Thursday, 9 June 2011

Euston Films' films

And it all started so well.  With Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth and the Cannes Film Festival.

When Thames Television Ltd went public in 1986, Euston Films' former identity as producers of predominantly London-based crime series was largely lost.  Indeed, 1988 saw their final new foray into the genre with the 5-part The Fear.

International sales were considered to be of paramount importance and so, high quality serials of the ilk of John Mortimer's Paradise Postponed and Stewart Parker's Lost Belongings were commissioned, for good or ill.

This later period also saw the company embark upon a brief and disastrous foray into theatrical filmmaking, albeit in the guise of co-producers.

Many of the ITV companies were dipping their toes into the industry at this time, prompted no doubt by the success of Film on Four, Channel Four's drama department slot set up to encourage new talent and which gave rise to an impressive number of theatrical success stories, albeit of the modestly budgeted variety: Mona Lisa, My Beautiful Laundrette, Wish You Were Here to name a few.  Euston CEO John Hambley commented at the time "We think we ought to be in low-budget features too".

A Month in the County (1987, Pat O'Connor)
And indeed it was with  Film on Four that Euston first embarked on this venture, in the shape of A Month in the Country, an absolutely sublime adaptation, by Simon Gray, of J L Carr's 1980 novella about a recovering World War One veteran carrying out restoration work on a Medieval church mural in a small Yorkshire village in 1920.

With beautiful performances by Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh and the late Natasha Richardson, it is a much loved if somewhat neglected gem.

Shot with great subtlety by director Pat O'Connor in 31 days on a budget of a little over £1m, it is very much in the spirit of Euston Films' usual production methods, even if it does look a lot more like a Film on Four production than a Euston one.  But it was a fine start, and a well-regarded one.

Bellman & True (Richard Loncraine, 1987)
Their next trip to the flicks happened by accident rather than design.  Bellman & True was a long-gestating crime serial based on a 1975 Desmond Lowden novel about a computer expert bribed by bank robbers to infiltrate a bank security system.  With its budget beginning to get out of control, director Richard Loncraine hit upon the ingenious solution of being bailed out by George Harrison and Denis O'Brien's HandMade Films, and making two separate versions: one for cinema release for HandMade, and a longer 3-part TV edit for Thames.

HandMade had previously come to the rescue of cult crime classic The Long Good Friday, dumped by Lew Grade's ITC organisation for the perceived controversy of its subject matter.  Sadly, such fame and fortune was not repeated here, for Bellman & True is a fairly turgid affair, too self-consciously arty to hold a candle to the unpretentious likes of Out and Fox made solely for television 10 years before.

To be fair, it gets better as it goes along, but both the cinema version and the later TV serial pretty much sank without trace.  Indeed, the latter has never been made commercially available, nor to my knowledge has it been broadcast anywhere since its original transmission in June 1989, stripped across 3 evenings.

Still, by the summer of 1987, Euston's film plans were at their most elaborate, and a deal with the US-based  Samuel Goldwyn Company was announced.  The press release, dated 1 May, makes clear the rationale behind this new policy.  Richard Dunn, Thames MD and Euston Chairman, said "We shall be making a range of high-quality features which will be an attractive and popular addition to ITV schedules, while their initial cinema and video releases will add to their profit potential and also enhance their value for the UK TV audience".

Gabriel Bryne as Val in The Courier (Frank Deasy/Joe Lee, 1988)
But before we take a look at the single "high-quality" feature which emerged from the Euston/Goldwyn deal, in June 1987 filming began on a co-production with Palace Pictures, Dublin-set thriller The Courier.  Starring Gabriel Byrne as a druglord who gets his comeuppance at the hands of a former heroin-addict motorcycle courier, it was co-directed by Frank Deasy and Joe Lee.  The makers' declaration was to make "a commercial thriller but at the same time a film about life in modern-day Ireland".

It is rare, and some might say refreshing, for an Ireland-set thriller of the 1980s not to use the Troubles as a backdrop, but unfortunately The Courier isn't a particularly distinguished work.  I moderately enjoyed it for what it was, and it's a masterpiece compared to what came next.

Consuming Passions (Giles Foster, 1988)
I would just love to know the rationale behind Consuming Passions, but I doubt if anyone will talk about it now.  Based on a satirical BBC television play of 1973 entitled "Secrets" written by Michael Palin and Terry Jones no less, this UK/US big screen expansion by Euston/Goldwyn is a misfire in every regard.

The original concerns a chocolate manufacturer, played by Warren Mitchell at the height of his Alf Garnett fame, whose fortunes are turned around when three workmen accidentally fall into a vat and are sold in a new brand of chocolate which proves popular because of the new ingredient.  Hilarity ensues albeit of a sort perhaps better suited to a Monty Python sketch.

The only thing is, this Reggie Perrin-esque piece of nonsense originally went out late on a Tuesday evening, in August, on BBC2, in 1973 - as part of a series entitled Black and Blue, advertised upfront as being of questionable taste.  Whoever thought of making a major motion picture out of it, I'd love to know.

An attempt has been made to open things out by making the principal character a Norman Wisdom-type new start to the factory, played by Tyler Butterworth (son of Peter Butterworth and Janet Brown, comedy fact fans).  But this fails miserably since it is he who is at fault for the workmen's accident in the first place!  Sympathy, gone.  Vanessa Redgrave receives top billing for cameoing as a nymphomaniac Maltese widow of one of the deceased workmen - complete with comic accent which sounds to me entirely looped, as if there were a post-production rethink on someone, or everyone's, part.

A perfectly delicious cast of the likes of Jonathan Pryce, Freddie Jones, Thora Hird, Prunella Scales, Andrew Sachs, John Wells, Willie Rushton and many others are completely wasted.  I didn't particularly like the original version, but at least it's short.  The words "in the tradition of Ealing" were bandied around in the press notes, but perhaps they didn't mean the film company.  A Fish Called Wanda, it is not.

The movie has rarely been heard of since, is unavailable on DVD, and no further collaborations with the Goldwyn Company appeared.

Dealers (1989, Colin Bucksey)
Which sadly leaves just Dealers, a Yuppie drama starring Paul McGann and Rebecca De Mornay made in collaboration with the Rank Organisation in 1989 and presumably inspired by the success of Wall Street.  To be fair, long before the Oliver Stone project Euston had a London stock market series in the works from the same writer as Dealers, which eventually emerged as Capital City, but I can't help thinking that this feature version was pulled into development thanks to Gordon Gekko.  Wall Street US release date =  December 1987; Dealers start of principal photography = September 1988.  Well, maybe.  Can't blame them really.

Anyway, the film's not wonderful and didn't do much business but it's no worse than Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

And so Euston's movie production schedule ground to a halt.  The ITV companies all had to tighten their purse strings thanks to the impending franchise auction, and in any case the products had fared badly.

There's no shame in all this, that chocolate thing notwithstanding, because with such a small number of films produced the chances of many of them hitting big were arguably slim anyway.  But I would prefer the roster to have been more closely associated with the company - are the five films identifiable as Euston Films at all?  I think the later thinking about how the subsidiary should best serve Thames was wrong-footed, they should have retained an identity.

Now The Long Good Friday, or Mona Lisa -- had Euston produced them things might have been different!