It’s perhaps a measure of how London-centric our society is that if you were to mention playwright Bill Naughton to anyone then those who had heard of him at least would tell you that he wrote Alfie, the 1963 stageplay about a cockney Casanova that has been twice made into a film; firstly in 1966 with Michael Caine in the lead role, and a remake in 2004 starring Jude Law, the least of which said, the better. However, Bill Naughton was much more than Alfie and most of his novels, stageplays and film adaptations concerned themselves not with working-class London, but instead his adopted home of working-class Bolton.
Naughton was born in 1910 in County Mayo, Ireland. At the age of four, his family upped sticks and moved to Bolton in the North West of England and there he attended St Peter and Paul’s School. Upon leaving school he worked a series of manual jobs including that of a weaver and coal bagger, but his interest in writing saw him record much of his experiences of life in Bolton for the Mass Observation Project in the 1930s. When war broke out in 1939, Naughton left Bolton to work as a civil defence driver in London and began to submit short stories to magazines and newspapers. In the postwar period, his reputation was enough to secure him work writing for radio and he soon caught the eye of the newest medium, television. In 1960, television commissioned an adaptation of June Evening, a play he first penned for radio two years earlier. A story of typical, nondescript Lancashire street and its corner shop hub caused something of a stir that saw it proclaimed as one of the first ‘kitchen sink’ plays for the medium and preempted the similarly-themed Coronation Street by some four months. Indeed, Naughton would remain convinced that Coronation Street borrowed liberally from his play, and it’s hard to argue when you consider that, among the soap’s original cast of characters, there was one who shared the same surname as June Evening‘s central family; Tatlock. Faced with this fresh clamour for authentic, working-class drama, Naughton found himself ideally placed to benefit and he set out to mine the experiences he had in childhood and early adulthood in Bolton to keep this new appetite sated. A creative partnership with the actor/manager Bernard Miles at London’s Mermaid Theatre proved particularly fruitful, with all of his plays making their debut there. The first of these was All in Good Time, which, alongside Alfie and Spring and Port Wine, formed a conclusive hat-trick that not only marked Naughton out as one of the great new playwrights but would go on to reach wider audiences in the West End and Broadway before being adapted for cinema throughout the 1960s.
All in Good Time tells the story two young and virginal newlyweds in Bolton. Unable to afford a home of their own and swindled out of their honeymoon by a corrupt travel agent, the couple has no recourse but to reside with family – a situation that ensures that the consummation of their marriage is continually put off until the whole relationship is put at risk. The play itself originated not on the stage of the Mermaid, but on TV screens, broadcast to the nation as Honeymoon Postponed in 1961.
In the audience for the opening night of All in Good Time at the Mermaid was John Mills who, having so enjoyed the production, made his way backstage to discuss the play further. He had immediately seen the potential in Naughton’s work and had in his mind the notion that it would be a good film vehicle for himself and his daughter, Hayley Mills, with him starring as Ezra Fitton, the bluff gasworks employee, and she starring as his new daughter-in-law, Jenny Piper. Having made her name with a string of films for Disney, Hayley Mills was now approaching twenty and looking to make the transition from child star to a young actress in films that appealed to more adult audiences. Mills was disheartened to learn however that the film rights had already been acquired by the Boulting brothers who had an eye to cast their regular collaborator, Peter Sellers, as the Fitton patriarch. However, as luck would have it some two years later, the Boultings found themselves contacting Mills whilst he was making the 1965 POW drama King Rat and offered him the role of Mr Fitton – a role that Mills said was the best part he’d had since that other North Country comedy, Hobson’s Choice in 1954 – and suddenly father and daughter were back on to star in what was now to be called The Family Way. Around this time, the original play had made its way across the pond to Broadway, taking with it just one cast member from the original Mermaid production; Marjorie Rhodes. Having made the role of Lucy Fitton her own, Rhodes would go on to reprise it for the big screen too. Cast as Arthur, the Fitton’s son and Jenny’s groom, a sensitive bookworm and devotee of classical music (or “chamber music” as his bewildered, traditionally masculine father disparagingly refers to it as throughout), was the relative newcomer Hywel Bennett. Speaking at the time on his casting, the director Roy Boulting remarked that “We weren’t purposely looking for an unknown, but mostly for someone who had the appearance of both sensitivity and masculinity”It was a role that launched the young Welshman’s film career; a career that saw him reunite with Hayley Mills a further two times, Twisted Nerve in 1968 and Endless Night in 1972. Cast as Jenny’s parents were Avril Angers and John Comer, whilst Billy Liar‘s Wilfred Pickles starred as her sympathetic uncle. Other roles were played by Murray Head, Liz Fraser and Barry Foster, whilst the film scored something of a coup in securing Beatle Paul McCartney to compose its incidental soundtrack.
Put simply, The Family Way is a delight from start to finish. It is a film I became aware of from an early age, being something of a favourite in my own family, who could recite choice examples of Naughton’s dialogue and still find it hilariously funny (one particular line from Liz Fraser is arguably the one that my father forever associates with the film). It was also the fact that the film was shot in, what was then at least, a still recognisable Bolton that attracted me to it as a kid. Whilst other kitchen sink movies afforded me the opportunity to look at streets and chimney-stacked horizons that I could see where similar to those I found myself growing up around, The Family Way went further by showing me actual streets that I had properly walked down; the Lancashire town being only thirty-odd miles away from my doorstep, with its market the reason for regular days out there. Naughton’s genius as a writer was his incredible ear for the way we in the North West speak, and his ability to successfully translate that to the page, stage or screen with only the minimal poetic flourish. As such, The Family Way feels incredibly authentic and deeply relatable, even today. Granted, the notion of a young couple being virgins on their wedding day may now seem like a thing of the past, but the set-up of such couples being forced to live under the same roof as their parents and in-laws is sadly not as outdated today as it once was, as younger people are finding it harder and harder to climb even the first footing of the property ladder. When director Nigel Cole and East is East writer Ayub Khan-Din came to remake the film in 2011, reverting back to Naughton’s original title, All in Good Time, they chose to keep the Bolton setting but updated it to explore the impact that decades of immigration from India and Pakistan had upon the town. Changing the ethnicity of the characters ensured that the narrative remained just as fresh and relevant as it felt to young Britons in the ’60s, now reflecting as it did the Hindu tradition of forbidding sex before marriage and the respecting of one’s elders.
And so The Family Way is that rare thing, a relatable romantic comedy and familial drama. But it is also blessed by fine performances that help sell these qualities just as much as Naughton’s writing and it moves between light and shade with ease. John Mills delivers one of his career highlights as Ezra Fitton, capturing the comedy of the man, but also the tragedy. Watch the scene at the reception where he challenges Arthur to ‘the elbow game’, an arm-wrestling contest, and see the look in his tear-pricked, sweating and anguished face as his son almost bests him. There’s so much in that one silent moment, so much shared in just the looks between both Mills and Bennett, that says everything about the moment when the child has become a man and how some fathers simply aren’t prepared for it to happen. Inevitably, Arthur realises that his father’s pride means the world to him and so he throws the contest to allow him that one victory, even though he knows it will become one more thing his domineering patriarch holds over him. Indeed, it could be argued that this is a pivotal moment; his inability to prove himself a man, for whatever good intention, becomes enlarged and twisted, hall of mirrors style, into the problems he goes on to have to consummate his love for Jenny, with Ezra’s contempt for his son’s book reading and ‘chamber music’ listening serving as an implicit concern that Arthur may be homosexual. Bennett expresses the inarticulacy and sensitivity of a youth who knows there’s a better life out there somewhere with Jenny, but has built so much store in it that he’s afraid to pursue it in case it crumbles. It also goes without saying that he shares incredible chemistry with Hayley Mills and that the pair together were simply gorgeous. I can’t be alone in wishing that Mills and Bennett became an item in real life, rather than Mills and her director, Roy Boulting. The maturity of Hayley Mills is intrinsically linked to The Family Way; not only did the subject matter of the film and its requirement of her to undress before the cameras suggest adulthood, but her subsequent love affair with Boulting, thirty-three years her senior and already married, told the world that she was no longer the innocent Disney child star. Whilst you may argue that Mills overshadows Bennett somewhat, it’s only really her star that does so. Bennett has the better story, in so much as the onus of the drama remains on him; British society of the 1960s still seemed to believe that sex was something that happened to a woman, rather than it being something a woman can initiate and desire herself. That said, as she waits patiently for something to happen, she does appear increasingly distracted by Arthur’s younger brother, the carefree Geoffrey (Murray Head). This small, but loaded, subplot draws parallels and echoes across the generation when, at a family summit between Arthur and Jenny’s parents, Marjorie Rhodes’ Lucy Fitton implicitly reveals the one thing that has niggled away subconsciously at the back of Ezra’s mind about his bewildering son; that he isn’t actually his. In another example of the comedy of the piece moving easily to something much more poignant, Lucy challenges her husband’s suggestion that there is something ‘queer’ about their son, by comparing it to the ‘queerness’ of his decision to allow his best friend, Billy, to accompany them on their honeymoon in Blackpool many years earlier. Later, Lucy tells Mrs Piper of the evening she spent alone with Billy, the man whom Ezra idolised, when he was working late and how Billy subsequently disappeared from their lives, with no explanation. No explanation was needed of course for Lucy, and Marjorie Rhodes proves, in those quiet, impactful scenes just why she made the transition from stage to screen. It is arguably in such a scene that the true worth of The Family Way can be felt. It is warm, witty and heart-achingly honest.
The Family Way was released in 1966, a lucrative year for Naughton which saw his other work, Alfie, also reach the screen. Whilst not as well known as Alfie, The Family Way has, just like that work, achieved a remake, as well as a great degree of cultural significance down the years thanks to that devotee of kitchen sink, Morrissey and the Smiths. As was their won’t, Smiths singles would often feature someone of pop-cultural or personal significance to Morrissey and the band and the cover sleeves of the 1987 singles ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’ and ‘I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish’ featured stills of Murray Head and Avril Angers from the film respectively. Naughton became the recipient of the Screenwriters award in both 1967 and 1968 and went on to see adaptations of his play Spring and Port Wine made into a film in 1970 starring James Mason and Diana Coupland (who has a small role as a neighbour here) as the parents of another Boltonian family, and his novel Alfie Darling, a sequel to his biggest hit, follow suit in 1975 with former Animals keyboard player Alan Price stepping into Michael Caine’s shoes. In later life, he settled in the Isle of Man with his second wife, Erna, and continued to write novels, plays, adaptations, books for children, short story anthologies, memoirs and diaries (much of which is now housed at the Bill Naughton archive at Bolton Library) until his death, at the age of 81, in January, 1992. The town of Bolton has never forgotten its adopted, famous son and at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre, where the adaptable studio theatre is named after him, revivals of his work continue to this day.
Released by StudioCanal on the Vintage Classics label, this Blu-ray contains extras that glory in the link between the film and the Beatles. ‘The McCartney Way’ is a look at how the mahogany hair-dyed music star composed the soundtrack and includes an interview with the gloriously named Chip Madinger. Of particular appeal to Naughton fans however is the inclusion of Honeymoon Postponed, the 1961 Armchair Theatre that was the genesis of All in Good Time and this film, affording us a fascinating opportunity to compare productions. An original trailer and stills gallery rounds off the package.