Capturing Mary: an exegesis*

by Anne Sharp

*this means spoilers

David Walliams: the reason I watched this film in the first place

David Walliams gets under my skin. I think he gets under everybody's. Though he’s best known for comedy work in which he acts out alarmingly edgy scenarios of madness and forbidden desire, his urge to show us what's underneath is an integral part of all his creative endeavors, from writing children’s chapter books to marathon swimming as performance art to legitimate theater, and it’s an especially valuable asset to him as an actor. The complex, raw emotions of the character Frankie Howerd in the 2008 BBC teleplay "Rather You Than Me" were perfectly matched to his skill set, and I believed when I first saw "Capturing Mary," a BBC teleplay from 2007 also featuring David, that the writer-director Stephen Poliakoff must have written the piece specifically as a vehicle for him, as it suited his unique persona so beautifully, although in a very different way than the Frankie Howerd play. But Poliakoff said he originally intended the role of Greville White, David's character in "Mary," to go to what he termed a "classical actor," which I guess means someone who studied at RADA rather than Bristol University, where David and his longtime comedy collaborator Matt Lucas got their theater education. Anyway, someone else suggested David, who was just then hot off his success with "Little Britain," to Poliakoff and to his credit he took him and made very good use of him.

"Joe's Palace"

"Capturing Mary" is part of a triptych of interrelated teleplays, two long and one short, written and directed by Poliakoff, all variations on the theme of how money and social status affect human relationships. The two full-length teleplays, "Joe's Palace" and "Mary," both center around a luxurious townhouse in the Mayfair district of London, currently not lived in but kept gleaming and safe by a staff of cleaners and guards. Joe, the teenaged son of one of the cleaners, is hired to keep watch on the house in the afternoon between when the cleaners leave and the night watchman arrives, and that's when most of the present-day action is set (past events are of key significance in the stories, especially in "Mary.") In Poliakoff's original scripts Joe's ethnicity isn't specificed, but in the films he's played by Danny Lee Wynter, a young actor of color. I suspect this was calculated to put the story in the framework of today's multicultural Britain so that the plays wouldn't be seen as yet more BBC period dramas featuring rich white characters. That intended effect, if it was intended, is undercut by Joe's role being that of a sympathetic audience and helper to the stories' active (rich, white) protagonists. Nevertheless Wynter gives a memorable (and frequently very funny) performance as this sweet-natured, hapless manchild marooned amongst cold marble and dysfunctional, distracted adults who just wants somebody to talk to.

"Capturing Mary" can be fully appreciated without seeing its shorter companion piece, "A Real Summer," or the story that comes first in the triptych, "Joe's Palace.” In regards to these other two pieces in the triptych, "A Real Summer" doesn't have much meaning apart from "Capturing Mary," and though "Joe's Palace" gives us some information that's relevant to "Mary" it has its own ambitious narrative agenda that's all over the place, taking in neoliberal economics and the Holocaust and sex addiction and family of origin issues and not really focusing on any of them. In contrast "Mary" is a very intimate, intense portrait of one woman's life experience in relation to one man, and as Ken Russell said the best film stories are the ones that are dead simple.

In "Joe's Palace" we meet Joe as his mother is just getting him set up in his job at the mansion. Soon afterwards she takes off with her boyfriend to Spain, leaving him on his own among strangers. The man who's been in charge of looking after the house quits after warning Joe that the job is boring and the house's owner is a crazy and dangerous man, and Joe is promoted to take the place of the man who quit. Spending his days in the uninhabited mansion is a weird and lonely situation, but Joe sets about making friends with Tina (Rebecca Hall), the young woman at the counter of the local delicatessen where he's sent to buy snacks for his mysterious employer; with Richard (Rupert Penry-Jones), a sleazy politician friend of the owner of the mansion who talks Joe into letting him use the place for extramarital sex with his mistress Charlotte (Kelly Reilly); and eventually with the house's owner, Elliot Graham, played by Michael Gambon (probably the sort of actor Poliakoff would consider classical.) Elliot turns out to be a nice man who's not dangerous at all, just sad and withdrawn. His father recently died and left him his estate, including the "palace" Joe works in, and it's all worth billions. But Elliot, whose mother died when he was very young and who barely knew his father, doesn't feel he can really take possession of his inheritance until he finds out how his father made his fortune. With the help of Joe and Tina he discovers that his father made his money in collaboration with the Nazis before the war and that several of the priceless treasures that came with the palace were in fact plunder from Jews taken in the Holocaust. His worst fears realized, Elliot goes off to commit suicide, but Joe rescues him and leads him back to begin his new tasks of making reparations to his father's victims, reconciling himself to his past, and reconnecting with the human race, starting with Joe and Tina.

"A Real Summer"

This film takes the form of a monologue by Mary (Ruth Wilson), who circa 1958 is an upwardly mobile young critic from a working class background raising eyebrows and hackles in the London cultural world by demanding that British film break out of its boring, stuffy traditions and do something new, like shooting films on location instead of in studios and showing sex in a realistic way. Mary tells us about how while attending an event at Pinewood Studios she's met Geraldine, a young aristocrat who boldly proposes that Mary should start writing in her column about her, and persuades Mary to teach her something about the new, daring modern films and plays which Geraldine and her circle know nothing about. Mary takes her to see all sorts of wonders, including "Diabolique" and "Waiting for Godot," and at first Geraldine seems thrilled. But when she reads what Mary has written about her in her column, she's disappointed by the silly, disrespectful way Mary has depicted her, and comes to realize that this commoner with the somewhat bitchy attitude will never be her friend. In a final phone call in which she breaks off her relationship with Mary (in which, in a neat move by Poliakoff, Geraldine is also played by Wilson), she warns Mary that she's in danger: now that she's living in Geraldine's world, her sharp tongue and pen are going to make enemies for her.

"Capturing Mary"

"Mary" takes place sometime after "Joe's Palace," or at least at a time when Joe is settled into his job and has some time off from Elliot and the trysting politician to spend time concentrating on the shenanigans of a new set of rich white people. Mary, the character from "A Real Summer," now matured into an elegant lady about Elliot's age played by classical actress Maggie Smith, appears on the doorstep during one of those periods in the evening when Joe is alone in the Graham palace. Joe's not supposed to let anybody in the house, but as we've learned from "Joe's Palace" he's willing to break the rules to make a new friend. He invites Mary in and offers to show her around, but she hesitates as being in this place is bringing back memories that are clearly upsetting her. Joe fetches her some tea and encourages Mary to tell him what happened to her there.

Mary explains that in the late 1950s, as a young woman recently graduated from Oxford, she was a rising star of London literary society as a daring critic of the cultural establishment--advocating more openness about sexuality in the cinema, getting Cary Grant to talk about his depression, and just generally shaking up the patriarchy. Because of this she was frequently invited to little soirees held in the palace by Elliot's father. Mary describes these evenings at the Palace as very exclusive gatherings of very famous figures in politics and culture, and, returning to the past with her through extended flashbacks (in which Ruth Wilson returns in her role of the younger Mary) we can see for ourselves how glamorous they were (or are, as we relive them with her in real time.)  

Among all the famous faces at Graham’s parties is one Mary doesn't recognize, and that in fact none of the other partygoers will admit to knowing much about, although they all appear to be unnerved by his presence among them. This is Greville White. Nobody can explain what he does for a living, except that he was involved with the publication of the personal papers of David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. Mary notes that at every party she's been to Greville has shown up escorting a different girl, each very beautiful and clearly under the age of consent. Mary sees that Greville notices her interest in him.  And one evening, when she slips off to the kitchen to get herself a glass of water (being the daughter of a Manchester carpenter, she doesn't see the sense in making a servant get one for her), Greville follows her in, turns her head with effervescent conversation, and lures her into following him downstairs to visit the Palace's wine cellar, assuring her that he's a friend of Graham Sr.'s and is allowed free run of the house.

Once he's got Mary down there, his countenance changes (David does a great weird effect of keeping one eye open and the other half-closed here and for the rest of the film) and he begins to tell her all sorts of horrible true stories about cruel and sick and sadistic things that the famous and powerful people he's known have done. The effect on Mary is of psychic rape. After Greville finishes with her she scampers up the stairs hoping she'll be able to forget what she's heard (she never has, the older Mary tells Joe) and that Greville won't think that he has some kind of hold over her because he's told her all these terrible secrets. She thinks of the girls Greville brings to the parties and wonders what he does with them, in light of the hair-raising stories of bondage and torture he's told her, which she now realizes are a part of the everyday world of the privileged, aristocratic ruling class to whom people like her are disposable playthings. Greville and Graham Sr. may or may not be part of this ruling class in a social sense--Poliakoff never deals with this issue in the plays--but we know that Graham is immensely rich from his Nazi plunder and obviously well-connected enough to mingle with the British cultural aristocracy, including, tentatively, the newcomer Mary, and that Greville has considerable pull with the publishers who employ Mary.

The next party at Graham's she attends is a weekend event that at first is mercifully Greville-free, though as the evening progresses there emerges a sleazy atmosphere as though an orgy is about to take place. She retires early to her bedroom, where who should come knocking at her door but Greville, who offers her a dish of strawberries and cream, tells her another disgusting story about his upper-class friends, then tries to give her the key to his house, assuring her that his intentions are entirely honorable. Mary tells him she thinks he's pathetic and shuts the door in his face.

Shortly thereafter Mary finds all the doors of the London literary world are closed to her. She develops writer's block and drifts into alcoholism (in the present day Mary occasionally needs to take a drink from a pocket flask.) Meanwhile, the 1960s happen, and several years after the cellar incident, at another party at Graham's palace, she sees Greville again, eerily unchanged from his 1950s self and looking and acting and talking like a total square among the young Swinging Londoners. Mary does her best to avoid him, but he manages to catch her eye and silently mouths something to her which she thinks is "But you're still mine, Mary." Later, at yet another house party, this time in the country, she spots Greville again looking just the same, accompanied by the same girl he was with the night of the cellar assault, now grown up and looking as unpleasantly frozen in time as Greville. They get into Greville's car, and as they ride away (they're in the back seat, as Greville is too square to drive his own car) Greville stares back at Mary and mouths what seem to be the words "Help me."

Since then Mary has made a new career for herself writing about gardens and antiques and other bland subjects that can't make her any more enemies. Then, just that afternoon as she passed through Kensington Gardens, she had a vision--maybe a PTSD episode--of Greville, impossibly looking the same as he did fifty years ago, walking up and speaking mockingly to her. That's why she came back to the Palace, to confront the past and reassure herself that it's not really there anymore. Joe asks if he can meet her in the park next day, in case the ghost of Greville should bother her again. They meet, and Mary assures Joe that she's back to normal and will be all right. "I hope she never sees him again," Joe says to us in closing.

The stories

You will have noticed a recurring motif of storytelling in the three plays. People in distress have the urge to relieve themselves by telling their stories, or have their troubling stories coaxed out of them by sympathetic listeners. Always there's a danger to them: the stories we tell each other can devastate if the hearer isn't prepared for what's coming. Even though Elliot feels he can't go on with his life until he finds out the origins of his father's wealth, when he's finally told the truth he can't bear it. Mary takes Geraldine to "Diabolique" thinking it will make a nice introduction to classic foreign cinema, but when Geraldine is scared to death she realizes she's made a mistake. At least she has the emotional intelligence to sense this and regret it, unlike Greville, whose sense of aristocratic entitlement makes him approach Mary like a feudal lord claiming droit du seigneur.

Mary's friendship with Geraldine starts with Geraldine's persuading her to write about her in her column, and later Geraldine urges Mary to read her diary. The diary, it turns out, is blank. Geraldine wants Mary to fill it for her, much the same way as Greville wants Mary to absorb and perhaps transcribe his real-life horror tales. Neither of them seems to understand that Mary isn't the type of writer you call in to ghostwrite your memoirs. Despite getting the scoop on Cary Grant's depression in that interview, her specialty is being the detached cultural observer, not a delver into personal psyches. That's more a task for someone like Joe, whose eagerness to hear her story breaks the curse that Greville has laid on her.  By telling Joe the weird tale of Greville she has rediscovered her long-lost ability to find the words to captivate an audience.

The sexual politics

At crucial points in Mary's story, Joe asks excitedly if this is where she finally gets her revenge on Greville, but to his disappointment this never really happens. As Mary tries to explain to him, a young lady of her generation simply didn't go mano a mano with an older gentleman, no matter how he'd wronged her. But she did stand up to Greville when it really counted, when he was trying to groom her into becoming whatever it was he wanted her to be for him back at Graham's palace. What exactly Greville does want from Mary is something Poliakoff never makes clear, and this seems to be deliberate.  Though Poliakoff uses camera setups that emphasize the sheer masculine bulk of the 6'3" David in proportion to dainty Ruth Wilson, David himself plays Greville as being quite gentle, not verbally or physically threatening to Mary in the least (David's fondness for playing the sexually ambiguous fop is used to advantage here.) Mary mentions to Joe that as she follows Greville down to the cellar she instinctively feels that Greville isn't going to rape her, and Greville himself assures her before he launches into his storytelling assault that he wouldn't dream of making a pass at her. In the sequence when he comes to her bedroom he stands decorously in the doorway and his body language is so demure that we almost believe him when he promises her that if she comes to his house, he'll never try to touch her. Is he gay? Or perhaps he's just so traumatized by the ugly manifestations of sexuality he's had to live with all his life that he's just gone off it.

Perhaps Poliakoff is also trying to say something about the rotten state of relations between the sexes in Greville's era. A woman like Mary who strayed out of the domestic realm was viewed as fair game for predatory men, and even highly educated women were assumed to be the intellectual inferiors of their male counterparts. So Greville flatters and flirts with her as though she was just a more intelligent version of one of his little girlfriends. No wonder, when he later insists that he isn't interested in making her his mistress, she asks him perplexedly what he does want her for. Having had enough of his coy, confusing, dissembling overtures, she puts him out of her life and he retaliates by hurting her as badly as he can, a common practice of abusive, controlling men when women try to leave them.

In his introduction to the scripts for the triptych Poliakoff writes, "He wants to befriend her, preferably to seduce her, but failing that to charm her and in some way control her." Note that Poliakoff states that while Greville would like to seduce Mary, it's control rather than sexual gratification he's after. Given the company he keeps, he may have some unmentionable paraphilia. There is after all the issue of those young girls he brings to Graham's parties. In the audio commentary on the "Mary" DVD David says that he doesn't think Greville slept with his girls but perhaps did something else with them like buying them dresses on condition that he gets to watch them put them on. Poliakoff knows whatever we can imagine Greville does with his girls will freak us out more than anything he could make up himself, so he just teases our imaginations with it the same way that he lets us hear just a few disturbing phrases from Greville's cellar monologue (partly improvised by David) and lets us experience the rest through poor Mary’s reaction.

It may very well be that Poliakoff meant the business of Greville and his girls to be an allusion to the real-life scandal of Stephen Ward, who during the 1950s and early 1960s procured very young women for the enjoyment of rich and powerful men, including royalty, government officials and movie stars. In their book "Honeytrap," Anthony Summers and Stephen Dorril offer evidence that British intelligence employed Ward to supply girls for purposes of entrapping enemy agents. One of the sources they cite is a former MI6 agent named Greville Wynne. Perhaps Poliakoff's Greville White is a spy trying to use Mary as a means of coming in from the cold a little.

There is one other very tenuous possibility here. In "A Real Summer" Geraldine tells Mary that her family tried to marry her off to a man they thought was a good catch, but that she refused after she found out he was carrying on affairs with several other women and had no intention of stopping after he'd married her. Could this man have been Greville? Maybe he might have seemed like a good catch to an aristocratic family down on its luck, as is the situation with Geraldine's. So might his friend Graham senior, who we know from "Joe's Palace" was a widower during the era of his Palace parties. Perhaps the girls that Greville brings to Graham's parties are intended for Graham himself.

I question whether or not Mary has correctly interpreted what Greville is silently saying to her at the later parties. I don't think he's telling her that she belongs to him (he may not be sensitive in his approaches to Mary, but he's not delusional) or that he needs her help (Greville the master manipulator can surely take care of himself.) What I think he's saying to her is, "Call me." The ghostly Greville that visits Mary in Kensington Gardens says he's been trying to look her up but could never catch up with her until now. Taunting her with her loneliness and professional failure, he tells her, "I've had some painful things happen to me, too--we could have helped each other."

Now, wait a minute. Wasn't Greville himself the painful thing that happened to Mary? I’m not quite sure of Poliakoff’s intention here in invoking the romantic meme that to heal and humanize a man through her love is a woman’s highest calling, thus implying that Mary has failed in her womanly destiny by rejecting Greville. Greville himself might have believed in that pathetic fallacy, but Mary, with her penetrating insight into art and life, would have known better. Her escape from Greville has damaged her--and, yes, she's apparently still single after all these years--but she's still self-sufficient, free and alive, while Greville wanders the earth like the Flying Dutchman seeking a redemption he can never earn. Even as a tender young woman Mary instinctively knew that any woman foolish enough to try to help him would be dragged down into the depths with him.

In "Joe's Palace," when Richard and Charlotte go upstairs to have sex, one of the rooms they pass is the one where Mary has her confrontation with Greville, looking exactly the way it did in Mary's time. I was relieved when they chose to have their affair in one of the other rooms, maybe one Greville stayed in after Mary shooed him out of hers.


In both "Joe's Palace" and "Capturing Mary" the kitchen is where several key dramatic points are sprung: the moment where Tina tells Elliot that she's found out what he's been wanting to know about his father (significantly, Elliot stops her and insists that she not tell him there--they leave the house before he lets her continue) and where Greville makes his first move on Mary, pretending that he came to the kitchen at the same time as Mary in order to make himself a salad, and showing off his graceful kitchen skills as he chats her up (Mary ruefully tells Joe she never did get to eat any of that salad.)  When Greville comes to Mary's bedroom to tempt her with strawberries and cream, she accepts her dish cautiously, then when she loses her temper with him hands it back before pushing him out. At Graham's swinging London party Greville takes the opportunity of Mary helping herself to Turkish delight at the buffet to accidentally on purpose brush past her a couple of times, sneaky and furtive as ever.

But the kitchen of Joe's palace is also a place of nurturance. When Joe wants Mary to stay and tell him her story, he rushes to the kitchen to set up a nice tea tray for her as an incentive. Joe's talent for serving up tempting snacks also breaks the ice with Elliot, who invites him to stay and share them with him. Money and social position and sex mean a lot in the world Joe and Mary and Elliot share, but the first two are abstract, soulless things, and the third is a selfish instinct that provides only the illusion of togetherness. Tea and cold cuts are better means of bringing out our common humanity.

(c) by Anne Sharp. All rights reserved.

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