A weekly series of reviews looking at the film and TV output of the Comic Strip group of comedians…
Spoiler warning: plot points may be revealed.
Synopsis: A young woman is married with a baby, but is also having an affair with a local farmer. Then her head is turned by an exciting new neighbour…
Written by: Peter Richardson and Pete Richens. Directed by: Bob Spiers. Broadcast: 14 January 1984, Channel 4. Series: 2. Episode: 3.
Notable cast (with a running total of Comic Strip appearances):
* Nigel Planer (7) plays Dave, a local working-class man who darts about his village in a battered yellow van, swapping CB-radio banter with colleagues. He’s having an affair with a married woman and they share nookie sessions in the back of his van.
* Dawn French (9) is Susie, a schoolteacher who’s bored with her drab domestic life. She finds her husband tedious and barely notices her baby daughter. A wild, free spirit, Susie thinks nothing of telling her young pupils about polygamy as she lounges around the classroom in her bare feet. As well as being married to a man called Martin and having an affair with Dave, she meets and falls for a pop star called Garry. But the triple wooing takes it toll and she eventually ends things with two of the men (who have vastly different reactions: apathy and a suicide attempt). Dawn French holds the whole film together, adding charisma and energy to a character who is – on paper – thoroughly selfish and obnoxious. ‘She’s not really a slag,’ French told Time Out magazine on set. ‘She’s just after a good time.’
* Robbie Coltrane (7) appears as farm manager Gerald. The farm’s manor has recently been bought by a pop star – the kind of person who, in Gerald’s eyes, ‘moves to London, takes drugs and becomes a homosexual’.
* Serena Evans (2) plays a barmaid.
* Peter Richardson (9) is Garry Dreadful, a fading pop star who’s just moved to the area. He’s glad he’s ‘sold out’ because he’s now filthy rich – he can crash his Range Rover, for example, and simply order his PA to buy a new one. And he wants to shake up the status quo by purchasing combine harvesters – not to use on his farm but to race each other. This carefree attitude soon attracts Susie… A pastiche of various self-obsessed and/or deluded musicians, Dreadful reminds you visually of Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp. He could also be Richardson’s character from an earlier Comic Strip film, The Beat Generation‘s poet Alan, if born 20 years later.
* Al Pillay (1) debuts in the Comic Strip series as Ray, Garry’s personal assistant. Ray does a variety of tasks, such as washing smalls in the mansion’s interior fountain, and is very attentive to his demanding boss. ‘I never really wanted to be gay,’ he tells Susie at one point, ‘but I was forced into it by the recession.’ (The actor has been credited under many slightly different names in his career – on Susie, for example, it was Alan Pellay.)
* Adrian Edmondson (9) plays Susie’s husband, Martin. He’s a boring, lifeless man who drones on about how many onions have come through in his vegetable garden, but he’s genuinely in love with his wife.
* Jennifer Saunders (9) is Dave’s drunk and chain-smoking mum, Lorna, who he lives with in a caravan. She thinks Susie is a bit ‘blatant’ for round here.
* Michael Buchanan (1) plays Kenny, an ambulance driver who catches the attentions of Susie *just* after she’s committed to one man. Buchanan was the production designer of the next Comic Strip Presents film to be broadcast, A Fistful of Travellers’ Cheques.
Best bit: Susie accuses a pupil of being pernickety. ‘How do you spell pernickety, miss?’ the little girl asks, so Susie replies, ‘F-U-C-K-O-double-F, okay?!’
Review: The cast and crew of Susie filmed in Norfolk, in and around the village of Heydon, but the fictional setting is never specified. Given that it’s a sleepy, pastoral, English location, we could be in a modern version of Wessex, the idealised south-west county created by the novelist Thomas Hardy. Hardy was born in 1840 and initially trained as an architect. But the success of his fourth novel – Far from the Madding Crowd, published in 1874 and the first to be set in Wessex – meant he could become a full-time author. He wrote novels and poetry that lamented the state of rural Victorian Britain and which often subverted and questioned social barriers. He always had a genuine empathy for his characters’ plights – no matter their station or status.
The debt to Hardy in this Comic Strip Presents episode becomes obvious when Dawn French’s lead character says she feels like ‘Julie Christie in that Thomas Hardy film’. She’s referring to 1967’s adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd, which was directed by John Schlesinger and also starred Terence Stamp, Peter Finch and Alan Bates. Both the book and the film tell the story of Bathsheba Everdene, a young 19th-century woman who – like Susie – attracts the attentions of three very different men.
Although the Comic Strip equivalent plays out its own storyline, there are distinct echoes with Hardy’s story. In the place of Bathsheba’s suitors – the abusive and abrasive Sgt Francis Troy, a farmer called William Boldwood and the shepherd Gabriel Oak – come pop star Garry Dreadful, farmhand Dave and devoted husband Martin. The flighty and self-centred Susie is spoilt for romantic choice with this disparate trio, and as the story develops she drifts around from man to man to man, not really caring about anything other than her own happiness. It’s all very loose and languid, like a French New Wave film. In fact, co-writer Peter Richardson was actually thinking more New Wave than Thomas Hardy: ‘a touch of Chabrol maybe, amid the Mills and Boon,’ he told a journalist on set, referencing the director Claude Chabrol. Like many French New Wave films, Susie is fun and interesting – but too self-conscious to be convincing as a piece of storytelling.
Seven indecisive fingers out of 10
Next: The Comic Strip Presents… A Fistful of Travellers’ Cheques