BBC’s Play for Today ran from 1970 to 1984. Each program lasted fifty to 100 minutes and told a self-contained, “kitchen-sink” story. Stage plays, original plays and novels were all adapted for the confines of the program. Play for Today is most known for the episode “Rumpole and the Confession of Guilt,” a one-off which later became a series on Thames Television. Many of Play For Today‘s programs are celebrated as stand-alone productions.
Schmoedipus is one of these programs, written by Dennis Potter (of The Singing Detective fame) and directed by Barry Davis. Save a dodgy VHS copy (now available online), the only known copy of this film is in a “New York Film Museum,” though a quick google search finds no museum of that name. The program stars a young Tim Curry, as well as Anna Cropper (The Lost Boys, Two Minds) and Bob Hoskins (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Brazil).
Here is Schmoedipus‘s plot: on her 40th birthday, Elizabeth (Anna Cropper) sees her husband (Bob Hoskins) off to work, then settles in to another boring day. Soon after he leaves, a young man knocks on her door, forces his way inside and claims to be her long-lost son. Glen (Tim Curry), now 24, was born by Elizabeth at age 16, then taken away against her will. She has thought of him every day since; now that he’s before her in the flesh, tempestuous and unbecoming emotions flood her soul, making her susceptible to Glen’s pernicious, poisonous influence.
Is Glen really Elizabeth’s son, a figment of her imagination or a disturbed stranger? The play leaves the viewer many clues pointing towards different conclusions. Whatever you decide, the essential fact of the play is Elizabeth’s trauma: first, at the rape which led to pregnancy, and then the forced separation between mother and child. It’s hard not to watch the film and think “poor Elizabeth” at every scene, even as she almost kisses her son in a decidedly non-maternal way.
Equally impressive is Tim Curry’s performance as Glen. Schmoedipus came out a year before The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where Curry played the outrageous, cross-dressing, hypersexual mad scientist, Dr. Frank N. Furter. His performance here could not be more different. Here, Curry’s sexual charisma is subdued and sinister, equal parts childlike and serpentine. He delivers certain lines with a chilling mixture of petulance and provocation that will make the women in the audience very, very uncomfortable––and intrigued, in spite or because of their discomfort. At the program’s climax, he sings “M.O.T.H.E.R.” in a “sweet and wholesome way.” Curry’s vocal talents are used to great effect here; watching, one wishes ’70s and ’80s Hollywood had made better use of them.
Most of the action takes place in Elizabeth’s living room, where she and Glen have a long, sexually and emotionally-charged conversation. Glen sits on her lap, pours her “just a little” overflowing glass of sherry, strokes her arm and then throws tantrums, much to her bewilderment. Glen tells her that he burned his adoptive parents’s house down, that he escaped from a mental institution, that “you owe me my childhood all over.” They never kiss, or do anything worse, though they do come quite close.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s husband has a Willy-Loman-style crack-up at the office. Himself an overgrown child, Mr. Elizabeth has a full model train set in their house. In fact, he loves the trains more than he loves his wife––a source of great frustration to her. When he comes home to find Elizabeth quite disturbed, his main concern is not her state of mind, but the state of his trains. The image of these trains, running around and around on the same track, begins and ends this film.
Schmoedipus will unsettle any viewer. Its great performances and slow, methodic pace reward anyone willing to delve into it. Though not exploitative or violent, its frank treatment of sexual abuse may be too much for some. And Tim Curry fans will find it interesting to see the early beginnings of his career in film.
Above all else, this film reminds me of one line in Josyane Savigneau’s excellent biography of Carson McCullers. “Adults they did not become,” she says of McCullers and her husband, “but they did grow old.” This describes all three principle characters in the program: Elizabeth’s trauma froze her in time; her husband wants to remain a little boy, and on some level does; Glen wants his “childhood all over,” an impossible goal even at 24. Adding to all this thwarted innocence are twisted sexualities which, when denied, flood into inappropriate channels. Is there a moral to this movie? Not really, just observation of human sadness. Is that enough?
Watch Schmoedipus on megavideo, or find the elusive “New York Film Museum” and book a screening.