Thursday, 5 June 2014

Britannia waves the rules… The Ruling Class (1972)


It’s pretty quaint to see some present day reviewers describing this film as “dated” with its earnest concerns about the nobility. It’s not so much the target of this satire, they say, but the left-wing consensus behind it that may well no longer exist to the same extent… Whilst it’s true that the politics of the left have changed, the film and the play it was based on were always out of step with mainstream thought and are only dated by the reserve that now dominates the politico-creative arena.

Politics is more disorientated than it was but the modern nobility are no less powerful than they were in the 1960s and most of us only see the tip of the iceberg. This country has always been run by a loose self-perpetuating oligarchy that sustains itself through pragmatism and the genuine social mobility Britain can offer the talented exceptions. I don’t even think that’s a political observation in itself: just a statement of fact?


People, regardless of their abilities can still obtain great power and wealth simply by being born to the right parents and the Lords still sit in their own House, albeit in reduced, more qualified numbers. Wealth inequality is even greater than it was in 1972 and the ruling classes still send their sons to public schools and they still dominate the Government from which they still make decisions that lead to the deaths of working men and women in the national interest…

I don’t see that the satire of The Ruling Class is no longer relevant and whilst stylistically it may be of its time, it’s well directed by Peter Medak and has more cutting edge than the mountain of mainstream gag-merchants clogging our TV stations, theatres and arenas.

Mr O'Toole
Most of all it’s got Peter O’Toole throwing himself absolutely into the role of insane. His is such a wholehearted and sincere performance that quite often this film is one you watch through gritted teeth… it’s not comfortable viewing watching someone so evidently disturbed and the human instinct is to look away from abnormality. But, imagine the creative imagination employed to achieve this effect? O’Toole was an actor who took things to extremes and then pushed on.

Harry Andrews
The film opens with a speech from the 13th Earl of Gurney (Harry Andrews) in one of the Guild Halls – there’s not much substance but a collective recognition of Great British values. The Earl drives home to his massive mansion to be greeted by his faithful servant Tucker (Arthur Lowe on brilliant form) who patiently collects his lordships clothes as he discards them ready for bed then brings him the ballet skirt, stepladder and fine silken noose for his regular “nightcap” of auto-erotic asphyxiation.

Unfortunately this particular evening the Judge tries himself too hard and ends up paying the ultimate price…

Alistair Sim, James Villiers, Coral Browne and William Mervyn
The family gather for the reading of the will and what a mixed lot they are… the Earl’s brother, Sir Charles (William Mervyn) , his wife Lady Claire (Coral Browne)  and their  son Dinsdale (James Villiers) along with Bishop Lampton (the great Alastair Sim), appalled at the suggestion of an improper death. Sir Charles is eager to get matters resolved and to enjoy the fruits of the family estate but there’s a problem in the form of the Earl’s son, the rightful heir to the title but who has been locked up in a mental hospital for years.


The will is read and tucker receives a payment of £30,000 – he’ll drink to that – but then something stranger happens as Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney (O'Toole) arrives to claim his title of 14th Earl of Gurney.

But there’s a problem as Jack is clearly under the impression that he is Jesus Christ returned to earth to lead people back towards the light. None of this cuts any ice with Uncle Charles who quickly devises a plan to marry him off to his mistress Grace (Carolyn Seymour) produce a male heir and then have Jack declared incapable.


But Jack is not without allies and his Aunt wants him well for his own sake and also to frustrate her faithless husband’s ambitions. She encourages Jack’s psychiatrist, Dr Herder (Michael Bryant) and the two begin an affair of their own.


If this all sounds convoluted you need to remember that the film’s purpose is to lampoon Upper Class ambition and “rules”. It’s also a powerful visual fantasy in which Jack’s mental state is often shown on screen. There are Dennis Potter-esque musical numbers – often very funny – as well as the world seen through Jack’s eyes.

He is convinced that he once married The Lady of the Camellias and, as cynical planning would have it, Grace arrives as the Lady herself singing an aria from the opera. Jack is captivated as he is supposed to be but Grace also begins to develop feelings for her “mark”…


Jack’s religious mania continues and he often rests on a crucifix in the study before descending to preach to his family and anyone who visits about love.

Meanwhile Tucker is revealed as a revolutionary “cell” all on his own, dedicated to overthrowing the establishment and seizing control of the means of production… after he’s finished the next bottle that is.


Grace becomes pregnant and it becomes imperative to sober Jack up before Charles can complete his plan to have him sectioned. Dr Herder tries ever more extreme methods before bringing in a more violently insane man, McKyle (the always excellent Nigel Green), who also believes himself to be the son of God, The Electric Messiah! He launches into Jack who sees electric shocks seemingly flow from McKyle’s hands… in exhaustion he calls his own name. Is this the beginning of a cure?

Nigel Green
Grace gives birth to a son and Charles calls in an old favour from the Master of Lunacy (Graham Crowden) who will surely find any lingering slivers of psychosis. But Jack is on the road to recovery and remembering that the psychiatrist had been a sporting hero at their old school Eton. A rousing chorus of the Eton Boating Song ensures the men bond and Jack is declared sane.

But now the film takes a darker tone as Jack suppresses his true thoughts, spending long hours in the attic reading comics about Jack the Ripper and his slaughter... He stops being JC and gradually turns in to “Jack” his sublimation of loving thoughts engendering a murderous response…


But new Jack is welcomed by the local hunt and cheered for his talk about the reintroduction of proper punishment in a society weakened by excess and indulgence from the class that should lead through fear and the application of strict correction to any un-British-ness.

All a bit heavy-handed of course but the film’s grand set piece as Jack preaches to the converted in the House of Lords makes it all worthwhile. As his hard line is greeted with rapture he has a vision of the chamber filled with decaying corpses: fossils held together by centuries of cobwebs still dressed in ermine and furs…


Dusty verdict: The Ruling Class hits its obvious targets cleanly but also with wit and the almost frightening intensity of Peter O’Toole’s performance. And, without giving anything away, the ending is one that disturbs and lingers – this is not a nostalgic easy-watching experience.


The supporting cast are all excellent from Nigel Green’s electrified insanity to Michael Bryant’s conflicted psychiatrist. Carol Browne is superb as the repressed but determined Lady Claire destined to always be let down by the Gurney family whilst Arthur Lowe is effortlessly impressive as the inebriated anarchist, struggling to drink down the establishment from within.

Carolyn Seymour
Special mention should also be made of the peerless Carolyn Seymour who could well be the Lady of the Camellias but is equally convincing as the street-smart “actress” who finds love even in the midst of insanity.

The question is, does society find Jack’s love more delusional and less acceptable than his hate and that’s not just a political issue but a personal one: we have to decide our own demarcation lines in this one.

The Ruling Class is available on DVD from Amazon and there’s even a deluxe edition from Criterion over in America: interesting to see how the film is rated in the land of the free.

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