Lately, comedy has been the rule in my household. This time in my life (until summer, one assumes) is wide open to distraction, and anything cheerful is especially welcome. So my family has been indulging me with our choices for entertainment lately, and the decided preference has been comedy.
It was, therefore, not terribly astonishing that at some point we would spend a few nights revisiting an almost completely obscure British miniseries from 1980, because isn't that what one does?
The brilliant, overlooked Flickers is a special favorite of mine and I do like to check in on it every now and again. When I'm teaching an advanced screenwriting class I will screen all six one-hour episodes, one per week, to school my students on such topics as character development, structure, style and the art of setups and payoffs.
Flickers is the rarest of rarities: A comedy that was made for Masterpiece Theater, a series typically showing off the rollicking humor of a bible reading or a concert of chamber music. It has the most familiar of premises: A man and woman who don't like each other are forced into a partnership--in this case, a marriage--due to their individual circumstances. And yes, you can see them develop a loving relationship as they progress. That's not exactly a spoiler.
The cast is impeccable: a young Bob Hoskins plays Arnie Cole, self-described con man who works at the tail end of the British film industry (such as it was) in 1912: He rents films from the people who own them and shows them at night in storefronts and empty halls. What Arnie wants is to make his own films, but he doesn't have the money to step out on his own. In a distinguished career, most of which followed this, Arnie is my favorite Bob Hoskins role. If you haven't seen it--and odds are you haven't--you owe it to yourself. He's a terrible person but you never stop rooting for him because he does have a heart and he is honest with those he trusts. Mostly.
Maud (the magnificent Frances de la Tour) has the money Arnie needs, but she doesn't see much in the grubby hustler her brother (Andrew de la Tour, and yes) introduces her to as a potential business partner. She fails to see past his rather coarse manner ("If it does the job, lady, it is the right knife and fork!") and dismisses him out of hand, intending never to see him again.
That is, until she finds herself pregnant. Then it seems like someone to essentially pose as a husband (this is all in Episode 1, so don't worry about major spoilers here) would be useful, and the only person she can think of who might be willing to fill that role is Arnie. Before you know it, they are married and starting to make silent movies.
The story is almost secondary to the richness of the characters and the wonderful, sometimes lightning-quick, asides that come from virtually every character. There is a sarcastic, edgy side to the dialogue here (by Roy Clarke, who gets top billing in the credits because the Brits actually know how to treat a writer) and it is delicious. Nobody is entirely without wit and there is no situation that does not invite it. When Arnie burns his hand (don't worry) late in the series and Maud, bandaging it, asks if it hurts, he tells her that of course it hurts. "That's it," his wife tells him. "Be brave."
I'm not quoting the best lines here, to be sure, because they should be found on their own. Watch the whole series, although in my opinion it is perfectly acceptable to fast forward anytime the Singing Brewer family appears on screen. It's not the actors' fault that these characters seem like filler; they just never really have much impact on the story. They manage some moments of genuine emotion, but in all, they grind the proceedings to a halt.
The focus is always on Arnie and Maud, but the supporting characters from Arnie's right-hand man Lewellyn (Fraser Caines) to the pretentious director Max Legendre (Granville Saxton) to Maud's cantankerous Nanny (Peggy Ann Wood) all get some screen time and do everything they can with it. No one is wasted. And I'm not mentioning so many who could be cited, just because a cast list can be found here. They're all great.
Clear the decks, though, when Hoskins and de la Tour are working together. They build that relationship that is a surprise to no one, but with six hours to do so, they don't have to rush. The changes are incremental and rewarding to an audience. The emotional highpoint of the entire series comes in Episode 5, one before the last, in a throwaway line during a speech that Hoskins hisses to de la Tour at 60 MPH. It's perfect, so you'll want to immediately back up and watch it again.
The point of this? Comedy is necessary and nourishing and when you have the chance to find something that might fill those needs, something you might have overlooked, that's not a loss; it's an opportunity. Flickers can be found on DVD but at the moment is not, to my knowledge, available for streaming. (You can rent the DVDs from Netflix.) So look it up and find a copy if you can. Because I'm not loaning you mine.
You never know when I might need it again.
The Major League Baseball season starts in 6 days.