This utterly charming film was born of a clever bit of business. Already successful in the field of advertising and an experienced director in his own right, David Puttnam decided to purchase the rights to a series of songs by the Bee Gees. Sensing that a film might be built around the ideas expressed in the songs, Puttnam set up his own production company and hired an inexperienced copywriter named Alan Parker to produce a script. While Parker would later go on to direct such musicals as Bugsy Malone, Fame, and The Commitments, Melody was his first proper screen-writing job and he drew on his memories growing up in post-War London to tell a beautiful love story involving two eleven-year old kids.
Originally released under the title S.W.A.L.K. (‘sealed with a loving kiss’), Melody is set in East London but was filmed at locations all over the Greater London area. Directed by Waris Hussein and photographed by a Peter Suschitzky who would later win awards for his work on Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, the film is amazing to look at but its true beauty lies in its absolute commitment to social realism.
The first half of the film is dominated by the emerging friendship between a shy middle-class lad named Danny (Mark Lester) and a charismatically cynical working-class kid referred to only by his family name of Ornshaw (Jack Wild).
The film begins with Danny’s parents as recent arrivals in an area of East London they hope will one day be gentrified into a new Chelsea. Like many socially-ambitious middle-class people, Danny’s parents boast of their interest in the arts and their social consciences but what really concerns them are property prices and the calibre of the people that surround them. Thus, typical breakfast-table conversation involves distinguishing between ‘good’ neighbours and ‘bad’ elements like “pansies” and “Pakistanis” who need to be driven from the area. Despite living in an area that they manifestly consider beneath them, Danny’s parents insist upon living what would have been a typical 1970s middle-class lifestyle in which Mum joined the WI and Junior went to Cubs or whichever youth organisation happened to be at hand.
Danny’s status as a fish-out-of-water in his own community is made absolutely clear in the film’s opening scene when his Boy’s Brigade leader singles him out for praise whilst heaping scorn on the noticeably poorer lad stood next to him. The lad in question is Ornshaw, a kid with a home-life so horrendous that it is only ever alluded to in passing. Despite coming from two sides of a community in economic flux, Ornshaw manage to hit it off as Danny’s money first intrigues and then shames the already cynical Ornshaw. How can they ever hope to be equals when Danny wants to pay for everything? How can they be friends when it feels like Danny is bribing his way into popularity at school?
While the film’s foreground narrative is absolutely dominated by the relationship between the two boys, the film’s aesthetics are defined by these beautiful montage sequences where Hussein allows the camera to run and run as it wanders between kids who are busy doing nothing more than being kids. Sometimes they are hiding in the bushes at school smoking, sometimes they are trying to make things explode on a building-site, sometimes they are glued to the wall at a school dance, and sometimes they are running and jumping their way through a gloriously energetic school sports day. Parker cut his directorial teeth as a second-unit director on many of these sequences but the camerawork, composition and attention to detail are so endlessly beautiful that Suschitzky really makes his presence felt amidst the chaos.
It is amongst the daily churn of normal life that the film becomes philosophical. In fact, the entire second half of the film hangs off a scene in which a girl walks up to a boy and declares that one of her friends is in love with him. After a spot of teasing and chasing, the accused girl admits her attraction to boys and her surprise at discovering that kissing boys can be quite nice once you get past the fear that kissing might cause babies. It is in this scene that Tracy Hyde’s Melody first comes to the fore as you can almost see the instant in which boys cease to be objects of torment and become something more.
Danny falls in love with Melody almost as soon as he lays eyes on her but it takes a while for him to process his feelings. Indeed, it’s only during a school sports day when her face flashes through his mind that his nebulous obsession transitions into a conscious infatuation. Suddenly, Danny starts making excuses to follow Melody around but his shyness and her emotional immaturity means that they take a while to discover each other. Worldly and cynical in a way that neither of his school-friends have yet to achieve, Ornshaw recognises Danny’s trajectory and tries to keep the couple apart. In one poignant moment he practically begs Danny to spend the afternoon with him but the couple’s hands have already met and the world has changed forever.
Given that his characters are all pre-pubescent, Parker chooses to focus less on the feelings that Melody and Danny might feel and more upon their experience of trying to be in love despite the world’s failure to communicate. True to the opening section of the film, we see Danny’s unease upon being confronted by Melody’s charismatic criminal of a father as well as the school’s rather laudable attempts to let kids-be-kids whilst remaining true to the Victorian educational philosophies that sustain their institutions. First a source of fear, then a figure of fun, and finally a deeply flawed and sympathetic human being, James Cossins’ Headmaster represents the children’s troubled interactions with the real world. Should adults stand in the way of kids who want to be in love? Should they protect them from what might well be the backward ideas of their own parents? Does it even matter?
Despite being set in a recognisably socialist universe in which social class shapes both your identity and your hopes for the future, Melody is a deeply romantic film that wants to believe in the absolute power of love to remake the world. At first, these two thematic strands appear to be in conflict as nobody but Danny (and later Melody) believe that they should be in love or want to get married. However, as the film reaches its conclusion, opinions begin to shift as kids rally to the couple’s cause and set about creating a world of their own. In a move that recalls the ending to both Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Melody ends with the protagonists running away from a world that they can’t escape… because sometimes all you need for happiness is a bit of breathing room. As Ornshaw says, “Don’t forget to change at Clapham Junction!”
Released on Blu-ray by Studiocanal and packaged with an excellent suite of interviews, Melody is a film about kids that feels far more mature than most of the films that make it onto today’s cinema screens. Beautifully shot, beautifully written, and beautifully performed, this is a film as much about the dream of love as it is about its realities.