Bolton, and another day at the cotton mills is over as the workers stream out the gates and into the streets, though for engineer Rafe Crompton (James Mason) he's not leaving until everything has been safely wound down. Back home, his wife Daisy (Diana Coupland) is preparing the evening meal of fried herring, and the family of four sons and daughters are settling in the front room, as usual all too aware that if they step out of line their father will come down on them like a ton of bricks. But tonight youngest daughter Hilda (Susan George) doesn't feel like eating herring, and wonders if she can get out of it...
From such minor incidents do grow a major crisis in this big screen adaptation of Bill Naughton's play, which he scripted himself. He had penned the better known movies, also based on his plays, Alfie and The Family Way (which was similar to this) back in the sixties, but the reaction to his efforts here were not quite as warm, reckoning that it had been better on the stage, and many wondering what James Mason was doing in a low budget comedy drama with a hefty dose of the "Eeh bah gum" about it. The answer to that was that he was being excellent, as if you forgot, however temporarily, his megastar status you could perceive a wonderful humanity to his performance.
Basically Mason was applying the reason he became such a big star - his talent for acting - to the material, and he was a substantial part of what turned Spring and Port Wine into the cult movie it was for decades to come, that and the sense of times past. As if being in his presence lifted the entire cast's game, wanting to keep up with him, some wavering accents aside everyone's portrayal was exemplary, and the sense of a genuine family was difficult to deny as the melodrama played out. The main issue Crompton has with Hilda is when she turns her nose up at the herring, and asks for a poached egg instead, nothing much to her but to her father a slap in the face of all those he grew up with, watching them starve on the dole.
Being of a younger generation, Hilda isn't interested to hear yet another of Dad's boring stories about how life were hard when he were a lad, which simply serves to widen the rift between them, to the point where he orders Daisy to serve the very same herring every mealtime until Hilda deigns to eat it. She has inherited her father's pride, however, and a battle of wills ensues, building a tension in the air that you can positively feel crackling with electricity, well aware that the brewing storm of emotions is going to break sooner or later. What was interesting was the script didn't settle on taking one side or the other, as you were made conscious that they both had a point.
However, Crompton's pettiness in making his point is impossible to deny as the crux of the matter, and the elder daughter Florence (Hannah Gordon) sees her boyfriend Arthur (Keith Buckley) stand up to the old man resulting in them both swearing never to return, no matter how Daisy feels. Thus the ripples from that damned herring incident expand until nobody in the movie is unaffected, and the situation develops into something far more grave when Crompton's stubborness breaks up the family he had so wanted to keep together. It's the stuff of tragedy, yet every so often there would be a funny line or two and you could regard this with a perspective the characters cannot see up to the stage where it's almost too late. There were crises and surprises, but Naughton's dialogue for Mason was in many cases priceless, with many a proverb and adage convincing you of his Godfearing wisdom in spite of his pigheadedness when it came to admitting that maybe he could be wrong sometimes. Music by Douglas Gamley.