Back in 1996, I was trying to carve out a proper future career for myself. Having stuck around in temporary employment for a time, and also having dabbled in local drama to practice my acting skills, it was time to consider what I really wanted to do which was become a film-maker. At the Panico post-production workshop in Falconberg Court in London (where many of the tutors had worked on the Monty Python films) I was given my chance with an intensive 5-week course which involved learning some of the tricks of the trade from the experts, and at the end of it we were all able to shoot our own short film.
In the midst of all this, I was therefore seeing a lot of London during that eventful summer of Euro '96, and one of the places I happened to pass by was The Comedy Store just off Leicester Square, where one of the loyal members of that troupe was Josie Lawrence, now famous for appearances on Whose Line is it Anyway? on Channel 4.
The film-making course, alas, didn't lead up to much - the evening when all our respective bits of film were showcased on the big screen (at the De Lane Lea recording studios), I was stuck on the trains outside Ilford, and arrived too late to see my little bit of celluloid history - but the experience had been an enlightening one, and in tribute to that watershed of a summer, I watched two films on video: Time Bandits - dedicated to the many backstage boys at Panico - and Enchanted April, in tribute to The Comedy Store and Josie Lawrence.
Mike Newell's TV film features Ms. Lawrence in a welcome straight acting role, after many previous years renowned for amusing improvisation on Whose Line...? including her astonishing ability to improvise songs. She is one of just four [non-singing] majestic ladies in this pleasant semi-travelogue drama, the other three being Polly Walker, previous Mike Newell veteran Miranda Richardson, and Lady Olivier herself, Joan Plowright. All four get to show off their acting chops and play genuinely rounded characters, who are all charmed by the magic of the Italian Riviera.
Not that the men don't have a say in things as well however, with the excellent Alfred Molina as Josie's husband Mellersh Wilkins, and the always wonderful Jim Broadbent as Frederick Arbuthnot, married dutifully to the loyal but slightly demure Rose (Richardson), and therefore enjoying an alternative lifestyle as author "Gerald Arundel", and coincidentally lusting after fellow guest Lady Caroline Dester (Walker). The story was covered in a largely forgotten Hollywood film version of the book in 1935. The 1990's version however fits in much more with modern times and gives stronger emphasis on the characters, even if this does ever so slightly depart from Elizabeth Armin's original novel in some ways (the character played by Michael Kitchen was originally a much more immature fellow.)
The opening scene of the film, for starters, sets the story in its historical context: it's 1919, in a grey, sober London still coming to terms with the loss of life in the Great War, where Lottie Wilkins (Lawrence) sits depressingly on the bus, until her eye suddenly catches an advertisement in the newspaper:
"To Those Who Appreciate WISTERIA AND SUNSHINE. Small Medieval Italian Castle."
Struck by the prospect of such an experience, she races over to her club (for these are downtrodden but also well-to-do ladies) to seek out the advertisement for herself, and where one fellow club member, Rose Arbuthnot (Miranda Richardson) has also seen the ad, and the two decide to advertise for two other women to join them to help finance the trip (to the self same house in Portofino as described in the novel.)
The grey of London then switches to the sunny Italian Riviera, where after a slightly bumpy journey, Lottie opens the shutters and sees for the first time the exhilaration of the Italian Riviera. It's a delightful moment, encapsulating the experience of being somewhere totally new, as if in another world, captured well by Rex Maidment's cinematography and Richard Rodney Bennett's pleasantly invigorating score.
The ladies escape to this idyll, but their essential Britishness remains. In one evocative scene Rose sits on a rock in perfect pose under an umbrella as shield from the sun, whilst Lottie lies back on a rock and lets her long hair spread out, both of them in thoughtful repose
What I like especially about the film is how it uses its evocative setting to actually solve plot complications, rather than create them. The holiday itself is a means of reconciliation for all these lonely, slightly jaded characters. In so many films the couples (especially married couples) have a journey of discovery and ultimately break apart and choose new paths in life: here, the already married couples find themselves and each other, as the landscape affects them all in their outlook on life.
In one poignant little scene, Joan Plowright sits by herself in melancholy reflection, and looks for all the world as thoughtful as her late husband, Laurence Olivier, as she reflects that all her dead friends (the great poets) are not worth listening to tonight, "good things they say, many of them....But they've one terrible disadvantage. They're all dead. I'm tired of the dead. I want the living!"
Just then Lottie comes up to her and gives her a comforting little kiss on the cheek. It's a scene which typifies the simple tender sweetness of the film.
Enchanted April popped up on television in 1991, but just a few weeks later came the worldwide cinema success of Howards End, and Miramax eyed the possibility of a good cash-in on Merchant-Ivory's success, with another English Heritage-style drama, and so the film received a cinema release in America. As a result, Peter Barnes's script and Joan Plowright were subsequently nominated for Oscars, and so the film reached a much wider (and deserved) audience than had hitherto been expected.
All the four ladies are attention grabbing, but for me the one that holds it together is Josie Lawrence.
In many ways, it's a film which speaks about the joy of holiday and how it refreshes the mind and the soul.