Okay, this one is set in an old people’s home. Oh yes. It’s the ‘too close for comfort territory’ of staring into the miseries of this place, only in a film so flat it manages to take a bunch of terrific character actors and drain their work of joy. For Mrs Caldicot’s Cabbage War is a long, slow, TV-level mess of a film that tries to be four or five different things and fails at them all.
The story: Pauline Collins as Thelma Caldicot is caught in an ancient lifeless marriage with a boorish husband (Terence Rigby being stolid, tufty, and suddenly dead). She is the downtrodden worm who takes revenge in his death – executing the flowers and savaging the golf clubs – but comes up against her own son Derek (Peter Capaldi doing strangely English) who bungs her into the Twilight Years Rest Home and flogs the family one. And the home is Carry On Wretched territory. John Alderton is the nasty boss, Isla Blair the evil Matron, both feeding the oldsters sedation pills and mountains of cabbage.
For a moment, the film is character actor heaven. Collins, Alderton, Capaldi and Blair are joined by Frank Middlemass, Frank Mills and Sheila Reid (who hits us with lovely Grandma-singing 90 minutes in) as oldsters – all comedy versions of the crowd I live with. Familiar faces keep popping up from thirty years of British TV: there’s Wanda Ventham (Sherlock’s Mum), Angela Bruce as the lovely not-quite-nurse, Annette Badland giving panicked cook, even Tony Robinson as slimy, bewigged TV presenter-creep. All so good, brilliant elsewhere, and criminally cornered in a poor script with flat direction. It feels like an entire series of some unceasingly bad 1970s sitcom, edited to bring out the am-dram, the wit excised, the comedy plotting abandoned. I, like the film, have no punchline.
More story: if you care, at the half way point, Pauline Collins starts to rebel. She stops the incumbents taking their sedation, she tricks a van driver into taking them to a bowling green, where they hurl vegetables across the grass whilst laughing and dancing. Then she gets locally famous and the film charges into media-related weirdness. This is the point, dear reader, that old Jack really really started to hate Mrs Caldicot’s Cabbage War.
Collins goes on local TV, pontificating in the face of Tony Robinson’s studied sneering. This abandons what charm there was in the Twilight Years scenes, though she gets eyed up by a new love interest (Paul Freeman as Jenkins the needless plot point). And if you think that spoils stuff, you have drabness to get through with evil Martin Jarvis and his Board of Directors.
This could have been good. We oldsters, passing the day in bitchery and the joys of the TV room, often feel we’ve been drugged into submission and discarded by a world that thinks it matters more than us. Tell us that story, properly. Quit being patronising. Or…fucking hell…at least make us laugh.