Actually, fifteen-year-old Abigail never appears, as her teenage party takes place next door. Beverly (Alison Steadman) and her estate agent husband Laurence (Tim Stern) are our hosts, and the guests are Abigail’s mother Sue (Harriet Reynolds) and neighbours Angela (Janine Duvitski), a nurse, and her husband Tony (John Salthouse), a computer operator. A recipe for social embarrassment, personal animosity and disaster…
However many films Mike Leigh makes, it’s fair to say that nothing will have the public impact that Abigail’s Party has had. It began life as a stage play, devised in Leigh’s usual method through improvisations with the cast. It was broadcast on BBC1 in 1977 as part of its Play for Today strand. There were only three television channels in the UK then, and the ITV network had been knocked out by a power failure. So a considerably larger audience than usual tuned in. The play continues to be staged to this day – given its single set and cast of five, it’s a gift to amateur dramatic societies – and in December 2005 it made its New York debut, with Jennifer Jason Leigh as Beverley. Although the play is very much of the 1970s, there’s more to it than the time capsule it’s often taken to be. I was slightly too young to see it at the time, but I saw it when it was repeated in 1983 as part of a BBC2 Mike Leigh retrospective. (And when would you have one of those on terrestrial TV these days?)
In 1977, the British film industry was at a low ebb, with James Bond, softcore sex comedy and horror being more or less its only output. However, directors whose work didn’t fall into those categories had a hard time. Leigh, like the slightly older Stephen Frears and Ken Loach, had made a cinema feature in the early part of the decade (in Loach’s case more than one), but spent the rest of the 70s and early 80s working for the small screen, mostly for the BBC. Leigh made six Plays for Today – Nuts in May is also available on DVD. As a director, Abigail’s Party is hardly his most ambitious work: he would expand the range and scope of his themes and techniques when he returned to the cinema screen in the late 1980s. Leigh doesn’t try to open up the stage play: apart from a few brief excursions to the hallway, Leigh sticks to a single set and small cast.
Leigh does have his detractors, and there is a school of thought that has him looking down upon his characters. There is a little truth to this: this is a play for audiences who know, unlike Beverley, that you don’t put red wine in the fridge. Also, the play’s main satirical target are the aspirant lower-middle classes, their bad taste and their pretensions. (This is pretty much the demographic that voted for Margaret Thatcher two years after this play was broadcast.) The details are pitch perfect, so much so that Abigail’s Party sometimes feels like a period piece made decades later, overburdened with signifiers that scream Seventies at us. The fact that it was made right in the middle of that decade testifies to Leigh’s acute eye: he’s always seen the importance of production design and costume in commenting on his characters. And speaking as someone who was around at the time (I was thirteen in 1977), I can vouch for its accuracy. Donna Summer and Demis Roussos (not to mention James Galway) on the record player, tastefully “erotic” paintings, cheese and pineapple on sticks…it’s all there.
But if Abigail’s Party were just Leigh and his cast dumping on his characters, it would be a minor work But all five of these people have layers and extra dimensions: note how at the moment of greatest crisis it’s ditsy Angela who takes charge of the situation. When you come to think of it – and without the sharp left turn of the ending, which I won’t reveal if you don’t know it - Abigail’s Party for all its laughs is not funny at all. At the centre of it is a marriage – Beverly and Laurence’s – that is mired in mutual recriminations, frustrated animosity and unmet emotional needs. Beverly, with her strangulated accent and braying laugh, is not so much a monster as a very needy woman, whose husband – emotionally inarticulate, ultimately to his cost – is never there, and who takes his job home with him. Tony is clearly loathing every minute of this party, and much of his dialogue is monosyllabic, and he’s clearly embarrassed by Angela, who frequently opens her mouth just to put her foot in it. As for Sue, she’s clearly nervous and out of place (Leigh uses her height in one sight gag), and in her exchanges with Beverly, you can see two different social strata grinding together incompatibly. You sense these characters have lives off stage, and we get a few hints of them which Leigh leaves as intriguingly unanswered questions.
Alison Steadman’s portrayal of Beverley has passed into legend, and rightly so: this is one of the great comedy performances of its decade, and Steadman (who was married to Leigh at the time) has never really equalled it. That’s not to disparage very strong work by the other four characters, some of whom have never been better. Given the small cast, it’s a bit mean of the BBC to leave Harriet Reynolds’s name off the back cover. But it’s Steadman and Leigh’s show, and they shine. I do think Leigh has done better since - Secrets and Lies, for example – but this is one of his most accessible works.
This DVD from BBC Worldwide (now distributed by 2 Entertain) is encoded for Regions 2 and 4. Given that Abigail’s Party is a television production from before the widescreen era, it’s no surprise that it’s transferred to disc in its original 4:3 ratio with a mono soundtrack. The picture is fine, given that it was always intended to be watched on a television set. Larger and/or progressive-scan devices might be less forgiving on this feature originated on 70s videotape: on my PC monitor, it looked a little soft and blurry, especially on movement. Given that this play is so dialogue-driven (the only music is that played on screen), a mono soundtrack is quite satisfactory, and as this is a professional BBC job, more so. There are sixteen chapter stops.
Extras are sparse. A commentary would have been good, especially as Leigh and producer Margaret Matheson have commented on other DVDs. The only extra is an extract (6:31) from Funny Women. Extracts from the play are mixed with interviews. Harriet Reynolds died in 1992, and Tim Stern is absent, but interviewees include Steadman, Leigh, Duvitski and Salthouse, along with Claire Skinner and Jim Broadbent who both featured in Life is Sweet with Steadman under Leigh's direction, Leigh's biographer Michael Coveney, and "cultural critic" Peter York discussing Beverly as a prototypical Essex woman.
Classic TV is nice to see on disc, and this is no exception. The important thing is that the feature is presented well, and it is.