Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Good Filth

I feel a little guilty recommending a film about a self-appointed moral guardian who campaigned against the BBC broadcasting Doctor Who and Magical Mystery Tour, and Monty Python's Flying Circus, but the "Masterpiece Contemporary" production of Filth manages to be good fun. It's a tart, fact-based comedy, in the vein of the madam movie Personal Services, which also starred Julie Walters. The show is unthinkable without Walters' stonily amusing portrayal of Mary Whitehouse, a prim, but genuinely caring, Christian so deeply offended by the Beeb's boundary-stretching tea time programming she mobilizes a grassroots campaign against it, putting her in the crosshairs of BBC director-general Hugh Greene. Just as the movie is too generous toward Whitehouse--who in so militantly rejecting the revolutions of the Sixties as they washed over Britain became a minor celebrity herself, parodied on the programs she railed against, name-checked or referred to in Pink Floyd and Deep Purple songs heard on the soundtrack, and allegedly inspiring Dame Edna Everage--it makes more of a monster of the progressive Greene than is absolutely necessary. He's swinishly portrayed by Hugh Bonneville as an uncaring opportunist: Not only is he deeply loathed by the more traditional writers and documentarians at the BBC (who retaliate by leaking controversial scripts to Whitehouse), but he ignores the firebrands who are giving him the controversy-creating material he craves.

There were more colors to both these adversaries, who "meet" in an outlandish dream sequence as Whitehouse contemplates giving up her crusade. And the film stops well short of Whitehouse's nutter phase, when she took her prejudices to court. But the comedy-etched portrayals by the two performers are in sync with the not-too-serious, not-too-flippant tone taken by writer Amanda Coe and director Andy DeEmmony, and it did get me thinking about the issue from the other side. (It bothers me how much vulgarity has seeped into the so-called "family viewing hour" of 8-9pm.) There is, in addition, a delightful supporting performance by Alun Armstrong as Whitehouse's patience-stretched spouse, Ernest; watch how he quietly breaks the news to Mary that she might reconsider the name of her group, Clean Up National TV, based on its acronym. Filth re-airs late tonight/early Thursday at 1:15am EST on PBS...with a few dirty words blipped out by our own censors.

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