‘Sliding Doors’ Meets ‘Mad Men’: ‘The Awakening Conscience’ in James Hill’s ‘Lunch Hour’

Apparently in 1962 if a girl had ‘been to art school’ it was a euphemism for being sexually available. Especially if she worked at Amalgamated Wallpaper. Robert Stephens, superbly weasel-like and needy as ‘The Man’, contrives to engage art school graduate Shirley Anne Field (Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, The Entertainer), ‘The Girl’, who is working in the design room of the company, into a lunch hour love affair.

This latest from the BFI collection of rare ’60s releases directed by James Hill (Born Free), bookends the decade with the later Joanna (1968) by Michael Sarne (see review of Joanna here). Both films expose reactions to the changes in society at the time and depict a young woman’s journey of self-discovery.

In the case of Lunch Hour, however, we are in much more traditional dramatic territory in contrast to the kookiness and surrealism of Sarne. Field, as ‘The Girl’ in this rendition of metropolitan anonymity and loneliness, is not such a caricatured study in fashion or such pronounced infantilised sexuality as her later counterpart played by Genevieve Waite. She is genuinely innocent, as we are often told a young woman in the early ’60s would be.

Whether or not a woman in her early 20s, a graduate who has absolutely no reluctance about entering into a flirtation and then an emotional affair with a married work colleague, would be quite so sexually naïve as she is depicted in this case, is one thing. Nevertheless, she is a figure of her time amongst the post-war generations. She is ‘The Girl’ as distinct from the ‘The Man’ who is allowed at least to be an adult. The air of modernity in this stylish short film is contrasted with the drabness that is still extant in the images and attitudes around Field and Stephens as they attempt to fulfil their lunchtime sexual urges.

The other nameless characters, such as the landlady of the small private hotel where they attempt their tryst, offer doses of middle-aged, traditional morality. The ‘Aunty’ offers a sobering condemnation of the world in her disapprobation of contemporary home entertainment: [We are meant to] ‘sit and watch television whilst all our underwear falls to pieces.’ These figures appear, however, in the context of an unusual and distinctly post-modern twist in the narrative.

The entry into the world of lies and deceit that The Man must weave also signifies a shift in the perceptions of The Girl which leads to her inhabiting the alternative reality he has invented in order to convince the landlady to rent the room by the hour. In this different take on their involvement she lives out the entire disillusionment, exasperation and disappointment of actually being his wife and finding out that he is having an affair.

John Mortimer, later the author of the long-running legal drama on British television Rumpole of the Bailey, used this as an early venture into screenwriting, adapting it from his stage play. The sense of confinement and intimacy of the scenes played out in the hotel room is indicative of these theatrical origins and is a well-modulated two-hander that effectively sets up the other world of (let us now call her) ‘The Woman’s’ perceptions that then bleed out into a dramatic manifestation of her guilt and anxiety.

In this way the film is an age-old story, classic in many ways, used in cinema, novels and drama to be a morality tale and also to track the journey of conscience for multiple characters. This is an inventive cinematic realisation of a very traditional story, creating a dramatisation of the frozen moment in time of dawning awareness, as shown in William Holman Hunt’s 1853 painting, The Awakening Conscience. This Pre-Raphaelite image, of high Victorian moral values and a reminder to the world of the dangers to the ‘fallen woman’, is dense with emblems and imagery of how men and women can stray and then be brought back into the fold.

Lyrics on song sheets scattered on the floor, the cat concealed under a table, the absence of a wedding ring on the woman’s left hand, the floral patterns on carpets and wallpaper denoting luxury and loss of innocence make up this cluttered, clamorous Victorian tableau. Over 100 years later the director, Hill, uses similar images – threaded along the film’s narrative – to depict the fall and realisation that Field’s character must go through to feel, ultimately, fortunate and optimistic that she has better choices to make.

The fact that she is a designer for a wallpaper manufacturer, and renders the intricate floral and natural images for printing, establishes a witty link to the popularity of decorative consumables established by Victorian mass production. She even mentions the quality of the ‘repeats’ in the wallpaper pattern of the hotel room that might witness her disgrace. ‘The Man’ has furnished her with a fake wedding ring in the taxi on the way there, in an unceremonious act of guilt and possession. Altogether there are clever and strategic emblems placed along the way to define this modern take on The Awakening Conscience.

What emerges is a fragile situation of sham and charade, based upon ‘The Man’s’ evoking of his wife’s demands for ‘labour-saving’ devices, that create more labour for him to fix, and her rejection of his desire for children – she simply does not understand him! Cleverly manipulated, the two characters argue over the emptiness of their arrangement and systematically dismantle what had been their all-consuming mutual desire.

This film is interesting both psychologically and dramatically for what it offers as a timeless construct of a morality tale. It also does that wonderful referencing of early ’60s popular culture and metropolitan lifestyles and reveals a society that still maintains the values of the previous 100 years; but is now laying siege to these with the independence of female graduates and the rejection of the double standard. The assumption that a young woman would want to become the casual mistress of her boss clearly exists in the culture of this film. Field’s character is beset by the frustrations of her colleagues who hope ‘he’ will leave his wife and pop the question. She finds a form of defiance to combat this based upon an exaggerated foray into an alternative existence.

On this disc there are, typical of the BFI, some good extras, including Hill’s Academy Award winning short film Giuseppina and his other Trade Test films of the ’60s and ’70s that were used to test the new colour television signals but have gained recognition in their own right as worth the viewing. In addition there is much to be learned from the generous booklet including critical material contextualising the short collection.

RATING 8 / 10