A very enjoyable miniseries about a struggling film company at the dawn of British silent cinema, Flickers (1980) features standout performances from stars Bob Hoskins (Pennies from Heaven, Mona Lisa) and Francis de la Tour (Rising Damp, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) as mismatched, bickering lovers, though the ensemble cast is uniformly fine.
The six 50-minute episodes follow Cockney "Traveling Bioscope" exhibitor Arnie Cole (Hoskins) and his burning ambition to break out of exhibition and into the burgeoning British film industry. Circumstances lead him to Maud (de la Tour), a matronly member of Britain's upper middle-class, who in desperation marries Arnie to save her reputation after she becomes pregnant by another man. In exchange for his hand in marriage she agrees to finance his proposal to make a comedy starring diminutive comic Corky Brown (Dickie Arnold). Arnie may by an uncouth vulgarian, but she also sees in him a driven, hard-working man who'll pour all his energies into what appearｓ to be a promising investment.
Corky, on the other hand, is a typically tragic clown, a self-loathing alcoholic married to a loving wife, Cora (Valerie Holliman), though he can't reconcile her beauty and youth to his age and size. Other characters come into play, including Arnie's Welsh jack-of-all-trades Llewellyn (Fraser Cains), Maud's frequently appalled nanny (Peggy Ann Wood), and Arnie's crooked, arrogant business partner and tyrannical film director Max Legendre (Granville Saxton). There's also soft-spoken assistant cameraman Percy (Jim Hooper), who falls in love with Clara (Joanna Foster), the long-suffering daughter in a family of third-rate former music hall performers headlined by 20-something "child star" Dotty (Teresa Codling) and their parents, fragile Gwen (Maxine Audley) and irascible father Jack (Philip Madoc).
These myriad subplots are long in the telling but eventually pay off, though by far the best thing about Flickers is the delightful Mutt & Jeff-like pairing of lanky, sophisticated de la Tour (who's like an Edwardian Olive Oyl) with stocky, hairy, working-class Hoskins. A strong-willed woman unhappily forced into marriage, she uses her acidy, acerbic wit to vent her frustrations while Arnie, distracted by his obsession with putting his film into production, is bemused by her attitude toward him, and resistant to her efforts to make him a little more presentable.
But, as sometimes happens, opposites attract, and from the beginning there are signs that the two will eventually fall in love.
Viewers with an interest in silent cinema will also find much to like in Flickers, which appears to be pretty accurate in depicting its era. For instance, in those earliest days indoor scenes were often crudely shot outdoors in natural sunlight, on flimsy sets that wobbled at the slightest breeze, and that's what's recreated here. Corky Brown's silent clown, with painted-on monocle (like Bobby Clark's glasses, or Groucho's mustache), appears in footage that comes pretty close to the style and appearance of those early one-reel comedies.
In Kevin Brownlow's terrific Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood (1996), British silent cinema is shown to be greatly inferior and many of its filmmakers practically incompetent compared with what was going on simultaneously in Italy, Germany, in parts of Scandinavia, and elsewhere. Perhaps intentionally Roy Clarke's (A Foreign Field) teleplay reflects this, with Arnie and his collaborators' abilities not up to the level of their ambitions.
Video & Audio
As was the norm for British television at the time, Flickers was shot in 16mm for exteriors and videotape for most interiors, a production method that doesn't hold up especially well today, though Flickers is perfectly watchable. The 4:3 standard image looks about as good as it ever will, with two episodes on each of the three discs. There are no subtitle options.
The meager supplements are an okay Composer Biography of Ron Grainer in the form of several pages of text, and a nearly useless Cast Filmographies, with much less information than is available on the IMDb and elsewhere. It's especially unfortunate that Hoskins and de la Tour weren't interviewed for this release.
Flickers is fondly remembered by those who saw it when it aired 25 years ago on PBS (apparently with new narration by A Christmas Story's Jean Shepherd) and not seen again until now. It falls short of greatness but is very good, a real charmer.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.