wed 19/06/2024

Simon Gray's A Month in the Country rescued | reviews, news & interviews

Simon Gray's A Month in the Country rescued

Simon Gray's A Month in the Country rescued

How a bloke from Bradford rescued Colin Firth from the scrapheap

Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth as two damaged war veterans in A Month in the Country

The late, lamented Simon Gray is best known for penning a string of black comedies for the West End stage such as Butley and Otherwise Engaged, but he also wrote prodigiously for the screen, mainly for the BBC's equally lamented Play for Today slot.

But incredibly, one of these films, A Month in the Country, starring Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh and Natasha Richardson right at the start of their careers – now there’s a casting director who knew what she was doing - might well have ended up as landfill had it not been for the tenacity of one enthusiast.

About 20 years ago, poet Glyn Watkins wandered into a bookshop in Hebden Bridge and noticed a box of pocket-sized books next to the till. They consisted mainly of illustrated poetry collections from John Donne to Hilaire Belloc, but there was also a selection of dictionaries with titles such as Carr’s Dictionary of English Queens, King’s Wives, Celebrated Paramours, Handfast Spouses and Royal Changelings.

Entranced, Watkins tried to encourage a bookshop in Bradford, where he lives, to stock them. “It was bizarre,” recalls Watkins. “I didn’t understand why the manageress kept asking me to send her a rate card – she obviously thought I was a sales rep.” Watkins wrote to the publisher, J L Carr at the Quince Tree Press, to inform him of this thwarted attempt to introduce his books to a wider audience and by return post he received a small book of poems by A E Housman with the inscription: “A reward for conspicuous gallantry in approaching a snooty bookseller.”

RichardsonFirthCarr, a former primary school head-teacher (who died in 1994), had also published several novels. His fourth, A Month in the Country, charts the progress of two damaged survivors of the First World War - Tom Birkin (right: Firth pictured with Richardson) and James Moon (Branagh) - during the glorious summer of 1920. Never out of print, it won the Guardian Fiction Prize, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and Gray’s screen adaptation, directed by Pat O’Connor, was released in 1987.

But initially it was Carr’s small books that caught Watkins’s imagination. He had been writing and illustrating poetry for years and the discovery that Carr ran the Quince Tree Press from the back bedroom of his house in Kettering motivated Watkins to continue writing and in 2003 he put together a collection of poetry entitled Walburgas – forgiving forgetting, from his own back bedroom in Bradford.

Watkins was given the opportunity to launch his book at the National Media Museum in Bradford as long as he found a suitable film to tie-in with the event. A Month in the Country seemed the obvious choice and a way of paying tribute to the man who had inspired him but when the NMM tried to book the film, it couldn’t locate a print. After a couple of weeks, having exhausted all the usual channels, the museum declared it didn’t have the time to investigate any further. “I was so surprised,” says Watkins. “I thought that a film of that calibre would have been easy to get hold of.”

As Brian Robinson, Communications Manager, British Film Institute Archive & Heritage points out, it is a common misconception that a film somehow exists in perpetuity. “Film is incredibly fragile and every time you put a print through the projector, the quality is diminished. By the time the initial demand for a film has tailed off, the prints are often damaged and can end up lying around on the distributors’ shelves until somebody decides to throw them out. Some studios do archive their big titles but there are many fascinating films that may not have been considered masterpieces when they were released but are of huge interest to us today that may never be seen again.”

Watkins refused to believe the film could have sunk without trace and began to search for it. The distributor, Warner Brothers, should have been the most likely place to find a print but, according to its records, it didn’t have one. Undeterred, Watkins contacted the casts’ and director’s agents and Kenneth Branagh’s secretary suggested he get in touch with Friends of Firth and Ken Friends, online fan clubs. As a result, Watkins discovered the film had appeared as part of the National Film Theatre’s Branagh season in May 1999 and that Warner Brothers did have a print of the film but it had appeared to be unavailable simply because it was sitting in a bonded warehouse. Had it not been for Watkins’s persistence – and it had taken him a year to get to this point – A Month in the Country might never have been seen again, written off as just another film that had ended up in a skip.

Despite successfully locating a print, Watkins was still not satisfied. He was determined there should be a DVD release and began to investigate who owned the rights. It seemed logical that they should be with Channel 4 but – and this was becoming a familiar story – Channel 4 appeared to have no record of them. A few months later Watkins had the enormous satisfaction of informing Channel 4 that in fact it did own the rights. Within two weeks it was announced that a DVD would be released.

SimonGrayWPOn 24 June 2004, despite the heat and Wimbledon, more than 100 people turned up to watch A Month in the Country at the NMM. For anyone familiar with the novel, Gray may not have seemed the most obvious choice as to write the screen version. Harold Pinter described Gray (left: pictured) as "one of the greatest comic writers of all time", and A Month in the Country is not big on laughs. But on reflection, Gray was clearly perfect as he excelled in writing about the arrested development of – and the friendships between - educated Englishmen and the spiky mechanisms they employ in the name of self-protection.

Although the book is narrated by an elderly Birkin and the film is set in the 1920s, the screen version is remarkably close in style and content to the novel. It is beautifully filmed by Kenneth MacMillan and there is also an award-winning score by Howard Blake. However the film’s greatest draw is probably the opportunity to see early performances by three major British stars – it was Branagh’s first film, Richardson’s second and although it was Firth’s third feature film, it was his first leading role.

Since it was rescued in 2004, A Month in the Country has had various screenings around the country and on 23 February it will be the first in a season of three of Gray’s films to be shown at new cinema-dining club, Le Ciné Anglais, a collaboration between Odeon Whiteleys and Le Café Anglais, where Gray held the book launch for his book, The Smoking Diaries.

It will be an particularly starry occasion as it will include an onstage conversation with Colin Firth – who has, of course, just received his first Oscar nod for A Single Man, director O’Connor and producer Kenith Trodd. They will be joined by actor and director Harry Burton who directed Quartermaine’s Terms, Gray’s last stage production before he died, and Simon Gray: A Celebration at the Comedy Theatre.

“It’s going to be a very special evening,” says Burton. “I don’t think Colin would be coming if he didn’t hold the film in very high regard and felt very nostalgic about it. It’s also a way of honouring Natasha, because there have been no celebrations of her life and work in this country since she died.”

Of course none of this would have been possible now without Watkins who ironically, doesn’t even have a DVD of the film as, ever the valiant supporter, he gave away his own copy as a competition prize at an early screening and once again it is now unavailable. However, there is a growing contingent of fans who are demanding its re-release, including an enthusiastic number in the States and it is hoped that the cast’s now stratospheric stock might go some way to rectifying the situation.

“It’s an immensely moving film,” says Watkins, “I just can’t believe it had to be snatched from the jaws of obscurity by a bloke sitting in the bedroom of his Bradford back-to-back.”

The Ciné Anglais will open on 23 February with Gray’s cinema adaptation of J L Carr’s A Month in the Country. Tickets for this event are sold out but the season continues on 9 March with Running Late, starring Peter Bowles, and After Pilkington with Bob Peck and Miranda Richardson. Click here for details.

There are many fascinating films that may never be seen again

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This is a stunning film, which I was fortunate to obtain when it was released in DVD. I truly hope there will be a new release so it can be enjoyed by a wider audience.

I truly hope that this will get a new release and also a region 1 DVD. I have been hearing about this movie for years and truly hope to one day see it. It would be a shame for it to fade into obscurity especially considering so many less worthy movies that are transferred to DVD.

I would love to see it aired Stateside. And a Region 1 DVD. It's one for the collection. Maybe PBS would air it? It would be a nice tribute to the late Natasha Richardson. Colin Firth should have won a BAFTA for this.

Thanks to Hilary Whitney for her fascinating account of the persistence of Glyn Watkins in retrieving this film from obscurity - given the involvement of Simon Gray, Natasha Richardson, Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth surely this merits a new release and would be a tribute to Gray and Richardson. I did not see the film when originally screened and would love to now. In the meantime I shall read the book! Thanks again for such an interesting article.

Yeah , it is a great film. What is the point of all that gushing praise above ? I have it on VHS, but want it on DVD. How do I get it ? Thanks

We went to this marvellous event last year and were impressed with the quality of the print we saw and the very moving Q&A. We asked when a new dvd would be released and were told they were looking into it ... but? Please tell us when a new dvd with the restored print will be released? Isn't it time, especially with all the awards Colin Firth has won?

I have today emailed Channel 4 about the non availability of 'A Month in the Country'. Mr. Damien McCandless, of Channel 4 Viewer enquiries replied that it had a limited distribution and thanked me for my interest. Come on Mr McCandless, that's not good enough. It's available online for £79. Why isn't Channel 4 doing the decent thing and issuing it at a price we can all afford. It's too good a film to languish in your archives. And while I'm on the subject, what about 'Remembrance'? There's good money waiting in a good many pockets!!! Over to you Mr. McCandless.

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