Patrick Hamilton’s 20,000 Streets Under the Sky has been adapted a number of times since this film most notably in a TV series featuring Sally Hawkins which captured a good deal more of the novel’s content.
Directed by Peter Graham Scott from a Ted Willis script, Bitter Harvest is a short, sharp shock that focuses on the price of ambition for a girl from the Valleys, Jennie Jones (Janet Munro) who’s life seems entirely governed by her choice in men. Or, at least, the person she decides to be around those men.
Janet Munro was a superb actress who enjoyed some success with Disney before establishing herself at home with notable performances alongside Dirk Bogarde in Sebastian and, before that, Edward Judd and Leo McKern in The Day the Earth Caught Fire. She’s is constantly on the edge of nervous agitation and carries considerable force with her ability to shift emotional direction in the blink of an eye. We’re never quite sure about her character’s capabilities and she surprises when curiosity leads her to break with home and ultimately her sure-thing boyfriend, to push herself as high up the social ladder as she can.
Maybe there’s not enough remaining from the source material but Munro makes it work and she has some highly capable assistance from a superb set of cameos – classy Alan Badel and the Northern screen goddess, Thora Hird - as well as John Stride as her steadfast boyfriend, Bob Williams.
Scott knew what to expect from his star and works backwards from her no-holds barred break-down at the start of the film when she staggers back form a night out to a muse cottage presumably provided by a lover and then proceeds to trash the place. Her exhausted, tear-streaked face barely focuses on the bathroom mirror and then we cut back… to Wales and her father’s shop… before London.
Mr Jones (Derek Francis) is dourly strict and can only envisage the same future for his daughter as his wife had endured. Then a smart, well-spoken man, Andy (Terence Alexander) enters their shop asking for directions. He offers a glimpse of another work as well as escape and the next time he is passing through Jennie and her pal Violet (Barbara Ferris) spend the evening with Andy and his pal Rex (Richard Thorp), with Jennie waking up the following morning in London near the dreary tracks of Paddington Station.
We are left to join the dots on what was lost the night before but Jennie has burnt her bridges and must face up to life in London. She certainly has the looks but has she really got a plan.
After Andy stand her up at a lovely-looking pub, she’s befriended by Bob the Barman (John Stride) who is everything the other men are not and who values Jennie not for who she wants to be but for what she is… and, for a while, this appears like it may well be enough. The two set up a home of brief happiness in the lodging house run by Mrs Jessup (Thora Hird) who quickly seizes the opportunity to raise the rent! Thora’s on top form!
But something has turned in Jennie and the sweet girl from the Valleys, influenced by advertising and the fine things she sees around her, wants more from life. Jennie wants to be an actress or at least a model and goes with one of their neighbours to a showbiz party where she hopes to attract interest and get a break. Well, she does and she doesn’t… Karl Denny (Alan Badel) merciless producer and power wielder, takes a shine to the pretty young thing and we’re left to form our own opinions on what happens next…
He uses Jennie and she drops Bob… money and the promise of fame overcoming friendship. It doesn’t have to be this way and the film’s tragedy is that Jennie couldn’t see it in time…
Dusty verdict: Janet Munro is superb in this film, both uncomfortable and believable, whilst John Stride, a fine actor, is also angsty enough about her refusal to commit to be a genuine character. If only she’d listened to him or someone… By the end I’m a little shocked at the mortality rates in early 60’s British cinema…
Bitter Harvest was shown of Talking Pictures TV, a terrific channel that is swelling my digital coffers with dozens of classy, Golden Age British films and TV programmes. Together with Renown Pictures they are revitalising vintage domestic film appreciation.
I watched the Strawberry Media DVD which is available from Amazon and all good retailers.