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All the Lonely People: Sunday Bloody Sunday on Blu-ray

  John Schlesinger was a director viewed with a kind of suspicion by many, critics especially, but also general audiences who recognised his name. Was he trying to get one over on us? Was he not as talented as he was supposed to be? Was this style over substance we were seeing? Was he some kind of usurper, in his role as a gay, Jewish intellectual, something he never made any secret of? The result of this is that some of his films were given short shrift even after they had become hits, with the Swinging Sixties zeitgeist blockbuster Darling coming on for special denigration, despite making a star of Julie Christie, and Midnight Cowboy dismissed as merely a weepie for hipsters who would turn their nose up at a soap opera.

Even Billy Liar was accused of being a "wanker" by Ken Russell, a view shared by others, rather than something more indicative of the British character that was both amusing and tragic. But what of Sunday Bloody Sunday, with its careful, tasteful depiction of three lonely people trying to make the best of a shared relationship? That two of those people were men in a homosexual relationship was groundbreaking for 1971 when it was released, rendering it a film where sophisticates could attend and believe they had seen a work that was doing a lot of cultural good. Now that time has passed, the film's cachet fell away somewhat, and it was largely relegated to being occasionally unearthed by the more dedicated movie buffs.

There's an unspoken rule that there's nothing worse in cinema, if you're looking for entertainment, than a film that is out to do you good, improve you in some way, like a bowl of bran flakes when what you really wanted were Coco Pops. But is that inverse snobbery? What value was there in a piece like Sunday Bloody Sunday, for instance? For a start, for those wanting to see what London in the early seventies was like, Schlesinger's efforts here were priceless; operating from critic Penelope Gilliatt's screenplay, he conjured up a take on British metropolitan society that was even more vivid than his New York in Midnight Cowboy. Every detail here was pushing us to be immersed in what it would have been like back then.

So that was the milieu, but what of the theme, that the modern world was generating a breed of person who does enough socially to get by, kid themselves they have good friends and even a strong romance, when the fact is it's just not true? It's difficult to tell if the pivot, Murray Head's bisexual character, is lonely or simply dissatisfied, since he is more there as a sex object or plot convenience, but Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch were far better portrayed, Jackson the office worker who looks after her trendy friends' kids in lieu of having any herself, and Finch a Jewish doctor fighting to keep his composure in a world that's deceptively hostile. They are the other reasons you should watch Sunday Bloody Sunday, for they say a lot about the way mass loneliness, that most shame-filled of afflictions in the twenty-first century community, began to spread.

Sunday Bloody Sunday has been released on Blu-ray by The BFI with a bunch of extras, starting with an audio commentary by critic Amy Simmons. Next is Schlesinger's first film, 1950's The Starfish, effectively a student project where he and co-director Alan Cooke, a friend from Oxford University, contrived to invent a new legend for Cornwall. It was about sea witch known as Meg who made her home in the cliffs on the coast and placed a curse on a newcomer to the area who wanted to make his living as a fisherman there. Somehow visiting children are caught up in this, and in a manner not entirely clear are left to the fisherman to save. Basically a student film and looking it, this was curiously reminiscent of Schlesinger's shortlived contemporary Michael Reeves, specifically his later The She-Beast.

Sunday in the Park is one of Schlesinger's early documentaries, this one in Hyde Park from 1956, and exhibits a playful sense of humour not often in evidence in his more famous works like Midnight Cowboy or Marathon Man, but with its kidding juxtapositions (a pair of lovers and two cavorting dogs, or maggots used for fishing and a lady popping her lunch into her mouth) you can see where the jokes in Billy Liar might have taken root. His more famous documentary work was to come with 1961's Terminus, and if this is light enough to verge on the inconsequential, it's nice to see something that was purely made as a bit of fun.

Then two interviews, filmed in 2020, for the Blu-ray release, first with star Murray Head who has mixed feelings about his duties on Sunday Bloody Sunday, ranging from Ian Bannen's abortive casting in the Finch role, to his memories of Finch (a wonderful man) and Jackson (smarting from the critical response to Ken Russell's The Music Lovers), and the reaction to the kiss. He's enthusiastic, if a little rambling, and his jumper is on inside out. Second is cinematographer Billy Williams who won a BAFTA for his masterfully subtle achievements on the film; he is more lucid, and though the anecdotes overlap a little with Head's, he has excellent recall of the problems that arose with the production and how it was all worth it in the end.

A 1971 documentary intended for outside Britain is included, The Pace-Makers: Glenda Jackson, where she takes us through the post-production on Women in Love (but not The Music Lovers!) and the big, final scene she shot for Sunday Bloody Sunday. Schlesinger is glimpsed in the latter sequences, but this is Glenda's fifteen-minute showcase and she takes the opportunity to tell us she believes the most exciting work in acting is happening in film, and definitely not the theatre, which she is quite sniffy about. She seems spontaneous, but presumably this was scripted, though how much input she had into the final piece is unknown.

Almost last, a treat for public information film fans, you know who you are, as Jackson and Ernie Wise, one half of legendary comedy duo Morecambe and Wise, arrive at their local blood donor clinic to give a pint of the red stuff out of the goodness of their hearts. This is relentlessly jokey to reassure the reluctant, as Glenda makes out she is, that giving blood is easy and painless, and they're having so much fun that message assuredly gets across. This was from 1981, and they had memorably appeared together on Eric and Ernie's show in the seventies, so obviously that association was there to be capitalised on.

Playing over the film as another commentary is a conversation before an audience with Schlesinger from 1977, where he takes us through his career to that point, and answers questions from the attendees. Then the trailer, which quotes a bunch of glowing reviews but neglects to mention the crucial gay angle. Finally, two image galleries, on-set photos from Michael Childers, and the other, promotional items. Overall, a welcome revival of an important film, and the restored print does it justice.

Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018