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Keeping Mum – the absurdities of the English Middle Class

Next stop Ealing...

Next stop Ealing...

Keeping Mum – Niall Johnson

Not quite Ealing – but close. At times. Ealing comedies were all about tone: a kind of arch, insouciant darkness to relish not just enjoy. The logic of the English social class system followed through to its ultimate absurdity. All the fixed butts of Englishness that were affectionately ridiculed then are here: the sexually repressed vicar; his irrepressible wife; the mad parishioners; rebellious teenage daughter; and the gross American who seems to be a creature from another planet. Stir in Maggie Smith having a ball as a kind of Miss Marple gone native, committing the murders she would normally solve, with scrupulous scruplelessness, and while the mix doesn’t quite come to the boil, it simmers along quite amusingly. Just as the Ealing comedies did really.

Kristin Scott Thomas does a nice line in the devoted parishioners’ nightmare wife of the dear vicar: sexy, secular, and neglecting all of her expected duties with a stylish indifferent charm. Rowan Atkinson does his vicar schtick but reins in the Beanishness enough to come over as a likeable but hopelessly unworldly Rev Walter Goodfellow. Patrick Swayze of course hasn’t a clue what is going on but as he only has to be a favourite British stereotype of a crass American – he’s fine.

Maggie Smith’s ‘Rosie’ who comes to housekeep for the Goodfellow family is the epicentre of the humour. She has just been released on parole after serving life for hacking up her dallying husband and his dalliance, then packing the bits neatly into a trunk, which inconveniently leaked the news and their blood onto a British Rail guard’s van floor. She now proceeds with all the gusto of a murderous Mary Poppins, to resolve all the problems facing the Goodfellows. Any threat, man or beast, is dispatched with alacrity to the hereafter with whatever weapon comes to hand: shovel, steam iron and a near miss with a frying pan which nonetheless manages to achieved the desired reuslt. Rosie’s Dickensian motivation emerges on the way.

The innocent social context of 50 years ago into which the Ealing comedies plugged their slightly surreal dark humour is no more – so they only play now as nostalgia. Keeping Mum is a reasonably adequate effort to recover that lightness of touch and quirky, guilty fun. But in these more brutal, in-your-face, knowing days you do have to buy into this elliptical, gentle, slightly mad humour. I did. It seems most critics didn’t. Your choice.

(December 2005)

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