Website Header

Jump to navigation

A Private Function Betty Blue Eyes The Musical



A Private Function

The film basis of Betty Blue Eyes

A Private Function should be a peculiarly autobiographical film for Alan Bennett, given that his father was a butcher and that the film focuses on the efforts of a small group of middle-class Yorkshire folk to quietly fatten and kill an illicit pig to celebrate the 1947 royal wedding. It was Bennett’s first film and arguably remains his most popular. Yet while it features all the established Bennett touches that his admirers adore, it was in fact based not on anything in Bennett’s early life but on a childhood memory of its director Malcolm Mowbray.

Mowbray and Bennett had met after the filmmaker had directed a BBC2 Playhouse film, Days at the Beach, and received a letter of congratulation from an admiring Bennett. Seizing the opportunity, Mowbray asked Bennett to collaborate with him on a feature film script. Bennett, an established writer of television plays, had penned a number of feature film scripts that for various reasons had never been made. However he had an idea about a chiropodist, while Mowbray was fascinated by memories of post-war Britain – an austere period where black market goods and severe rationing went hand-in-hand. Says Bennett: ‘Malcolm wanted to do a film about a pig and I wanted to do a film about a chiropodist. So that’s how it came about, more or less.’ The screenplay took two-and-a-half years to deliver. Its original title: Pork Royale.

Bennett’s father was a butcher in Leeds. There were two others on the same street. ‘My vision of my father is at night. He’s sat at the table in the kitchen, trying to work out how he is going to make ends meet. We got delivered a certain amount of meat and we had to make that fit the number of customers we’d got. I have vivid memories of the misery of that time but the actual pig is part of Malcolm Mowbray’s time, not mine. His wife’s in-laws were butchers near Bradford. They had kept a pig, killed it and had it in the bath. One night the police knocked at the door over some other trivial matter and they saw the pig in the bath. That was the idea that started off the film. He had this vision of a camera panning over a toilet room filled with talcum powder and shampoos and then down to this farm animal which turned out to be a pig.’

Backing for the film came from George Harrison’s company Handmade Films despite the former Beatle’s business partner Dennis O’Brien’s constant worry that it would not play in America and would therefore not recoup its budget. Filming began in Ilkley in May 1984. On May Day, 70 members of the Ilkley Players auditioned for parts and 30 were selected. Their big scene involved queuing for a meagre ration of meat outside Barraclough’s butcher’s shop. The sequence took 13 hours, during which a crowd gathered, policemen diverted traffic and church bells were silenced. And, of course, star-spotters got their money’s worth by watching Maggie Smith, Michael Palin and Denholm Elliott at work. Their personalised directors’ chairs gave them away.

Like the enthusiastic extras, some of Britain’s brightest acting talent fell over themselves to work on a Bennett project. The three stars were Smith, Palin and Elliott, but in support the film can boast Alison Steadman, Pete Postlethwaite, Richard Griffiths, Jim Carter, Bill Paterson and Liz Smith who, on eyeing a script she described as ‘a magical read with the words dripping off my lips’, sent a postcard to Bennett’s London home begging to be in it. She got the part.

Bennett spent a great deal of time on location. He laughingly claims he turned up to keep Maggie Smith from becoming bored. In truth he wanted to observe how his comedy translated to the big screen and to tinker with the script if it didn’t work as he had intended. ‘When we were filming in Bradford I’d often not seen the location and the language didn’t quite fit. You’ve got to tailor it. I don’t quite understand how writers don’t want to be there or avoid it. It seems to me that you have to be there if you care about what you write.’

It was a happy shoot with Maggie Smith arriving a day before the rest of the cast and crew – to ensure she had the best room. ‘I often go past the road where the house is and think about it,’ reveals Bennett. ‘I have very happy memories of it. There was a good atmosphere. Everyone had such a wonderful time, especially Richard Griffiths. If you watch the film, you can see that it cuts away just as he is about to break out laughing. Every time they put in the fart noises for the pig he suddenly started to laugh hysterically.’ One local boy who pestered the crew to be allowed to work on the film landed a job when the pig’s constant messing on the set began to slow down production. Handed a plastic bucket, he was ordered to clamp it over the porker’s backside at the first sign – or sound – of an emission. Thus he proudly achieved a credit unique in the annals of cinema: Bucket Boy.

The pig proved to be the biggest star of A Private Function. An unpredictable beast, it never did what anyone expected it to do. To encourage it, the animal was fed constantly. Pig handlers would announce feeding time by banging a bucket. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. On one occasion Mowbray was directing a night sequence in woods above Bolton Abbey for the moment in the film when the pig is stolen. The script said the pig would amble through the woods and into a car. Tasty morsels were laid to tempt it. The pig ignored them. Then someone realised that the woods were covered in wild garlic, which was all the pig could smell. The scene as written should have lasted between three and four minutes. On screen it lasts around two. Bennett remembers it as a minor failing. ‘If we had had more money we would have shot it again. We had to finish at midnight because of overtime rates,’ he says.

As one of the Pythons, Michael Palin had experienced his fair share of unusual televisual moments. Yet an episode on A Private Function eclipsed all others. ‘The scene where I have to get the pig into the car turned out to be far more surreal than anything I had ever done with Python. The pig was huge and the 1940s car was not. The props boys had smeared the interior with fish oil but the pig was just not budging so in the end we had people out of sight pushing the pig’s backside into the car. Eventually it was inside but not for long as it leapt for the door and got its trotter in my crotch. I had to let the brake off while holding his trotter away from my privates. Unfortunately for me, it became very alarmed by all of this, which resulted in vast amounts of shit going everywhere: over the car, me, the men pushing. It was a nightmare. The man who owned the vintage car was a Yorkshireman and he said ‘Who is that up there?’ pointing to Alan. ‘Oh, that’s the writer,’ I said. The man nodded his head a bit, looked at the pig being pushed into his car, the shit, the commotion and everything and said, ‘He’s no Ibsen, is he?’

A longer version of this article appears in the book Made in Yorkshire, celebrating movies made in the county, available from www.guerilla-books.com.

Next Previous

Website Footer

Back to top