Sunday, March 14, 2021

Robert Lambert | Follow You Follow Me

best mates

by Douglas Messerli

Robert Lambert (screenwriter and director) Follow You Follow Me / 1979

It’s fascinating to think of the British half hour short by Robert Lambert, Follow You Follow Me  of 1979 as an unintentional prequel to Roger Tonge’s 1987 BBC educational film Two of Us. Lambert also worked on educational films for Southampton, and both films feature young teenage boys coming of age who, feeling closely bonded, determine to strike out on their own, turning their backs on the restrictions of their families and society. Both also are concerned with larger social issues, Lambert’s film featuring a battle between a factory owner and a strike leader, fathers to the two boys; Tonge’s film was a response to the restrictions on the expression of homosexuality by the Thatcher government (for a fuller explanation of this, see my discussion of Tonge’s significant work).

     Yet, Lambert’s work remains somewhat tepid when compared with Tonge’s simply because the two boys of Follow You Follow Me, although defining themselves several times as “best mates” have not even begun to explore their sexuality, while the boys in Tonge’s film, although at times confused about their sexual identities, are clearly in love with one another and see their “on the road” journey as a kind of “marriage.”

     Lambert’s boys, Joseph (Francis Gibbon) and Peter (Stephen Bratt) get no further than the next town before they are forced to give up their journey, and they end up, after a brief train ride, in the very city, Southampton, where Joseph’s family are moving. The boy’s may remain friends over time—although even that’s uncertain given their societal and spatial separations—but it is highly unlikely that they will ever explore their sexual identities, with the likelihood that Peter, in particular, will fall in with one of the girls with whom he practices kissing, get married, and lose contact with the shyer, more innocent, and possibly sexually confused Joseph.

      Any speculation, however, is pure fiction that lies outside of the verisimilitude of Lambert’s drearily mostly brown-, pea-green-, and rust-hued color film. Perhaps in Southampton Joseph will meet another young boy and return to the far more exciting and eccentric road trip that Tonge’s work features.

      Yet, there is something almost daring about Lambert’s attempt to play out the tropes of a gay coming of age movie against the backdrop of the growing division between worker and management being played in the small town of Hythe.

      Joseph’s father (Gilbert Wynne), the owner of J. Cook & Co., is having financial difficulties and is in danger of losing his factory which hires 80 local workers. He’s even put up his family home as collateral, and is now in danger of losing everything unless he lays off half of his employees or sells the business. Peter’s father (Kevin Moore), on the other hand, is the local union leader, heading the picket lines demanding remuneration for the 40 soon-to-be furloughed employees. It’s no wonder, accordingly, that neither father approves of their son’s relationship with the other boy, while their wives beg them to leave their children alone. But in keeping the boys uninformed, their sons come in danger of being swept up in the larger local political upheavals.

      The two go everywhere together, each night joining up, sometimes just to hang out in Peter’s room talking while Peter toys with his childhood soldiers and Joseph pages through a copy of Mayfair magazine his friend has found while cleaning out his father’s shed. Together the boys attend a teen dance, where Peter gregariously dances with a girl while Joseph sits it out like a wallflower. Yet all during his encounters with girls, Peter looks over at Joseph and smiles with affection. One has the feeling that he is exploring the opposite sex out of a sense of duty more than any intense desire. And when he finally encourages another girl to pay attention to Joseph the two sneak out for kissing practice which Joseph miserably fails, the girl responding that he is “slow,” both girls moving away in disappointment with their male companions.

     When the two discuss heterosexual sex, relating their juvenile fantasies, Joseph asks whether Peter’s “done it yet” with a girl. But the boy responds in a manner that suggests he is not quite maturing into heterosexual normality as quickly as he might: “No, I wouldn’t do it with a girl unless I really fancied her.” Obviously he’s not yet found a girl he fancies. Yet both are ready time and again to claim “we’ll always be mates.”

      At another point they consider purchasing what we called at their age a “girlie” magazine, but when Peter considers “nicking” it, Joseph disapproves, and they leave the store without the item that brought them in. 

      Yet again Joseph displays the differences in their upbringing when, after someone at school has described him as a “wanker,” he asks Peter what the word means. Obviously, he is a “wanker,” a male who masturbates instead of having sex with women, another way of suggesting he might be queer.

      And those very differences, Joseph’s polite and sheltered upbringing as opposed to Joseph’s working class, streetwise learning, lead to violent expression given the labor issues facing the community. Joseph is grabbed by several of his classmates while his best friend punches him in the stomach.

      Forced to take the action by his classmates, Peter quickly moves off while the other boys mock him for not continuing and move in to further kick and pummel their fallen prey. It’s one of three instances that reveal just how emotionally involved the two boys really are. As Peter turns away, watching from the corner of his eye how his “mate” his being beaten, tears stream down his face and, after a few moments, he rejoins the fray in order to break it up.

     Obviously, such actions inevitably result in a severance of their friendship. Joseph is sent away to a far more posh school in Southampton—as he later tells Peter he must take courses in “Latin and other things”—and the two are no longer able to “hang out” together. Soon after, his father announces that the family, now that he has sold the factory, will be moving to Southampton. Heartbroken,Joseph steals away from school taking the Hythe ferry back to his hometown to wander the streets and finally to encounter his old friend. At first he runs away from him in partial fear that he will mock his new school uniform, but also still unsure of Peter’s feelings toward him. “When you hit me,” he finally asks, “did you really mean it?”

                        peter: They made me do. They hit me as well.

                        joseph: Why?

                       peter: Because I’m mates with you.

                       joseph: We’re still mates?

                       peter: Best mates.

      And, finally, on the day the family is scheduled to make the move, we see Joseph lying in bed, a tear running down his cheek. He suddenly rises, packs his duffel and grabs his skateboard, knocking at Peter’s bedroom window to say goodbye. As the two briefly talk, he suddenly comes alive in way we’ve not previously seen this “follower” behave. “Let’s clear out. We’ll make our own decisions for a change.”

      So begins their brief adventure which, as I state above, ends nowhere. Unlike Phil and Matthew in The Two of Us Joseph and Peter never make to Sussex—but then they live in the neighboring county of Hampshire in sea-side cities. What would Seaford mean to them? These two never truly leave home and probably will never escape their societal designated identities that thoroughly delimits the definition of “best mates.”

Los Angeles, March 14, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (March 2021).


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