ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Charlie Bubbles (1968) Blu Ray (Indicator)
A successful screenwriter returns to his roots
Albert Finney plays the titular Charlie Bubbles, a Mancunian-born man now living a prosperous life as a screenwriter in London. After a furious phone call from his estranged wife, Lottie (Billie Whitelaw), he decides to head up north to see her and their football-obsessed son, Jack (Timothy Garland). He brings his secretary cum semi-girlfriend Eliza (Liza Minnelli) along for the ride in his Rolls Royce.
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A surreal examination of a personal state of flux between two social classes
This rather odd comedy drama is notable for being the only film to have been directed by the highly acclaimed British actor Albert Finney. While my own feelings toward Charlie Bubbles are rather ambivalent it is clear that, as a director, Finney certainly stamped his own distinctive style here. It would have been interesting if he had pursued his behind-the-camera career further.
In some ways, it has parallels with two other Northern England set cult favourites which were released 2-3 years later. One of these is The Reckoning, directed by Jack Gold and starring Nicol Williamson. It focusses on a Liverpudlian who, having found success as a businessman in London, is forced by circumstances to make a return to his hometown and reconnect with his working class roots. The second is the excellent Gumshoe, which reunited the pairing of Albert Finney and actress Billie Whitelaw as an estranged couple. As with Charlie Bubbles, Finney plays a fish-out-of-water character of another kind - a private eye with a Dashiell Hammett fixation incongruously placed amid the working class grimness of turn-of-the-1970s Liverpool.
Ultimately, however, Charlie Bubbles is quite a different beast altogether. Although there are some realist depictions of the burgeoning urban decay of Northern England (such as when Charlie and Eliza pass through an estate of old terraced houses which are in the process of demolition), the overall approach veers far closer to outright surrealism. This is obvious right from the jolting opening sequence, which features Charlie taking part in a boring business meeting with various accountant types amid the stuffy red-walled environs of a formal London restaurant. However, when he spots his drinking buddy Smokey (Colin Blakeley) - who clearly also comes from a working-class background - they get together for some banter and a riotous food fight which the pompous miscellaneous patrons visibly attempt to blank out. When he returns to his opulent home staffed with an array of servants, much of the action is filmed from a bank of CCTV monitors laid out in the manner of a doll house. The effect conveys a deliberate sense of detachment as if he never feels fully involved with the considerable wealth at his disposal.
On the other hand, while Charlie - like Nicol Williamson’s character Michael Marler in The Reckoning - returns to the grittier, earthier side of England “up North”, he seems equally out-on-a-limb there, too. His sense of being in an eternal state of flux, falling somewhere between the two stools of upper and lower class, is particularly evident in his relationship with food. Which is to say, he eats little or none of the various sundry dishes which are put in front of him (often at his own request) through the course of the runtime! During the restaurant scene, he would rather be throwing it all over his friend than actually consuming it. During a number of subsequent scenes throughout, he requests traditional unpretentious British working class fare such as cheese on toast, sausage rolls and a bacon sandwich. Again, however, he largely avoids eating them. Near the end of the film, in clear desperation, Lottie makes him a steak tartare - but he only samples a tiny mouthful of it before telling her that it’s a waste of good meat.
This unmoored man also spends a lot of time looking tired, bored or drifting off to sleep. This both engenders the idea that his life is like a dream from which he can’t quite wake up from, as well as the notion that, lacking any sense of fitting in anywhere, he feels distant from everything. While Finney is great in the central role, his performance is deliberately subdued, letting the rest of the cast bring the life to the story. Colin Blakely is outstanding as his boisterous, cheeky best buddy. As with the later Gumshoe, Finney and Whitelaw click together very effectively as a classic bittersweet estranged onscreen couple. Liza Minnelli made her first credited movie appearance here. While (to put things charitably) she hasn’t always given great performances over the years, her quirky, ditzy persona fits the film’s bizarre atmosphere like a hand in a glove. She is the embodiment (for what it’s worth) of what little real spark there is to be had in Charlie’s life. Timothy Garland (in his sole credited role according to IMDB) steals a number of scenes as Charlie’s son, who has inherited quite a few of his father’s genes by the looks of things (he asks his mother to make dinner for him, only to then abandon most of it and go to bed).
In the end, Charlie takes the one root he can feasibly do so and leaves the ground via a hot air balloon which he mysteriously finds parked there in the middle of the countryside. What is here on this earth just cannot satisfy him. Does the movie itself satisfy? Well, it’s distinctive, somewhat thought-provoking and occasionally funny. However, its intentional sense of distance from the action works a little too well in terms of alienating the viewer. Since Mr. Bubbles doesn’t care much about the world around him, it’s hard (at least from my perspective) to care much either.
Having viewed a clutch of reviews on the internet, it becomes obvious that Charlie Bubbles is one of those films which attracts a broad spectrum of critical evaluations. It possesses a clear semi-autobiographical slant as both Finney and writer Shelagh Delaney came from Salford working class backgrounds, only to rise to fame and fortune as an actor and writer respectively. Since this film is heavily grounded in personal experiences, it may connect with some viewers more than others.
Runtime: 89 mins
Dir: Albert Finney
Script: Shelagh Delaney
Starring: Albert Finney, Colin Blakeley, Billie Whitelaw, Liza Minnelli, Timothy Garland, Alan Lake
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
Once again, this Indicator restoration is superb. The print looks and sounds like it has just come hot from the processing lab, almost transporting the viewer back to 1969 Britain with all of its glaring social contrasts.
Audio Commentary with Thirza Wakefield and Melanie Williams
Wakefield is a writer and researcher at University of Nottingham, whereas Williams is a film lecturer at University of East Anglia. Together, they provide a decent commentary track which makes frequent reference to Shelagh Delaney’s original screenplay. They discuss the film’s musings on Britain’s postwar modernisation and social class structure, along with its place in the domestic film industry during this period.
The film was produced by Memorial Enterprises, a company founded by Albert Finney in partnership with another actor named Michael Medwin. Their subsequent productions included the Lindsay Anderson film If…. (1968) and the Finney-starring Gumshoe (1971). In another Gumshoe connection, that film’s director, Stephen Frears, stood in for Finney on Charlie Bubbles while he was tied up with wearing his acting hat.
It was distributed via a deal which Universal made with British company The Rank Organisation, who also owned a large number of UK cinemas. However, they deemed it to be too arty and thus only gave it a limited release - something which Finney understandably wasn’t too happy about.
Cast and Crew Interviews
The following six extras here feature interviews with various people involved in the film. While the likes of Albert Finney and Liza Minnelli are conspicuous by their absence here (we’ll excuse Billie Whitelaw, considering that she passed away in 2014), what we do get is still well worth the time.
In interview with the film’s producer, who opines that its lack of box office success was due to it being too personal in nature. He also reveals that the studio financiers thought that Albert Finney was mad to cast Liza Minnelli instead of a more conventionally pretty blonde, and that the balloon ending was devised because they couldn’t think of any other way to end the story.
Charlie Bubbles was cinematographer Suschitzky’s third film. It was shot mostly on location including, at one point, Albert Finney’s father’s betting shop. He also went up with Finney in the balloon during the final scene and, not long after they came back down to earth, they were questioned by police. By coincidence, Soviet spy George Blake had been sprung from prison on that day and they had thought that it was part of his escape attempt!
Terence A. Clegg
The film’s assistant director gives a refreshingly frank interview here. While some cite its box office as the reason why Albert Finney never directed another film, Clegg opines that it was simply because he didn’t enjoy the experience. The young Liza Minnelli wasn’t very confident, while Alan Lake (who was both a stand-in for Finney on set and appears for a few minutes as an airman who befriends Charlie and Eliza) was difficult to work with because he was a big drinker.
He also reveals that the scene where Albert Finney and Colin Blakeley walk up Regent Street covered in food was captured via a hidden camera with actual members of the public walking past. While some are evidently bemused, none of them seemed to recognise Finney despite him being a major star in Britain at this time.
Garland starts out by presenting us with his copy of the original script, which he exhumed when clearing out his mother’s house after she passed away. He then goes on to reminisce about his experiences of acting in the film and working alongside the various cast and crew members. While he largely remembers enjoying it, he didn’t like having to go for lessons with a tutor in lieu of school. He also recalls filming certain scenes - e.g. one where he was pretending to watch his favourite programme on television and a man was pulling faces behind the camera to make him laugh. During another scene where he eats an orange, he noticed that it was rotten inside. However, since nobody yelled “cut!”, he just continued trying to make the best of it.
After Charlie Bubbles had been completed, he was brought in to be interviewed for a part in a proposed adaptation of Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. Sadly, it didn’t come to fruition and he never landed any subsequent movie roles.
Engel briefly appeared during the motorway service station scene. She recalls that Finney didn’t really come across like he was directing; as a fellow actor, he felt more like “a mate” and “a schoolboy sitting behind you”. Between scenes, they were asked to get in the back of the Rolls Royce and have fun while the chauffeur drove them around for a couple of hours. According to her, much of the shoot felt rather like a big joke.
The film’s composer discusses how he created the score. He was heavily influenced by frequent Antonioni collaborator Giovanni Fusco, as well as French New Wave composers Georges Delerue and Michel Legrand. He had 40-50 players from the English Chamber Orchestra at his disposal and wrote pieces for an eclectic variety of instruments, ranging from the recorder to the banjo.
To Shape the Country
Danny Leigh - film programmer and senior curator of fiction at the BFI National Archive - presents this very brief four-minute video essay on the film. He takes a quick look at Albert Finney’s 1960s rise to stardom and how it led to Charlie Bubbles. He also touches upon its French New Wave influences.
Writer John Harding takes a look at how Charlie Bubbles reflected the respective backgrounds of both actor/director Albert Finney and, especially, writer Shelagh Delaney. While there are some parallels with Finney’s life, the actor himself maintained that the central character’s POV was closer to that of Delaney than his own. While her 1958 play A Taste of Honey was a major success, she subsequently suffered a major backlash from Salford Council and from the local press for what they saw as a negative portrayal of her hometown. As a result, she always held ambivalent feelings on occasions when she returned there. Worth a watch for a deeper understanding of the film’s undeniably personal nature.
CCTV Test Footage
As the name suggests, we get a few snippets of test footage for the CCTV shots shown during the sequence in Charlie’s lavish house. These were handled by assistant director Stephen Frears. Sadly, this extras isn’t as interesting as it sounds.
A theatrical trailer, image gallery and collector’s booklet round out the extras here.
This surreal, semi-autobiographical curiosity won’t appeal to everyone, for sure. Still, it’s of interest to fans of 1960s British cinema and, as usual for Indicator, the restoration quality and extras are a labour of love.