Room at the Top Review
Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) arrives in the Yorkshire town of Warnley from the small factory town he was born in. He’s determined to make his way in the world, and if that means taking himself out the social class he comes from, so be it. He pursues Susan Brown (Heather Sears), the daughter of a local company owner. But then he meets Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret), an older unhappily-married woman, and they begin an affair...
Room at the Top is a title that has become iconic, the 1957 novel and this 1959 film both making a significant impact in British culture at the time. John Braine (1922-1986) was a librarian in Bingley, Yorkshire, when his novel was published. It became a best-seller, with its for-the-time sexual frankness no doubt helping. Braine was immediately bracketed with the Angry Young Men, a group of youngish people, indeed mostly men, who were breaking through at the time as novelists, playwrights or both. They were of a generation, born in the 1920s and later, mostly not old enough to have served in the War, who were beginning to chafe at the restrictions of the society they were growing up in. They reacted against post-War austerity, at a culture of deference they felt to be unearned, at the stifling of emotional repression, particularly sexual, under a veneer of respectability. Many of the Angry Young Men (and women such as Shelagh Delaney) came from working-class regional backgrounds, and their novels and plays brought new voices into British culture. Of course, yesterday’s young Turk easily becomes today’s reactionary old man, and Braine, like Kingsley Amis, was not an exception. His politics moved to the right and he and Amis were among the signatories to a 1967 letter in The Times backing the US’s involvement in Vietnam. His third novel was a sequel to his first, Life at the Top, published in 1962. It too became a film in 1965, produced like this one by James Woolf for Romulus Films, also starring Laurence Harvey, directed by Ted Kotcheff. There was also a television series, Man at the Top, made for ITV between 1970, with Kenneth Haigh (who had been the original stage Jimmy Porter in John Osbourne’s play Look Back in Anger) in the role of Joe Lampton.
With the success of the novels and plays, the film industry took notice. Woodfall was a production company set up to film Look Back in Anger, and their subsequent films helped to transform British cinema. This was not just in their bringing regional and working-class faces and voices to the screen, but by bringing in methods and techniques then more associated with documentary into cinematic drama. Room at the Top was not a Woodfall film, but it shares much of their spirit. Like Woodfall’s first two films (Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer), it was made in the then-conventional way, combining location work (in and around Bradford and Halifax) with studio shooting at Shepperton, rather than the all-location-shot films Woodfall would go on to make. Like those films, it was shot by a very experienced cinematographer (Freddie Francis, who would also shoot Saturday Night and Sunday Morning for Woodfall) who had worked his way up in the industry for decades. That was also the case for the man who directed Room at the Top.
Jack Clayton, born 1921, had begun as a child actor at age eight and found work as a teaboy at Denham Studios at fourteen. His first work as a director was a documentary made during his War service, and his short film The Bespoke Overcoat (1956) won an Oscar. That was made by Romulus Productions, and Clayton was hired to make his feature debut with Room at the Top. It was an auspicious start to a career which was distinguished if not prolific. Clayton made just seven feature films, plus one television movie, each of them a literary adaptation. He died in 1995.
While Room at the Top spoke to contemporary audiences, it’s surprising to realise that it was actually a period piece. The novel was told in flashback but the film – in Neil Paterson’s screenplay – is not. However, there are still a few indications that it is set in the past, not least a letter Joe receives where the date is clearly shown as 1947. We’re in the immediate aftermath of the War, with bombed-out buildings clearly in evidence. The War has had an effect on the lives of the men, in particular, in the film. Joe is on the receiving end of class snobbery related to his War service, his military rank and the fact that he was a prisoner of war who didn’t get to escape.
If Joe wants to get ahead, one way is via his relations with the two women in his life. The book’s sexual candour had caused some controversy, and it was questionable if any film version would get past the censor unscathed, even with an X certificate, which then restricted films to audiences of sixteen and over. However, the British Board of Film Censors (as was) had a new Secretary, John Trevelyan, who had taken over in 1958. He stayed in post until 1971 and presided over a period of considerable liberalisation in what was allowed to be seen on British cinema screens. Many film scripts were submitted to the BBFC at script stage, but Room at the Top was not. When the Board saw the film, some language had to be modified before it was passed, but the film was still the first to show not just that a man and a woman had had sex, but also that she, as well as he, had enjoyed it. Tame nowadays, but it was a landmark in its day. To many people, Room at the Top was in itself a justification of the X certificate, a film of quality that was by necessity only for adults, far away from what was seen as the sensationalism of other X films, such as Hammer’s horror output.
Laurence Harvey is no one’s idea of a Yorkshireman (he was a Lithuanian brought up in South Africa) and it has been claimed he’s out-acted by his female costars. There’s some truth to that, though Joe, cocky, self-possessed to the point of arrogance, was not far from Harvey in real life. Heather Sears, who had won the BAFTA for Best British Actress for The Story of Esther Costello the previous role, has a more thankless role, but she gives a fine account of it. Alice Aisgill was not French in the novel, but this was changed to enable the casting of Simone Signoret. She was not happy with her performance, and fell out with Freddie Francis as she felt his lighting made her look unattractive. However, her affecting performance won Best Actress at Cannes, Best Foreign Actress at the BAFTAs and finally the Oscar for Best Actress. The film was nominated for Best Picture, in the year when Ben-Hur swept all before it, but it won a second Oscar for Paterson’s screenplay. Clayton and Harvey were both nominated, as was Hermione Baddeley (as Joe’s landlady Elspeth) for Best Supporting Actress. Baddeley’s role, on screen in three scenes totalling two and a half minutes, is the shortest ever to be nominated for an Oscar.
Room at the Top is released in a dual-format edition by the BFI. A checkdisc of the Blu-ray was received for review. The film, pushing at the limits of the X certificate at the time, now has a 12. The extras appear not to have been submitted for certification, though The Visit and We of the West Riding were given a U at the time of their original releases.
The Blu-ray transfer is in the ratio of 1.66:1. Gritty realism was almost invariably monochrome at the time, and this transfer shows how well 35mm black and white film can come across in HD. The results are fine, with strong blacks and greyscale that looked accurate to me.
The soundtrack is the original mono and it’s clear and well-balanced. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available.
The extras begin with commentaries, two of them. The first is by Neil Sinyard and was recorded in 2009 for the previous Network DVD release. This tends at times to describe the on-screen action, but there’s plenty to interest to be had, from the author of a book on Jack Clayton. The second commentary is new, and is the work of the BFI’s Curator for Fiction Film Dr Josephine Botting. This complements the Sinyard track quite nicely, as it takes advantage of what has happened since, especially the BBC’s adaptation of the novel. That version, written by Amanda Coe, directed by Aisling Walsh, with Matthew McNulty, Maxine Peake and Jenna-Louise Coleman in the roles played by Harvey, Signoret and Sears, is certainly worth seeing and takes advantage of twenty-first-century allowability for sexual content and language. It was made in 2011 but couldn’t be screened by the BBC until the next year due to rights complications, by which time Coleman had become the new Doctor Who companion.
The extras continue with The Visit (34:38), a short film made in 1959, written and directed by jack Gold. This may have been his directing debut at age twenty-nine, but as I write this it doesn’t have an IMDB entry. It was also an early credit for camera assistant Chris Menges, ten years younger than Gold. This is a very low-key character study of a woman in early middle age, Alice (Alice Spaul), unmarried and living with her parents, working in a factory. This was at a time where her expectations wouldn’t have gone much beyond marriage, but that hasn’t happened, and her parents don’t seem particularly thankful for her presence. Half of the film details her life, and then a surprise visit puts the loneliness of her life into sharp relief. It’s a quiet film, but a moving one, made with great sensitivity.
Next up is a selection of films under the banner of “Images of the West Riding in Archive Film”. This region of Yorkshire appeared on camera from the earliest days of film production in the UK: Bradford Town Hall Square (1:51) dates from 1896 and is the city’s earliest surviving footage, pretty battered but at least it survives. The next two come from the first decade of the twentieth century and are the work of the Mitchell and Kenyon film company: Bailey’s Royal Buxton Punch and Judy Show in Halifax (1901, 2:41), shot on high ground overlooking town with a steam train in the distance, and Tram Ride to Halifax (1902, 3:33), showing both the countryside and the town’s industrial past. Halifax Day by Day (2:07) dates from 1910 and shows some of the town’s industry, namely a carpet factory. Like the Mitchell and Kenyon actualities, this would have been shown to the people of the town in the evening, so that they could see themselves on screen. These films are all silent, presented here with library music scores.
We move on to 1945, and We of the West Riding (22:02). This is an illustration of the people of an unnamed Yorkshire town, at work and at play. It concentrates on the members of one typical family, the Sykeses, working in a textile mill, cycling across the moors, watching a football match and rehearsing for an amateur dramatic production of Jane Eyre. Only some stage and musical performances have direct sound, and for the rest of the time we have a narration written by novelist Phyllis Bentley. This government-sponsored documentary, made in wartime, was an early work of Ken Annakin, who would later move into making features.
Finally, This Town (8:25) is a BFI Production Board film from 1969, though like the others it is in black and white. This is a portrait of a run-down Halifax waiting for a renewal which hadn’t yet happened, with old houses being pulled down and much of the population moved to the suburbs. Directed and shot by Hugh Evans, this short film has no narration, just natural sounds and a song, “Poverty Rock”, over the end credits.
The on-disc extras end the trailer for Room at the Top (2:53) and three image galleries, all self-navigating. The first comprises stills (4:45). Then we have a look inside Jack Clayton’s scrapbook, with press cuttings and correspondence (1:45). Finally, we have audience response cards from a 1959 preview screening of Room at the Top (0:36). Most of the comments are positive, though the first respeondent clearly didn’t like the film at all, writing TRIPE in large capital letters. Clayton had that one displayed in his office for several years.
The BFI’s booklet runs to twenty-four pages and begins with “Real People”, an essay by John Oliver, a useful overview of the novel and the film, in the context of the literature and cinema of the time, and their role in the changes in society, and acceptability, in the 1950s and 1960s. Also in the booklet are biographies of Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret, both by Kieron McCormack, full film credits and notes and credits for the extras.