Daddy Issues

I watched The Good Father (1986).

We start with a grey, sad London scene.

Bill Hooper (played by Anthony Hopkins) is spending time with his son Christopher before taking him back to mum Emmy (played by Harriet Walter). They split up some time ago and relations between them are quite tense, as Emmy has a new man and is still living in their old flat.

One theme of this story is that everyone in the Hoopers’s circle of friends has a background in student activism or close to it, and they’re still angry about Thatcher, Greenham Common, and so on. There is a flash back to Bill driving home Emmy and her radical lawyer friend Jane Powell (played by Miriam Margoyles) from a demo against Cruise Missiles. Look on her kitchen noticeboard and you can see Emmy has a poster about protests around the RAF Molesworth deployment as well, the less-famous sibling of Greenham.

Bill is given to driving around the grim London streets on his motorbike, brooding about everything. He has a little accident en route to a fancy party full of jolly middle class liberals, and only belatedly realises that the cuts and bruises on his face are causing some of the hesitant reactions he is encountering. We learn later on that Bill works in the marketing department of a publishing house (they mainly produce “part-works” – serialised magazines on particular topics), so he is not actually out-of-place in this milieu, despite turning up in tough leather biker gear and looking like he’s been in a fight. He tried to be a novelist before burning his rejected manuscripts and settling in to the other side of the business.

Of course there’s a TV showing a news broadcast about an inner-city riot, and that gets the party guests to do their utterly 80s political responses.

Radical lawyer Jane thinks we need to understand these angry youngsters, and she represents some of them in her work at an inner-city legal centre; meanwhile a smirking toff played by Simon Callow wonders what we can do now that “the steel mills” have to be shut down.

Bill is more taken by overhearing Roger, a teacher played by Jim Broadbent, breaking down in tears when someone tactlessly asks about his son – he is also divorced, and like Bill only sees the kid occasionally.

Giving him a lift home on the bike he’s able to start a new friendship and they do their access times together. Roger isn’t so keen on the angrier, more bitter side of Bill.

BILL: I’ve decided they really piss me off, women.

ROGER: What do you mean?

BILL: All this “relationships”, “inter-related”…

ROGER: It’s what they’re good at.

BILL: Oh don’t get me wrong, I always endorsed all that. I used to argue feminism against women, I was such a good boy, you know. I even joined a Mens Group once. Really depressing. Endless whinging. It’s not like the Womens Group, they enjoy themselves. They used to meet at our flat, I used to hear them haranguing one another, or roaring with laughter while I was making the bloody tea [laughs]. I really envied them. I knew at the time they were right to be angry. I knew they were absolutely justified. I never disputed that for a moment. All the same, they really piss me off.

A conversation with his boss Creighton at the office Christmas disco plants the idea in Bill that what Roger needs is to “jerk the lead” of his ex-wife Cheryl with a solicitors letter. Creighton is played by Stephen Fry in one of his earliest film roles before he was a household name, and he turns in an early draft of the performance that would grow into the invincible “Dammit” sketches, but here it’s kept at a reasonable volume and fully straight-faced.

Cheryl had a fully out-of-control experience in the 1968-71 years, getting thrown out of Oxford for putting LSD in drinking water and then having a string of arrests and deportations for various protests and provocations. Now she’s out-of-work but taking a big chunk of Roger’s income and planning to go away to Australia with her new lesbian lover (never seen). Bill finally gets Roger to stop taking her feminist antics as a jolly old game and fight back for some basic rights as a dad.

But then things start to move a bit faster than Bill expected, and other men – more important men, smarter and sharper men who clearly look down on him in distaste – come in and start moving the situation in a more decisive way. The solicitor gets in touch with a highly effective barrister, who turns out to be Mark Varda, the smarmy git at the party. Varda knows all the tricks of the game and how to play for the best slot before the best judge, ie. the one most likely to be unsympathetic to any kind of feminist nonsense. This turns out to be Clifford Rose playing some ageing reactionary (“not Catholic but very High”).

“You had no idea your wife was subject to these tendencies?”

The child is grabbed from playgroup and Cheryl has to turn up at the next hearing, in which her old diatribes are cited as evidence of her instability. It is mentioned that she went through the ritual of marrying her “wife” and it was reported in Gay News but had no validity.

Thatcher’s Britain is still pretty grim and unappealing. There are not yet signs of major new developments, and strikes are still a fixture since of course they didn’t stop instantly in 1979.

VARDA: Ah, South London, has a flavour all of its own, doesn’t it. Wading through the muck and mire – hello muck, hiya mire! [dances on uncollected street refuse]

ROGER: They’re still out then, the dustmen?

VARDA: The awkward squad… so exhilarating, living in a period of radical change.

BILL: I suppose you think they’re overpaid?

VARDA: On the contrary, I think they should be paid twice as much, and they should employ half as many people. What to do with the surplus people – that seems to be the problem.

ROGER: It’s not about pay actually, it’s about the council wanting to employ private contractors.

In all this time Bill has been having a relationship with a younger woman at work, but it doesn’t make him happier. He has persistent nightmares and visions in which he seems to be breaking through a membrane to attack Christopher – in these moments, Hopkins looks startlingly similar to his later masked incarnation as Hannibal Lecter.

Even if he can’t find satisfaction, Bill should be glad that the property in Battersea he moves into and starts renovating will almost certainly be worth about a million quid in 25 years time. That’s good since he was only getting 22 grand a year at the publishers, which was apparently a decent wage circa 1985 even if you only lived in the dingier, southern parts of London. We catch a brief glimpse of his neighbour as he puts his new fences up around so he never has to see them again.

But he still has the sadness of realising who was at fault in the breakdown of his marriage and why he became restless. His friendship with Roger is another temporary attachment due to end.

The time of the story is clearly 1985/6 – AIDS is not yet a topic for everyone to think about it, and “yuppies” are unheard of, nobody has a mobile phone. The same time as Shadey. The soundtrack is smooth jazzy TV movie music, with a few electronic flourishes. Bill’s little monologue, and his story, turned out to be a precursor of the later career of journalist Neil Lyndon from the early 90s onward. Some of Lyndon’s articles now seem to have been channeling Bill’s spirit years later, presumably unconsciously as I don’t think he ever referred to him. I did not see this film at the time but I remember the Radio 4 reviewers thinking that it was crucial that the children were male and that motivated Bill’s concern. That didn’t strike me at all, watching in the 2020s. Fun fact: Roger’s son was played by Tom Jamieson, who ended up having a career as a writer.

Also on the Film 4 DVD release is a short extra feature Juvenile, from 2007, directed by China Moo-Young, who later did lots of other things. Set in a tower block where Sarah lives with dad Steve, and it’s not at all clear who is the child in the relationship, even when he makes a point of trying to break up her relationship with new boyfriend Leon.

It seems that tension may be building up slowly, but we end in bathos and the slightly sad suggestion that this is a loop repeated many, many times and to be repeated again.

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