Six British Films in Search of an Auteur

Lovers of British cinema owe a debt of gratitude to Network Distributors, whose DVD and blu-ray releases of British films have offered a fascinating mixture of acknowledged classics; worthy programme fillers that are revealing about the tastes and social attitudes of the time; and obscure or neglected works that, in some cases, never found an audience and, in most cases, deserve to be much more widely known. It is this third category that I wish to highlight in the following notes on six recent Network releases of films from the mid 1960s and early 1970s.

These six films are directed by film makers whom critics would be disinclined to view as auteurs, though all have their distinctive directorial personalities; and, anyway (and for better or worse), auteurs are relatively thin on the ground in British cinema. It is also true that, if some of the directors here failed to live up to their early potential, the reason might have as much to do with lack of opportunity as with lack of talent in a national cinema that has always struggled for stability and continuity. None of the films has achieved canonical status (some do not even get a mention in some published histories of British film); none of them has been widely shown since first release, even on television; and none of them is easy to classify, which is a tribute to their originality. Four out of the six deal with the subject of childhood, a theme at which the national cinema, for various reasons, has excelled. Carol Reed, Alexander Mackendrick and Jack Clayton are amongst the best directors of children in the history of the cinema. And so to the six films:

Nothing But the Best (1964: directed by Clive Donner)

This sprightly satire was well received at the time but seems since to have been lost in the margin between the end of the British New Wave and the start of ‘Swinging Britain’. A slightly miscast Alan Bates (he never seems quite ruthless enough for the role) plays a working-class clerk in a real estate office who is determined to enter the upper echelons of society. Like the hero of Kind Hearts and Coronets, he is not beyond committing murder if it will further his goal. Like the hero of Room at the Top, part of his strategy involves marrying the boss’s daughter (Millicent Martin); but unlike Joe Lampton, his planned ascent up the social ladder is not so much through ability and ambition as through a studied imitation of the manners, views and values of the ruling classes.

Janet Moat astutely thought the hero ‘eerily prescient of the Thatcher years’, which certainly gives the film an additional retrospective resonance. At the time it seemed very much in the iconoclastic spirit of the hugely successful BBC TV programme That Was the Week That Was (1962-63), which launched the career of David Frost, and which regularly featured Millicent Martin, Willie Rushton and Bernard Levin, all of whom are to make an appearance in the film. The glittering screenplay is by the Cambridge-educated American, Fredric Raphael, who catches the social nuances with all the observation and skill of the intelligent outsider. He was to go on from this to win an Oscar for Darling (1965) as was Julie Christie, who apparently had been tested for the leading female role but had lost out, astonishingly, to Millicent Martin.

As directed by Donner and photographed by Nicolas Roeg, the film has great visual panache. Donner has a way of wrong-footing you to suggest the deceptiveness of appearance: what looks like the establishing shot of a stately home, for example, turns out to be the design on a biscuit tin; what seems to be a wedding scene turns out to be only its rehearsal, and so on. Donner had learnt his trade as an editor of films such as Genevieve (1953), and, on becoming a director, he was one of the few British film-makers tolerated by the young critics of Movie magazine, who tended to share Truffaut’s view that there was some incompatibility between the notions of ‘British’ and ‘cinema’. He went to Hollywood and directed the Woody Allen screenplay, What’s New Pussycat? (1965), which Allen disliked but which Andrew Sarris at the time preferred to Some Like It Hot. His next Hollywood film, however, Luv (1967) was a disaster, despite a cast of Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk, and Elaine May; and he returned to the UK to make Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1967), a youth sex comedy that does not hold up too well. His later career never matched his work of the early 60s (I should mention his exceptional 1963 version of Pinter’s The Caretaker, also photographed by Roeg), although I retain a regard for his TV movie, Rogue Male (1976), starring Peter O’Toole, and two estimable Dickens adaptations for television in the early 1980s, Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, both starring the great George C. Scott in formidable form.

If Nothing But the Best deserves remembering today, it is particularly for the performance of Denholm Elliott as the seedy aristocrat to whom Bates turns for advice and tutoring on the art of one-upmanship and on how to acquire the requisite upper-class style. So long cast as the soppy second romantic lead in British film, Elliott suddenly delivered a magnificent character performance that was to transform his career. There had been earlier intimations of his untapped talent in Seth Holt’s Station Six Sahara (1962), but that film had sunk without trace (and would be worth resurrecting). Graham Greene had spotted his potential a decade earlier when Elliott played a weak colonial officer in The Heart of the Matter; and, with typical shrewdness, Raymond Durgnat was to compare Elliott’s role in Nothing But the Best with that of the hero of Greene’s novel, England Made Me, another public-school loser who thinks his background gives him a passport to idle prosperity; but who will wind up (metaphorically in Greene, literally in Nothing But the Best) throttled by his old school tie.

The Uncle (1964: directed by Desmond Davis)

Having championed Desmond Davis’s first feature, Girl with Green Eyes (1963), the magazine Films and Filming made a particular fuss about the virtual disappearance of his next film, The Uncle, which, to the best of my recollection, never did get a circuit release in the UK. Thoughtful films about childhood that are not really aimed at children sometimes have difficulty in finding an audience, seeming to slip between both the adult and youth market. The Uncle is a particularly notable example because it is actually about a child in an adult situation and feeling completely lost and disorientated as a result.

Gus (Robert Duncan) is a seven-year-old uncle by virtue of the fact that he is the child of elderly parents but has a much older sister who has a young son. This state of affairs gives Gus a rather cockeyed view of the world and the film replicates this with often witty distortions of visual scale. At one moment the world can be looking down upon Gus; then some complicity is visually suggested between child and adult; but then occasionally the two worlds come into disturbing collision, where Gus seems at one and the same time older than his friends but also more naive and innocent. When he is first taunted by his playmates with the chant, ‘Gus is an uncle!’, he is dressed up in a Charlie Chaplin disguise, and the association is suddenly apposite and poignant, with Gus looking a bit freakish and clown-like but also giving the impression of being, like the young Chaplin, old before his time, or at least feeling something of the cruelty of life before fully understanding its cause. Behind the children’s games is a vision of childhood that also encompasses loneliness and pain, and an awareness of sarcasms and insinuations being whispered behind one’s back. To counter this Gus has discovered a hideaway in a deserted house and in it he tries to teach his pet budgie how to say ‘Bloody damn!’ in a way that will give vent to his own feelings of frustration. It takes the death of a kindly shopkeeper (the infallible Maurice Denham) to give him a new insight into time and age and prompt him to effect a tender reconciliation with his rather remote father, finely played by that splendid actor (and television’s definitive Inspector Maigret), Rupert Davies.

The child performances, particularly that of Robert Duncan, are all excellent, with John Moulder-Brown making a welcome appearance several years before his memorable roles in Skolimowski’s Deep End and Visconti’s Ludwig. Manny Wynn’s photography has the kind of vivacity that one associated at the time with the Nouvelle Vague. The film has its awkward moments and winds up a little more cosily than at first seemed likely, but even so, it is a delight overall, and another example of a promise not quite delivered.

Like Donner, Davis had come up through the ranks and had been camera operator on films such as Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey and Tom Jones before Richardson had given him a chance to direct Girl with Green Eyes. During the 1960s he was to make a film of another Edna O’Brien story, I was Happy Here (1966), a slight but moving tale and beautifully acted by Sarah Miles and Julian Glover; and George Melly scripted Smashing Time (1967) for him, a sequel to Girl with Green Eyes with the same actresses, Rita Tushingham and Lynn Redgrave but cut from a coarser cloth than the original. After that, and apart from an intriguing noir-ish take on an Agatha Christie tale, Ordeal by Innocence (1985), which featured Donald Sutherland and a memorable jazz score by Dave Brubeck, Davis’s main work has been for television; and even the best of that is hard to track down. I count his adaptation for the BBC of L. P. Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda trilogy as being one of the very finest television dramas of the 1970s, but it is currently unavailable, and not even listed on his CV on some movie databases.1

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970: directed by Basil Dearden)

This was to prove Basil Dearden’s last film and a grimly ironic finale in that the film will end with a fatal car accident and Dearden himself was to be killed in a crash on the M1 only a year later. It is based on a short story by Anthony Armstrong, ‘The Case of Mr Pelham’ (though the idea goes back to Dostoyevsky) about a businessman who finds his identity being taken over by a mysterious doppelganger. Hitchcock directed a version of the story for his TV series in 1958, with Tom Ewell as Pelham. In Dearden’s film, Pelham is played by Roger Moore, shortly before he was to become the new James Bond. It is a challenging dual role, because, rather like Dirk Bogarde in Anthony Asquith’s Libel (a challenge Bogarde seemed to undertake with great relish), he is required virtually to parody his own screen image. In one guise he is the uptight respectable English gentleman and a pillar of probity and propriety; in the other he is a risk-taking ruthless opportunist, both commercially and romantically. A debate over whether a business deal is a ‘merger’ or amounts to a ‘takeover’ connects with the film’s psychological themes. Hildegarde Neil and Olga Georges-Pinot are the contrasting women in Pelham’s life (or lives); and Freddie Jones gives an exuberant performance as an eccentric psychiatrist whom one suspects is more unbalanced than his patients. The finale is a visual tour-de-force.

The film is about the duality of human nature (a very Hitchcockian theme) and about trying to shed an imprisoning repression for emotional liberation. In this sense it could be seen as a very personal film, in which Dearden himself is trying to break out of his comfort zone and plunge into riskier thematic territory. I’ve always been moved by the recollection of Dirk Bogarde (whose career owed a lot to Dearden) of an occasion when, at a party to celebrate the rave reviews for Joseph Losey’s The Servant, Dearden had literally knelt at Losey’s feet and asked him, ‘How can I make a film like this?’ (Not an easy question to answer: very few films are as good as The Servant.) Behind the sincere homage, one can sense the insecurity of a man who rarely received – nor, one suspects, gave himself – the credit he deserved. Although he made several films that, for different reasons, could be regarded as milestones of British cinema – The Blue Lamp, Sapphire, Victim – he was treated with contemptuous disdain by Movie; and even Charles Barr acknowledged that he had underestimated Dearden in his book on Ealing Studios. He was a fine craftsman whose films (one thinks particularly of underrated works like Frieda, All Night Long and Life for Ruth) often revealed a strong social conscience. Moreover, in thinking again about The Man Who Haunted Himself, I was reminded that a number of his films are about people leading double lives, wishing or attempting to adopt (or occasionally suppress) a different persona or personality: films such as The Captive Heart, Sapphire, Victim and The Mind Benders. His reputation has risen in recent years, thankfully; but who knows what The Man Who Haunted Himself might have portended about Dearden’s later career development, had his life not been so brutally terminated in that car crash?

The Special Features on the disc are interesting. They include a 2005 commentary by Roger Moore and Bryan Forbes; and an isolated soundtrack of the score by Michael J. Lewis, who, for my money, is up there with William Alwyn, Malcolm Arnold and Clifton Parker (not to mention Vaughan Williams and William Walton) as one of the great British film composers. His score for Jack Gold’s marvellous thriller, The Medusa Touch (also available on Network) is an absolute classic.

The Nightcomers (1972: directed by Michael Winner)

This is Michael Winner’s art movie: an intriguing proposition. Michael Hastings’ screenplay is a prequel to Henry James’s Victorian ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, venturing an interpretation of what really happened between the servant Peter Quint and the former governess Miss Jessel that has so affected the children in their charge. In the James story they will return as ghosts seemingly to possess the souls of these children; or are the ghosts a figment of the new governess’s overwrought, over-active imagination, as she contemplates the horrors (primarily sexual) the children might have seen? Whereas James’s story conveys its horror obliquely and ambiguously (something magnificently realised in Jack Clayton’s classic film version of the story, The Innocents), this prequel is all explicit exposure: bondage, voyeurism, sadomasochism and ultimately murder, as the children are drawn ever further into the adults’ decadent and dangerous pursuits.

The film’s main fascination was, and is, the performance of Marlon Brando as Quint, which came at the end of a dismal run of box-office and critical duds for the actor but which was to be followed by his Don Corleone in The Godfather, the film that rejuvenated his career. Brando plays Quint with a curious Irish accent, which might not be as bizarre as it sounds: I was reminded of a critical essay I had once read, arguing that James’s description of Quint’s physical appearance was inspired by that of the young George Bernard Shaw. It’s an appropriately unsettling performance, with a sinister charm that oscillates between naughtiness and downright nastiness. He is well supported by Stephanie Beacham as the hapless Miss Jessel, head over heels in a relationship beyond her understanding or control; and by Thora Hird, no less, as the beleaguered, outraged housekeeper, Mrs Grose. The other remarkable feature of the film is the baroque-style score by Jerry Fielding, who was to write a number of scores for Winner as well as collaborating regularly with Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood. It was a labour of love, apparently, and it is worth quoting what Fielding said about the score in an interview with Tony Thomas in Film Score: The View from the Podium (1979), as it gives a real sense of the ambience of the film. ‘It was beautifully filmed in winter landscapes in England, largely in and around a country manor,’ he told Thomas. ‘The task, as I saw it, was to deal with the period… and that peculiar scent which must brush the ear ever so gently to remind us that all is not quite right and that we are dealing with two sweet children, who have become depraved killers in all their honest, naive sweetness. For the most part, the score is tonal, classical, pastoral, …but with intimations of tragedy. Of all my output through the years, it is among the film scores of which I am most proud.’

Baxter! (1973: directed by Lionel Jeffries)

Before his directing career was capsized by disastrous encounters with Wombles and Water Babies, that grand character actor, Lionel Jeffries had made three impressive and quite distinctive films. They had all focused on childhood anxiety, dysfunctional families, and absent fathers; and although generally upbeat in mood, they had shown great empathy with the fears of children as they negotiate their way through an often treacherous adult world. The Railway Children and The Amazing Mr Blunden are rightly recognised as gems of family entertainment, but Baxter!, arguably the most audacious of the three and the only one to be set in modern times, is hardly known, which makes this release all the more welcome.

The title might be off-putting, but it is meaningful. It is the surname of a maladjusted 12-year-old boy, and the exclamation mark signifies exasperation more than assertiveness. He is in the habit of referring to himself by his last name, because a speech impediment makes his first name ‘Roger’ impossible for him to pronounce properly. This is only one symptom of the boy’s all-round feelings of alienation: as an American in London; as a misfit at school; and as an irritant in a broken marriage. His extrovert manner only thinly masks a deep sadness and desperation that will spill over into a catatonic nervous breakdown.

It is invariably the mark of a good film that, however long ago you last saw it (a good 40 years in my case here), there are scenes and feelings associated with it that have remained with you. I could still remember Scott Jacoby’s remarkably sensitive performance in the title role; the maternal anguish and exasperation of Lynn Carlin; Patricia Neal’s powerful contribution as Baxter’s speech therapist, made doubly poignant when one remembers Neal’s own recovery from a near-fatal stroke that had robbed her of speech. Most of all, I could recall the scenes with Jean-Pierre Cassel and Britt Ekland, the neighbours who befriend Baxter and who become a kind of second family to him. These are the trickiest scenes of all, because they could have become dangerously cloying and sentimental, and yet they are crucial to the film’s impact. All credit, then, to actors and the director that they work. Perhaps Jeffries wears his heart a little closely to his sleeve in some scenes, but nothing seriously deflects the film’s compassionate look at a youngster in emotional turmoil. There is a lot in the film about names and identity; bold mood changes; and a final scene that, because it has been so skilfully prepared, is overwhelmingly moving.

Incidentally, the film’s trailer, which is featured on the DVD, is a real collector’s item, an absolute travesty that gives a completely misleading impression of the film’s mood and themes; shows not an inkling of understanding of what the film is about; and generally offers no compelling reason why audiences should not stay away from this film in droves. Who on earth can have approved it?

The 14 (1973: directed by David Hemmings)

Like his fellow actor, Lionel Jeffries, David Hemmings was also an accomplished director who never quite seemed to have the opportunity to fulfil his full directing potential. (He was also the never-to-be-forgotten boy soloist in the first production of Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera of The Turn of the Screw: I wonder what Hemmings would have made of The Nightcomers?) The 14 was his second feature film and tells the story of a family of fourteen children who try to stay together after the death of their mother. In some respects, it resembles Jack Clayton’s haunting film on a similar theme, Our Mother’s House (1967), except that here there are twice the number of children; also, whereas the children in Clayton’s film conceal their mother’s death from the outside world and try to create a private world of their own, in Hemmings’ film (which is based on a true story) the outside world cannot be held at arm’s length and is soon attempting to impose unwelcome solutions to the children’s desperate plight.

One of the most likeable aspects of the film is that there are no villains. Although the attempts of the Welfare Services and various institutions to socialise the children are generally (and sometimes hilariously) resisted, you do have the sense that the adults are genuinely trying to help and find a satisfactory solution to a complicated social situation. For their part, the children are keen to retain a spirit of rebellion for as long as they can before routine and regularity become the pattern of their lives. Rather in the manner of Michael Apted’s brilliant 1970s TV adaptation of the Graham Greene story, ‘The Destructors’,2 childhood here is seen more as a state of anarchy than a state of innocence. The performances of the children (who were mostly untrained juveniles) are pleasingly natural and, if nothing else, this release might stand as a memorial to Jack Wild, who is very poignant here as the eldest of the group; who was the definitive Artful Dodger in Carol Reed’s Oliver!; but whose tragic adult life was to become something of a cautionary tale. (The story goes that Wild wrote to Daniel Radcliffe warning him of the traps that can befall a child actor in his pursuit of an acting career.) Hemmings’ direction is lively, authoritative, and yet unobtrusive. Although the film is finally a celebration of home, family, and the resilience of childhood, it still has compelling and relevant questions to ask about society’s reactions and responsibilities towards those compelled by circumstances to live on its margins. The film was deservedly awarded a Silver Bear at the 1973 Berlin Film Festival.

Although the period from 1944 to 1949 is often cited as the Golden Age of British Film, for me the period between 1967 and 1974 is one of the richest eras of the national cinema. Not a Golden Age perhaps: the sense of crisis is too deep. But it includes an astonishing array of unusual and sometimes inspired films from artists of the calibre of Jack Clayton, Richard Lester and Joseph Losey; the best of Ken Russell; the early features of Nicolas Roeg, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Jack Gold, Mike Hodges, Peter Duffell; horror classics from Michael Reeves, Peter Sasdy, Terence Fisher and Roy Ward Baker; controversial masterworks from outsiders such as Polanski, Kubrick, and Peckinpah; the return of Alfred Hitchcock; and a lot, lot more besides. There is still much to reassess and discover about British cinema; and one awaits the future releases of Network with the keenest anticipation.

  1. Eustace and Hilda (BBC2), three episodes: ‘The Shrimp and the Anemone’ (30 November 1977), ‘The Sixth Heaven’ (7 December 1977), (14 December 1977). Adapted by Alan Seymour, directed by Desmond Davis. 

  2. Shades of Greene: ‘The Destructors’, ITV, tx. 21 October 1975. Dramatised by John Mortimer, directed by Michael Apted. 

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