“I might kill myself today. No, I’ll go shoplifting instead… then I’ll kill myself. Are you listening to me? Does this cry from the heart meaning nothing to you? I am bored. I am frustratingly bored. I want to pull life through the letterbox. I want someone to meet me from a train. I want to go running across a field, barefooted and knickerless, treading on buttercups. I want to be raped”.
The past is a foreign country: they laugh at different things there. That speech comes from the second episode of the 1978 BBC sitcom Butterflies, written by Carla Lane. Eight years earlier, another bored housewife, played by Christine Hargreaves in Dennis Potter’s Play for Today: Angels Are So Few, taunted her husband with:
“I love my life. I simply adore it. I love every second, every sweet, sodding second of it. Every drum of washing-up liquid of it. Every unmade bed of it. Every children’s sock of it. Every boiled egg of it, every “mummy” of it, every milk bottle, laundry basket, carpet sweeper, food mixer and every milkman and laundry man and baker and candlestick maker… I tell you, if the milkman didn’t have dirty teeth… if the milkman didn’t have dirty teeth and a wart on the side of his nose I’d let him screw me rigid”.
These are just two of countless incarnations of what in the Seventies became a stock figure in comedy, drama and pornography: the bored housewife, dreaming of a knock on the door to wake her from sleepwalking through her suburban life, the housewife who had just missed out on enjoying the Sixties, imprisoned in an automated kitchen, robotically serving an embittered, ulcerous husband while watching, on her television set or through the bars of her Venetian blinds, the liberated generation that had succeeded her, in charge of their own destinies.
I was a child of the Seventies suburbs, a time and place that has been stereotyped in popular culture ever since as a place of petty social pretension, twee ornamentation, naff aspiration and wife-swapping. Graham Greene had seen the new style of homes growing beside the green belts as representing “something worse than the meanness of poverty – the meanness of spirit”. In the suburbs, window shutters, crazy paving, birdbaths and front lawns guarded by garden gnomes are weapons of oneupmanship but also expressions of a quintessentially English brand of existentialism, a striving for individuality in a maze of anonymity,
I’ve always found the fantasy figure of the bored housewife an eerily tragic one, because of two disparate incidents that my childhood mind eccentrically stitched together. When I was a boy, my mum and I often had tea in the restaurant of the local British Home Stores when we were out shopping. On one occasion though, as we were walking into the restaurant area, which was adjacent to the lighting section, I heard a commotion and saw a woman in a trench coat collapse into tears as the store detective apprehended her for shoplifting. I’d never seen a grown-up in such a helpless state before. I kept wondering why she was stealing when she appeared quite prosperous. The same season as this happened, Donna Summer’s doomy disco version of MacArthur Park was in the charts, and while its wobbly metaphor of a cake being left out in the rain representing a relationship in ruins was lost on me at the time, the chorus of “I don’t think that I can take it, ’cause it took so long to bake it” sounded to my wandering young mind like the banshee cry of a housewife, tortured by spending her life in her least favourite room of the house, the kitchen, like Ria Parkinson in Butterflies, but in her reaction to it, closer to the edge psychologically, like the woman in British Home Stores, who, like those bored housewives in sitcoms and dramas, I was sure was somebody’s wife and somebody’s mother too.
Perhaps those bizarre associations were what attracted me to Victims.
The less orderly television schedules of my childhood threw up all sorts of curiosities, and in June 1984, I spotted it in the TVTimes, tucked up in a late-night slot. Starring one of my favourite conveyors of middle-class ennui, Angela Morant, the film has hovered ghost-like in my memory ever since.
Victims can be seen here. Watching it again today, I find it has lost none of its eerie thwack, though it has also gained additional value as a well-placed window onto a simpler world, a world that was seemingly less complicated and less confusing, but disturbingly so. A world where husbands went to work, wives went to the supermarket and life went missing along the way, where gender roles were rigidly defined and people turned into their parents as soon as they became parents themselves. This is a packaged, contained, ordered world waiting for an inevitable explosion into madness and violence, our heroine wearing a haunted, tragic and increasingly fragile beauty as she drifts drearily through it, wandering down the High Street like an alien, bewildered by all she sees and how little she feels. Barely a word is spoken as the banality and bane of everyday life is allowed to speak for itself, telling in microscopic, clinical detail the mental collapse of a woman driven to distraction by boredom, lust and shame. After watching it again, I contacted the film’s director, Alan Blake, who told me:
“I had the idea for this film in the winter of 1978. At the time I was a young tv commercials director at Jennie & Co, one of London’s top production companies. My partners in that outfit were the film directors, Terry Bedford and the now famous Adrian Lyne, along with our managing director and producer of Victims, Gower Frost. I was known for a narrative comedy style of work which included award-winning ads for things such as Hamlet cigars and Cadbury’s Fingers (some of the many classic ads directed by Alan, as well as some of his recent work, can be viewed here).
“Like many of the ‘up and comings’ in our business, I wanted to graduate from shooting adverts to making ‘serious’ films. I just needed an idea…
“As a director of TV ads, much of my time was spent in the glorification of materialism but I was personally not convinced that western society had got it right. As I looked around at people’s and maybe my own ‘struggle for the legal tender’, as Jackson Brown put it, I couldn’t help feeling that life wasn’t supposed to be like this. The pressure on ordinary people to ‘succeed and do well’, wear the right clothes, drive the right car, keep up with the Joneses, to control other people or to be controlled, to conform, I thought that all this was contributing to a suburban wasteland, where many people were either drifting into a robotic state or madness was simmering just below the surface.
“One evening I overheard a conversation in ‘The Builder’s Arms’, my local pub in the North London suburb of Barnet. A couple of the regulars were ribbing a young guy who’d just got a job as a milkman. They were suggesting that this fella’s sex life would now take a turn for the better, ‘what wiv all them bored housewives an’ all’. This was followed by bawdy ‘real-life’ anecdotes in support of their theory. It was the typical male chauvinist banter of the day, immortalized by comedians like Benny Hill and in films such as the Carry On series, but it set me to wondering about the kernel of truth that might have prompted exaggerated stories such as this.
“It seemed to me that if a ‘housewife’ were to be tempted into a relationship with the man delivering her Gold Top, it could well be in response to overwhelming loneliness and distress. I decided to turn the bawdy cliché on its head.
“I wanted my film to convey these feelings in a way that perhaps might cause the audience to ask themselves questions about their own environments, but I didn’t want to preach and I needed to keep people interested and in their seats. So I wrote Victims as a pseudo-thriller. In my mind our ‘bored housewife’ is on the brink of a mental breakdown; she’s eventually brought to her snapping point not just by
the mind numbing, semi-detached, suburban area she inhabits nor by her tedious daily routine, not even by her male chauvinist husband. It’s her shame that broke her. The shame she feels because for one brief moment, in reaction to her extreme loneliness, she had allowed herself to fantasize about a liaison with the handsome young milkman. And perhaps the shame she feels for sacrificing her individuality to the conformity that is everyday British suburban life?”
His script completed, Blake then gathered together funding and crew for his drama debut. “I don’t remember the production budget but it was definitely a lot less per minute of screen time than a TV commercial, though probably much more than the average first-timer could have hoped for. Shooting commenced on May 29th, 1979 at Lee International Studios, Wembley, where we filmed the interior scenes of our couple’s house; the following week we were on location in the towns of Chalfont St. Peter and Chalfont St. Giles in Buckinghamshire. The exterior shots of the family’s house were photographed in the village of Arkley, Hertfordshire”.
Arresting piano arpeggios begin the film and establish the family home in a smart suburban close. Hubby (Warren Clarke) leaves for work, leaving a detritus of breakfast things behind him for his wife to deal with. Their son goes off to school. Sarah (never named on screen) closes the gates behind him, shutting herself away for another day. It’s not quite dark enough for a light as she sits in the gloom, flicking blindly through magazines, searching pessimistically for something to engage her. She’s still not dressed. Then the milkman cometh.
It’s the closest she gets to a smile. And then she stabs him to death.
“To the audience,this was supposed to look like a real murder, and I hoped to hook them with: ‘Why’d she do it?’ and ‘Will she get caught?’ narrative questions”.
The milk bottles have smashed, and Sarah’s pink dressing gown goes into the washing machine. Through the opaque glass of the front door we see a distorted, smirchy view of her pulling his body away from the hall to a place of concealment. As she brings him into the kitchen she knocks into the table and we cut to a scene of her accidentally knocking a glass of orange juice all over Hubby’s trousers at breakfast.
It’s the first dialogue we’ve heard as she tries to reassure him it’s “not that bad” and he responds in ugliness with “oh I see. So now I’m supposed to turn up for work looking as though I’ve pissed myself”, their fragile-looking child sitting between them, watching timidly.
We cut again as Sarah returns to the kitchen from the back garden and takes a dustpan and brush to the smashed cup she dropped when the milkman knocked at the door.
Blake frequently places Sarah within the frame as a lone figure; inside her home she might be at the far end of a corridor or with dark shadows clouding around her, realized vividly by cameraman John Crawford. In open spaces, she is often faraway and passive, as the character drifts further and further from reality. Blake says: “John and I decided that the look of the film was to be a combination of bleakness, combined, when appropriate, with moody, ominous lighting; with lensing and camera work that would be interesting enough to engage our audience and aid the ‘suspense’ inherent in the narrative. This film was not going to look like a commercial! On a technical note I should mention that this film was shot for cinema. Its ‘edge of darkness’ exposure range often tested boundaries that tv just couldn’t handle. This wasn’t helped by some poor film-to-tape transfers made when the movie was put out on the small screen. Only those people who saw it in the cinema got to see the best of John Crawford’s work.
“Of course, many other people contributed to the look of the film. Evan Hercules designed sets that captured the ‘aspirational’ but dull, middle class feel of our protagonist’s home. I recall that on one occasion, Evan got a bit of stick from the camera department for designing sets that were more suited to the TV aspect ratio than for the widescreen format we were shooting; Evan protested that his design was deliberate and would help give a claustrophobic feel. He was right”.
In the supermarket (populated entirely by women), Sarah picks up items as if unfamiliar with them, like an alien. The strange electronic music becomes more and more persistent as the camera pans along shelves of preserved meat and bottled herbs. Remembering that Blake was a commercials director, it’s a fascinating sequence of unspoken horror, allowing the slogans, branding and packaging to speak inanely for themselves, promising miracle cures that “remove everyday dirt and stains” and “care for special things”, the beeping cardiograph-like sounds of the checkout becoming ever more aggressive and taxing.
She stares blankly at cards in the newsagent’s window offering dog walking services and appealing for daily cleaners, the mundanity on offer offering her no purpose and no escape. In the park she watches mothers and toddlers. Waiting at the bus stop, a young couple behind her kiss passionately. She fantasizes again about the milkman, but it’s a fantasy more of intimacy, tenderness and being desired than of mere sex. Back at home, a magazine is flicked through, the television is turned on, then turned off, and a drink is poured.
“Come on love, it’s been weeks”, Hubby grumbles in the bedroom. “I’m tired” she says, weakly. Then, as he tries to persuade her, she pleads: “no”. He breaks off, disgruntled, and lights a cigarette in the darkness. Silence follows, and then: “what’s the matter? You getting it somewhere else?”
Angela Morant’s quietly begging delivery of the word “no” is for me the most affecting moment of the entire piece, the closest the character ever comes to voicing her despair. And despite how little screen time the piece allows him, Warren Clarke’s is an impressively vivid sketch of the bovine husband. Blake says:
“It’s easy to overplay this sort of thing, but I felt that Warren got it just right, giving enough aggression for impact but keeping it real. That scene demonstrated his tremendous talent. I had wished to show that the marriage was in difficulty but although The Husband was something of a ‘male chauvinist pig’, I didn’t want his aggressiveness to be the reason for it or for her breakdown. I feel that anger and unpleasantness is more often the result of marital problems rather than their cause. The Husband arrives home late; he’s drunk but not in a nasty mood. Here, shot in a half-light, Warren’s portrayal of intoxication was totally convincing, yet with barely a slurred word. The Husband actually apologizes for being late and explains that he was out celebrating his promotion at work. In bed with his wife he gets ‘affectionate’ but is rejected, prompting his retort. Warren’s precise balance of anger and hurt in the way he delivered that one short line really brought out the pathos in the situation. Of course this line also drove the narrative back to The Wife…”
We are back in the afternoon. She sleeps in an armchair. Nothing else to do.
More reflections. Her reflection in the mirrored bathroom cabinet, opening up to reveal on the inside: pills. Sitting at her bedroom dressing table staring into the mirror. Another fantasy of the milkman kissing her neck. Her son coming in and telling her Dad wants her to hurry up with his breakfast. “Go downstairs”. Then she hurls everything off the table and finally weeps.
Alone in the dark, she pours a lethal flurry of tablets out onto the table and gazes down at them. As the camera closes in she starts to convulse. Footsteps on the path. She takes a knife from the washing-up bowl. The milk bottles haven’t been taken in. She closes in on the figure in the hall corridor. Hubby’s home. Screams, his and hers, as she kills him.
It’s evening in the close as the credits roll.
“The first murder didn’t happen in a literal sense”, says Blake. “It was merely the wife cleansing herself of the fantasy she had imagined. At the end of the film it is evident that the milk bottles on the doorstep which were smashed in the beginning are still fully intact. This device was pretty clear on the cinema screen for which the film was designed, but needed closer attention from the tv viewer when the film eventually appeared on the small screen! The first ‘murder’ does act as a portent of the husband’s demise at the end. I was hoping that by almost replicating the scene of the first stabbing I’d also be helping to dispel its reality – not sure I succeeded with everyone on that!”
Music was provided by former Greenslade keyboard player David Lawson. Says Blake: “David had been highly recommended as a talent to watch. I really think he did a brilliant job and am not surprised he has gone on to be such a successful and highly respected musician/producer. His music really drives the film and in my opinion, perfectly conveys themes of loneliness, alienation and sadness, punctuated by menacing and suspenseful undercurrents and asides.
“Our film could have accompanied any number of minor features being put out at that time, so you can imagine how pleased we were to learn that Victims had been selected to go out with a major movie, Escape From Alcatraz, directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood. It was released to over 500 UK theatres. Up until this time, short films really had few outlets beyond the ‘art-house’ circuit, so this release represented a major leap forward and was seen as offering new hope to young film-makers. Unfortunately, the Eady Levy, a government backed tax rebate scheme which incentivized this kind of production was terminated in 1985 due to the realization that its financial benefits were, more than often, going to distributors, rather than to the producers the scheme was intended to help”. (There are also rumours that the Thatcher government axed the Eady Levy when they discovered that it was funding films of which they disapproved).
Reviews of the film were encouraging; Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that “Although it makes rather a meal of its suburban angst, this is a short film of some flair. The calculated showiness of shooting and editing is sufficiently justified by the material not to lapse into the portentous, and sequences such as the supermarket visit successfully convert the mundane into the authentically strange. The trick ending – even though it can be seen coming – manages by its timing to take one by surprise. Alan Blake can be looked to for interesting work in the future.” The Observer’s Philip French also praised the film, though Blake admits that “although Mr. French’s review was mostly complimentary, I was very annoyed at his accusation of the film being ‘stylistically over-egged in the manner of tv ads’. A lot of critics at that time were too quick to assert, when new directors had a background in commercials , that their films look like commercials. This just wasn’t true in most cases and certainly not with Victims. My commercial clients would have run a mile if I made their ads look like this!”
One illusion that has been shattered for me is that I had always wondered if the film had inspired Paul Weller to write the song Private Hell, featured on The Jam’s Setting Sons album. The lyrics are virtually a commentary on the film, for instance:
The morning slips away, in a Valium haze,
And catalogues, and numerous cups of coffee.
In the afternoon, the weekly food,
Is put in bags, as you float off down the high street
The shop windows reflect, play a nameless host,
To a closet ghost, a picture of your fantasy,
A victim of your misery, and private hell
Alone at six o’clock, you drop a cup,
You see it smash, inside you crack,
You can’t go on, but you sweep it up
Safe at last inside your private hell.
It can’t be true, however, since Escape From Alcatraz was released in the UK in January 1980, two months after Setting Sons was released. Instead, the coincidence simply demonstrates again what a ubiquitous character the bored housewife had become, and what angst-ridden places the suburbs had become.
Blake reflects that “Victims was not a passport to instant success, but I’m still here, fighting the good fight – and one of these days I still intend to make that feature film! I haven’t yet lived up to being the ‘ray of hope for British cinema’ – but there’s still time! My own opinion of Victims was mixed; I had been greedy, wanting to make a serious film that had artistic and social integrity, that would win high praise from the most discerning critics, whilst being thoroughly entertaining and enjoying popular appeal among people from all walks of life! Of course this was a very tall order; not often achieved by the greatest and most experienced directors, let alone a comparative beginner such as I was then.
“I definitely made some mistakes, perhaps leading the audience on too much and dwelling too long on some of the suburban fill. The blend of the dramatic narrative ‘carrot’ with the suburban documentary ‘stick’ would be better balanced if I were tackling the subject today. And I’ve learned that ‘message’ in films is often better delivered as sub-text. So, although proud to have made a pretty original and ‘different’ short film that succeeded on many levels, I did at the time also feel some measure of failure, to temper my ego”.
However justified such self-criticism may be, Victims derives much of its impact for me from its confidence in simply “dwelling”, and not being urgent or busy in its narrative. Although the ending works more as a shock than as a plot twist, the film is a stunning piece of team work and a remarkably evocative depiction of the extraordinary components of ordinary life. At its centre, it boasts a genuinely upsetting central performance from Angela Morant.
“When casting for the part of The Wife, I was looking for someone who’d be able to convey the inner sadness and tension needed, without a hint of overacting. Within minutes of meeting her, I was convinced that Angela Morant was that actress. I’m still completely wowed by Angela’s performance in Victims. She appears in every scene of the film and consequently worked every day of the shoot. It was pretty hard work too. Playing just one scene where a character is in a distressed state can be demanding and tiring for an actor, but to stay in that character for an entire movie must be downright exhausting – but Angela was up for the task.
“This shoot was also a technical challenge from the actor’s standpoint. The build of The Wife’s breakdown needed to be incremental in ‘real-time’, but the script’s time-line was littered with flash-backs and ‘fantasy’ elements to be considered. This, along with the usual’ out-of-sequence’ shooting schedule that filming requires, meant that Angela had to employ an extraordinary level of concentration and skill to calibrate the intensity of her acting in each scene.
“The nature of this film, with depression running through every scene, didn’t make for a particularly jolly shoot. I’m sure there were some lighter moments of banter between us all but they were certainly fewer than I enjoyed when making commercials! Angela and I did indulge in occasional small-talk, but I always felt she was making an effort to break out of an underlying sadness. Was her slightly subdued off-camera demeanour purely the result of her being ‘in character’ or was she actually a bit unhappy? Angela had divorced from the actor, Ben Kingsley a couple of years earlier and I wondered if the pain of that still lingered – but it was none of my business and I didn’t pry. Actors have to draw on their life experiences and sometimes need to revive painful moments to get their art on screen – as do writers and directors!”
Many years later, when The Bill was in its golden age of half-hour episodes, it threw up a gem of an episode entitled You’ll Be Back, about a depressive suburban housewife arrested for shoplifting, played again by Angela Morant. It can be seen here, and is worth it purely for her devastating final line, when she finally reveals the reason for her despair. “I did wonder if she was cast in that role because of Victims” says Blake. She played another character saddled with more than her fair share of misery in one of the strongest (and darkest) of Inspector Morse episodes, Service Of All The Dead.
I only saw her once on stage, at the Apollo in 1995, in a not-terribly-good thriller entitled Dead Guilty. As soon as she stepped out, the humdrum atmosphere changed. Like two other fine actresses, Maggie Stride and Emily Watson, Angela Morant has a strangely eerie, faraway look in her eyes. She brilliantly conveys a sense of futility and impending doom.
For my money, no-one has ever made more compelling that male-redefined character: the bored housewife. I only wonder which of the many variations that she played was closest to the woman wearing the trench coat in British Home Stores on that wet afternoon in 1978.
With huge thanks to Alan Blake for taking the time to revisit the story of Sarah, for me a story once seen and never forgotten.