It’s as if Stephen Poliakoff took a dash of inspiration from Steven Shainberg’s movie The Secretary (2002), added a dash of his 1999 drama Shooting the Past, then added a dash of his 2001 drama Perfect Strangers, and spliced them together to create the complete twaddle that was his 2006 TV movie Friends & Crocodiles.
All the usual Poliakoff ingredients are there: an overly-melodramatic score, black and white photographs plastered on the walls of a large stately home as mementoes of the past, while in the present, the nouveau riche and the privileged classes “swan around” (literally) in the gardens, eagerly anticipating the dinner gong and the cry of “supper is served”.
It’s the summer of 1981 and Lizzie (Johdi May) is a secretary who is talent-spotted by millionaire property developer Paul Reynolds (Damian Lewis) while taking a lunchtime walk through his sprawling country estate. (If you think that’s stretching it, read on.)
Reynolds is a brilliant young man who owns a pet crocodile and “collects people who interest him” — a poet, a politician, a pair of artists, a “revolutionary,” a journalist, a scholar, a girl in a wheelchair — and now a girl he’s poached from the typing pool of a London real estate office …
Given the seriously large typewriter Lizzie is accustomed to working with, it comes as a bit of a shock when she turns up for work, on the first day of her new job, with a small and brightly-coloured plastic typewriter …
After typing woodenly on her red Silver-Reed Silverette …
… Lizzie, sets about “bringing order to Paul’s chaos” by organising the crackpot projects he has filed away in an old pencil box. These include grandiose plans for urban renewal, and the building of an airship and a wind farm (no doubt powered by the hot air that Paul and his sycophants are so full of).
At one point Paul tells Lizzie:
“Get into computers, Lizzie. There aren’t enough women in computing. There used to be lots of women in computing, when it was considered as lowly as typing.”
If this isn’t a warning sign, I don’t know what is, however it fails to register with Lizzie, who seems impressed by Paul for some reason. Lizzie impresses him too – doing a wonderful job of colour-coding his project files and exhibits.
Clearly, Lizzie is a woman who craves order and certainty, which explains why she reacts so badly when Paul organises one of his wild parties: A working class-rabble has been hired specifically to cause trouble, and cause trouble they do. The outdoor event quickly turns into a scene from Mad Max as revolting proles rampage through the gardens and assembled guests (including children) on quad bikes.
The last straw for Lizzie comes when they throw her colour-coded filing system into the swimming pool while Paul looks on unperturbed. Lizzie calls the police, which Paul sees as a betrayal, and they part ways with Lizzie telling Paul emphatically: “You will never see me again.”
If only it were so. Eighteen months later, Lizzie has a new job working for a firm of venture capitalists in central London (her C.V. must have been impressive).
It’s now circa 1983. Electronic wedges and word processors have begun to replace the typewriters of old, and full-blown computerisation is on the horizon …
… thus threatening the cosy world of bosses and their secretaries …
Lizzie bumps into Paul and accepts his invitation to lunch (she’s unable to resist his charms despite vowing to never speak to him again) and they get together for a cosy chat in a pub that has female go-go dancers (another warning sign Lizzie chooses to ignore).
We learn that Paul’s business is on a downward slide after some bad investments. This prompts Lizzie to take pity on him and she suggests Paul comes and work as a part of her team of venture capitalists. After all, no-one know the future like Paul does.
So Paul spends the next 5 months proving he’s not a team player while ostensibly working towards a much anticipated report which will identify the one future trend that will make them all a pot of money. Eventually Paul announces his big idea: “Bookshops,” he says, “Maybe with a coffee shop tucked away inside.”
The idea goes down like a lead balloon. Lizzie and her boss are furious and demand Paul leaves immediately. “I was wrong to think that you could ever change. This is the worst idea of my life.” say Lizzie, proving just how incredibly dim she is.
Fast forward to 1990 and the end of the Thatcher era. Computers have taken over and Paul is on the skids having lost everything following more bad investments. Lizzie the once “lowly” secretary has done quite well for herself, however, is engaged to be married, and has landed a top job on the board of a firm of investment bankers (her C.V. must be very impressive).
Lizzie’s marriage reception is held in the gardens of the stately home formerly owned by Paul, and once again the nouveau riche and the privileged classes are seen “swanning around” …
Paul shows up as a gate crasher — as one of those “ghosts of the past” that Poliakoff is so fond of. Fearing more chaos and disorder, Lizzie pleads with him not to cause trouble.
Paul seems to have cast his spell on her again. Even the attendees at the wedding reception are completely baffled by this, wondering if the bride hasn’t “been on the Sherry”, as she implores Paul to leave. Paul agrees to leave on the condition that she promises to call him. (Erm… It’s a bit late for that Paul, she just got married!)
After the marriage, Lizzie starts her high-powered new job – a job which is so stressful she’s immediately given the rest of the week off.
Of course, Lizzie can think of no better way to spend her free time than to visit her old “mentor” Paul — who is now a long-haired, spliff-smoking stoner living on a hippy commune-cum-pig farm with the mothers (plural) of his many children.
Lizzie’s pleased for him, naturally, however she needs to get back to work ASAP. London’s paging her urgently because the asset stripping company she works for are about to close 75 companies – including a manufacturer of upright vacuum cleaners – and make 20,000 people redundant.
There is no future in upright vacs. The future is in the Internet. The future is in telecommunications. Her company are so convinced of this, they put all their eggs in one basket. Inevitably, Internet and telecom share prices take a nose-dive, taking the egg basket down with them.
Lizzie (it seems she was hired to be the sacrificial lamb) is left to explain to the media why peoples’ lives have been ruined. She’s hounded by the paparazzi who lay siege to her home (more parallels here with Shainberg’s movie).
In the throes of a nervous breakdown, Lizzie starts seeing visions of Paul. Paul would know what to do. Paul always did know what to do. (Strange, I was under the impression that Paul had, thus far, managed to f**k everything up.)
By some feat of telepathy, Paul calls Lizzie on the phone at her time of greatest crisis. “Where the f**k were you Paul? ” cries Lizzie, distraught. “I’ve been trying to reach you.”
Paul’s been busy. He’s abandoned his wives and kids (temporarily), and the hippy commune (permanently), to start a chain of bookstores (yes with coffee shops tucked away inside them) and the concept has really taken off. He’s back baby, and to prove it he’s calling Lizzie to invite her to yet another party.
“Why do I think about you so much, Paul? Why is it you’re the first thing I think of when I wake up in the morning?”
It’s a very good question, one that is never satisfactorily answered. Lizzie and her husband accept Paul’s invitation and it’s just like old times. The nouveau rich and the privileged classes are riding around on white swans again (Marc Bolan must have been turning in his grave by this point): The idea being, you see, that this is an ending which is oh so magical and special.
Had Paul put a few crocodiles in the moat, and then upturned a few of the pleasure craft, I might have appreciated it more.
There was some mention of crocodiles being listed at number 8 on Paul’s list of 10 special projects, but it was never satisfactorily explained. All we got was some guff from Paul about how crocodiles had survived the big bang when a giant asteroid hit the Earth, and if you could understand how they had survived you’d have the key to the meaning of life.
He was smoking a spliff at the time, which I think says it all.
It’s bad TV. So bad it’s hilarious 😀