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Small screen not large screen. Television not the cinema sometimes does things best. I thought of that seeing The Party in the cinema last weekend. Surely this would be better on television?

The Party was a specimen of The New Heartlessness, although much eclipsed in force and method by Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel, hyperion to a satyr. It was also eclipsed by a television film, Men Who Sleep In Cars, shown on the BBC around the same time. Initially I thought this was a specimen of British Miserabilism, of which there is a lot about. But it turned out different. Three men spend their nights not at home but in vehicles (a Proton, a Merc, and a transit van – the car oft proclaims the man) and, while I don’t know anyone personally who does this, it is not hard to imagine it existing. (Search ‘men who sleep in cars’ on YouTube to get a sense of its prevalence.) It is a version of homelessness, and the Miserabilist Message coming our way – so I thought – was that this was a metaphor for the British condition in 2017. I repeat myself, it turned out different, I was wrong: it is a message about insomnia, and the ‘not sleeping’ is more important than the ‘car’ bit – the car just made it more vivid. As a lifelong insomniac myself, I could get a good grip on this, and if the programme was cathartic it was because I fully understood the pain involved in not sleeping.

men who sleep in cars

Cathartic? Maybe not the right word, but there is a curious reassurance in knowing there are others like you out there, who own all sorts of cars. If cathartic, then redemptive: all three men emerge blinking into the dawn ready to start a new day. That felt very true to life; it’s how an insomniac does as much as he or she does.

There was a proper visual patina to the film, using the capacity of the digital camera to film in low-light conditions, that gave visual purpose to the arrival of the dawn. There was a woman in the movie: a ghost in a white robe sort of, in effect an angel, who links all three of the men’s stories, a guardian angel in fact.

What pushed it to another level, and initially ensured that I kept watching, was that the actors spoke in verse. How ludicrous, you may think, but verse ensures a distance between subject and viewer, a barrier against mere gritty realism. That realism is established in the images, and then undercut by the artificiality of the words, not too artificial I hasten to add but definitely rhyming and fluid in their rhythms. The monologues could be published as a book and still be engaging to read, a point reinforced by my learning that it was a radio play first of all, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in February 2014.

Finally, I think there was a major theme to the narrative. In the old days, the circumstances of failure of these three individuals would be set in a Christian context, in which we would be encouraged to find comfort in religion. I think Michael Symons Roberts’s text is looking two ways: there are no comforts in religion; but its absence has left us comfortless. Hanging in the air, unspoken, is this question: should we be going back to an underpinning theory of life – call it an ideology if you like – that helps us understand the world? Our predecessors did that and called it religion.

The BBC just raised its game for a moment.

note: it occurred to me too that the tone of the film is not that far from Kieslowski’s Decalogue, made for television of course and a Polish version of miserabilism made redemptive.


text: Michael Simmons Roberts

producer and director: Susan Roberts

director of photography: Tim Baxter.