the former Beatle bailed out the Python team on Life Of Brian.

There’s plenty to ignite the interest of even the most casual viewer although the enthusiastic trio aren’t the most comfortable commentators with Kermode prompting them at key points where it becomes obvious that a certain amount of commentary editing has taken place (the disc’s easter egg is a prime example). Kermode has clearly done his homework on the movie, despite certain amusing myths being dispelled, and mercifully manages to avoid mentioning The Exorcist for all 90 minutes of the commentary.

An Original Trailer is the only other extra available and it’s a sweet natured little piece, effectively establishing the milieu and Gilbert’s meek nature. Most of the movie’s big laughs make it into the trailer, as you might expect, but other than that it’s remarkable in giving a very good flavour of what A Private Function is really like.

All the extras and audio options are accessible by a series of static menus; not the most exciting introduction to a DVD you’ll ever see but they do the job simply and effectively.

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Overall
For those who like their comedies rich in characterisation, dialogue and an authentic arena, you can’t go wrong with this release of A Private Function. Anchor Bay have once again illustrated their commitment, visually and sonically, to the most underrated of releases and as it’s much more layered than the usual Friday night comedic fare, I’d implore you to splash out on this disc and make its’ viewing as public an event as you can!


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