Free films on TV 22/5/21 to 28/5/21


Britain’s long involvement with the Indian sub-continent has been enormously cultural productive, in both directions. Mahanagar (1963), which is on Film4 on Tuesday (25/5) at 01:15, is one of the Bengali master Satyajit Ray’s lesser-known works. It beautifully illustrates the blending of European and Indian elements in his cinematic art and in the post-Imperial society he observed. 

In Mahanagar, which means “metropolis”, a bank clerk barely manages to support his wife, young son, sister and aged parents. So his timid wife Arati volunteers to get a job, touting knitting machines round Calcutta’s wealthy districts. She soon discovers she enjoys the income, the work, the companionship and the city beyond the cramped family home. But her husband Subrata is under pressure to keep a traditional household, and there are tensions. 

The director was brought up by his widowed mother, and the film explores the liberation of a devoted Hindu wife through economic power, with deep understanding of the pleasure and pain involved for the individual and her household. The arrival of spare money eases transactions, both physical – the family no longer have to cadge tea from their neighbours – and emotional: love and cupboard love become entwined. 

Ray wrote, directed and delicately scored the film. It is calm, intense, subtle and humane: Ray’s style builds on the Italian neo-realism he first saw as a young graphic designer, seconded to London by his British advertising agency. Like those films, it is in warm black-and-white and unashamedly built on character, with no hint of Bollywood spectacle. It is two and a quarter hours long, but enthralling. And lovely Madhabi Mukherjee, as Arati, became the first woman in Indian cinema to carry the burden of a film. Mahanagar is on Film4 on Tuesday (25/5) at 01:15. 

World Cinema

On Sunday (23/5) at 01:20, Film4 has The Lobster (2015). Yorgos “The Favourite” Lanthimos’s surreal dystopian comedy has become a by-word in CFS circles for divisive programming, ever since 2016/17 when it was greeted with widespread bafflement and dismay. A very game British and Irish cast (step forward Olivia Colman and Colin Farrell) play singletons, locked in a hotel and forced to find mates or risk being turned into animals. You owe it to yourself to give it a look, at least till it rather loses its way at the half-way mark. 

On Monday (24/5) at 01:40, Film4 has Sicilian Ghost Story (2017). A 12-year-old boy disappears in the haunted forests of Sicily, and a fantastical female classmate goes to look for him. But is there a more earthbound explanation, given the location?

On Wednesday (26/0) at 00:55, Film4 has Charulata (1964), Satyajit Ray’s follow-up to Mahanagar, led by Madhabi Mukherjee again, this time as a bored wife whose love of romantic Bengali literature set her at odds with her husband, editor of a liberal newspaper. 

On Friday (28/5) at 02:10, Channel 4 has Thappad (2020), from director Anubhav Sinha, a more modern take on Indian marriage. Young professionals Vikram and Amrita are at a party, celebrating his impending move to a better job in London. Then he slaps her, and there are consequences. 

Stephen’s Picks                       

Tomorrow (22/5) at 12:00, Talking Pictures has Ask a Policeman (1939). Will Hay, who graduated from the music halls, plays an incompetent Sergeant who invents a crime to solve in order to save his job. A Gainsborough picture, not Ealing, but in the same comic vein. (Also on Monday at 12:05.) At 15:15, Channel 5 has The Glenn Miller Story (1953), with James Stewart as the superstar swing bandleader who disappeared over the Channel in 1944, and June Allyson as his devoted wife. Sentimental, and not entirely accurate, but appealing nonetheless. 

On Sunday (23/5) at 11:55, ITV4 has The Sting (1973). George Roy Hill’s ingenious crime caper, with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, created as a follow-up to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Highly entertaining. Its anachronistic use of Scott Joplin’s ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ created a global ragtime craze. At 21:00, Horror has The Hallow (2015), a haunted-house tale with long-faced Joseph Mawle and his family taking on a remote mansion in Ireland and facing the consequences, with little sympathy from the locals. (Also on Friday at 02:35.)

On Monday (24/5) at 23:40, 5Star has Life (2017). Rebecca Ferguson leads a team of astronauts on a space station, analysing samples from Mars. One of them contains something living, and it isn’t friendly. Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds are also on board.

Other modern films of interest

Tomorrow (22/5) at 19:30, BBC2 has The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018). I note that the first IMDB review of this film says “Be warned, this film contains acting.” Lily James, Tom Courtenay, Jessica Brown Findlay, Katherine Parkinson, Penelope Wilton and others wring a lot out of this unthreatening wartime romance-drama, with its unusual and picturesque setting. At 21:30, BBC2 has African Apocalypse (2020), a documentary that takes Oxford-educated writer Femi Nylander to Niger to uncover the French colonial carnage behind Joseph Conrad’s fictional Heart of Darkness and draw parallels with our own Imperial activities and their legacy. At 21:30, Channel 4 has Sicario 2: Soldado (2018). Lots of action in this sequel. The CIA fight a drug cartel which has a sideline in importing terrorists to the US. Did that ever happen? At 22:00, Sky Arts has Bunch of Kunst (2017). This is a no-budget film about the career of “Britain’s angriest band”, except the Sleaford Mods aren’t really a band and they don’t really want a career. One of them shouts and swears about working-class life and the other makes horrible post-punk loops and plays them back from a keyboard. Great stuff. What a pity they are both over 50. 

On Sunday (23/5) at 14:50, BBC1 has Frozen (2013), the unavoidable Disney cartoon. From a Hans Christian Andersen source, it is either a solid-gold classic or the worst Disney movie ever made. Try it on any pre-teens you might need to keep sedated. At 23:35, Film4 has Starred Up (2013). The first lead role for the remarkable Jack O’Connor, playing a young offender who is moved up to an adult prison, where he meets his Dad, another inmate, whom he hasn’t seen since he was five. Dad shows him the ropes. Energetic, well researched and bracingly grim. 

On Tuesday (25/5) at 21:00, Sky Arts has Tintoretto. A Rebel in Venice (2019). Documentary about the Venetian painter, who was, apparently, almost a rock star: “Independent, daring, ground-breaking and free.” He was also quite good with a brush. 

On Wednesday (26/5) at 00:00, Sky Arts has The Story of the Jam: About the Young Idea (2015). Laudatory documentary about the chart-bothering Woking neo-mods. Early on they favoured Union flags and attracted a whiff of violence, but they learnt their lesson. Sadly, none of that gets a mention. 

On Thursday (27/5) at 22:40, BBC4 has Tangled Up With Dylan: The Ballad of AJ Weberman (2006). A sly look at the crazed superfan, self-professed inventor of “Dylanology” and “Garbology”, the art of going through a celebrity’s bins. Famous among fellow Dylan obsessives for his claim that Bob once beat him up when he was caught red-handed.  

On Friday (28/5) at 21:00, BBC4 has Don’t Look Back (1967). D A Pennebaker’s famous backstage documentary about Dylan’s 1965 tour of England, when he had suddenly become a pop star. The filmmaker kept the cameras rolling, giving the newly-electrified folkie plenty of rope which which to hang himself. With appearances from Donovan, his British would-be rival, and Joan Baez, fellow performer and sometime girlfriend. He is nasty to both. At 21:00, Sky Arts has King Rocker (2020). The reliably acerbic comedian and Guardian columnist Stewart Lee wrote this film about Robert Lloyd, a Birmingham punk singer ignored by the world for 40 years. Apparently very entertaining, especially for Brummies of a certain age. 


Tomorrow (22/5) at 15:45, Talking Pictures has Man Hunt (1941). Fritz Lang was asked by Hitler to make films for the Third Reich, but instead escaped to America. There he directed this stylish and efficient photo-noir thriller about a British big game hunter (Walter Pidgeon) who gets the Führer in his cross-hairs but is foiled and pursued back to England by Nazi agents. Criticised as propaganda by the Hays Office, Hollywood’s own censors, because it took a pro-British line when the US was still neutral. At 20:10, Talking Pictures has Inferno (1953). A man is stranded in the Mojave desert by his adulterous wife and must survive to seek vengeance. The first 3D film released by 20th Century Fox, just as the craze was on its way out. A taut thriller with some spectacular scenery. (Also on Friday at 20:10.)

On Sunday (23/5) at 10:00, 5 Select has The Divided Heart (1954). Emotional drama about a presumed war orphan, placed with kind German parents during World War II, only for his refugee birth mother to reappear and seek to reclaim him seven years later. Directed by Ealing stalwart Charles Crichton, who was Oscar-nominated for A Fish Called Wanda, which he made for John Cleese at the age of 77. 

On Monday (24/5) at 16:50, Film4 has Donovan’s Reef (1963). Clumsy John Ford comedy, with John Wayne and Elizabeth Allen as chalk-and-cheese Americans edging towards romance in beautiful French Polynesia. (Also on Friday at 11:00.)

John Morrish, Stephen Ilott, Finn Candy-Waters