This isn’t going to be easy.
You see, I realised the other day, after having watched this film for the umpteenth time, that whilst it remains not only my all-time favourite British movie but my favourite flick per se, I had never thought before of reviewing it for this site. Strange, possibly, when you put it like that, but at the same time understandable, as we journo types are supposed to approach these things from a certain degree of unbiased objectivity (or so they keep telling us) Therefore, any attempt to review your all-time favourite film may well be a daunting task, as you find yourself constantly resisting the impulse to wax lyrical about things personal only to you.
Then again, I’ve never been one for all this ‘impersonal disinterested detachment’ bollocks (for a start, show me the book where it’s actually written in stone that this is the way we should conduct ourselves) and believe firmly that if a film, TV show, radio broadcast, live concert or piece of recorded music doesn’t provoke some emotion, however small, in you, than it’s irrelevant and may just as well not exist. Producers may fund movies to make even more money, but that’s not why we the audience watch them. And without an audience, again however miniscule, there is no film, and those merely interested in the acquisition of huge piles of cash can go back to being merchant bankers, which ironically rhymes with what they actually are.
Further irony will therefore be engendered when reviewing a production such as this, particularly when you realise that to fully understand its subject matter, you’re going to have to deconstruct the concept and percept of rich privileged bastards born into such wealth and privilege. Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with having some money – I myself would quite like some, and I’m no socialist, but I’m no capitalist either, and to any unabashed lover of film for film’s sake, it’s anathema. Yet privilege, riches, gentry and “nobility”- all social constructs- lie at the very heart of The Ruling Class (well, they would do, wouldn’t they? The clue’s in the title) and, whilst outwardly presented as a satire on such things, Peter Medak’s cataclysmic epic (based on an equally powerful play by Peter Barnes) does more than just ridicule, scorn or point fingers, with even its most despicable characters (here represented by William Mervyn and James Villiers, the latter an actual member of the aristocracy) painted as sympathetic. We are, after all, only human.
The same ambivalence prevails throughout the storyline’s central tenet. While initially, the portrayal, by Peter O’Toole at the very peak of his powers, of Earl Jack Gurney- a delusional, deranged Lord who believes himself to be none other than Jesus Christ, the God Of Love- seems to hint at the old adage that “the nobs are all bonkers”, there is far, FAR more lurking beneath the surface than that. In questioning the very nature of duty and inheritance – Jack doesn’t want to return to power, and would quite happily have spent his remaining years idling in an open clinic, but is forced into it when his father (Harry Andrews) accidentally auto-erotically asphyxiates himself to death- Barnes suggests that not only are those in power often the worst-equipped to lead, but also the least inclined.
Yet his family’s primary concern is not the fact that their new head is obviously, as his therapist Dr Herder (Michael Bryant) puts it, a “paranoid schizophrenic”, but more that he seems obsessed with concepts of love, peace, saintliness and even (heaven forfend!!) equality, even suggesting to butler Tucker (Arthur Lowe, whose lifelong devotion to Andrews has been rewarded with a princely £30,000, leading him to start disrespecting his “betters” and doing as he pleases), that he should burn his coronation robes. “He’s not just mad, he’s bolshy!!” declares his Uncle Charles (Mervyn), a comment which suggests, in a very barbed way, that whilst insanity may be permitted in the Gurney family, humanity may not. It is, however, this very humanity which to an extent ‘saves’ Jack, albeit temporarily: a family plot to have him married off to sire an heir and subsequently incarcerated in an asylum backfires when his intended, music hall artiste Grace Shelley (Carolyn Seymour), a former mistress of his uncle, sees his inherent kindness and falls in love with him.
Initially posing at Mervyn’s request as Marguerite Gautier, Lady Of The Camelia (the fictional character from La Traviata to whom O’Toole believes himself to be married) in order to ensnare Jack, thus reaping financial rewards, into wedlock, she soon finds her affection growing into something very real indeed- even if she has to make do with him riding a child’s tricycle round the bedroom on their wedding night. The night their son, also called Jack, is born, is a crux moment: Mervyn is all for having his nephew certified the minute the new progeny utters his first gaga googoo, but, at the instigation of his wife (Coral Browne) who hates her husband, loves her nephew, and also fancies the doctor a bit, Herder temporarily releases an already certified loon (Nigel Green) prone to sticking his fingers into live sockets and declaring himself ‘The Electric Messiah’ under supervision into the ancestral pile for the night to literally ‘shock’ O’Toole back to sanity so he can hold onto his title.
The implication is that that both of them cannot be God at the same time, and it seems (after a surreal and unexplained sequence involving a man dressed as a gorilla) to have worked, with a cowed and crushed O’Toole finally relenting and admitting “I’m Jack”- but unfortunately for all concerned, it is Jack the Ripper, not Jack Gurney, whom he now believes himself to be, and in the second half, with the ‘cured’ Lord (still prone to sudden barely controlled fits of vocal irrationality) now preparing to take his seat in the House, and cousin Dinsdale acting as his ally in the Commons, the scene is set for much murder and mayhem.
Again, the more sadistic, authoritarian, Victorian and evil Jack becomes, the more ‘normal’ everyone from his fellow Lords to the local village Hunt are convinced he is: a final attempt by his uncle to have him sectioned by the Master Of Lunacy fails miserably when said doctor (Graham Crowden, again, tellingly using the question “are you the God of Love?” as criteria) turns out to be a fellow Etonian, and the two bond together in the school boating song. In the cruellest of twists, both uncles (the other a dithering, blathering Bishop played brilliantly by who else but Alistair Sim), who, because of Barnes’ depth of characterisation, you still feel sorry for in spite of their cruelty to Jack, end up confined to said asylum after strokes, as does Herder (grief-stricken after the murder of his lover Browne) whilst Lowe, framed for the killing and his Leftist sympathies fully exposed, is carted off by bumbling flatfoot coppers Jimmy Grout and James Hazeldine and subjected to endless interrogation for numerous other crimes, his fate unknown. This leaves literally no-one left to stop Jack- except of course his doting wife….
Such a multi-layered plot might sound difficult to take in on the printed page, but due to the propulsive rhythm of Barnes’ original story and Medak’s clear direction, which fully embraces all the arthouse techniques of the British New Wave but never loses its linearity, this is never a problem. A two and a half hour film could also be in every danger of overwhelming the viewer, and true, there are more human emotions running amok onscreen over 155 minutes than some can comfortably cope with, but it is the film’s very ability to run such a gamut that, for me, leaves it unequalled and unsurpassed in the canon of British cinema.
Why? Well, the late 1960s and early 1970s, a true golden era, had already by this stage seen more ‘pushing of the envelope’ and playing with format and formulae than ever before, but even by those standards, The Ruling Class is adventurous. Moments of sublime dialogue and interplay turn quickly to monologue, the fourth wall is broken so often that the bricklayers go on strike, characters burst openly into song (admittedly in parodies of tunes from other shows, such as The Varsity Drag, My Blue Heaven and Dem Bones, but song nonetheless, a format not every viewer enjoys) and ribald comedy morphs at the drop of a pin into troubling drama- although admittedly there is more of the latter in the film’s second half as Jack’s faux-‘recovery’ progresses. Every single member of the cast, even those with smaller roles, is perfect, Sim in particular excelling with a mixture of world-weariness, hand-waving nervousness, utter ineptitude and encroaching senility that leads to one of the film’s funniest sequences (“Yo dee, er, I mean, ye do”, etc) and Lowe relishing every slice of insurrection and subversion his character is called upon to display.
Yet, even with such a peerless ensemble cast on display, there’s still no avoiding the fact that from start to finish, the movie belongs to O’Toole from the moment he steps into it. The first ten minutes function almost as a monologue, with Andrews in the role of the previous Earl speaking in the Lords, speaking to Tucker and, prior to his somewhat embarrassing death, which infamously leads his brother Bertie (Sim) to later ask “bb-b-ballet skirt, Charles? Wwwwwwhat was he dddddoing in a bbbballet skirt?”, speaking to himself- but repeated viewings, with the benefit of hindsight, show this to be a quite deliberate prologue, designed by Barnes to deliberately contrast the ‘bad’ Establishment of old with the newer world Jack wishes to deliver his family into.
On occasions when he feels threatened, plotted against or vulnerable, and unable to place negative thoughts “into my galvanized pressure cooker- flooom!!” the great Irish actor portrays Jack as a truly sympathetic human being with whom the viewer identifies explicitly, a poor lunatic driven insane by the rigours of public school, university and the emotional detachment of titled life, and whereas this very entitlement might make it easy to ignore his plight, especially as millions among the working and lower classes suffer far greater trauma on a daily basis, you get the feeling that he’s only too well aware of this, which is yet another reason why he wishes to cast his inheritance aside in order to live a more equal – and therefore godly- existence aside his fellow men.
Yet even this very idea is problematic in itself, as his saintliness can only find practical expression if people accept his word unconditionally (“what he believes- is”, quoth Bryant when explaining his patient’s dementia to his bewildered Uncle) and that honour is only conferred upon a member of the very aristocracy he outwardly seeks to reject- if he were a working class man, his delusions would have seen him incarcerated in a high security asylum ages ago, rather than remaining a voluntary patient in an open clinic. That, and the simple fact that he can’t actually perform any miracles: when asked to show his family one, he states that “you see a million living human beings in the world every day yet you still want your conjuring tricks and fancy flimflams” before failing, against a background of some of the most emotionally powerful incidental music ever set to film, to raise a table several feet in the air.
He can see it float, but nobody else can- except the drunken Tucker, who sees him as some kind of Socialist ally. And at this point, it finally hits you, if it hadn’t already done so, that underneath all of Jack’s ostentatious eccentricities, fantasies and protests, behind his self-empowering diatribes and ability to sleep upright on his “Watusi walking stick” (a crucifix) lurks a very frightened, helpless person- the same one that lives inside us all, and that what outwardly manifests itself as almost playful idiosyncrasy is actually a shriek of pain in an unforgiving world- a shriek which O’Toole lets out vocally on two occasions with the most incredible ear-splitting gusto imaginable. Gawd alone knows how such a character would react in a film set in 2011…
All Jack wants, after all, is to be understood and appreciated for what he believes himself to be- and he could have lived his life harmlessly in this idiom were it not for the machinations of his family. As Arthur Lee sang, “We’re all normal when we want our freedom”, or, even, as Vivian Stanshall put it, “We ARE normal and we want our freedom!!” On a more satisfactory note, it should be stressed that almost all conspirators involved, who begin as human and slowly decline (like we all do) eventually receive the ‘come-uppance’ awaiting them: sadly, the one person that stands behind Jack throughout and actually grows in humane stature is his new wife, Grace- so whilst no-one is safe from the fickle finger of fate here, hers still seems possibly the cruellest. I’ll let you decide.
On the other hand, perhaps the most damning aspect of Barnes’ worldview is that no visible or tangible alternative is presented: Grout, the one man who has the potential to see through everything and bring the charade to a close, completely bungles the operation, arresting the wrong man and telling Mervyn and O Toole that meeting them has “shown him what noblesse oblige really means” before he and Hazeldine tug their forelocks and return to duty. Order is restored, Jack grows ever colder, more detached and more insane but this time with the full backing of the powers that be (who, in a scene that chills the blood, he sees in the Lords before him as rotting zombies), and worrying utterances are heard from the nursery. The safety of a further privileged generation is guaranteed…
The Ruling Class didn’t do too well on its initial release, most probably due to its length (that, and the fact that its American distributor seemed determined to make it fail from the start, his actions eventually leading the producer to punch him in the nose) but scooped several awards, most notably for O’Toole’s performance and Medak’s direction. Truly, the Hungarian is in full inventive swing here, taking the template he had developed during Negatives and A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg and applying it across a far wider canvas with a majestic sweep, and whilst its rural setting lends it an air of the costume drama, it is undoubtedly a film of the post-psychedelic 70s, with several subtle touches, such as the echo on Jack’s voice as he capers across the garden, the Electric Christ sequence, and its sudden scene-shifts from reality into Victorian fantasy, confirming this and earning it a place in a very special pantheon indeed. In the years that have passed, its audience, mainly found through television, has grown and grown: it remains readily available on DVD, although in a sadly unadorned package.
Oh, bugger objectivity. The last time I put this on, I cried out loud because I realised that I was witnessing a pinnacle of creativity not only still unsurpassed in this country, but in all probability never likely to return. In short, The Ruling Class, like no other film with the possible exception of O Lucky Man!, is the apotheosis of everything this country’s celluloid industry once aspired to- and achieved, and nowhere else will you see another production so capable of making you feel, hear, see and experience so many different emotions within one sitting. It is a drama, a comedy, satire, a musical, a horror movie, a political statement, an arthouse piece, practically everything a film can be with the exception of a suspense thriller- and there’s even a nod to that in the subplot concerning Lowe’s political affiliations. It is British Cinema. Watch it.