Whisperers, The (1967)
The Whisperers, based on an excellent 1961 novel by Robert Nicolson, had already been made into a play early in the sixties. It was screened as an ITV Play of the Week. This earlier version saw Nora Nicholson take the lead role and was helmed by occasional Tales of the Unexpected director Graham Evans. In the 1967 version, however, the star is Dame Edith Evans. She plays Mrs. Ross. Mrs. Ross lives alone in a squalid downstairs flat that is, Life of Grime style, piled high with the things that she hoards. This seems to largely consist of old newspapers and books. But besides these there is a general untidiness. She also hears voices in the sound of the dripping tap and believes she is being listened to. But, this is no Gaslight and she is not being persecuted to the detriment of her mental health. Mrs. Ross is alone, no one is listening to her and the mental health of this lonely, elderly lady, is not the best. She is also poor. She takes her meals at the local Dickensian soup kitchen that supplies a dollop of religion with their bowl of slop, she warms herself in the reading room of the local library and she pays for shoes with a little help from social security assistance. One day, just like Nick Cotton from Eastenders, her son Charlie pays a visit. Played by prolific, British, Wild Geese starring character actor Ronald Fraser, Charlie is not, despite pretending otherwise, on a social visit. He takes advantage of the kindness, and vulnerability, of his mother by hiding a parcel stuffed with stolen pound notes in her shit-tip of a spare room. When Mrs. Ross discovers the parcel it seems as though her life as changed for the better. However, this little windfall is more like a blood trail in the water that sets off a feeding frenzy amongst the human sharks that circle the vulnerable. For example, a chance meeting with a particularly nasty piece of work at the benefits office results in poor Mrs. Ross being poisoned with meths, her purse being robbed and then being dumped, left for dead, in an alleyway. It is only at this late stage that the state intervenes. She is sent to hospital and allowed to get better. With Mrs. Ross recovered, her son now behind bars and her apartment cleared of rubbish all that remains is for her to get on with her life. Social services track down the husband, played by Eric Portman, who Mrs. Ross has long claimed was dead. He is down on his luck and living in a hostel. Archie Ross, for that is his name, returns to his wife only to begin bullying her, a bit, while spending her money on booze, hookers and horses. He manages to land some casual work but this is no more than occasional driving work, cash in hand, for a local gangster. Directed by Bryan Forbes, the man behind the likes of The L-Shaped Room, International Velvet and The Slipper and the Rose, The Whisperers is blessed with some fantastic cinematography. Gerry Turpin, more frequently a cameraman but later a cinematographer on Richard Attenborough's Oh! What a Lovely War, here wonderfully captures the Lowryesque smokestacks and dreary Greater Manchester slums that were themselves going through a period of transformation. It was a time when the decimation of row after row of Victorian terraces made way for new housing estates. In this, the film is a perfect time capsule of sixties England. However, this is a world that is far removed from “swinging” London. The supporting cast features a host of familiar faces from British television including Arthur out of On the Buses, Nanette Newman, the wife of the director, and Leonard Rossiter, better known as Rigsby from first rate situation comedy Rising Damp. However, despite so many here with a top-notch comedy pedigree, this is the grim, miserablist vision of the social realist Kitchen Sink drama. It is all cobble terraces, properties in varying states of ruination and muddy latchkey kids playing street games. It is also a world without hope. If there is one criticism of this area of film it is its pessimistic defeatism. While not every story needs a large dollop of Willy Russell type characters who try to “better themselves” away from their working class lives, equally it should not be essential that the people of the genre necessarily be, constantly, portrayed as a defeated miserable mass crushed by bureaucracy. Even the darkest of real-world situations there may be stoicism but also cheery good humour that finds its expression. But not here, not in The Whisperers. This is a world that can rival that of Ken Loach or Alan Bleasdale, director of the iconic eighties Kitchen Sink revivalist series Boys from the Blackstuff, in its sheer despondency. In this world, as with that of Yosser Hughes, there is no relief for The Whispers. There is only the retreat into madness and the company of a mind conversation with a dripping tap to provide escape. That said, this is compelling viewing, gripping storytelling and a wonderfully realised alternative vision to the one that describes a decade of the flower children. It is a film deserving of every single award it collected. This is first rate British drama and as bleak and downbeat a film as the tail end of the British new wave could produce.