Moonlight On The Highway



UK 1969 : James MacTaggart : 50 mins

A seminal moment in the career of legendary TV dramatist Dennis Potter, Moonlight On The Highway marked his first collaboration with producer Kenith Trodd, and his first use of the ‘popular music’ that would become his trademark in later Trodd collaborations Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective.While Moonlight lacks its successors’ complexity and sophistication, it still stands up as a quirkily disturbing British variation on Psycho.

While Ian Holm’s David Peters is considerably less dangerous than his stateside cousin Norman Bates, they’re otherwise strikingly similar: nervy, quiet, mother-fixated, psychologically-scarred obsessives dividing their time between the real world and the escapist fantasy-zones of their imagination. They even look the same: dark, boyishly handsome and slender, but completely ill at ease with the opposite sex.

As Bates remarks, ‘every boy needs a hobby,’ and while his is taxidermy, Peters is fanatically devoted to an obscure (but real) American crooner of the 30s and 40s, Al Bowlly. Peters edits ‘The Al Bowlly Tapestry,’ a photocopied newsletter which he distributes to the other members of the (fictional) Al Bowlly Appreciation Society – he appears to be the only member below 60. For Peters, Bowlly represents an idealised version of the pre-war past: a world of romance and innocence encapsulated by dreamy, gentle songs like ‘Moonlight on the Highway.’

There’s no great enigma behind David’s escapism – as the play opens in a psychiatrist’s waiting room, the camera moves among a succession of elderly patients as we ‘hear’ their nostalgic thoughts, then we come to David, who asserts he does not remember being sexually assaulted at the age of 10 by a man with ‘spiky hair and eyes the colour of phlegm.’ This incident – plus the wartime death of David’s father – left a hole in the boy’s psyche which the songs of Bowlly, also killed in London during the war, so quickly filled.

A “longing for Eden,” according to the psychiatrist – the glacially unsympathetic Anthony Bate as one of Potter’s many pseudo-omnipotent medical authority-figures: “I – am – not – God!,” he announces, in revealingly Jehovah-like tones. As in Psycho, the psychiatrist is given ample screen time to expound his analysis and his phrases (“the obsession has taken over”) sound just like Simon Oakland’s glib theories in the Hitchcock movie. Not that either expert turns out to be wrong – Potter stresses the accuracy of the psychologist’s comments with a climactic confession from David at the Bowlly society’s annual get-together, where the cumulative effect of pills, alcohol and, perhaps most crucially of all, exposure to actual film of Bowlly in action, sends David into a gleeful dam-burst of sexual frankness.

Director MacTaggart emphasises the psychological aspects of Potter’s script – all the scenes are set indoors, in a variety of claustrophobic or unsettling environments, and the only external shots are from David’s memories. Tellingly, the old people in the waiting room and the old people at the Bowlly Society are played by the same actors – this may be a result of budgetary considerations, but the results convey the heightened unreality of David’s world, his withdrawal into a stylised vision of the past with only phantoms for company.

While MacTaggart’s primitive use of superimposed images and camera tricks (during the flashbacks) remain crudely effective – the assault is crosscut with impressionistic shots of the mother’s funeral – he allows Holm way too much latitude during the ‘psychiatrists’ scenes. The actor achieves some remarkable moments as David, at times achieving the self-defeating jerkiness of a partially-damaged android (foreshadowing his treacherous Alien cyborg), and it’s sad to see his performance dip into wild-eyed, gibbering ravings.

These are the play’s only real false notes – luckily for all concerned, Bowlly Society meeting is a real triumph, not least because it finally allows us to see the great man in action. Despite his striking resemblance to a young Boris Karloff, Bowlly turns out to be much more talented that we expect – partially justifying David’s devotion, and spurring him on to end the play on a bizarre note of ambivalent, triumphant audacity.

6th July, 2001
(seen at National Museum of Film Photography and Television, Bradford, 27-Jun-01)
by Neil Young
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