It comes as a relief, after looking at murder, war and education, to write a review of an old film. I was asked to write this review by a friend in Southport, who was pleased with my previous review of "If". It is gratifying to be appreciated, and I hope that I do a good job here. The film under review is "The Ruling Class", a satirical comedy from 1972. I borrowed the dvd for this review, but anyone interested can see the whole film on YouTube. It stars Peter O'Toole, Coral Browne (Vincent Price's wife), the splendid Alistair Sim, Arthur Lowe and many other stars of the period. I choose the word "period" with care, as this film is very much a period piece, although it has acquired a devoted cult following.
1972 was a turbulent year, which saw the Bloody Sunday shootings in Londonderry, a miners' strike in January, Idi Amin expel thousands of Asians from Uganda, the Duke of Windsor (Edward VIII) die and Geri Halliwell born. It is important to place this film in a historical context, in order to assess its relevance and impact at the time.
I expected to dislike the film, but found, happily, that I rather enjoyed it, despite the poor sound quality and the instamatic colour photography. Reading the plot beforehand, I thought it artificial, but it works when you realise you are watching a satire, not a story.
Basically, the plot runs like this: A member of the House of Lords dies, leaving his estate to his son. Unfortunately, his son (Jack Gurney - played by O'Toole) is insane. Jack thinks he is Jesus Christ, spending much of his time hanging on a cross. The other, apparently more respectable, members of this family plot to steal the estate from him. Their attempts to have him committed to an asylum fail when an independent psychiatrist, meant to section Jack, finds that they are both old Etonians and passes him as sane. For some reason, Jack then becomes convinced that he is Jack the Ripper and murders two women. In between murders, he makes his maiden speech in the House of Lords, in which he calls for the return of capital and corporal punishment.
As a story, this film is bewildering and tiresome, but as a satire, it makes sense. The screenplay was written by Peter Barnes, and based on his own stage play. I have not seen the play, but my guess is that it was more pointed and political when produced for the stage. This type of theatre is usually described as "agitprop", found in its most explicit form by travelling radical theatre companies such as "Red Ladder". The film, though less didactic, is clearly an attack on the British aristocratic Establishment. The characters, apart from O'Toole's character and Arthur Lowe's marvellous communist butler, are shown as scheming, effete and hypocritical. One criticism of O'Toole that I have is that his rants, as Jack, are so histrionic (and, to me, tedious) that you miss some of the biting satirical dialogue. For example:
Lady Claire Gurney: How do you know you're God?
Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney, 14th Earl of Gurney: Simple. When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself.
Dr. Herder: He can't forget being rejected by his mother and father at the age of 11. They sent him away, alone, into a primitive community of licensed bullies and pederasts.
Sir Charles: You mean he went to public school.
Dr. Herder: Exactly.
But the core issue raised by the film is the portrayal of a lunatic's acceptance into the House of Lords, which Barnes clearly infers is a lunatic institution in need of reform. The latter part of the film is heavy (some might say laboriously so) with symbolism, in which we see alternating shots of the peers of the realm as dozy old men, then robed skeletons. In sum, then, the film's message is that Britain is being ruled by a bunch of degenerate dotards who preside over an antiquated system. Whether Barnes is calling for reform or revolution is not made clear.
I know that some movie buffs will be unhappy with this kind of analysis, but, as George Orwell pointed out: "All art is propaganda", and to ignore the political message of this film is impossible. A "Time Out" review of the film says: "This (ie, the film's message) is buried beneath a load of old jokes, song'n'dance routines, bad jokes, physical obsessions, random send-ups", but goes on to say:"the latent and overt ideas are fleshed out all too obviously."
Yes, but that is the point of the play. Beneath the bad jokes and song and dance routines which some critics have compared to classic Ealing Comedy (Alistair Sim - the archbishop - was a star of this genre), there is a definite similarity to the works of the great German Marxist playwright, Bertolt Brecht, whose influence on 20th century dramatists was immense. Like those of Brecht, Barnes' characters are not meant to be real people but representations of political and social attitudes in human form. Again, anyone who has seen radical theatre productions will recognise the method. Brecht called this "alienation", where the actor is seen as an actor, not as a character in what is called a "naturalist" type of play. Perhaps it is a tribute to Peter O'Toole that his character does seem "naturalistic" - even if he is as mad as a hatter.
Unlike the theatre companies, Barnes does not prescribe a remedy to the problem. Like Brecht, he leaves that up to the audience - to us. Well, in the 42 years since this film came out, the House of Lords has been reformed to some people's satisfaction. Thanks to Mrs Thatcher, "money men" now have moved into positions of power and influence, replacing what was left of the old aristocratic privileged clique, so things have changed since 1972. Or have they really? Britain's richest 1% of the population own as much as the poorest 55%, and, as "The Guardian" said recently:
"Despite the fact that around only 7% of British children are privately educated, 34% of MPs went to fee-paying schools, and the figure for Tory members of parliament is 54% (the Labour figure, to put that in perspective, is a mere 12%). People who have had expensive educations dominate journalism, law, finance – and, of late, even the supposedly meritocratic powerhouse that is British pop music (witness Mumford and Sons, Florence Welch, Lily Allen, Laura Marling et al). "It is remarkable how many positions of wealth, influence, celebrity and power in our society are held by individuals who were privately educated," said the education secretary, Michael Gove, in May last year."
And if Michael Gove, the ex-education secretary said that, things have not really changed that much since 1972. Today's ruling class may be younger, livelier and more fashionably dressed, but they are still in charge.
It is ironic, really, that this review is written when a new film about our present day ruling class goes on general release. Even more ironic is the fact that the author of "The Riot Club", Laura Wade, like Peter Barnes, adapted the screenplay from her own stage play, "Posh". Even more of a coincidence is the fact that, according to some reviews, the play was said to be more "agitprop", like I suspect Barnes' play to have been. Despite Wade's denials, the film is about a bunch of rich young hell raisers at Oxford University who belong to a drinking club, rather like the Bullingdon Club, to which David Cameron, Boris Johnson and George Osborne belonged. I have not seen the film yet, but it shows that our ruling class is still worthy of satire. Like I said in the title, plus ca change.