Thursday 28 February 2013

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg [1972]

Adapted by Peter Nichols from his own play, A DAY IN THE DEATH OF JOE EGG is a British tragi-comedy that was directed by Peter Medak and originally released in May 1972, although it had been shot two years earlier.  It stars Alan Bates, Janet Suzman, Peter Bowles, Sheila Gish, Joan Hickson and Elizabeth Robillard.  It tells the story of Brian and Sheila, an ordinary middle-class couple who happen to have a daughter with cerebral palsy, a condition which has rendered her a vegetable.  As you might expect, given its stage origins, it is a very theatrical film by which I mean wordy, non-naturalistic, and largely confined to one or two sets.  It's also warm, funny, humane and ultimately very moving.

The film begins with Brian (Alan Bates) admonishing a class of unruly children at the school where he teaches.  He punishes them for their behaviour by forcing them to sit in silence with their hands on their heads.  Brian is something of an extrovert and craves attention, which may be something to do with his oblivious, self-centred mother (Joan Hickson).  He used to get total attention from his wife Sheila (Janet Suzman) but much of her time is now spent looking after their disabled daughter Jo (Elizabeth Robillard).  Brian recalls the carefree days when they were first married and how much fun everything seemed; he resents that Jo's pathetic but time-consuming existence now makes that sort of life impossible.

Alan Bates

Sheila is a devoted mother and wife whose compassion for others is total; but she too finds the strain of coping with Jo an almost intolerable burden.  She conceals her occasional breakdowns from her husband and begs her friends Freddie and Pamela (Peter Bowles and Sheila Gish) in the amateur dramatics society to do the same.  One evening after rehearsals, Freddie and Pamela drop Sheila off at home and pop in for a cup of coffee, a visit which provokes an evening of furious, passionate drama as all four characters lay bare their fears and prejudices.

Janet Suzman (L) and Elizabeth Robillard (R)

I've had this movie lurking in my collection for many years but was only prompted to dig it out and watch it having seen a few weeks ago a documentary about the British playwright John Osborne.  A featured interviewee in that documentary was Peter Nichols, whom I recognised from his acting work without ever connecting the name with his plays.  Besides this, Nichols also wrote GEORGY GIRL [1966], one of the archetypal 'swinging '60s' movies, and the much-loved British farce PRIVATES ON PARADE that was eventually filmed in 1982.  So he's actually a rather significant figure in British film and theatre, if not perhaps quite on Osborne's level.

The awesome Joan Hickson

It seems to me that this play / film is about what constitutes life.  Aside from the unavoidable question of whether Jo's pitiful existence equates to 'life' in any meaningful way, all of the other characters appear to live only partial lives.  Brian, a frustrated artist, is a bright, funny and energetic man whose life, he feels, is being stifled by his daughter, who devours all of his wife's time and energy.  Sheila is equally bright and considerably more humane and compassionate but her life is dominated not only by Jo but also by her own blind hope that Jo will eventually show some sign of recovery.  To a lesser extent, as they are less fully realised characters, Freddie's life is dictated by his narrow political views just as his wife Pamela's life is dominated by her petty but monstrous snobbery.

Sheila Gish and Peter Bowles (centre)

Brian eventually makes an attempt to reach out and grab a fuller life for himself, an act which - ironically - may require him to sacrifice someone else's.  It's an utterly selfish attempt, to be sure, but one that it's impossible not to hope succeeds.  The film ends, in a twisted reflection of how it began, with Sheila sitting in bed in silence, with her hands on her head.

In my view Alan Bates was at his best in movies like this, filmed versions of successful theatrical productions, because his flamboyant, often excessive acting style was itself essentially theatrical.  Like Richard Burton, Bates wasn't really cut out to be a conventional leading man, and certainly not an all-action, physical leading man like Sean Connery or Richard Harris.  Harold Pinter's film of Simon Gray's play BUTLEY [1974] is another good example of Bates being totally at home with theatrical material.  In that and this, his command of dialogue is mesmeric, utilising many different voices and mini-personas; one can only imagine how dynamic  he must have been to see live in the theatre.

The film features several striking fantasy sequences

I was also very impressed by Janet Suzman in this movie.  Up to now I'd rather had the impression that she is a somewhat cold and aloof, even forbidding, actress but I shall have to rethink that opinion because as Sheila she gives a wonderfully warm and touching performance that totally won me over.  There's a sequence where she and Brian are in bed, reminiscing about the time when they confessed to each other about the sexual relationships they had had before they met.  It's a wonderful sequence, totally credible and yet beautifully intimate.  Truly great acting.

Peter Bowles is a familiar face on British TV, mainly from his work in sitcoms such as To the Manor Born, Only When I Laugh and The Bounder, but he has also done some interesting film work: he's in one of the Edgar Wallace's I've seen recently - DEAD MAN'S CHEST [1965] - and plays David Hemmings' agent in Antonioni's masterful BLOW UP [1966].  As well as that he's done pretty much the full complement of delirious British TV serials, i.e. THE AVENGERS, THE PERSUADERS, ADAM ADAMANT, THE PRISONER and so on.  I should also mention everyone's favourite oddball Murray Melvin, a favourite of the late great Ken Russell, who has a cameo role as a doctor.

Murray Melvin


  1. Excellent piece, this is Elizabeth Robillard, thanks

    1. Thank you very much for saying so. I imagine it is a film of which you are rightly very proud.