These days we are often told that we can see any film we wish and in any format. And it is great that so many distributors are finding and re-releasing older films that slowly disappeared from general consciousness or were just plain forgotten, regardless of quality or the critical or commercial acceptance at the time of release. Woman in a Dressing Gown was originally passed for distribution by the BBFC on the 31st July 1957. Fifty five years later, we have the chance to view it again in the cinema and re-evaluate its significance in British cinema history.
Amy Preston (Yvonne Mitchell) has a few issues with washing, ironing and cooking. She doesn’t mind doing them, but is just a bit useless at it really. Married life seems eminently reasonable, if a little chaotic at times. Her son Brian (Andrew Ray) is still living at home but has a job and a girlfriend who he may actually bring home to meet the family one day. Amy even manages to go out for a drink with her husband Jim Preston (Anthony Quayle), when he can spare the time from his job, which has required far more hours in the office recently. But sadly this alleged overtime is a farce – he is, in fact, having an affair with his colleague, the far younger Georgie Harlow (Sylvia Syms), who is keen that he should tell Amy about their relationship, and then depart his established family to live with his new amour. Can he possibly manage to do this and how will slovenly Amy react?
Woman in a Dressing Gown is clearly a product of its age and an early example of British realism. There is even a kitchen sink, piled high with unwashed dishes and pans whose contents have been burned beyond recognition. Amy is good-hearted and amiable enough but is about as far removed from the perception of the domestic goddess so often portrayed in the Hollywood cinema of the time as it is possible to be. As a drama Woman in a Dressing Gown feels like Brief Encounter (1945) made like a soap opera for the ITV audience. It was initially part of ITV Television Playhouse: Woman in a Dressing Gown (1956) and precedes later, more critically acclaimed films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and A Taste of Honey (1961).
The family is a very ordinary lower middle class unit and reinforces the stereotypes of the time – father and son go out to work, mother is expected to remain at home, providing nice meals and doing the housework. Amy is simply incapable of carrying out her role with any degree of competence. Her perceptions of what a wife and mother should be are way off the mark and her naiveté, most probably caused by her sheltered existence, is heart-rending. The means she adopts to keep her man involves borrowing money to get a nice hairdo, wear a nice dress and buy a bottle of whisky so that all parties can sit at the table and discuss things in a civilised manner. Although the situation is thoroughly depressing Woman in a Dressing Gown has a sense of the docudrama to it that makes for interesting viewing. The relationship between Amy and Jim is key to the story and the performances wring every drop of emotion from each of the characters. Interestingly, although all the characters have their flaws, they are basically decent, and want to try to make the best of an unfortunate and unhappy situation.
An interesting exploration of family life and an early example of British social realism, it is good to see films such as Woman in a Dressing Gown becoming available for viewing once more. Woman in a Dressing Gown is in cinemas now and will be released on DVD on 13th August. Viewers attending the screening at the Curzon Mayfair on Sunday July 29th at 2.30pm will be able to hear a few words from Sylvia Syms who will be providing an introduction the film.