Perhaps nothing has ever caricatured the darkness of the aspirational lifestyle better than Abigail's Party, the film where Mike Leigh made his name. It's a hundred minutes of gradually spiralling, insidious horror among the tan leather sofas and cheese cubes on cocktail sticks. Alison Steadman as Beverley marauds over the delicate sensibilities of her guests like a Godzilla of manners, criticising the dim, giggly Ange and bitching up the anxious, ladylike Sue, mother of the eponymous Abigail. All the cliches of the '70s nouveau-middle class are corralled in Beverley's floor-length coral ruffled dress, moving among the olives to Demis Roussos like some garish, carnivorous plant, completely dominating the room and every timid guest in it, steamrollering her jumpy, frustrated husband, Laurence, who she describes as a "boring little bugger" and flirting hideously with Ange's husband Tony. Like the original Charlie and Stella, Laurence and Beverley use their guests as pawns in their ongoing feud, appealing to Sue and the sullen, glowering Tony for adjudication in between spitting at each other over bowls of peanuts, as the film reaches its sickening climax.
Beverley spits her venom because she exists in a vacuum; bored by sour Laurence, unfulfilled by her silver-plated candelabra and the downstairs toilet of which she so regularly boasts, unable to find happiness even though "the money's always there." She is a bitch extraordinaire, a self-propelling monster of vulgarity, forever snatching the glasses from her so-called friends to fill them with drinks they don't want, immune to the subtleties of expression and feeling going on before her eyes. She is truly, truly vile.
And this small-scale Stalin, dictatrix of Richmond Road, gets what she deserves on a grand scale. Karma comes along and sweeps the bitch off her feet, cigarette in one hand and self-justification in the other as she leans over her critically ill husband, flicking ash in the way of his final breaths. On the scale of Beverley's sitting room, Laurence's heart attack comes as a tsunami, sweeping away rattan chairs, respectability and even the continuing music from Abigail's party down the road. It's over for Laurence, but Beverley stays with us, a worm in the back of the mind, for as long as we look sideways at a Tom Jones LP.