Made In Balham

Last Tuesday: I make the pilgrimage to Balham. Although it’s my first visit, I share some DNA with the area: it’s the birthplace of my paternal grandfather. I’m there to visit The Exhibit, London’s smallest cinema. There are just 24 seats, comprising 12 highly comfortable sofas on raked steps. Ideally one needs to bring a friend, or risk sharing a sofa with a stranger.

The tickets are only £5, and they include a free bowl of popcorn. The Exhibit has a regular programme of second-run films not yet out on DVD (I see Made In Dagenham), and there’s a proper lit-up marquee sign above the entrance, making it feel more like a cinema, less like a screening room.

Made In Dagenham is a colourful dramatisation of the late 1960s women’s strike at the Ford motor factory. It’s an important history lesson, but the film keeps the politics balanced with plenty of humour and pathos. Miranda Richardson is particularly good as Barbara Castle.

What with this and The King’s Speech and The Social Network however, I find myself bristling at the inevitable captions at the end, telling you how important the events you’ve just seen are, and what the real people did next. They never tell you which bits have been invented for the sake of the story. I’ve found out myself that Sally Hawkins’s heroine in Made In Dagenham and Zuckerberg’s pivotal girlfriend in The Social Network are completely made up. This week I find myself yearning to see something entirely possible, but entirely fictional. No historical events, no science fiction or ballerinas turning into swans. Just for once.

So this Monday I go to the Prince Charles cinema (£1.50) to see – what else – Another Year, the latest Mike Leigh. It depicts a contented couple who live in suburban London and tend to their allotment, when they’re not tending to their various unhappy friends and relatives. Immaculate acting, particularly from Martin Savage as the bitter and violent Carl. He only has a couple of scenes late into the film, but it’s a part better realised than many leads. A world away from the camp scriptwriter he played in Ricky Gervais’s Extras.

Though it’s an ensemble piece, the film’s most memorable role is Lesley Manville’s Mary: selfish, complaining, frequently drunk, dominating the conversations. A typical Mike Leigh woman, though a very believable one. Like many of his films, I think enjoying Another Year depends on whether you’d enjoy meeting the characters in your own life. I preferred Happy Go Lucky and Career Girls for this reason. When the maternal Ruth Sheen finally mutters ‘Mary’s a bloody nuisance,’ I have to agree.

Another Year couldn’t be more different to the last film I saw at the Prince Charles, Inception. Inception is heavy on ideas but thin on characterisation, while Another Year is ALL characterisation and next to no story. And yet both films are engrossing and original and succeed according to their own rules. It goes to show that having a ‘three act’ plot arc or well-realised characters is only important where it’s important.

I say this because I’ve just applied to do a BA degree course in Creative Writing, at Birkbeck. If I’m accepted, it means two evenings a week from October onwards. As I’ve not taken a degree or student loan before, it seems I’m eligible for full state funding.

I’ve never had a university degree before, and after much pondering I’ve found out that I’d like to have one. Or at least, see if I can get one. Can only do me good. I still need an actual job, but this is a step in the right direction.

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