This is the sequel to Room at the Top (UK 1959), often cited as the first film of the ‘British New Wave’. Like the first film it is an adaptation of a John Braine novel featuring the further adventures of his working-class character ‘made good’, Joe Lampton. In one sense it is a typical sequel in that the narrative structure and the nature of the events in the story are very similar to the first film. But on closer inspection this is definitely a development of the overall story. The film also demonstrates something seen in various sequels, a shift in the historical context. In the first film, Joe Lampton is a working-class young man who returns after the war to West Yorkshire in the late 1940s. He has been a Flight-Sergeant in the RAF who spent much of the war as a POW. The film uses fictitious names for locations but the actual locations appear to be Halifax for Joe’s home town and Bradford as the city in which he joins the Town Hall staff and then courts and marries the daughter of a wealthy mill-owner. At the same time he has an affair with the French wife of another industrialist. All this presumably takes place in the late 1940s/early 1950s. The sequel then leaps ahead to the mid-1960s but Joe’s marriage only appears to be 10 years old. His son, the reason why the wedding originally took place, is 10.
The new film uses Braine’s input but it is directed by the talented Canadian director Ted Kotcheff who also brought in a second writer, the celebrated Canadian author Mordecai Richler. Kotcheff had already worked on television plays in the UK and would go on to make important films in Australia (Wake in Fright, 1971) and a string of Hollywood features, including The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) in Canada based on Mordecai Richler’s novel. Richler had also worked on No Love for Johnnie (UK 1961). Life at the Top was a Romulus production by John Woolf just like the first film, but I feel that this sequel feels more up-to-date and fits in with several of the better-known contemporary films of the period. Kotcheff brings some energy into the narrative and Oswald Morris is very good on the cinematography. I didn’t see it in the 1960s or afterwards on TV. I’m not sure why it had a lower profile, but it may be connected to the TV adaptation, Man at the Top (Thames TV, 23 episodes 1970-72) and a spin-off third film in 1973.
At the start of Life at the Top, Joe (Laurence Harvey) seems to have it all – a beautiful wife, a good job at the mill owned by his father-in-law, two children, two cars and a nice house. But he isn’t happy. His father-in-law, Abe Brown (Donald Wolfit), wants to make him a Tory councillor and his son is being sent away to a boarding prep school. Joe’s working-class roots prompt him to rebel, but again he’s not sure how. In one sense at least, the casting of this sequel raises the ante. Heather Sears who played Susan, Joe’s wife, in Room at the Top was a fine actor with significant leading roles but she wasn’t a ‘star’. In Life at the Top, Susan is played by Jean Simmons, a genuine Hollywood star, albeit one who in her thirties was appearing less frequently in films. Her presence does strengthen the tussle for Joe between ‘home’ and ‘playing away’.
Like Simone Signoret the ‘other woman’ in the first film, Honor Blackman presents an assertive (and single) older woman. In her case she has come up from London as a reporter/presenter for regional television. It is a feature of mid-1960s British films to see work in TV as ‘modern’, whereas earlier, in the 1950s, TV is often treated as simply cheap entertainment, stealing audiences from cinema. Honor Blackman is a fascinating figure in British film and TV. Her long career featured a relatively small proportion of significant leading roles but in 1965 she was perhaps at her peak of public awareness having appeared for two years as Cathy Gale in the hit TV series The Avengers (1962-4) and as Pussy Galore, the most memorable ‘Bond Girl’ (she was 38) in Goldfinger (1964).
The ‘difference’ in the sequel is that Joe is sent down to London to clinch a business deal. London offers Joe another possibility of ‘escape’ and he will repeat the trip South hoping to break into the ‘modern life’ represented by London in 1965, about to become the world centre of ‘cool’. The London scenes expose Joe’s naïvete and that his ‘Northerness’ is a liability – whereas his working-class background could be a bonus. Unfortunately he is attempting to break into business corporations staffed by public schoolboys, not the newly fashionable arts and media activities (think David Bailey as a photographer at this time). Watching the film now is quite strange because Laurence Harvey starred in the very different film Darling, also in 1965. In similar settings (i.e. boardrooms) Harvey’s advertising executive is involved in foreplay with Julie Christie’s fashion model. Darling is a more sophisticated film which won three Oscars and had a much higher profile. It had a big impact on me at the time but now I’m rather taken with Life at the Top. I think that’s partly because of the location work in Bradford which includes Ilkley Station when it still had a through railway line from Skipton and Forster Square station in Bradford plus the Wool Exchange (now Waterstone’s bookshop). I’m surprised that ‘Bradford City of Film’ doesn’t make much more of the film’s depiction of Bradford in the 1960s. But also I think Jean Simmons and Honor Blackman are very good. The shots of ‘A.Z. Brown’s Mill’ also remind us of what a major city Bradford once was as the wool capital of the world. None of the British Cinema scholars seem to have much to say about the film but it strikes me as an important addition to Billy Liar as a narrative about Bradford’s decline and the frustration of the London links (i.e. the hero of both films fails to make it to London – and that was before Bradford lost its quick, direct rail link to the capital). Bob Murphy simply lists the film as one of ‘anti-Swinging London films’ in his Sixties British Cinema, which is a bit odd since ‘Swinging London’ had barely begun when the film was released in January 1966. John Hill doesn’t cover it as it falls outside his timeframe for Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1955-63 (although he mentions Darling).
Life at the Top ends with Joe’s return to Warley/Bradford and his elevation to Chair of the new company merged with a competitor. All this is Susan’s doing and she has Joe back – something he ‘settles for”. In one sense Joe has ‘lost’ as he is effectively dependent on Susan who will become the biggest shareholder in the new company when her father dies. I wonder what Joe will do next – and how he will cope with the decline of Bradford and the wool textile business?
Life at the Top has screened recently on Talking Pictures TV and there is also a Region 2 DVD.
In the extract from the film below, we see Joe with both Susan and with Norah. We also see the uncomfortable Ilkley station scene when Joe’s son goes off to school.