Leon the Pig Farmer
Director: Vadim Jean & Gary Sinyor / Screenplay: Michael Normand & G. Sinyor / Editing: Ewa J. Lind / DP: Gordon Hickie / Music: David A. Hughes & John Murphy
Cast: Mark Frankel / Janet Suzman / Brian Glover / Connie Booth / David de Keyser / Maryam d’Abo / Gina Bellman / Vincent Riotta / Jean Anderson / John Woodvine / Annette Crosbie / Neil Mullarkey / Burt Kwouk / Sean Pertwee / Barry Stanton / Bernard Bresslaw
Too Genteel For This Gentile…
For his final-year project at the UK’s National Film & TV School, trainee director Gary Sinyor delivered a short film: The Unkindest Cut..
So far, so unexpected. What you might not know however, is that back then, during the early Nineties, the BBC made airtime available to screen student films. I’ve no memory of ever watching them, but I’d imagine they went out on BBC2 at 23.45 on a Tuesday evening, or some other graveyard slot. Given the 24/7 nature of broadcasting today, it’s hard to conceive that something like a ‘graveyard slot’ even existed: a time when the only viewers, were casuals back from the pub (remember them?), friends & family keen to see what the Golden Child had really achieved over three or four years and those with an eye for emerging talent (and sometimes a combination of all three). After all, it was a time before the internet, let alone broadband, so for those with interest – and those who still hadn’t worked-out how to program their VCRs – it made for ‘appointment television’.
It seems that Sinyor’s comic tale of a young Jewish man, unable to pass his final accountancy exam, struck a comic nerve with none other than Eric Idle. So much so, that he ‘phoned the following day and asked whether Sinyor had any ideas for a feature. When he heard the title ‘Leon the Pig Farmer’ in-reply, Idle reportedly laughed and said ‘Let’s make it!’
Neither history nor the IMDB record how far Idle’s involvement with the project went. In the end, it fell to Sinyor, his co-Director Vadim Jean and five other producers, to scrape-together £160k; a figure sufficient to cover production costs, but which left the actors working for free, with payment deferred until the film reached profit. One hopes that, after numerous home-video releases over the twenty-five years, that that would’ve happened long ago..?
Still, Sinyor & Jean were able to attract a veritable Who’s Who of British talent to the picture, all apparently willing to nurture & support young film-makers and good on ‘em for doing so.
As far as I can tell, having now watched the film, there remained two unresolved problems as production began: the choice of leading man and, err, the script.
A young graduate from the Webber School of Drama, the late Mark Frankel came to the project with a couple of TV-movies under his belt and the right ‘look’ for Leon. The film was to be his big-screen debut, though watching him in-action, I’m not convinced by his casting. Frankel’s portrayal of Leon is too insipid and winsome to be credible and there were times when I simply didn’t buy him in the part – or even as an actor. Then again, Mr Frankel probably came cheap…
The second problem – the script – has problems of its own, but we’ll get into them, later.
Things begin slowly, as we see Leon measuring the back lawn of a house: at this point, he’s an estate agent, although as he’s driving back to the office, he’s on his brick-like mobile, talking to the boss and admitting he’s a single foot short in his measurements: it seems he carries the ‘Jewish-guilt’ complex to an unfortunate degree, which isn’t a good fit for someone in his profession.
Later, he’s in a meeting with colleagues when his boss introduces Mr Vitelli (John Woodvine), an influential client, with visions of buying William Shakespeare’s old house (that’s bordered by businesses he already owns) and enveloping it in a glass-walled ‘leisure complex’, to include a ‘backgammon room’… Despite Leon speaking-up and announcing it can’t be done, given the house is listed (i.e. protected), Vitelli ignores him, along with everyone else. This proves the final straw for Leon, who resigns on-principle, only to find himself working for his mother in her catering business…
If things began slowly, they’d barely graunched into second gear by this point, though I admit to laughing aloud at a sight-gag, almost despite myself. I think the problem here, is that the ‘Jewishness’ comes at such a pace, in both its ideogrammatic dialogue and the mannered actions of certain characters that, for a non-Jew, it’s hard to pick-up such references without sufficient cues.
Recently, I reviewed Nia Vardalos’ My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2004): a film written by Vardalos – a Greek-Canadian – and starring a plethora of North-American Greeks and others. Vardalos was canny enough to realise, that a large percentage of viewers wouldn’t be familiar with her specific culture and the wider stereotypes she was about to lampoon. So, to overcome this steep learning-curve, she wrote a tightly-blocked opening sequence in one location (the family’s restaurant) and used a witty, endearing V.O. to fill-in the gaps in our understanding. I thought the end result – the first ten minutes or so – to be the funniest, warmest chunk of an otherwise workaday film.
‘Leon, by contrast, uses a succession of expository scenes across multiple locations and presents them straight, without cues as to how I – as a general viewer – should respond. Consequently, these early sequences read too much like straight drama; it’s as if the film-makers had no-one more experienced sitting on their shoulders, with the power to tell it straight; either that or they were all so petrified at the responsibility of what they were doing, that they ended-up boxing themselves in…
The mood is leavened a little when we meet Lisa (Gina Bellman), the proverbial ‘nice Jewish girl in the flat upstairs’. Leon acts cordially towards her and seems likely to take things further, given a chance, but Lisa has her sights set higher: ‘I want to go out with Boxers! Or murder-Detectives! Or… A tree surgeon!’
Later, Leon’s delivering a lunch to one of his mother’s customers, at a ‘Jewish Medical Centre’ and it’s here that, thanks to a nosey receptionist, he discovers his own father, Sidney (and proud lace-curtain tycoon) actually participated in an artificial insemination programme back in the early Sixties. Three times… (artistic licence, given that the world’s first in-vitro birth took place in 1978). Leon confronts his parents, but Mum Judith (a shrill Janet Suzman) is mortally embarrassed at having the past raked-up in such an indecorous manner.
Left to ponder his fate, Leon’s at the ‘Salt Beef Bar’ having his lunch, when a random parade of strangers crowd around, to discuss his personal life. It’s a storytelling mechanism that Sinyor & Vadim use so often in the picture, that it began to lose its impact after a while. Taken at face value, it amplifies Leon’s inner monologue (in a film lacking a V.O.) and expands his understanding of issues, but I also wondered if its very repetition, had wider significance. Maybe, thought I, the contrivance was itself a gentle parody of an aspect of Jewishness? Perhaps a cliché, commenting on how everyone knows everyone else’s business? Is it a North London thing? I’ve no idea, but if it is, it’s another example of what I mean when I compare this film’s steep learning curve to films, like ‘Greek Wedding, that have managed the problem with more success.
His interrupted lunch does cause him to revisit the clinic however – for a fertility test (if it seems random now, it’ll pay-off, later: assuming you’re still awake).
As if distracted by both the film’s pace and its bizarre plot turns, Leon has a gentle car-accident, in which he knocks a young woman off her bike: that’ll be Madeleine, played by Maryam d’Abo; a capable actress forever blessed/cursed by the soubriquet of ‘ex-Bond girl’. As meet-cutes go, it’s boilerplate stuff, in-keeping with proceedings thus far. As their eventual affair begins, it DOES at least put a spring in Leon’s step, even if a dull-as-ditchwater scene in a restaurant stands between Leon and the Promised Land…
Soon enough, Leon gets the test results and – wouldn’t you know it – his consultant, the amusingly named Dr. Johnson (a twinkly-eyed Annette Crosbie) reveals a mix-up in the original test-tubes from which Leon sprung. It seems he isn’t entirely Jewish, after all… In fact, his actual father, turns out to be one Brian Chadwick, a Yorkshire pig farmer.
On learning that Maddy hates the idea of him not being a Jew (or not being a sculptor, for that matter), Leon heads North in search of his destiny.
The true paterfamilias turns out to be played by Brian Glover; a much-missed character actor, who could elevate a performance by wrinkling his malleable forehead. Chadwick’s surrounded by his own constellation of talent: Connie Booth as wife, Yvonne. Sean Pertwee as Keith, a wannabe Cordon Bleu chef and Leon’s new half-brother. Although Leon’s taken-in with fantastical generosity by his new family, he struggles to adjust at being the son of a pig farmer; a distinctly non-Kosher occupation.
Sinyor & Jean manage to get comic mileage out of the number of pig busts, plaques & imagery strewn about the farmhouse and the writing is at its clearest & happiest here. But then there’s (another) mix-up with some artificial-insemination test-tubes (this time with a distracted vet) and the plot duly folds-in on itself. No, literally. Black becomes white. Up becomes down. Deus ex meets Machina…
It’s as if the writers couldn’t think of a compelling final act, so they just doubled-down on a (never seen) trope from body-horror movies (in this case suggestive of the Island of Doctor Moreau) that, in this application, merely serves as a catalyst with which to heal a cultural divide. And then, at some point, it ends, leaving viewers with this realisation: that Leon the Pig Farmer isn’t as funny as it thinks it is (or as its publicists needed it to be).
The film never did reach a higher gear and as cameos were wasted (Exhibit A: Burt Kwouk) and jokes missed, I kept thinking of what might’ve been…
Then it hit me: Maybe the film should’ve BEGUN with Leon as Chadwick’s favoured son; the joke being that he’d never felt comfortable on the farm. There are rich pickings here for a ‘fish-out-of-water’ storyline, which might’ve segued into the same test-tube McGuffin and a meeting with Sidney & Judith, whereupon Leon would’ve realised he’d always been Jewish… Right? Yet he’s a Pig Farmer! So how would we deal THAT?
I don’t know, but Leon could still reach the same conclusion as-written: that we’re all the same under the skin and that being a Jew, just means lugging around more guilt… So, not much different to Catholicism, then!? It would’ve allowed Leon’s misfit character to truly shine back in Yorkshire and mark him out as ‘special’ whereas as written, Leon’s character is about as characterful as patterned wallpaper.
But, as I’ve said all-too-often in this blog: ‘What do I know?’
Sinyor & Jean made their film, which is more than I’ve done: and on a shoestring, too. It won a smattering of British awards, including the Edinburgh Film Festival’s Chaplin Award for Best Debut and set both men on directing & producing careers.
Yet, for this reviewer, there’s not enough here to earn a re-watch. Any momentum splutters to a halt, the moment Leon drives up the M1 because, as an audience, we’re second-guessing what we’re about to see but hoping for something better. Then we’re disappointed at certain lazy Yorkshire stereotypes bristling at this blow-in from that there London and there’s little to hold us. While I’m on the subject, I also want to mention the film’s tone, as it wavers quite a bit throughout the piece, as the film struggles to remember it’s a comedy… For example, the opening sequences are so dry as to pass for drama, whereas the final sequence, which begins with the film’s second instance of artificial insemination (who knew?) touches on surreal: yet the preceding film hasn’t earned this shift in logic, so just falls apart.
A little more lateral thinking in-search of comic possibilities. A little more time spent writing gags for, you know, a comedy and things might’ve been very different. As it is, Leon stands as a relic from an earlier, perhaps naïve age. Had it been made today, it’d likely find a niche on a streaming platform such as Vimeo and build an audience from there. Indeed, it would probably end-up being crowd-funded which, in-turn, might’ve unlocked a larger budget, greater ambition and, who knows, the ability to call-on extra talent with which to share the load. As a result, expectations placed on its makers’ shoulders would be less onerous, allowing them to grow at their own pace.
There’s something else: Jewish comedy is arguably the richest source of laughter ever committed to film. From The Marx Brothers, right through to Woody Allen et-al, the field is rich with evergreen classics: and Sinyor & Jean would both have known this, coming as they did from NFTS. That’s why Leon should never have been made: aside from Sinyor’s graduation film, the writers had no discernible track-record with comedy (itself, the hardest genre to master), the leading actor had no comedic sensibility as far as I can tell (can you imagine how things might’ve been lifted by casting someone like Lee Evans in the lead?) and the film-making itself was, I think, fatally hobbled by its budget. There have been great low-budget comedies (This is Spinal Tap (1984) springs to mind) but they tended to be culminations of long-practiced routines & characters, already fully-formed. Against such comparisons, ‘Leon was bound to suffer.
As it is, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) was just around the corner and the notion of what British film comedies might achieve, once blessed with a decent budget, talent and marketing, would be forever changed…
The South of France is very nice at this time of the year. Or Eilat.