~Think of a film starring Trevor Howard and Cynthia Johnson ~
I'm pretty confident that there are two responses to that instruction. One will be a bemused look and a muttering of "Trevor and Cynthia who?" and the other will provoke you to put on your best plummy accent and do an impression of the star-crossed lovers in Noel Coward's classic film 'Brief Encounter'. But that's not the film I want to write about. Imagine if instead of having to tear themselves apart on the railway station, our Trev and his lady friend had found a way to stay together - for a very long time.
This preamble brings me to the film 'Staying On' which shares nothing with 'Brief Encounter' except its two lead actors. Instead of sipping tea by a bunch of steam trains, Trevor and Cynthia play Colonel and Mrs Smalley, two characters who first appeared in a modest way in the last two books of Paul Scott's 'Raj Quartet. The Raj Quartet is better known for its television adaptation which created the fabulous TV series 'The Jewel in the Crown'. The book of Staying On was published in 1977 and won Paul Scott the Booker Prize. The film was then released in 1980 as a 'for television' film - i.e. not for cinema. I was surprised to realise that despite the book of 'Staying On' being a sequel to the Raj Quartet, the film of 'Staying on' predates 'The Jewel in the Crown' by several years. OK, it's not quite like Star Wars starting in the middle and then going back to the start years later, but I found that interesting.
The film takes place in 1972, 25 years after Indian Independence, and is set in the fictional Himalayan town of Pankot which in the film is easily recognisable as one of my favourite places, Shimla. Tusker (Colonel Smalley) and his wife Lucy are the only Brits left in town and all the others have died or long ago gone home. Tusker tells us that he was the wrong age when Independence came because he was too young to retire and too old to start over back in Britain. Staying on meant that Tusker adapted to the changes, building a circle of friends amongst the local Indians who stepped into the void left by the departure of his colleagues from the army and later from business. Mostly he hangs out with the type of locals who dress, speak and act like the men who left Tusker behind, men who turned themselves into mock-Englishmen, joining him for the consumption of phenomenal quantities of gin at the Club. By contrast, Lucy has no friends as there are no local white women for her to mix with and she struggles to deal with the class and race divide.
The Smalleys live in the Lodge, a pretty little bungalow with fabulous views which sits in the grounds of the Smith's Hotel, once the grandest hotel in town but now displaced for that honour by a new hotel called the Shiraz. Mrs Lila Bhoolabhoy is the owner of Smith's hotel and her husband Mr Bhoolaboy (or Billyboy as Tusker calls him) is the hotel manager and Tusker's friend. Mrs B is a formidable business woman with big plans and wants to buy into the Shiraz hotel group. To do so she needs to sell her hotel and she can't do that unless she can drive the Smalleys out of the Lodge. She sets about finding devious ways to get the elderly couple to leave, knowing from the regular visits from the local doctor that Colonel Smalley is not well. This starts with the tactic of sacking the gardener so that the grass doesn't get cut or the flower beds weeded. The lengths that Lucy and the Smalley's servant Ibrahim go to in order to secretly get another gardener without Tusker knowing are amusing.
Lucy is frightened. Tusker is so ill that she's been warned he may not live much longer unless he stops drinking. What will happen to her, what provisions has he made for her and how will she survive if he dies? She repeatedly demands that he tells her what her future holds and when he does it's in such a beautifully old-fashioned 'stiff upper lip' way that she's liable to fall in love with her elderly husband all over again.
~Never mind the plot, look at the view~
In terms of plot, it's fair to say that not too much actually happens in this gentle but deeply moving story and what does happen is not very surprising. My husband fell asleep on the sofa whilst we were watching it but what he saw, he said he enjoyed. It's not a long film at just an hour and a half long. The star of the film is Shimla itself, offering up luscious views, endless sunshine and a glimpse at a great city before it grew to the sprawling monster it is today. Trevor Howard is very convincing as the alcohol-sodden ex-soldier whose best days are far behind him and does an extraordinary job of going bright red in the face at frequent intervals. Cynthia Johnson is radiant in a wrinkly-old-tortoise sort of way, with her sparkling eyes and gentle elegance. She may be physically the stronger of the two but we're left to wonder how many of her marbles have been mislaid as her behaviour becomes increasingly batty. She dances around the house daintily, she talks to herself and to people who aren't there, and she's making herself sick with worry about her future and her husband's health. Here is a woman entirely believable as the elderly wife of an ex-soldier.
The supporting cast are fabulous. We have Saeed Jaffrey as Mr Bhoolabhoy and Pearl Padamsee as his unpleasant wife. He performs wonderfully in the role of henpecked husband to a wealthier, controlling wife and she is utterly horrible. Zia Mohyeddin plays Ibrahim, the Smalley's Muslim servant, and gives us most of the humour. There's a wonderful moment when he's cleaning Mrs Smalley's jewellery in a glass of gin and then polishes it off with an exclamation of "Waste not want not".
The director was Canadian Silvio Narizzan, of whom I have to admit I'd never heard although he's (apparently) best known for the 1966 film Georgy Girl.
If you are interested in India, especially if you watched and loved 'The Jewel in the Crown' then you will most likely love 'Staying On'. If you find films about the challenge of old age interesting, then give this a go. However if you love films in which beautiful young people run around having action packed adventures with lots of computer generated animation and stuff like that, then please do yourself a favour and skip this one.
The DVD of Staying on has no extras, dating as it does to a time when such things weren't expected (i.e. long before the invention of the DVD). The DVD is currently available for £3.75 including postage on Amazon.