Fear of  Drowning

Fear of  Drowning (1988)

by Numbers

Drowning by Numbers is a story of three women who drown their husbands - one in a bath, one in the sea, and one in a swimming-pool. 

Cissie OneCissie TwoCissie Three

Appropriately water is the film's main metaphor - it splashes, roars and gurgles throughout the film, and it seeps its way into the dialogue whenever possible. Even when the water is harnessed - in the water-towers that dominate the flat landscape - it remains a threat, and provides a meeting-place for the film's major antagonists - the Water-Tower Conspirators.

The Conspirators are named from the apocryphal last words of the famous. Which is enough to signify that this film - amongst other things - is an ironic game of games, riddles, and death.

The apocryphal last words of Pitt the Younger: "I think I could eat one of Bellamy's pork-pies."

The apocryphal last words of Lord Nelson: "Kiss me Hardy."

The apocryphal last words of George V: "Bugger Bognor."

The apocryphal last words of Charles II: "Let not poor Nellie starve."

The apocryphal last words of Thomas Gainsborough: "We are all off to Heaven and Van Dyke is of the company."

Peter Greenaway

The film is set in the 1980s, in an English landscape that is recognisable but dramatised - dramatised in the way that a child might remember it, or of come across it through the illustrations of childhood literature, from Arthur Rackham to Maurice Sendak; or a landscape re-imagined through the eyes of a succession of English painters who have dramatised the English landscape for their own purposes, from Samuel Palmer to Stanley Spencer, and most especially the Victorian painters of the 1850s, like Millais, Holman Hunt and Madox Brown.

Many of the scenes are shot in the orange light of dawn or sunset, or shot at night - night for the most part quietly benevolent... but occasionally erupting into enigmatic and ambiguous malevolence.

The three major protagonists of the film all have the same name: Cissie Colpitts - a grandmother, her daughter and her niece. All three, for a variety of reasons, find their husbands unsatisfactory. The motive for murder can best be described as dissatisfaction. The women have a great sense of camaraderie and solidarity, and once the eldest Cissie Colpitts - greatly provoked - has taken the plunge - it becomes easier for her namesakes to copy her. And they do so with apparently less motive and more and more conviction. The murders are not bloody. The women have carefully chosen drowning because drowning can be very convincingly explained as an accident, and that is exactly what the women demand of their local coroner, Madgett. Madgett, a name suggesting both magic and maggot, is a master game-player, devising complicated rules and regulations for a series of games, that make him an attractive pillar of the community, but ironically also mask his insecurities.

Madgett the coroner, not surprisingly, wants something in return for his falsifying of the death certificates. But with tact and grace and wit, he gets quietly and firmly repulsed.

Like the nursery story of Billy Goat Gruff, Madgett - a troll under the bridge - gets passed along the line - until he gets kicked for his pains into the river.

The film is very simply constructed. It has a prologue, three acts and an epilogue - three tales in one, each seemlessly overlapping the one before. The film is shaped like a long, slow spiral uncoiling to its end. The coils of this spiral hold the same sequence of events - three drownings, three autopsies, three funerals and three reckonings - or rather three unreckonings - because Madgett each time is denied his pound of sexual gratification.

Three drowningsThree autopsiesThree funeralsThree (un) reckonings

It is an ironic tale of male impotency, in the face of female solidarity. What is the male defence? To play games? The English male is supposed to be good at games. Madgett and his devoted son, Smut, are certainly inventive. For both of them any event is a good excuse for a game, even, and especially, death.

Smut copies his father, perhaps he copies him only too well. He's a collector of insects. Insects crawl and fly throughout the film, their presence a focus for the film's interest in natural history, and a reminder of their contribution to the processes of decay.

Smut is the innocent lover of the enigmatic Skipping-Girl who - always dressed for a party she never goes to - skips and counts the stars. She wears an extravagant fancy dress, whose wide hips mock her immaturity - another reminder of the film's themes of sexual potency. If Smut innocently copies his father, then the Skipping-Girl copies her mother, and innocently and dangerously, she spreads sexual advice she scarcely comprehends. So that Smut, too, to please a women, sharpens up his storytelling skills, though in his need to impress and excite, he gets his stories confused and jumbled, impossibly and self-critically identifying with his emasculated hero, Samson. And in the end ironically he inflicts on himself an act which some may regard as a symbolic castration. 

SmutThe Skipping-Girl

Smut is a counter. So too are the women. So too is the film. The film count is introduced by the film's navigator - the Skipping-Girl who counts the stars. She herself is illuminated by a manmade star, a lighthouse. Lighthouses are devised to keep men from drowning. The Skipping-Girl establishes a count that at once sets the film in motion. This count relentlessly continues throughout the film. Some of the numbers are bold, some very discrete, some are embedded in the text, some stand isolated and others come in rapid flurries. Narrative and number-count both propel the film along - the narrative obeying the free-will choices made by the characters, and the implacable number-count that limits the free choice. However free-will is excercised, there are severe limitations, the boundaries are invariably marked. The numbers are a game, but as Madgett says - no game is without significance - and the numbers tick away the frames, the seconds, the minutes, the allotted time for the narrative to take place. When you reach 50 you know you're halfway through the narrative. When you're in the 90s you know the story has not far to go. When you reach 100 narrative and number-count arrive neatly at a photo finish. The film is at an end and the game is finished.

What of these numbers and these games and these finely wraught structures? And what of this elaborate plot of coincidence and improbability constructed against so rigorous a set of formal constraints? Well - it is true that irony is intended, and it is true that the film is constructed to amuse and entertain on all levels possible. There are, after all, approaches to be made other than the dependable routes that massage sentimental expectations and provide easy opportunities for emotional identification. It is true that the games and the numbers are arranged to remind an audience they are watching a film and doing nothing else. For this is not a window on the world or a slice of reality, which are dubious and unobtainable objectives at the best of times. Human relationships are patterned and cross-patterned and restricted and limited and delimited and caged and freed again by the elaborate conventions, rules and games which we call civilisation. They're often absurd and farcical, and sometimes they're tragic, yet we acknowledge that they are necessary. Sometimes they can be bent. Part of the understanding of the existence of rules and conventions is to defy or subvert them, to test them. The three women in Drowning by Numbers try to bend the rules to cheat at the games, and they succeed, at least for the length of the film they seem to succeed. Such a success or successes like it we know are not impossible.

The organisation of the formal elements of the film seek to match and complement the games of human relationships that are contained in it: men with women, parents with children, outsiders with insiders, good with evil, in such a way that the form and the content become inseparable and indivisible. To this end, Drowning by Numbers is a black comic fable, a moral tale told immorally. It gently suggests with some irony, and hopefully some humour, that the good cannot depend on a reward, that the bad do not necessarily get punished, and that the innocent are always abused.


Drowning by Numbers

Number Locations


100 Stars






H is for House


Water Wrackets

Dear Phone

Vertical Features Remake

A Walk Through H

The Falls

Act of God

The Draughtsman's Contract

The Sea in their Blood

Making a Splash

A Zed & Two Noughts

26 Bathrooms  

The Belly of an Architect

Death in the Seine

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

A TV Dante: The Inferno Cantos I-VIII

Prospero's Books

M is for Man, Music and Mozart


The Baby of Mācon

Lumiere & Company

The Pillow Book

8 1/2 Women

The Death of a Composer

The Tulse Luper Suitcases

The European Showerbath


Tulse Luper


92 Lists

92 Numbers