It’s grim up north: ‘Roll on four o’clock’


One of my advisers informed me that the British Film Institute has an online media player, which contains a database of British films.  These can either be rented or viewed for free. He then sent me a link to a film contained on the site, called ‘Roll on four o’clock’ that he thought I might appreciate. (Note that I do not use the word ‘enjoy’ for reasons that will be explained momentarily). Released in 1970 as a TV drama as part of ITV’s Saturday Night Theatre, ‘Roll on Four O’Clock’ was written by Colin Welland (who ten years later would win the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for ‘Chariots of Fire’). Set in an all-boys working class school in Manchester, the film concerns itself with Peter Latimer – an acned teenager who is the subject of homophobic bullying, because he’s not like the other boys. The all-male teaching staff are no support. With the exception of art teacher Max Fielder (played by Clive Swift, who’s better known as Richard Bucket – Hyacinth’s long suffering husband in ‘Keeping up appearances’) who tries to protect him from the machinations of his teachers and fellow pupils; and who tries to nurture the creative instincts of the boys. Fielder is an outsider also.

As a film it is unremittingly grim. Latimer’s situation is cold, dark and hopeless. If he’d survived his only option would have been to make his way to Soho as soon as he’d finished school to get a career in hairdressing or fashion. As the film turns out this is unlikely. Even the lives of the teachers and the straights students seem depressing – with bleak, foul futures in grey, smoky Northern England. Egg and chips (with spam on the side) for teatime on a Friday seems like the only high-point in these miserable lives. The teachers are surly, bitter angry men who regard themselves merely as wardens of the hopeless youth in their care. One of them expresses his fantasies about the schoolgirls in the next door school. This was possibly seen as acceptable ‘banter’ back in the day. The only ray of hope is at the end of the film as school breaks up for Christmas, one of the younger students asks Mr. Fielder about his Christmas plans. The unmarried Mr. Fielder says that ‘we’ will be enjoying a turkey supper – a subtle hint perhaps that he too is a ‘lavatory cowboy’ – which is one of the charming expressions used to describe gay people in the film.

It’s an interesting snapshot of a time gone by. The film can’t be described as homophobic as clearly the attitude towards Latimer’s situation was sympathetic. Made almost fifty years ago I suppose this was a slice of life, kitchen sink drama about how grim it was ‘oop north’ decades before the lives of gay people tangibly improved.

Recommended – so long as you don’t require a happy ending.

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