Hattie, BBC4, Wednesday
Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, Channel 4, Tuesday
A terrific biopic of the 'Carry On' actress blows the cobwebs off the Sixties
Sunday 23 January 2011
There were voluminous frocks and fat ladies bulging all over the small screen last week.
The largest was Hattie Jacques, 1960s Carry On actress and national treasure, the eternal matron in the British collective unconscious, and the subject of Stephen Russell's play Hattie. "I know my casting," she tells her husband, John Le Mesurier. "I'm the silly, frigid, fat girl." "You're the nation's favourite silly, frigid, fat girl," he counters, not quite reassuringly.
The role that real life had in store for her, though, was that of reckless sexpot. One virtue of Ruth Jones's fine performance was to make us feel Jacques's bewilderment at being blindsided by her lust for a swaggering young chauffeur cum car dealer called John Schofield. Played by Aiden Turner, he seemed initially determined to fix Jacques's lack of self-esteem ("I'd need six months' notice to squeeze my behind in there," she said, indicating the back seat of his E-Type Jag), but soon he was popping round to her caravan on the set of Carry on Cabby, to inspect her outsize basque. Seeming to model his performance on the titular chauffeur in Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr Sloane, Turner came across as an obnoxious, manipulative little shit. He turned up at Jacques's house, played with her children and ingratiated himself with her husband. Then he moved in as their lodger. But just as you thought this was a predictable tale of thespian adultery, it took off in another direction.
Le Mesurier, played by Robert Bathurst with a winning mixture of vagueness and decency, discovered his wife's affair but refused to confront his hated rival or leave home. Instead, he moved into the lodger's room, while Schofield claimed sole grazing rights on Jacques's mountainous uplands in the marital bed. Instead of expiring from pathos, the meek, complaisant Le Mesurier emerged with touching dignity. Bathurst never raised his voice but convincingly affirmed his love for the wife whose physical needs he couldn't satisfy. After a climactic episode of This Is Your Life, Jacques sat him down and explained how he should pursue and marry her best friend, Joan. He did. When he and Jacques got divorced, Le Mesurier took the blame, to save her public face. These startling plot points were wrapped up in the final 10 minutes and genuinely shocking in their pragmatism. This was a terrific play that blew some cobwebs off the Sixties.
Ruth Jones sailed through Hattie in a succession of elephantine hourglass frocks. The main focus of Channel 4's Big Fat Gypsy Weddings was the clothes worn by the participants. The documentary followed the preparations for little Marguerite's first Holy Communion, and big Josie's wedding to a muscular caveman called Swanley. Marguerite gradually disappeared inside the maw of her dress, which with its 500 metres of pink netting and 5,000 crystals, tipped the scales at twice Marguerite's body weight. Whatever you expected of gypsy Catholicism in the way of adornment (Virgin Mary pale blue veil over layers of beaded plum?) and behaviour, it was surprising to see the other children dressed up in fancy bandleader suits and drinking fake champagne in the limo. Marguerite advanced slowly towards the church like a giant raspberry mousse, and made the other, non-Roma, first-communion girls look like peahens.
Josie's wedding was preceded by footage of Josie's hen night. Since gypsy girls aren't permitted to drink alcohol before marriage, it was a quiet affair – no, only kidding, it was a raucous debauch in which Josie and pals dressed like the chorus line in Cabaret on their night off, all chasmal cleavage and belly-dancer spangles. For the wedding, the bridesmaids favoured the Barcelona prostitute look in Schiaparelli pink, while the bride's five-stone gown was slashed at the front to reveal her virginal white garter. The groom looked dashing in a grey suit (with vast pink tie), but he relinquished it at the reception in favour of, ominously, a wife-beater T-shirt. He conveyed his relaxed attitude to matrimony by throwing bits of cake at the bride and, when asked if he'd love her for ever, said: "I'm not liking the for ever part."
This was a nicely indulgent documentary, which got close enough to its wayward subjects for viewers not to feel like voyeurs, tourists or snobs.
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