The recent death of the inestimable Glenda Jackson has prompted much discussion about her work in film and theatre (not to mention her political activities), much of which focuses on the diverse range and stunning impact of her stage appearances. In a retrospective which offers so much choice, John Schlesinger’s 1971 movie Sunday Bloody Sunday may be overlooked.
The film superbly evokes its time, the cusp of the 1960s/70s, and convincingly and in some cases excruciatingly presents the lives of London liberal, professional middle classes, a section of society which nowadays might be called the metropolitan elite.
But to see the film just as a social document is to miss the depth and complexity of the emotional world it presents through the love triangle of the three main characters. Alex (Glenda Jackson) is a divorced recruitment consultant in her thirties. Daniel (Peter Finch) is a successful doctor in his forties, committed to his work and his patients. They are both in a relationship with Bob (Murray Head), a younger, free-spirited, freewheeling artist and sculptor who creates installations of glass and test tubes and coloured liquids. We follow their story through the course of a week or so, knowing that it can’t end well, but perhaps not quite prepared for the underlying and eventually dominating sharp sense of the sadness and longing and compromise which co-exists with whatever kind of happiness can be attained.
Making a connection
A royal princess once said there were three people in her marriage. Each of the protagonists in the film could say the same, but they might well add a fourth — the telephone switchboard operator from the answering service which they share. There are some delightfully evocative shots of the exchange with its banks of flashing lights and switches and levers and cables and its row of women deftly inserting plugs into jacks and taking and relaying messages — and doing bits of knitting in between.
Alex is very chatty with her message-taker, over-sharing you might think, as she gives an instruction to tell Bob, should he try to phone her, that she’s running late because she had to booze with a client who’d lost his job. Alex also asks for information about the weather and traffic conditions.
Daniel is a bit more snappy with the operator, castigating her for never getting Bob’s surname right, although this response probably stems from his frustration at there being no message from his elusive lover. Alex and Daniel tell the operator whether they will be answering their phones that evening, and indicate at what hour they will be retiring for the night. It seems odd that they speak about their personal lives in this way, but no doubt in our infinitely more developed technological world there are some who regard robot Alexa as an intimate acquaintance.
Ring of truth
Telephones, the main means of communication, are a constant demanding presence, shrill and clamorous with their slow dialling and insistent ringing, often into a void, echoing somehow the discordance and discomfort of an unsatisfactory affair of the heart.
Bob is the least realised of the main characters, deliberately so, I think. He should be a more sympathetic persona give that he embodies some of the qualities that were feted in the 1960s — attractiveness, creativity, openness, freedom — the kind of boy that girls’ parents hated. He’s self-centred, what we would now term a commitment-phobe, and as slippery as an eel. Like people who are trained to read rooms and situations for their level of danger, you feel that Bob always knows where the nearest exit is. He willingly agrees to spend the weekend with Alex babysitting for her friends the Hodsons, a rare opportunity for Alex to have his company for a length of time.
Bit by bit you see the danger signs. Alex laughingly says how funny it would be if they got engaged in her friends’ bed, a remark which doesn’t land as lightly as she hoped. She looks wistfully at the children playing. She drafts a letter of resignation for work, not hearing what is behind Bob’s question about whether that decision has anything to do with him. With his customary fluid ease, he says he has to go out, and he slips through the door and is gone, off for a spot of afternoon delight with Daniel. (When he returns he tells Alex she is behaving like a possessive wife, and she apologises.)
At the end of the weekend, Alex is driving them back to her home — oh dear, you know your car has a door, right? Sure enough, Bob sees an opportunity and in the wink of an eye he is in the middle of the road, hailing a taxi going in the opposite direction. Got to get my eight hours, is his unlikely explanation.
In a later scene, he does the same to Daniel, when a group of friends descend on them in Daniel’s house and become very tiresome. Unable, unwilling, whatever, to support Daniel in dealing with a not very demanding social situation, he’s gone, down the stairs and out of the door.
The mood is lightened through the depiction of the Hodson household. Bill and Alva are relentlessly liberal, ‘modern’ parents who believe in being open and adult with their noisy demanding precocious brood of five children, including a babe in arms.
In a deftly handled satirical scene, the children descend on Alex and Bob in bed the next morning, saying that they usually watch their parents having a bath. The young boy is smoking pot, which the children know their parents hide in the record cabinet behind Tristan and Isolde. Where else? When Alex looks mildly surprised, he asks her if she’s bourgeois. The eldest girl relentlessly grills Alex about Bob’s temporary absence, showing quite a remarkable awareness of the impact it is having on her. It’s actually preferable to present-day presentations of this type of situation, where Alex would have an outrageous best friend who drinks a lot and tells her to set boundaries.
Quite early in the film, the ground is prepared for Bob’s imminent departure. Messing with the installation he has established in Daniel’s garden, he casually asks if Daniel thinks his work would go down well in America. Unlike Alex, Daniel senses danger. His measured, guarded response and watchful expression is typical of the way he and Alex have to be constantly alert, always ready to pick up crumbs of information, always ready to read Bob’s mood. Alex articulates it only when she is finally ready to let Bob go — the need to be civilised, and not to ask questions, and always having to be careful, and always accepting of the fact that Bob is incapable of giving more than he does.
Alex will survive Bob, we feel. Well, there she is, Glenda Jackson with her wonderful bobbed hair and sharp line in polo necks and knee-high boots and her wry awareness of the absurdities of life and love. Look at the range of expressions that flit across her face in the scene where she and Daniel meet for the first and probably last time.
It’s shortly after Bob’s departure. Daniel is leaving the Hodsons’ house and Alex is on the point of crossing the road to enter. She sees Daniel, pauses, and is about to duck out of the encounter. Then her expression changes and you see her make the decision to style it out, her mouth twisted in an amused acceptance of the situation. She shakes hands with Bob’s other abandoned lover, and they exchange a few words. This brief scene encapsulates the essence of the film, in which urbane, civilised behaviour co-exists with emotional pain.
Daniel carries that weight
In the end, Daniel carries the emotional weight of the movie. One of the final episodes is his nephew’s bar mitzvah, a splendidly realised succession of scenes, ablaze with colour and warmth. It establishes Daniel’s place in his family and community, and the place of ceremony and tradition and continuity in providing connection and belonging. Daniel inhabits his role in this context with grace and charm, while at the same time experiencing the loneliness of being gay in an unaccepting environment, suppressing the harsh edges of his life such as the earlier unsettling encounter with a dodgy former hook-up, and the need to respond pleasantly to the attempts of friends and family to find him a suitable woman.
Daniel strikes the final note as he addresses the camera and talks about his life. He’s happy, he says. But he misses Bob, that’s all. He misses him. The pain and the yearning are contained and heartbreaking. It’s a magnificent performance by Peter Finch.
The screenplay is credited to Penelope Gilliatt with a lot of input from John Schlesinger and David Sherwin. But you know who might have come up with a similar piece? One of the switchboard operators. Such access to people’s goings-on, so many opportunities to meddle with messages, so many secrets to keep, so many stories to tell. The operator we see in Sunday Bloody Sunday, played by Bessie Love, is tickled by the coincidence that the protagonists share the same service, and as far as we can see doesn’t speculate further. Her knitting progresses apace, though.