Mrs. Caldicot’s Cabbage War

December 21st. 2009

This month people  braved the snow flurries and bitter cold, to come to the Lexi for our film club. They all enjoyed the film, so imagine my surprise to read  Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian the very next day quoting Mrs. Caldicot’s Cabbage War in a column entitled Talking in films:

“At the end of one dire day of screenings, we critics once sat down to a horrible tear-jerker called Mrs. Caldictot’s Cabbage War. Pauline Collins played a lonely widow who is pathetically grateful to be given a nice lunch in a restaurant. She simpered: ‘I haven’t had many afternoons like this’. ‘We have’ remarked the Observer’s Philip French drily. (The Guardian 17/12/2009)

Not one word referring to the film is accurate, they all misrepresent it. The film is not horrible, it is definitely not a tear jerker, Pauline Collins does not play a lonely widow, she is not pathetic and at no time does she simper.  Six years after its release, Bradshaw sees fit to denigrate this film again. On its release in January 2003  he said in the Guardian  : ” About 10 mins in, I all but lost the will to live”.  When it was scheduled on TV in December of the same year : “We’ll have enough turkey on our plates without having it on the telly as well. Most people reading this will not, for example have seen Mrs. Caldicot’s Cabbage War, a horribly twee British comedy that came out this year starring Pauline Collins and John Alderton, about a feisty lady packed off to an old people’s home.

What is it in this film that so disturbs Bradshaw that he needs to attack it again and again? what is it in this film that puts off critics, reviewers, distributors and programmers alike?.  Is it pure ageism? Amongst the unfavourable reviews the following comments would point to this:   ‘It’s hard to imagine anyone under 60 judging this worth a trip to the cinema (ch4 film reviews)’ ‘its target audience is undemanding oldies (Sunday Times) , “An old biddy campaigns against cabbage in an old folk’s home”. (Time out)”, Pauline Collins plays a geriatric Shirley Valentine in this senile comedy that’s well past its prime”. (BBC film review)

The comedy it is true deals with many issues concerning older people. The exploitation of a recently widowed mother by her son, the unscrupulous property developers, the running of care homes for profit rather than care, the sedation and neglect of older people, the manipulation of the media.

The story is a simple one. Thelma Caldicot  has been oppressed and cheated on by her husband all her life. After his death she is tricked by her son into a care home. The care home managed by a tyrannic manager and matron and poorly trained staff, abuses its residents by denying decent food, stimulation and genuine care. There, she is so sedated that she signs her rights away. Thanks to an understanding nurse she regains her self confidence, leads a revolt of the residents and eventually with the help of a sympathetic journalist obtains the ownership of the home.

The acting of all the well known actors and the less famous is very good and the script intelligent. There are extremely well observed and very funny scenes. The opening sequences recall Shirley Valentine and suggest the coming rebellion against authority. The breaking of the news of the death of her husband to Thelma by two novice police officers is hilarious in its realism. The comic quality of a slightly demented Audrey in a luxury hotel ordering a profusion of room service food challenges our preconceptions. Why should not care homes be more like luxury hotels? Finally the TV presenter, his put downs and Thelma resistance are satirically brilliant.

There are other touches which are fun. The cabbage which is the smelly everyday food is transformed into a football for young men, and boule for the pensioners. The idea of ‘mature students’ hijacking a school bus raised a laugh in our U3A audience.

But there are also touching moments. The relationship between Thelma and the nurse, the solidarity of the residents with Thelma, the change from passivity to creativity in people who have been overmedicated. Joyce who repeats what everyone says suddenly regaining her lovely voice.

It is true that there are a few misjudged scenes, and that a more stringent editing out of some redundant ones would have improved the pace of the action. It is also true that this is a film that conveys a message in an obvious way. That is not to say that all the issues it raises are not important ones that need to be aired and presented to a general audience.

Have all these people who decide what we see on the big screen no mothers or fathers, have they not heard of the the appalling regime in some rest homes and hospitals? Have none of them had to make the difficult decisions about their parents’ care? Many members of the Lexi audience said that the conditions of the Twilight Care Home do exist in real life, and that the film was worth showing in the cinemas. The comments of users on a variety of web sites were also complimentary

Does the genre of the film defeats its purpose? Maybe for some people but why not give the opportunity for the audiences to decide?  Only around 3000 saw it  in the UK and it has had no international distribution at all. Why?

Yet Mid August Lunch where the old women are infantalised and trivialised has been praised and internationally distributed in spite of being described as slight , anecdotal, good for TV by a good number of critics.

What is the difference between these two feelgood films about old people and their carers. In Mid August Lunch the old women are one dimensional and amenable. Their sons and carer gentle and inoffensive. In Mrs Caldicot’s Cabbage War the old people are characters in their own right. They rebel against an uncaring system.

The first film is seen from a younger person’s point of view. The second from an older one’s. The first film gets acclaimed, the second ignored.

About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
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