The Entertainer is an important British film for many reasons. A few months ago I got angry when commentators discussing a 2016 revival of John Osborne’s play (Kenneth Branagh’s production at the Garrick in London) only referred to the film as ‘Olivier’s film’. Laurence Olivier plays the lead character of the film but he and Osborne are by no means the only ‘authors’ of the film. It is equally important to consider the direction by Tony Richardson and the production by Woodfall Films – just at the ‘tipping point’ of the British New Wave in 1960. It’s a film and the location photography by Oswald Morris and Denys Coop (the camera operator who later became a DoP on several New Wave films) is crucial.
I first saw the film many years ago and I was grateful to see it again courtesy of Talking Pictures TV, the digital channel that suddenly appeared, as if by magic, on my Freeview offer. Talking Pictures TV is on Freeview Channel 81 and specialises in archive British and American cinema and TV. In August 2016 Screen Daily reported that the station had acquired broadcast rights to a range of classic British films in “two major library deals with ITV Studios Global Entertainment and the Samuel Goldwyn and Woodfall libraries, distributed by Miramax”. Around 100 titles are covered and some of them are showing currently in the channel’s schedules (see the website).
The Entertainer was first performed on stage in 1957 and the story is set in 1956. In the opening sequence we meet Jean Rice (Joan Plowright) looking up at the marquee of the Alhambra Theatre in Morecambe which announces the summer show starring Jean’s father, the fading variety star Archie Rice (Olivier). A flashback shows us that Jean has come up from London where she is an art teacher on a youth project. She’s seen her brother Mick (Albert Finney) off at the station on his way to fight in the Suez Canal conflict. She was accompanied by her boyfriend Graham (Daniel Massey) who told her that he had been offered a job in Africa. Did she want to join him? When Jean arrives in Morecambe she meets her grandfather, Billy Rice (Roger Livesey) and then goes ‘backstage’ to meet her father and her other brother, stage manager Frank (Alan Bates). Eventually, we follow the trio home to the rented rooms where Phoebe, (Brenda de Banzie) and Billy are waiting. The ‘driver’ of the plot is Archie’s attempt to stage another, more glamorous, show. He has no money so he latches onto a young woman (Shirley Anne Field) with wealthy parents in the hope that they will finance him to create an opportunity for their daughter.
The Entertainer is not really a film that is bothered about narrative as such – I don’t think we really believe that Archie will be successful in setting up a new show. It makes more sense to follow the narrative as a metaphor for decline. Archie is a second-rate entertainer in the dying days of live ‘variety theatre’. Already this successor to the music hall is in the process of falling into the clutches of television (and TV is a despised medium by most of the writers and directors of the New Wave). It is apt then that the setting is Morecambe – a seaside resort in its last days of mass holiday appeal. Morecambe’s main attractions were developed from the late 19th century up to the 1930s, including its marvellous art deco hotel built by the Midland Railway company. Morecambe traditionally relied on the railway to bring the crowds from industrial West Yorkshire, especially from Bradford and Leeds, but by the late 1950s the numbers were starting to fall. Morecambe wasn’t big enough to attract the A List stars so, rather like the British Empire in 1956, it was waiting for the axe to fall (it would come a few years later after the railways were savaged by Dr Beeching in the mid 1960s). The film never openly discusses the location as Morecambe, so perhaps these points are lost on the audience. Tony Richardson came originally from Bradford which may be why he chose the location. Wikipedia suggests that Osborne wrote Look Back in Anger in Morecambe while himself performing in repertory theatre.
It may be heretical, but I have to admit that I don’t enjoy watching Laurence Olivier on screen (and he received an Oscar nomination for this performance as Archie). I’ve never seen him on the stage, but I’m not sure his casting always works in films – except when he plays a supporting character in genre films. In The Entertainer he has to play a man who is difficult to like and he certainly puts the character across, but his stage act is so loathsome and lacking in talent (i.e the singing voice he uses and the terrible delivery of awful jokes) that it doesn’t really make sense that he would headline a show. The crucial scenes are in the theatre after or between shows when Archie is trying to express himself to Jean (who is arguably the narrator of the story – she is the one who leads us into scenes). In these scenes, Olivier seems to do far too much and it’s as if he is still performing in the stage version of The Entertainer, also directed by Tony Richardson. Reading a synopsis of the play, it looks as if these scenes were originally in the family home but when the film ‘opened’ out the story, Richardson moved them into the empty theatre. I can see an argument that Olivier offers us an Archie who is always ‘performing’ and when he’s literally ‘on the stage’ he is unable to stop. His performance contrasts with Roger Livesey, an actor admittedly close to my heart because of his three roles for Powell and Pressburger in Colonel Blimp (1943), I Know Where I’m Going (1945) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946). It’s an insult really that Livesey, one year older than Olivier, is cast as Olivier’s father. Billy is a mainly sympathetic character as a genuine former star of music hall. Livesey plays him as an Edwardian gentleman. It’s perhaps a little too close to the older Colonel Blimp from P&P’s film (in which Livesey must age forty years).
I suspect my problem is with John Osborne’s overall approach to the original play. I’ve seen a suggestion that after Look Back in Anger, the iconic ‘angry young man’ narrative for the theatre, Olivier asked Osborne to write an ‘angry middle-aged man’ piece for him to star in and that’s how The Entertainer emerged. In his satire Osborne offers three generations of Rice men – Billy, Archie and Frank/Mick. Osborne seems a little nostalgic in relation to Billy and his bile is reserved for Archie. The young men are not really used at all, which is a weakness, I think. The women have little ‘agency’ and Jean’s problems seem to get forgotten (which adds to the isolation of Archie as a loathsome figure). Osborne might have been thinking of any number of misogynist male comedians with doubtful stage material in the 1940s and 1950s – but most of them were also performers with real talent. I do wonder if the character of Archie Rice might actually have worked better in the service of the satire if he had been a more talented performer – whose style/material was going out of fashion. But perhaps the whole point is that he is a monster without redeeming features?
All the rest of the cast are very good. And what a cast it is. I was amused to note that Miriam Karlin is a bolshie dancer in Archie’s company – a year or so later she would become a TV star in the sitcom The Rag Trade in which she plays a shop steward in a small clothing factory. Morecambe’s most famous thespian, Thora Hird plays the mother of the Shirley Anne Field character. But the real interest for me is in the film as an example of Richardson’s work for Woodfall, the company he founded in 1958 with John Osborne and Harry Saltzman. Between 1959 and 1963 Richardson directed five major films of the British New Wave for Woodfall – Look Back In Anger (1959), The Entertainer (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Tom Jones (1963). That’s some run. I think now that I’d opt for A Taste of Honey as the key film, though all of them are important and Tom Jones won the most accolades at the time. The Entertainer seems like it’s caught in the transition in filmmaking terms from the interiors of Look Back in Anger to the openness and freshness of A Taste of Honey and the shift from the anger of John Osborne to the vitality of Shelagh Delaney (with the only female-centred film in the sequence).
Other points to mention: the screenplay was co-written by Nigel Kneale who had adapted Look Back in Anger from Osborne’s play but who was best known as a writer of science fiction screenplays, especially the various Quatermass films and TV plays. Since he came from North West England, he may have contributed to the authentic feel of Morecambe as a Lancashire resort. There is an interesting sequence in the film using the ‘Miss Great Britain’ bathing beauty contest which was held in the art deco outdoor swimming pool. Morecambe was the genuine venue for the contest in 1956 and it remained the venue until 1989. The locations used in the film are mainly in Morecambe but the theatre locations may include both the Alhambra and the Winter Gardens. Morecambe had its own Illuminations but the sequence in The Entertainer also features Blackpool’s illuminated trams.