Writer: Bea Robertson
Director: Paul Robinson
Before there was Covid there was Foot and Mouth; but it was a long time ago and it was life-changing only for some. And Then Come the Nightjars is about Michael, a farmer, and Jeff, the vet who supervised the slaughter of his cows.
The story takes place over twelve years, beginning as the epidemic breaks out in 2001. Recently widowed, Michael is devastated by the loss of his “girls.” Doubly grief-stricken and angry, he retreats into misery. Jeff, meanwhile, has troubles of his own. At his most helpless and vulnerable he re-enters Michael’s life and the two build a new and unusual relationship. Through conversations which take place on specific dates, we gather details of their lives and families.
The well-crafted dialogue never seems expository. David Fielder, who plays Michael, gets all the best lines. Michael’s expletive-charged language is creative and colourful. “I need you like a hole in my hernia,” he tells Jeff. He vainly tries to enlist Jeff’s help in resisting the government directive – “we’ll fucking Butch and Sundance the lot of ‘em,” and worries about developers “putting bidets left right and centre.” The writing – and Fielder’s performance – is especially sensitive when Michael tries to say conventionally laddish things . Jeff’s wife, he says, is “a tasty bit,” probably preparing “a slap-up dinner,” and even goes so far as “If I had your missus….” Yet he only sounds the opposite of lascivious. Michael is really always thinking of his beloved lost Sheila. With his angled bushy eyebrows and patriarchal white beard he looks like an Old Testament figure, especially standing in his empty cowshed holding a staff, even while he’s wearing a grubby orange hi- vis jacket.
Everything Jeff says is comparatively banal. “Can you not, please,” is probably one of the least effective ways to talk down a distraught farmer with a shotgun. Jeff is an incomer; his wife’s family come from Dorking, of all tame-sounding places, a world apart from rural Devon. The actor Nigel Hastings, with his expressive face -sometimes kind, sometimes concerned, sometimes mired in gloom, makes every word count. His urbane newsreader-ish voice complements Michael’s rough-hewn Devon burr.
Sometimes a film adds dimension to a stage play. A classic example, which bears obvious comparison to this one, is The Odd Couple, where the camera is able to take the characters to different locations so that they can embarrass each other in public. In this case, what is important is the language. In fact this is so vivid that one of the most memorable images – a letter propped against a pot of daffodils – never even appears on the screen. The original production (with the same cast ) at Theatre 503 in 2015 seems to have been fully staged in a realistic looking barn, but the play could work just fine with a couple of bales of hay and some good lighting. The tight script and contrasting voices make it ideal for radio. Does it even need to be a film?
Although Paul Robinson’s film includes a wedding scene which is colourful but unnecessary, there are some visually striking moments. Michael is seen against apocalyptically red-tinged clouds of smoke, and Jeff is the Angel of Death in white coveralls. Refreshingly, the countryside is depicted as Michael sees it. There is country tradition – the Goosey Fair has been going since the middle ages, and the nightjar is known as the bird of death, but the scenery is “not a painting. It’s proper.” It’s green enough, but often trees are nearly bare and the sky is grey. The pebble-dashed farm is determinedly unpicturesque. Jeff brings an amusingly incongruous pop of pink – when he first appears in a cowboy hat, and at the end in a pink gilet (not his – there’s a story).
It’s a comforting film about the redemptive power of friendship. Both men are seen at their lowest – Michael desperately trying to stop the slaughter and Jeff feeling he’s lost everything that matters. The story may seem too cosy for some, but it’s hard not to be moved by curmudgeonly Michael’s gesture of affection at the end.
And Then Come TheNightjars will be in UK Cinemas from 1st September.