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Room at the Top

Posted by keith1942 on August 6, 2011

August 1st is Yorkshire Day, and the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds celebrated the day with a screening of this British classic, set and filmed in the County. The film is an adaptation of the famous 1950s novel (John Braine, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1957), also set in the county and written by one of the important Yorkshire authors. The film’s locations include the City of Bradford and the towns of Bingley, Halifax and Keighley. These stand in for the fictional places of the book, but fictional places recognisable as sites within West Yorkshire, where John Braine, the author lived. I sensed a slight frisson among the audience when a character announced that they were ‘going over to Leeds’ for the evening.

The basic plot of the book and film is relatively simple. The protagonist, Joe Lampton (Lawrence Harvey in the film] moves from his small town of Dufton to the metropolitan Warnley where he has secured a an accountancy post in the City Council administration. Warnley represents a step up the ladder of class and affluence that is the young Lampton’s ambition. The film concentrates very much on his new world: whereas the book fills in more of Dufton, exemplified by his old Dufton friend Charles Soames becoming a working colleague in Warnley in the film.

In the new situation Joe becomes involved in romances and sexual relationships to two very different women: The young, affluent and beautiful Susan Brown (Heather Sears) and the older, worldly-wise and married Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret). The drama develops to a tragic and sobering conclusion.

The original book was a ‘hot potato’. One of the new works in the late fifties, by angry young men, which signalled the changes in class consciousness and class relations, in attitudes to sexuality, and the impact of the ‘age of affluence’. Both the book and the film were praised for bringing a new realism and a new critical attitude to social morals’ and both were condemned for a presenting a cynical hero and an explicit treatment to questions of sex. A contemporary trailer played to audience titillation by claiming that it could not show certain scenes because of the X certificate. [It should be noted that the X certificate only prohibited young people under sixteen, rather than the under eighteen of the contemporary system].

Fifty-two years on from its release [released in January 1959] the film stands up very well. Despite the changes in attitudes to class, regionalism and sexuality, most of the film is convincing and absorbing. Not all the accents are completely authentic: John Braine, amongst others, worried over that of Lawrence Harvey. But he surrounded by a cadre of British supporting actors, who project their characters with authenticity and conviction. Apart from the stars, I found Hermione Baddeley, as Alice’s friend Elspeth, particularly effective. The locations bring a sense of the territory. Whilst the feeling of authenticity that distinguished the later British new wave treatment of the North, in films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and A Taste of Honey (1961), is not quite achieved, one still feels that this is Britain in the early 1950s, [neither book nor film provide dates, but the book’s flashback suggests the emergence from post-war austerity]. Indeed Room at the Top was clearly a trailblazer for the cycle of northern working class dramas that followed in the 1960s.

Dufton

One aspect still slightly unconventional in 2011 is the cynicism of the hero Joe. The opening shot is a close-up of his feet as he relaxes on the train bearing in to Warnley. And his voice-over presents a character resentful and class conscious but with a strong sense of envy rather than any commitment to conflict. The scene differs from the book, where the story is presented as a flashback narrated by Joe. Indeed in the book the opening pages are Joe’s description of his arrival in Warnley, and especially a description s of his lodgings in the new town. The film’s brief shots of his bed-sit is markedly different from the lodgings in the book, and in fact the film seems to over-emphasise the sense of decay and deprivation in its picture of Joe’s roots. The home of his Aunt Emily and Uncle Dick seems more threadbare and dilapidated in the film than in the book. But the powerful desires he appears to evince for the life of people at ‘the top’ is notable in both versions.

Joe envies the glamorous people at the top, personalised by Susan. The sense of envy, which is so strong, is a fascinating glimpse of values in the 1950s. John Berger, [in his seminal Ways of Seeing, Penguin, 1972] has powerful comments on glamour and envy: “Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion. The industrial society which has moved towards democracy and then stopped half way is the ideal society for generating such an emotion.” Joe has aspirations unknown to the preceding generation like his Aunt and Uncle: and not yet developed in most of his working colleagues. Surrounded on every side by the icons of affluence Joe desires the life of glamour he believes is to be found at the top.

Joe’s cynical side is most apparent in his dead set at wooing Susan. She is the daughter of prominent industrialist and town tycoon Mr. Brown {Donald Wolfit]. She is the ‘golden girl’ who represents Joe’s fantasy of ‘life at the top’, but also his entry to the world that he so powerfully desires. Heather Sears’ Susan is one of the weaker performances in the film: though the hopeless naivety of the book’s character is there. But this is apt. She is a dream, representing Joe’s fantasy. And whilst his scenes with her are often quite artificial, provoking some of the laughter that more dated dialogue and character occasionally evoked during the performance, it is quite in keeping with that which she represents for Joe.

Susan, with Jack and Joe

In fact, ‘people at the top’ are uniformly arch and negative in the film. Brown clearly believes in brass, but is quite happy to deal in muck to reach it. Mrs Brown (Ambrosine Phillpotts) is an arch stereotype: she quite often sounds like Mrs Thatcher. Joe’s rival for Susan, Jack Wales (John Westbrook), has an accent that could be cut with a knife, and he is laden with heavy snobbery. Alice’s husband, George Aisgill (Allan Cutherbertson} is a ruthless philanderer.

Opposing them are a wholesome set of working class white-collar characters. Joe’s closest friend in Warnley Charles Soames (Donald Huston) is content to stay within his class position, but he is also open and ‘without guile’. This also applies to others in their circle, June Sansom, Charles girlfriend, (Mary Peach) and Teddy (Richard Pascoe). It applies most notably to Joe’s Aunt (Beatrice Varley) and guardian, his parents having been killed in a bomb explosion during the war. Whilst she is content to be confined within her working class world, and reckons Joe should be too, she also clearly is endowed with a warmth and social concern lacking in the people at the ‘top’.

Looking back I realise that the film was informed by the ideas that are to be found in Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (Chatto and Windus, 1957). One of the underlying discourses in the film is the way that an authentic and communal working class culture is suffering under the assaults of the new affluence. Whilst brief scenes over-emphasise the downside of the working class environment there is a sense of a culture that is different and which offers different values from the hard cash preoccupations of the elites.

In this sense one of the ways that the film criticises Joe is that, less that he wants more, than that he has little sense of what is being traded in for this affluence, [an argument that is made by Hoggart]. However, the major criticism of Joe is in the development of his treatment of Alice. In the book Alice is merely married: in the film she is French and married. The addition of a foreign nationality is in keeping with the censorious conventions of the period. British women [as with representations of US women] should not be openly sexual. Susan is successfully non-sexual in both book and film. Alice brings an openness and sexual enjoyment to the film rare in the 1950s. Signoret’s performance is the outstanding one in the film; the most memorable scenes all include her.

Late in the film she tells Joe that ‘people at the top are just the same’. She goes onto tell him that he could be bigger than they are. So Joe’s failure as a hero is both a failure to retain working class authenticity and to develop a mature male sexuality. Appropriately there is Lawrentian flavour to a key scenes where Joe and Alice walk along a rain-soaked Dorset beach: [shades of Sons and Lovers, 1960].

Some find Joe a fairly sexist character. Certainly his attitudes to women are not only cynical, but he ‘surveys a woman before treating her’. [Berger again]. He has a grading system, predictably he thinks Susan is grade one. But Joe’s causal sexist behaviour is as much a result of his situation and experiences as his social envy. Both book and film bring out the fear that underlies his apparent power. In one scene Alice remarks that she once posed nude for a painter, and Joe’s repressions and inhibitions lead to a quite vicious row. The relationship with Alice is key to any judgement on Joe’s character. And whilst it is questionable whether he overcomes his sense of inferiority and belief in glamour, it is clear that there is a change in his sense of masculinity. Again there are echoes of D. H. Lawrence in a few days spent by Alice and Joe in a Dorset cottage.

As should be clear Joe is not a clean, upright hero. And as is so frequently the case in such dramas at one point he receives a beating as a sort of punishment, but with sense of the sado-masochistic. On the tiles and drinking hard Joe picks up a young working class girl in a downbeat bar. He impresses her with his affluence and glamour. Appropriately and ironically Joe tells her his name is Jack Wales! Later her aggrieved boyfriend attacks Joe with several mates, alongside a dark shadowy canal. This is the point where noir style enters the film, with both light and shadow and self-conscious camera angles. It is an appropriate trope for the film as British noir tended more to deal with the socialised conflicts than the intense personal conflicts of Hollywood noir.

Some parts of the film are conventional and fairly stereotypical: the Civic Ball sequence is a good example, where the ‘top people’ attempt to put Joe in his place. But there are also scenes where the style adds to the drama and characterisations very effectively. A key setting is Elspeth’s bedsit where Joe and Alice’s trysts take place. It is carefully designed with the sitting area overlooked by a kitchenette on a raised level and partly blocked off. There are a number of shots where Joe and Alice are framed, in different positions and different depths, commenting eloquently on the developments in their relationship. And there is a counter scene when Joe visits Susan at the Brown mansion, and he stands framed by the bars of a Gazebo. Much of the power of the film stems from these imaginative touches.

Elspeth's flat, with Alice and Joe

All of these aspects, narrative and style, are fairly faithful to the book, though there is a great deal of condensation. The most notable difference is the ending. Whilst Joe’s future is not fully explicit in his comments n the flashback in the book, the film ends with closure, tying up both relationships. It is one point where I think the book succeeds better than the film. The latter still remains a powerful and memorable portrait: and possibly also a harbinger for later decades. There is both a book sequel and a film sequel, Life at the Top (1965). One could also imagine a more recent follow-up looking back over the five decades since Joe arrived in the new world and new times in Warnley.

 

Production Company Remus, 1958. Producers: John and James Woolf. Director: Jack Clayton. Screenplay: adapted by Neil Paterson from Braine’s novel. Photography: Freddie Francis. Music: Mario Nascimbene. Art Director: Ralph Brinton. Editor: Ralph Kemplen. Sound Supervisor: John Cox.

It won a British Oscar as Best Film and Academy Awards [1959] for Simone Signoret [Best Actress] and Neil Paterson [Best Screenplay]. It also received nominations in the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress [Hermione Baddeley] categories. 

The film’s production and locations are discussed in Made in Yorkshire by Tony Earnshaw & Jim Moran, guerilla books, 2008.

 

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