The year is 1947 and in Britain, rationing is still in effect, but to cheer the nation up there is a royal wedding soon. Joyce Chilvers (Maggie Smith) and her elderly mother (Liz Smith) are at the local cinema watching a newsreel telling them that although rationing is abided by in the United Kingdom, where it is growing stricter, in France there is a widespread black market in forbidden food. That couldn't happen here - could it? As Joyce plays the Might Wurlitzer for the cinemagoers (with mother refusing to sit anywhere but beside her), her husband Gilbert (Michael Palin) is doing his rounds as he is the small town's chiropodist. At the moment he is in the house of the local accountant, Allardyce (Richard Griffiths), attending to the feet of his wife (Alison Steadman) and there is a meeting being held in the next room with important townsfolk discussing what to do about the upcoming function to celebrate the wedding... a function that needs a lavish meal...
The perfectly, punningly titled A Private Function was the first film screenplay by Alan Bennett, and listening to the crisp dialogue you could hardly mistake it for the work of anyone else. Taken from a story from him and director Malcolm Mowbray, its strength was not so much in its plot but in the build up of detail that made plain the desperation of the era, and the callousness of living the life of the middle class when status was everything. Not one actor seems out of place in what is essentially an ensemble cast, and opening scenes, where Joyce's senile mother has replaced Gilbert's sandwiches with knitting in his lunchbox so she can scoff the food herself expertly sketches in the craving for food that everyone feels: you can almost hear the bellies rumbling.
What the conspiracy behind the function's meal is planning is to fatten and slaughter an unlicenced pig (called Betty), but the food inspector, Mr Wormold (Bill Paterson) is clamping down hard. The fact that he has no sense of taste or smell merely underlines that this joyless man is nothing more than a spoilsport, painting illegal meat green and labelling it "Unfit for Human Consumption". Yet the people he's depriving, that conspiracy, aren't especially likeable either, if anything less sympathetic, being thoroughly snobbish and mean-spirited; none more so than Dr Swaby (Denholm Elliott), a man who is outraged that the new National Health Service will force him to attend to anyone who asks him, including the poor. The only sympathetic one among them is Allardyce, who has grown quite attached to the pig and takes every opportunity to feed it treats.
All this results in great satisfaction when Gilbert, aggrieved that these men have forced him out of his new chiropody establishment which he hoped would have raised his standing in the community, decides to take matters into his own hands. His wife is constantly berating him and complaining that, for example, she has not been invited to the function, so he kidnaps Betty with the intention of slaughtering her. Unfortunately this is easier said than done as Gilbert grows fond of Betty proving that those who eat meat often don't have the guts to kill the animals themselves; that little hypocrisy settles well in the mood of the film. All the while, Joyce nags, and the conspiracy are onto them, but could there be a happy ending? Well, not for Betty, perhaps. The dialogue is superb ("Don't bring feet to the table, Gilbert"), and acid turns from the cast serve to enhance it, but overall the atmosphere is so cruel that it can stifle the laughter. A keenly observed study of British class and aspiration, but it wilts under its own uncompromising and withering gaze. Music by John Du Prez.