Border delays, terrorist attacks, hooliganism, success-measured-by-wealth—this short list for the ills of 2009 is at the basis of writer Stephen Poliakoff’s timeless BBC production, originally broadcast in 1980 and subtly directed by Peter Duffell.
Travelling across Europe on the Ostend-Vienna express allows the middle-class coaches to be populated with representatives of the world’s major players (at least seen through the prism of the U.K. playwright). Dame Peggy Ashcroft as Frau Messner boldly utilizes her heavily affected German accent to play the grumpy-old-Nazi dowager from times past (although confessing that “I didn’t care for it really,” opting to read “very long books” until the carnage ended). Decked out in real fur, carrying her own meals and bringing a lifetime of getting her way into the six-member compartment, she demands everything of everyone and almost always gets her way.
Her primary target is Peter (Michael Kitchen), an up-and-coming young man in the book trade on his way to Linz to babysit a couple of authors during their media blitz. Peter has his eye on the beautiful American, Lorraine (a tad overdone by Wendy Raebeck). It falls to her to singularly represent the New World, but any chance of romance seems quashed by her revulsion of Europe and the U.K.
The frequent shots of homeless along the way reinforces her despair; on the train itself, a covey of thugs (gamely led by Martin Philips) could easily have been employed as backup Droogs-in-training for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (cross-reference below). Some of these dregs of human society (“They probably all come from good families,” opines Messner at a station stop in Frankfurt) fall along the path of the domineering matriarch and her now constant companion (after an initial success at standing up to She Who Must Be Obeyed, Peter gradually accedes to her every want—lured by her siren call to his doom) as they march over to the nearby opera house to grab a quick bite (“The opera bar is faster than the restaurant.”) even as the final act of Lulu becomes their incredible Muzak while eating cake. There’s enough metaphors in that scene alone to fill another film.
Certain their train has gone on without him (track 20 is now vacant), Peter sinks into dark despair even as his wily tormentor rediscovers their transport is just three tracks over (this, the weakest plot point of the production). No worries. Once moving again, it’s time for bed in the cramped quarters, but before the cock crows, Peter’s been arrested (replete with vicious German Shepherd dogs—canine and humana—a clumsy bribe offer and the humiliation of leaving the train with his flash-bulb-popping fellow travellers, who are revelling in the late-night intrigue).
Naturally, Messner is able to use her surplus of old-world charm and long-practised powers of persuasion to save the bewildered passenger from a cold, dank cell. Their last breakfast, set in the otherwise people-empty, garbage-cluttered dining car is a fascinating meeting of the sadly resigned and the unrepentant materialist, revealing Ashcroft at the top of her body language skills (don’t miss her spectacular bristle in reaction to Peter’s “You’re an evil old woman” epithet blurted out as his customary good manners are completely overwhelmed by circumstance). Both journeys resume but down decidedly different paths.
The universal nature and ideas contained in this script make it a drama for the ages; everything is glued together by Mike Westbrook’s jazz-band music whose frequently shy-of-the-pitch saxophones are not intentional, but add a compelling verisimilitude to the off-key happenings between charts. JWR