Friday, 20 June 2014

Room At The Top : Joe Lampton on Film

Bingley born John Braine, a former librarian, become in 1957 one of the prime movers of the 'Angry Young Man' movement thanks to his novel Room At The Top. It told the tale of Joe Lampton, a recently demobilised RAF Flag Sergeant and POW who arrives in the Yorkshire mill town of Warley determined to make something of himself, targeting a high paid job with a thousand a year salary. Taking a position in the local council's accounts department, Joe quickly becomes involved with two women, the mature married woman Alice Aisgill and Susan Brown, the only daughter of the town's most successful businessman. Which one will he choose to get to the top and secure a future he can take pride in?

An instant success, the novel was made into a movie in 1959 and remains a stunning example of the kitchen sink drama. But there was more to come for Braine's Lampton, and this blog post looks at each of his screen adventures.

Room At The Top is one of my favourites. Joe Lampton has long been a hero of sorts for me, thanks to picking up John Braine's novel in my formative late teens. Coming from a Northern provincial town with chimneys surrounding its skyline (though admittedly St Helens is more Dufton than the upmarket Warley that Lampton finds himself in) and having a fair sized chip on my shoulder regarding class and social injustice, Room at the Top was always going to resonate with me. Except I have never had Lampton's ambition, I'd rather rip it all down than join it!

This 1959 film version is just as strong as the novel and in some ways the changes made for the big screen actually improve some areas, or at the very least offer them up in a new and interesting light. And speaking of offering up a new light, Room at the Top heralded the start of British cinema's New Wave period; an angst filled genre of angry young men railing at the kitchen sinks of seedy L shaped rooms. That opening shot of Joe Lampton's threadbare socks as he sits in one of British Rail's less than salubrious compartments heading for a new career in a new town totally rips us from the stuffy drawing rooms of previous British fare, just in time for the 1960s.

Laurence Harvey was an actor who often received criticism for alleged wooden performances, but he's a great Lampton here despite his age and his accent (yes he's a bit older than the role requires and yes it's not a great Yorkshire accent...but hey, it's not Anne Hathaway in One Day and that's something, right?) and as such he's always the one I envision when re-reading Braine's work or picturing the character. His is a suitably brooding intensity, equipped with a just right laddishness when in better humour. He's more than ably assisted by Simone Signoret, who embodies her role beautifully. She pretty much oozes sex here as the working class lad's dream; the sensual older woman, classy but with no airs or snobbishness. It's true the character wasn't French in the book but I feel this adds a new dimension to the story, in a way keeping the shadow of WWII over the protagonists and proceedings, as well as setting her apart from the town she finds herself slowly stifled within - small wonder her and Joe find their way to one another. It has been said that Signoret's nationality helped the censors, believing her character's  adulterous actions would be accepted as the audience were likely to believe in the more free thinking Gallic stereotype. It's an argument that would subsequently be used as the reason why the main character in The L Shaped Room went from British in the novel to French on the big screen, but it works much better here.

What Joe Lampton did next.

This is an overlooked, lesser but still very admirable sequel to 1959's Room At The Top which, like its predecessor, is based on a novel by John Braine. Set ten years after the events of the previous film, Life At The Top sees Joe with everything he ever dreamed of ever since he set eyes on 'The Top' in the Yorkshire mill town of Warley following the end of the war. Except he's no comfortable fit in the business and club membership world of the middle classes and the chips are still visible on his shoulder even when, horror of horrors, he finds himself roped into standing for a safe Tory seat!

Laurence Harvey resumes his role as Joe alongside returning cast members Donald Wolfit, Ambrosine Phillpotts and Allan Cuthbertson, with Jean Simmons now playing the role of Susan previously played by Heather Sears - interestingly Simmons was mooted for the role in Room At The Top, alongside Stewart Granger who was earmarked for Lampton. Joining the cast this time around are Michael Craig as a rival for Joe and Honor Blackman as a love interest. Both Blackman and Harvey have a good enough chemistry, but the film suffers from the lack of Simone Signoret - whose character Alice Joe fell for in the original before her death in the final reel - and therefore equally missing is the same strength of passion in the plot, something that so vitalised Room At The Top. Nonetheless, this is a good little kitchen sink/angry young man drama with a good deal to say about class inequality that still speaks volumes to this day to those willing enough to listen.

Joe would return eight years later, this time played by Kenneth Haigh, for Man At The Top a spin off from the Braine penned TV series of the same name.

John Braine concluded the story of his most famous protagonist, the cynically ambitious working class hero Joe Lampton, with the 1962 novel Life At The Top. This was subsequently filmed in 1965 with Room At The Top star Laurence Harvey reprising the role of Lampton.

But whilst that was the end of Lampton in print and Harvey as Lampton, it wasn't actually the end of Joe Lampton's story; in 1970 Braine resurrected his (anti) hero for the two television series entitled Man At The Top with the mercurial Kenneth Haigh taking the role of Joe. I can't really comment on these episodes which ran from 1970 to 1972 as I haven't seen them but in 1973, Hammer brought Joe Lampton back to the big screen with this movie spin off again featuring Haigh and which is currently available via Network DVD.

Haigh may have good chops in terms of the angry young man hero - after all, he was the originator of John Osburne's Jimmy Porter in the first theatrical production of his iconic play Look Back In Anger - but I struggle to picture him as 'my' Lampton. It's not that he's not good; in fact he excels at the snappy cynical asides which are peppered throughout the screenplay and which are considerably earthier to anything Harvey said thanks to Hammer's X certificate, but he's too young to play Lampton in 1973. Room At The Top may have been made for the cinema in 1959, but it was set in the earlier half of that decade (or even the late 40s) and Lampton had served in the RAF during the war, albeit in a POW camp. Haigh was in his early teens during the war years, so it's not a great fit age-wise. My other issue with him is the fact that the production is soooo 1970s, which means he has a Peter Wyngarde moustache adorning his features. Such fashion statements date Man At The Top in ways far more than its black and white predecessors Room At The Top or Life At The Top. Also, the film benefits from its X certificate in ways other than swearing - I'm talking of course about sex, and there's more bush on display here than in the whole region of outback Australia! The sight of Haigh, teeth gritted allegedly in ecstasy, rubbing his body against Nanette Newman (and her utterly obvious, laughably shot body double) and worse, nude young actors like Angela Bruce, Margaret Heald and Mary Maude is a bit cringeworthy and equally dated. 

The plot is essentially an industrial thriller. Joe is now very much in demand as a managing director (taking 'the top' as its literal meaning now as opposed to the colloquial term the residents of Warley used for the plush housing for its middle class residents in the earlier, original film) and, despite a mutual personal animosity between one another, Joe accepts the overtures of Lord Ackerman (a bewigged and crumbling looking Harry Andrews) to join his London based pharmaceutical company. From there, he discovers the ugly truth about his predecessor who committed suicide when a trial drug was rushed onto the market in Africa which resulted in making hundreds of women infertile. It's not long before Joe realises why he was chosen for the job; he's being set up and so he decides to fight back by bedding not only Ackerman's wife (Newman) but also his daughter (Maude) and by threatening to go to the papers with what he knows, including Ackerman's secret taste in muscle bound black boxers (John Conteh, the world light heavyweight champ from Liverpool, making his acting debut) 

Unfortunately, as you can probably tell by reading that premise, it's a huge step down from the plot of Room At The Top, and even that of Life At The Top. One can't help feel that Man At The Top is essentially an extended episode of the TV series, enjoying its X rated stamp. Worse, the screenplay doesn't seem to make its mind up about what path it truly wants to take; should it concentrate on the industrial thriller aspect, or should it be more of a character study of Lampton and the ever present chip on his shoulder? Sadly, it falls between both aims despite there being some good explorations towards the latter in terms of the dialogue between Haigh and Andrews and, at one point, Haigh and the then popular black stand up comedian Charlie Williams, who is essentially playing himself - a comedian on the Yorkshire club circuit. In the latter's case, whilst it's nice to see Joe discuss with him that he thinks he's a bastard and worse, that he thinks he likes it, it's a scene that adds nothing really to the film's plot.

Man At The Top, like its predecessors, still has much to say about class (and certainly the class structure, and the clear awareness of it, at that time) but it ultimately offers little else. It's a nicely directed film by Mike Vardy, with some occasionally arty non linear moments which sees action played and replayed for seconds at a time; like shadows and reflections haunting the characters. It also has a nice score from the ever reliable Roy Budd. Network have, as has come to be expected, done the film proud with its release with a beautiful crisp 16:9 anamorphic transfer and a 4:3 open matte version to choose from. Where the film finally differs from the previous installments is showing Joe essentially coming out on top in a closing scene that seems him chuckling away behind a panoramic view of London, safe in the knowledge that he bested his rivals. I'm not convinced really, the script pays so much lip service throughout to how unhappy and unfulfilled Lampton truly is deep down as a person that it seems a shame it can't reflect on that, even for a brief second, in the denouement.

Ultimately this reminded me a little of Alfie Darling (the 1975 sequel to the classic Alfie) in its resurrection and continuation of a character from the previous decade (or so) into another era. Like that film it's an interesting curio to the more established production(s)

Haigh wasn't the last actor to play Joe Lampton. Up to now, that honour goes to Matthew McNulty taking us right back to square one in BBC4's 2012 adaptation of Room At The Top.

It's the sort of thing the BBC excel in (and I do wish they'd concentrate on more modern literary classics than constantly adapting and re-adapting the likes of Austen, the Bronte's and Dickens et al, enjoyable though they are) capturing the dour provincial nature of a late 40s, early 50s life that saw Britain still struggling to shake off the austerity and effects of war that although they won didn't always feel that way. It also carefully and satisfyingly elicits the sex inherent in the original novel in a manner that the 1959 film couldn't hope to display or get past the censors of the time - though not being as pointlessly gratuitous as Man At The Top proved to be.

McNulty manages to capture the rough and ready chippiness required for Lampton whilst still conveying in his eyes a man on the make, looking out for a way in to the promised land of success and riches. His working class northern background is far more believable than that of Harvey's performance, whilst he's also a suitably handsome Joe, unlike the swaggering 70s peacock stylings of Haigh. He's well matched by the great Maxine Peake, giving an assured performance as Alice Aisgill, returning her back to her British origins. One of my favourite actresses, Peake really nails that wilting flower among the weeds vibe and invests every little moment of the tragedy of her character's life. It's a further compliment to McNulty that he isn't dwarfed by such an established talent.

Doctor Who star Jenna Coleman plays Susan and its another performance in such a relatively new career that she can be proud of, gaining audience sympathy as the 'little princess' girl in the middle, blithely ignorant in the main to the wrongs her rough diamond Joe is doing to her.

A satisfying, pacy and sexually charged adaptation, the only thing that left me cold was the lack of an accompanying score; some jazz trumpet or sax may have helped some scenes. It was all so empty. 

This was originally due to be broadcast in 2011 but was delayed due to a legal wrangle over a contractual and copyright issue, but was finally aired in September 2012. Despite winning a BAFTA for best miniseries in 2013, it has not been repeated nor is it available to buy as an official DVD release.

No comments:

Post a Comment