Thursday, October 30, 2014

"Room at the Top" - power and ambition and love in 1950s Britain

Jack Clayton's brilliant, cynical 1959 movie of John Braine's novel "Room at the Top" (1957) can now be seen in a complete High Definition print on YouTube. I hope this easy availability brings it to the attention of a new generation of not just film fans but those interested in Britain's social history in the Post War years.

Braine was at the centre of the "Angry Young Men" literary movement of the 1950s (although in reality there was no "movement" as such - just a coincidence of good writing by young writers troubled by the social mores of the times). Set in a northern town, and with a symbolic background of chimneys and the daily grind, "Room at the Top" is about aspiration and ambition - about how a determined, clever, handsome young man, Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) finds room at the top for himself artfully and by trampling over a few hearts along the way. New to the town of Warley - a step up from his more downmarket home town - Joe declares early his intention to succeed. His job as an accountant in the local authority offices is to be no more than a stepping stone to better things.

Notwithstanding the political revolution of the Labour government of 1945-1951 Britain's establishment regrouped and reinforced its barriers to entry. Kingsley Amis in "Lucky Jim" (1954), Stan Barstow in "A Kind of Loving" (1960), Alan Sillitoe in "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" (1958) as well as Braine and others describe these barriers and the difficulties of breaking them down. In "Room at the Top" class and privilege are the key. With his brashness and brains Lampton is clearly a man on the make. Warley's big cheese is Abe Brown (Donald Wolfit)  millionaire, factory owner, stalwart of the Conservative Club. A man used to getting his own way. Brown has a pretty daughter in her late teens, virginal and with a cut glass accent to contrast with her father's self-made-man Yorkshire. Susan Brown (Heather Sears) falls for Joe and he sees not just the challenge (easily overcome) of breaking down her barriers but also her potential usefulness to him in his determined climbing of the ladder. 

Whilst decorative and useful Susan Brown inspires no passion in Joe - but he also meets Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret), older, beautiful, physically stunning, married, unhappy. Susan is prettily naive  but Alice is worldly and desirable. Lampton's seduction of Susan is carried out clinically and dispassionately. His affair with Alice is the real thing - for both of them. When it becomes known to Alice's husband George (Alan Cuthbertson) the latter threatens Joe with financial and social ruin unless he breaks it off. This is a pivotal scene symbolising the "Them and Us" world of that time and place. 

Another symbol of the class divide is the portrayal by John Westbrook of Sarah's boyfriend Jack Wales. Wales, like Lampton, was in the RAF during the war and also like Lampton was a Prisoner of War. But where Joe was a humble Sergeant Wales was an Officer and a heroic escaper from captivity. Wales demeans Joe by calling him "Sergeant" - a gratuitous bit of class snobbery that makes Lampton all the more determined to succeed!

When Joe Lampton gets Susan Brown "In the family way" the story approaches its climax. In a cameo of exceptional quality Donald Wolfit's Brown tests Joe's intentions over Game soup at the Conservative Club. "My father would be horrified to see me here" says Joe. "So would mine" says Brown suggesting that he has more in common with his daughter's seducer than might be thought. He offers Joe an incentive to break up with Susan which Joe flatly refuses. That was the test. The real offer is a job at Brown's and a ticket on the gravy train if he marries Susan. Joe accepts.

Alice is to be abandoned - a casualty of Joe Lampton's ambition and choice of fortune over love. Alice goes alone to the pub, drinks herself into a near stupor, drives away in her car and kills herself. A distraught Joe wanders alone through the Warley streets, lands up in a pub himself where he toys with a pretty empty-headed girl who briefly deserts her boyfriend for him. In another strongly symbolic moment the boyfriend turns on Joe and tells him not to think that his (Joe's) class gives him any rights. Joe is now the middle-class man he aspired to be - at least in the eyes of this stranger. Joe wanders away and is set upon by the boyfriend who was waiting for him with a gang. Joe gets beaten to a pulp for his temerity in having chatted up the girl, and for his seeming assumption that he had an entitlement to do so.

"Room at the Top" ends with Joe and Susan's wedding - it's the full monty with church and bridesmaids and the rest. Joe has arrived - and his beautiful bride is beside herself with perky happiness as they are driven away in the wedding car after the ceremony. But Joe is unsmiling. He has won, but in winning he has lost not just his one true love but some of himself. "Was that really all really worth it ?" you know he must be thinking? 


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