(Dir. Jack Clayton) (1967)
This is a film of definite morbid interest, the kind of dark, small, quiet, quintessentially English film we’ve come to expect from Dirk Bogarde. Here he is the totally useless dad, Charlie Hook, who answers a letter from one of his children (at least, we think it’s his), living together (all eight of them), in their late mother’s house. What happened to mum? Well, she was ill and passed on, you see, “gone to join Jesus,” so naturally they buried her in the garden. And continue cashing her welfare cheques. Their scheme to ‘carry on’ is subverted when father turns up. Charlie is happy to get with the programme, but he’s only really interested in looking after number one. He’s a little bit like Martin Sheen’s character in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. Bogarde and the kids are terrific, and the sad, savage ending seems totally apposite.
It is the type of small picture that can pass unnoticed like Mrs Hook – it failed signally at the Venice Festival – but people who manage to catch it on tape or late night television invariably respond to its strangeness and humanity. It is also something of a time capsule, in that the children interact with strangers in a way totally alien to today’s standards (e.g. the chap on the motorcycle who takes a kid for a ride as a reward after he recovers his scarf).
Bogarde recalled that his stand-in got him the part, saying the director (Clayton) “hasn’t got anyone in mind…Dead worried. Super part too. Just what you want after all these neurotic blokes. Cockney dad with eight kids. Right up your street. All on location in a house in Croydon; you’ll love it” And he did, too.
Not that it was all plain sailing. In his changing room (a little caravan parked in the yard) he found this note: “Let’s hope you are as good as you’re cracked up to be. You’d better be. Sincerely; The Children.”