Directed by: Charles Sturridge
Starring: Alec Guinness, Leo McKern, Lauren Bacall, Jeanne Moreau, John Randolph
Aka Last of the Summer War. That might be a little unfair but pretty much from the off, A Foreign Field is quite distinctively a Roy Clarke piece, even if it has a bigger budget and much much bigger stars than the sitcoms he remains famous for – to this day, in fact, given the 650th series of Still Open All Hours is dropping later this year. It is nonetheless, distinctively, a similar comic ramble through, in this instance, the quiet towns of Normandy with a group of senior citizens looking back on their lives and getting up to the odd bit of cheekiness along the way.
What a cast, though. That knocks you out from the beginning. Alec Guinness, Leo McKern, Lauren Bacall, Jeanne Moreau – even the dad from Gilmore Girls! Much as Clarke’s writing has long been a nostalgic piece of British television, it was Guinness’ championing and influence which assembled this collection of legendary British, American and French movie stars for a gentle TV drama all about the guilt and ghosts of World War Two, as a collection of disparate people come together while on a similar pilgrimage to the fields of D-Day.
Guinness very much plays against type, too – his character Amos is disabled, practically mute, and in need of constant care from McKern’s loud, grumpy Cyril, and both actors play off each other quite beautifully. Guinness’ underplays what would be a deceptively tricky role, communicating a range of emotions from anxiety, fear and sadness through primarily facial expressions – it’s quite a heart-wrenching performance. McKern is the centre, in many respects – booming & cantankerous, he nonetheless often drives the narrative which, well, doesn’t really go very far very fast. A Foreign Field is much more about letting these actors play.
If anything, Bacall rests almost in the background as Lisa, a widow haunted by her own secrets, particularly given Moreau’s enjoyably exuberant performance as Angelique, a former French prostitute who Cyril and John Randolph’s equally gnarly American soldier Waldo had encounters with back during WW2. Moreau is perhaps the most typical Clarke creation – the old floozy with a heart of gold, who sends the silly old buggers around her into a tizzy. Whenever she is flaunting herself on screen, A Foreign Field most resembles Last of the Summer Wine, if you can imagine those guys ever getting a feature-length foreign adventure.
There are, thankfully, moments of poignant pathos which ground the piece and prevent it becoming too light and throwaway a gentle comedy; McKern in particular gets a painful monologue as he faces the truth about Briggsy, their fallen friend in WW2 who Amos in particular wants to visit the grave of, which cuts to the heart of what Clarke is doing with A Foreign Field: remembering, accepting and trying to move forward. The fact the principal characters are a mix of British, American and French people is not unintentional and there is a final twist in the tale which adds an extra, meaningful dimension to the ensemble. Clarke’s script feels cathartic – an attempt to heal old, still open wounds.
A Foreign Field, directed gently by Charles Sturridge—not getting in the way of the talent on the screen—is, much like most of Roy Clarke’s output, the kind of film you could play on a Sunday afternoon for your Nan and relax into. It isn’t hugely dramatic, or really hugely funny, but there is an old-fashioned charm to the story, and given all of these cinematic legends are no longer with us, it serves as a reminder about half a dozen screen legends in their twilight years. A gentle, quietly moving drama.
A Foreign Field is out now from the BBC’s Screen One, RRP: £14.99. Get a 10% discount with the code TAPE 10 if you order through Simply Home Entertainment here.