Butley (1974)

This comes from a short-lived plays-on-film project of the mid-70s, which adapted stage works faithfully but on real sets rather than shot-from-the-back-of-the-stalls. It exists to preserve Simon Gray's bitter tale of a miserable academic, Harold Pinter's direction of same (it's his only film in that job) and, best of all, Alan Bates's terrific turn as the nasty, self-hating, self-destructive, viciously funny Ben Butley. It's not 'opened out', though we get tiny bits on a tube train and in a pub to preface or provide an act-break, and we spend the film in Butley's concrete mess of a room in a London college as he fends off students, sabotages colleagues, alienates friends and family and makes desperate attacks on all concerned in order to avoid being left alone even as his attitude assures this is what will happen. In theatrical fashion, the set is visited by various folk who prompt crises and confrontations - a fellow teacher (Jessica Tandy) upset because Butley has drunkenly encouraged a student to lodge a complaint about her stuffiness, a wife (Susan Engel) on the point of getting a divorce and marrying an ex-student who has just sold a novel, and a gay Norther publisher (Michael Byrne) to whom Butley's flat-mate/protégé/office sidekick (Richard O'Callaghan) is about to flee. It's a funny-grim piece, which even plays with the conventions of the get-the-guests genre as O'Callaghan early makes fun of Byrne's background to give Butley ammunition for a hilarious 'oop North' tirade designed to make Byrne drop his boyfriend only for it to turn out that O'Callaghan has invented a working class bad taste world designed to play on Butley's prejudices. The central theme - whether or not Butley is himself gay - is a tad old-fashioned now, especially since it is never settled, but Bates is still worth price of admission.
KIM NEWMAN

First published in this form here.


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