Second Best (1994)


Second Best (1994)

Graham Holt is a lonely middle-aged man who runs a postal substation in a small village in England. He decides to adopt a son. James is the troubled youth he gets with the assistance of social worker Debbie. James has been in an orphanage for years since his mother committed suicide. He adores his outlaw father John, sent to prison not long after the mother's death. Can James learn to love Graham? Can Graham settle for being second best?
IMDb   6.8 /10
TheMovieDb    6.3 /10
FilmAffinity   6.4 /10
Director Chris Menges
Writer David Cook
Release Date1994-09-30
Runtime1h 45mins
Content RatingPG-13 (PG-13)
Awards1 win & 2 nominations.
CompanyAlcor Films, Fron Film Production, New Regency Productions
CountryUK, USA
Graham Holt
Doris Irving
Doris Irving
Adoption Shop Volunteer
Senior Social Worker
Rachel Freeman
Rachel Freeman
Gus Troakes
Gus Troakes
Martin Troakes
Martin Troakes
Graham, age 20
Colin, age 20

Second Best (film)

Second Best is a 1994 British film produced by Sarah Radclyffe and directed by Chris Menges. It closely follows the 1991 novel of the same name by David Cook, who also wrote the screenplay.


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Graham Holt (William Hurt) is a single man, aged 42, who wants to adopt a ten-year-old son. Graham is a sub-postmaster in a village in Wales. James Lennards (Chris Cleary Miles) is a disturbed child brought up in foster care. Graham wants a son, but James doesn't want another father at the time. Graham walks by an agency and starts looking at pictures of children. Being a single man and unmarried he decided maybe adoption is the way to go. He spots James picture and when he sits filling out the forms he is slightly baffled as to why he wrote son. Later in the film he makes a comment to James as to how desperate they must be to be considering himself to be a parent, 'since you can count on one hand the number of single men who wish to adopt.'

Graham Holt's emotional development has been smothered by his uncaring parents. Graham was born to parents who loved each other more than their son, never spending time with him and later on pretending to be interested in him. His mother passes on and a year later his father suffers a stroke which means Graham has to now care for him. Later in a heartfelt scene, Graham's father passes and James bring out a shell placing it on Graham's ear, the one good memory Graham ever had of his father. This takes place later on in the film.

James has been shifted from foster home to group home throughout his short life. Causing some disruptions and being unable to relate to women. Due to the nature of his past he has a hard time coping, anger, self-mutilation are just a few things that Happens with young James. He only has a vague memory of his mother when he was aged 3, but has a vivid and romantic image of his father. James's father is in and out of prison and has spun tales of him being a 'mercenary' in the one time they have spent together on the run. Near the end of the film, James finally dreams and remembers what has happened to his mother.

As Graham goes through the extended vetting process to be an adoptive parent, He then has to attend classes and meet regularly with social workers. Graham and James meet and the embarrassed silences demonstrate Graham's nervousness and James's fears of the situation. Graham is not sure how to behave, nor what to say, due to being nervous. He talks about wanting a son, and suggests what James needs, ungracefully saying that James need a father, but stammering on the what James needs is that special someone to look after his needs.

Throughout the movie James has flashbacks of his past about his father and his mother. They cause him to act out, from self-mutilation to destruction of property. Asked by James Key worker, if Graham likes children his reply is ‘Yes, but I don't think I could eat a whole one.' Trying to make a tense situation easier. The Key Worker is cut off from explaining issues about James when James enters the room.

When James is shown the room that would be his if the adoption goes through, it also serves as James room when he starts his visits to Graham's place. He moves towards Graham and places his arms around Graham's waist. He then hugs him briefly. Showing affection for the first time in his young life. James also makes friends in this time with some of the local children racing with a bicycle.

On one trip out in the car, Graham tries to explain how a relationship should work, He explains it should be a partnership, he never mentions love. Graham has to visit key people in James' past; one of them, Lynn, a foster mother, who was one of the few females James ever got along with, was disappointed that James would not stop in to see her. She explained to Graham about James constantly running away and finding him partially dressed, always hiding in holes and covered in dirt. During this time a flashback scene is shown of James hiding from the police. On the ride home Graham asked James why he liked Lynn when women don't seem to be his cup of tea. James due to having issues starts to self-harm himself, first by scratching his legs with his hand, then by trying to jump from the car, all the while telling Graham that Lynn is not a proper woman, eventually forcing Graham to stop the car as James tries to jump out.

James convinces Graham that tenting is fun. James stands in the small shop choosing gear while Graham remains outside with his caseworker. She quickly tells Graham to beware of knots for once they are tied they are harder to get out from. It's a happy experience. James plays in a creek while teaching an inept Graham the ways of camping or as the English refer to it as tenting. James tests Graham as well by finding a stick and giving himself and injury on his forehead. He tells Graham while remembering an experience by his birth father, that the kiss has to be a long one to make it feel better. After Graham asks Jamie if he was testing Graham and James replies, 'I often test people.' Unfortunately this is fairly common in the world scope of foster care since nothing is ever permanent. Later that night on the camp out Jamie goes to relieve himself then returns to the tent cold, and slips into the sleeping bag with Graham. Who at the time is dreaming and does not even realize the boy is in with him until he wakes in the morning.

After a few weekends together, Graham takes James to meet Graham's father's brother, Uncle Turpin (John Hurt). Turpin teases James and finally makes him smile. He asks Graham if he has ever apologized to his father; he always hated Graham's mother, since she would never let the father have a moments peace. Graham replied it was a true love to which Turpin replies ‘no' since she would not even let Graham's father take a whittle on his own. Turpin also asks Graham if he is sure about wanting to adopt, Graham is adamant about it that this is what he wants to do. So James now has a better understanding of Graham, and Graham a better understanding of James.

While their relationship develops and has its ups and downs, nothing shakes Graham's belief that he is the one person who can make all the difference and that between them, they could change each other. Near the end James's father unexpectedly shows up and asks Graham to allow him to stay nearby secretly for the last few months he is expected to live, just to be able to see James without James knowing he is there. Graham decides that James should meet his father, that James should know that his father is dying of AIDS so that James would not have to wonder years later as to what had happened to his father. As a new school season is starting Graham is allowed to foster James while the final adoption can take place. In this way James would not have to change schools during the process.

The reunion with James's father does not go well and James withdraws into himself. Once again the pains of the past take over as James tries to escape the pain in the only way he knows how. Graham invites James' father to move in with them, and he and James care for him as he lives his last few months. In the end Graham says to Jamie, "I won't be second best." As James flips a sign over at a gas station from open to closed, more a symbol of his past is over and his new life is beginning, as he hurries to catch Graham and places his hand in Graham's.


  • William Hurt as Graham Holt
  • Chris Cleary Miles as James
  • John Hurt as Uncle Turpin
  • Jane Horrocks as Debbie
  • Alan Cumming as Bernard
  • Keith Allen as John
  • Jake Owen as James age 3

Critical reception

The film holds a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 6 reviews with an average rating of 6.8/10.

Channel 4 (who rated it 4.6 out of 5) wrote: "The powerful and sometimes crippling relationships between fathers and sons is the inspiration behind Menges' worthy drama".


The film was largely made in the small Welsh town of Knighton.