Butley was given to me by my sister after we went to see a revival of a Simon Gray play in London several years ago. This film version was produced as part of the American Film Theatre seasons, where producer Ely Landau drew on his television experience to make two packages of cinema adaptations of stage plays and sell them in advance to networks of cinemas in the US. The scene is set by a caption reading 'LONDON' at the start of the film, as Alan Bates's Ben Butley cuts himself shaving on a morning, and then by a sequence shot on the northbound platform at Kilburn Park station, moving onto a train (complete with Bakerloo line diagrams showing both branches) where Burley's rudeness, selfishness and uneasy eye towards men are pointed out by Bates's gesture and the sullen curious camera. Most of the two-hour running time is spent in the office Butley shares at Queen Anne College, University of London (with rebellious indifference but solipsistic indulgence too, Butley is always seen entering its precincts through the 'OUT' gateway) with his former pupil, protégé and lover Joey Keystone (Richard O'Callaghan). Joey is disentangling himself from Ben, finding a new partner in publisher Reg (Michael Byrne). Ben snipes continually at Joey's willingness to work within the university career structure, his sexual identity and presentation, while reeling him in to jibes at their older colleague Edna (Jessica Tandy), her teaching (probably diligent) and publishing record. Ben seems to hanker after reconciliation with his estranged wife Anne (Susan Engel), and peppers his conversation with arguments with himself over the location and nature of their last sexual encounter. Georgina Hale, Darien Angadi, Colin Haigh and Simon Rouse play disgusted, belittled, exasperated and furious students.
The self-absorbed alcoholic protagonist who dares the audience to be driven to sympathise with him and so become complicit in his destructive narcissism feels like a 1970s device especially, Butley being a representative of the old professional class overtaken by men who have climbed the new ladders provided by the Welfare State, and women whom he feels really just shouldn't be there. The ground over which the story is told is familiar to an audience in the 2010s, though: society's understanding of gender and sexuality, disintegration and relayering of class structures, academic reform and the need to produce outputs (though we don't hear that term) juxtaposed with teaching demands and assumptions of a new student generation which are incomprehensible to or rejected by their jaded or self-interested elders. It's no spoiler that Ben is eventually left alone in his office with a bottle of Haig's whisky, seemingly content with his own inadequacy. There are aspects of the character close to Alan Bates's own life and large sectors of British society seemed to negotiate the 1970s in a spirit-soaked haze, but though a period piece now Butley is a reminder that social and psychological problem-solving can take a very long time indeed.