Bri (Alan Bates) is a schoolteacher who has spent the whole day wishing he was home making love to his wife, but his unruly pupils keep bringing him back down to earth, so to punish them they have to sit after the final bell of the day rings with their hands on their heads. Bri goes out to fetch his coat, but is so distracted he forgets to tell them to leave, and drives off in his unreliable car. Once he is home, he sets about seducing his wife Sheila (Janet Suzman), but she is going out - and besides, they have their severely disabled daughter to think of...
Not for the faint of heart, this was the screen adaptation of Peter Nichols' play which tackled an extremely difficult subject in a way which would be deliberately uncomfortable for the audience to watch, as a comedy about the hardships of the emotional toll a disabled chld such as Bri and Sheila's was not everyone's idea of a hilarious night out. Yet through the sensitivity of Nichols' writing (he adapted his play for the screen) and superlative acting from the cast, especially Bates and Suzman, the results were both moving and able to have us understand the anguish the couple were enduring, even as they try to deflect it with humour.
The little girl, Jo (Elizabeth Robillard), is now ten, and the way the story is structured we get to see the past eleven years in flashback, from her conception to the present. Bri and Sheila are a happy couple, but having this "vegetable" in the house with them who they must take care of proves a strain, particularly when Sheila refuses to place the child in care through a mixture of responsibility and guilt. Bri would be more content if Jo was under professional supervision, but is similarly anguished at his apparently self-centred feelings: he wants his wife back, or at least a family with an able-bodied offspring, so he too struggles with guilt.
If this sounds too depressing for words, it was true that nobody here shied away from the realities of the situation and the jokes Bri often makes to leaven the mood only make things more tragic, as if he was holding back a tidal wave of sorrow with a thin layer of laughs, and failing to help. In one scene he tells his wife and their friends Freddie (Peter Bowles) and Pam (Sheila Gish) that he doesn't think they should go through to the bedroom to see Jo, and admits he has smothered her to death; they believe him for a second, but then he laughs it off as one of his gags, except that the old adage many a true word spoken in jest was never more relevant.
Bri doesn't want to see his daughter live like this, as it's no life for anyone and would find it far easier to get by if she didn't stubbornly cling to life. Sheila retains her hope that someday Jo will get better, and her love for the child tempers her husband's darker thoughts, but this being a drama, some kind of resolution must be found and events come to a head on that night a couple of days before Christmas. By this time the lighthearted (under the circumstances) fantasy sequences have noticeably dried up, and the question of euthanasia and whether it's cruel to prolong such a thwarted existence arises. Not that there were any easy answers, and the one Bri finds could be viewed as desperately reckless, but through Bates' remarkable performance the sympathy of the story is never in doubt. Yes, you need a strong sense of humour to find much funny about this at all, but the characters cling onto their spirits because the alternative is too much to bear; though eventually that overwhelms them.