Film of the Month

Background (1953)

A couple head for a civilised divorce, but the children take it badly.

There are some films you approach with a heavy heart. It's sometimes hard to show enthusiasm for yet another stiff-upper-lipped war film or a quota quickie mystery set in a stately home knowing, before the titles even roll, exactly how things are going to unfold. It's certainly hard to anticipate a 50s marital drama starring Valerie Hobson at the fag end of her career with anything other than a sense of duty rather than pleasure. However, Background manages to surprise.

There's certainly few surprises when it comes to Background's milieu. This is all very upper-middle class: the husband's a barrister, the house is grand, the children have their own nursery and are shipped off to boarding school each term. There's even a faithful old retainer to deal with the messier aspects of life. It's all very predictable and artificial and a million miles away from the realities of most cinemagoers lives. 

Hobson and husband Philip Friend snipe at each other at dinner parties and bicker genteelly about trivia in private. Their marital rows are well-handled by the script within the film's constrictions but it's difficult to avoid wondering why no one swears at each other or complains about inadequate sexual technique. Family friend Norman Wooland is on hand to offer Hobson a route out of the marriage but since both male roles are undercast it's a case of out of the frying pan and into another equally dreary frying pan.

The film's secret weapon is the children. The men may be undercast, but the children are the best child actors the 50s could offer in what was a golden age for child actors. At first Jeanette Scott, Jeremy Spencer and Mandy Miller are typical middle-class film kids: well-mannered and slightly dull. Like the adult actors, they give the artificial dialogue a sense of naturalness but this is not a home life anyone would recognise outside of a breakfast cereal commercial. Then the parents break the news of the upcoming separation and all hell breaks loose.

Scott reacts with mercenary zeal, more interested in the new pony she'll get from new dad than anything else. Miller just wears a baffled pout. And Spencer reacts with blind fury. The sheer force of his anger gives the film the jolt it needs to lift it out of the humdrum. First there's a really believable fight with his sister over a photo she has of Wooland, then he disappears from school for a few days only to turn up with a gun he's pointing at Wooland. These two scenes make the film.

Sadly the parents see the error of their ways, get back together and it's all one big happy family again. It's as though none of the trauma, which included a murder attempt don't forget, ever happened. It's the ending one would have expected but, given the mad action, not an entirely convincing one. 

Script adapt.: (o.a.) Warren Chetham-Strode, Don Sharp

Director: Daniel Birt

Players: Valerie Hobson, Philip Friend, Norman Wooland, Janette Scott, Jeremy Spencer, Mandy Miller, Lilly Kann, Helen Shingler, Richard Wattis, Thora Hird, Jack Melford, Louise Hampton, Joss Ambler, Brian Harding, Lloyd Lamble, Barbara Hicks, Ernest Butcher, Rory (the dog)

Background at Amazon UK  

Background at Amazon US