The Family Way review – potent portrait of sex in the swinging 60s

In this rereleased comic drama, Hayley Mills and Hywel Bennett play a couple plagued by a wedding-night disaster and the neighbours’ wagging tongues

‘It’s life, lad. It might make you laugh at your age, but one day it’ll make you bloody cry.” After 54 years, this British movie from the Boulting brothers flares like a struck match with broad comedy, fierce sentimentality and a strange dark sense of life’s painfulness – and it’s an amazingly vivid time capsule of Britain in the 1960s. The Family Way, rereleased on digital platforms, is based on a stage play by Bill Naughton, itself developed from his Armchair Playhouse TV script, and directed by Roy Boulting and produced by John Boulting, with a musical score from Paul McCartney, arranged by George Martin.

Hywel Bennett brings his discontented-cherub presence to the role of Arthur Fitton, a young cinema projectionist in Bolton. (They’re incidentally showing Karel Reisz’s racy Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment and also Alfie, starring Michael Caine, based on Naughton’s play.) Arthur is getting married to Jenny Piper, played by Hayley Mills. Jenny is a virgin, as nice girls in those days were supposed to be before their big day, and presumably Arthur is also, although this is never explicitly remarked on in the same way, and – in art as in life – we are perhaps invited to assume that, whatever his later difficulties, the man involved will have discreetly understood the groom’s responsibility for gaining experience before his wedding night. Arthur’s mother and father are played by John Mills (father of Hayley) and Marjorie Rhodes; Jenny’s parents by John Comer and Avril Angers.

The wedding and raucous reception go off reasonably enough, although Arthur’s loudmouth dad insists on challenging him to a psychologically fraught arm-wrestling contest. But then – disaster. For an unpleasant prank, one of the boorish guests has sabotaged Arthur and Jenny’s marriage bed in the spare room of his mum and dad’s house (where they’re living for the time being) and, what with the strain of that disaster and the honeymoon getting cancelled because of a crooked travel agent, Arthur develops a nervous problem. He can’t consummate the marriage. The weeks of frustration and unhappiness drag into months, and the local whisperings get louder.

A kitchen-sink realist feel … from left, John Comer, John Mills and Marjorie Rhodes in The Family Way.
A kitchen-sink realist feel … from left, John Comer, John Mills and Marjorie Rhodes in The Family Way. Photograph: Allstar/Lion Int Films/Studiocanal

Non-sex after marriage could be a parable for the way most people in Britain were actually experiencing the supposedly swinging 60s, and this is a classic drama of the respectable and aspirational working class, with a kitchen-sink realist feel that feels more conspicuous from our 21st-century viewpoint. It resembles Noël Coward’s This Happy Breed as well as Billy Liar and The Likely Lads, with flashes of something like Dennis Potter. It is far more complex than it initially appears, with grumpy, boisterous Mr Fitton haunted by his friendship with his old pal, Billy, creating an emotional triangle to be replicated in the next generation with Arthur’s brother Geoffrey (Murray Head) falling in love with Jenny.

Marjorie Rhodes won a Tony for playing the part of Arthur’s mother on Broadway, and she has two extraordinary moments here, so extraordinary I had to stop my DVD and play them again in a state of “Wait! What?” When she’s talking about a passionate moment in her early life, she is suddenly transfigured in closeup with a kind of quiet ecstasy, and the background behind her face bleaches out into a heavenly white, the kind of stylisation that occurs nowhere else in the film. The second moment comes when she objects to her husband vulgarly talking about a “public convenience”. And why? She explains: “When I was a girl, I walked into a men’s place by mistake. What a sight. Two lines of them all wearing raincoats, with their stooped backs and their bloomin’ heads sunk forwards, as though they expected to be shot in the back at any moment. If ever I have a nightmare, you can bet your life that comes into it.” That taboo is well described.

John Mills is also very good, although there is something psychologically complicated in the casting, as if he is signalling to the public with his very protective presence that there will be nothing untoward happening to Hayley Mills, so recently the face of Walt Disney’s Pollyanna.

Losing your virginity on your wedding night (with everyone gigglingly speculating as to the outcome) is something that feels so ancient, although the whole nation went through it with the wedding of Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles in 1981. This film finds the tragicomedy as well as the comedy. It is surprisingly potent.

• The Family Way is available on digital platforms from 4 May.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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