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f i l m

Very Like a Whale

Written by John Osborne
published by Faber & Faber in 1971
A 1981 independent film durected by Alan Bridges
starring Alan Bates and Gemma Jones

THIS FILM SEEMS to have been shown on television in England and the US once, released to video (though I have never seen a copy of the commercial release) and then forgotten.

Shot on location in London, New York and Cambridge, the subject of the story, an industrialist called Jock Mellor, has risen above his working class roots to become a captain of industry. We meet him on the day he is knighted; his secretary is inspects him fondly (a relationship is hinted at) and sends him off to pick up his family on the way to Buckingham Palace.

The moment we see Jock with his wife (Gemma Jones) and child, we know that they are barely speaking, and in fact, following an elaborate reception, the Mellors have a bitter row. It is never made clear what has made her so angry, him so empty, their little daughter so cold: their lives are hollow.

Sir Jock tries to connect with an old friend, but doesn't succeed. He visits his father, who sits in a fusty parlor, far more interested in the television than in the visit of his son. They are worlds apart.

Mellor is taken ill (exhaustion? weltschmerz? a weak heart? it isn't made clear) but only his secretary visits him in hospital. His wife points out that he is 47 years old and has no friends.

On a business trip to New York, he sees his ex-wife, who takes no interest in him, and spends a painful afternoon with his teenage son who answers his questions with only a word or two, and seems to have no curiosity about his life. Mellor's address to a gathering of other businessmen, and later, an appearance on American television, degenerates into a rave about the evils of the world.

In the midst of the television interview he becomes muddled, abruptly leaves the set, falls to the floor backstage... and dies. The last scene shows his father, as ever, watching television, talking to his dog and turning to another programme as a news reader reports the death of his son.

The performances in "Very Like a Whale" are fine; the locations are interesting ... it's the story that lets us down. We are not shown what's wrong, and the stifling air of hopelessness and bad communication is distressing, and ultimately rings false. Surely handsome and successful people like the Mellors would divorce and get on with their lives, rather than living in such pain.

The dust jacket of the playbook says that "... Very Like a Whale is perhaps Osborne's best television play yet. Its powerful theme, of a famous and respected man tearing his life to bits, has the dramatic depth and pace of Osborne's major plays." I disagree: if anything has been torn to bits, it happened before the play begins: we see only the results.

The title, a quote from Hamlet, is the sort of literary allusion that graduate students deconstruct; but Jock Mellor is no Hamlet. In its US release, the film was called "Executive Syndrome."

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.

Hamlet, Act III, Scene II

In the end, the main reason to see "Very Like a Whale" is for the considerable pleasure of watching Bates and Jones at work. As a dramatic work, it is minor Osborne. |||

Karen Rappaport, 7/01