British 60s cinema
British 60s cinema

THE WHISPERERS (1967)

The Whisperers is Bryan Forbes' quietly excellent study of old age and loneliness, starring Dame Edith Evans (nominated for an Oscar for her performance, losing out to Katherine Hepburn in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?),  with an impressive supporting cast which includes Eric Portman, Gerald Sim,  Ronald Fraser, Avis Bunnage, Nanette Newman and Leonard Rossiter.

 

It must have been a hard film to pitch, coming out in August 1967 so presumably filmed in late 1966/early 1967, right in the middle of the fuss over Swinging London and youth; this film, more like a European art film in tone and mood (I can't pretend to be particularly knowledgeable about European cinema, but I was reminded of de Sica's film Umberto D when watching it today) is as much removed from the zeitgeist as it is possible to be, and although it was well-received it has aged much better than other contemporary films.

 

The film focuses on Margaret Ross, a 76 year old woman who lives alone in a ground floor flat in a run down area of a city (mainly filmed in Oldham, more of which below), who imagines she hears voices (or it just the pipes?, or just voices from upstairs?) but otherwise copes well enough on her own, although she also suffers from delusions of grandeur, believing that she is a Dame of the Order of the Garter, a Countess and a Doctor of Law, who is waiting for about £40,000 from the sale of her "pedigree cattle in the Argentine" and shares in Standard Oil.  Despite these riches that are on their way, she needs 10 shillings and sixpence and a new pair of shoes from the National Assistance Board (NAB for short, (a sort of precursor of the local Jobcentre, which in fact had already been abolished by the time the film came out).  

 

She is a frequent visitor to the local police station, the desk Sergeant having to listen to her oft-repeated complaints about the voices she hears, as well as the 'Indian' upstairs, although she is also convinced that whoever 'they' are, 'they' have got a key cut and come to her flat when she's out and go through her papers.  The rest of the day is spent in the local library, warming her feet on the hot water pipes, getting a free meal at the church, and badgering the kindly Mr Conrad (Gerald Sim) at the NAB.  She tells Mr Conrad that it was her birthday the day before and that her son sent her flowers, but we soon find out that this is another fantasy, as this scene reveals:

Avis Bunnage and Edith Evans at the National Assistance Board office

The young couple upstairs (Nanette Newman and Harry Baird, who played Johnny Fiddle in Sapphire) are unsympathetic, particularly after Mrs Ross unwisely accosts the woman (credited only as 'The Girl Upstairs') on the stairs and suggests that she is being held against her will by an 'Indian' and should try and escape.  She also doesn't get very far with Mr Weaver (Kenneth Griffith), who comes round to see about her new shoes that she asked for but appears more interested in what she can do with her flat (I think he is wondering why she doesn't rent a room out, the room in question being full of papers, and where of course Charlie has hidden his parcel).

 

Mrs Ross seems to have the same idea, as she has a clear out, during which she finds the parcel and, opening it and finding it full of pound notes, comes to the conclusion that it is her inheritance at last and that she need no longer rely on the Assistance Board. She therefore takes herself off to the NAB office, giving Mr Conrad £1 for his help and telling him in a letter that she is thinking about going off to the Bahamas.  Sadly for her, she has the bad luck to run into Mrs Noonan (Avis Bunnage, who seemed to specialise in unpleasant characters) and once she unwisely shows Mrs Noonan that she has money in her purse the latter has a plan to relieve her of it, taking her on a long bus journey to the other side of town to a pub, where she plies Mrs Ross with drink before taking her home, where her callousness, and that of her husband (Michael Robbins) is given full rein:

Found the next day by the couple upstairs (it turns out she has been left very close to her home, which makes no sense as it took a long bus ride to get to Mrs Noonan's house, yet it now only appears to be a short walk away) she is admitted to hospital, but makes a recovery, although with Charlie caught and imprisoned for the robbery, the proceeds of which were found inadvertently by Mrs Ross, and her general condition, the powers-that-be try to do something about her situation.  The solution they hit on is to reunite her with her husband Archie (Eric Portman, one of my favourite actors, who only made two more films before his death in 1969), who deserted her many years (decades, even) ago.  An officer from the NAB (Leonard Rossiter in a brief appearance) soon persuades the down-at-heel Archie that it would be in his best interests to go back to her, and he does so, but it is hardly a romantic reunion.   

The very first evening Archie goes out for a walk - "to get my bearings" - and is immediately accosted by a street whore (Clare Kelly) and he takes her up on her offer, but not before haggling to get a good price.  Mr Conrad at the NAB has presumably read Archie's file, as he seems to have got the measure of him straightaway, offering him a job as a cinema doorman which Mr Conrad and we the audience already seem to know that he won't even enquire about.  indeed, the next shot shows him, not going to the interview but to the betting shop, which leads him into unexpected situations:

Turn on, tune in, drop out

Without Archie, Mrs Ross falls back into her old routine, but for me at least there is a positive note at the end, for example when returning to the flat one day she asaks as usual "Are you there?" but in a hopeful rather than fearful manner; after all she has been through she has, at least, survived.

 

Much of the film's atmosphere is down to the location shooting, most of it in Oldham and nearby areas of Manchester such as Hulme.   The reelstreets website has a large number of comparison photos which can be found here:  http://www.reelstreets.com/index.php/component/films_online/?task=view&id=1117&film_ref=whisperers

 

I still don't think the DVD is available in the UK, my copy came I think from myrarefilms.co.uk, and is pretty good quality, as can be seen from the clips above.  Very rarely shown on TV, it deserves a much wider audience, and in a way, as suggested at the start, might well receive a more welcoming reception now than it did 50 years ago; in fact how about a 50th anniversary DVD edition? 

The pics at the top shows Edith Evans and Eric Portman cosying up over a cup of tea

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© Paul Thompson