Room at the Top (Dir. Jack Clayton, 1959; BFI DVD 60th anniversary release, 2019)
In the pantheon of British New Wave anti-heroes, Room at the Top’s Joe Lampton stands apart from his peers in one conspicuous regard: unlike the others, Lampton harbours an intense desire to escape his own social class. For all that he shares a background broadly comparable to that of Arthur Seaton from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, to him --even though we see that he is conflicted at times-- it ultimately means failure and even shame. Where Seaton bullishly despises even the modestly aspirational new estate and its modern kitchenettes, Lampton has his sights set on The Top, Warnley’s most exclusive area, where the great and good throw parties and look down on all they survey. The English class system is at the core of Room at the Top, observed not just in the character of Joe, but in everyone we meet in the film’s evocation of late 1940s industrial Yorkshire.
John Braine wrote Room at the Top while working as a librarian in Bingley. Published as his first novel in 1957 and covering a time period roughly ten years earlier, its working-class edge and candid approach to sex made the book a hit and conferred upon Braine Angry Young Man status (a label largely created around John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger a year earlier). Neil Paterson took Braine’s novel and produced the film’s Oscar-winning screenplay, remaining fairly true to the original work aside from the concoction of a French back-story for its one inescapably tragic character. Alice Aisgill is a free-thinking but unhappy Warnley socialite, one of the local amateur dramatists, who attracts Joe the moment they meet. They become lovers, Joe with no care for Alice’s marriage, her then-controversial seniority in years, nor, it seems, raised eyebrows around town. Alice’s new French background exists solely for the casting of Simone Signoret, who brings to the role a simply immense emotional power. Her character’s sadness, touchingly suppressed in early scenes, escalates to an almost unbearable level towards the film’s end. As Best Actress at the Academy Awards, she won the second of Room at the Top’s two Oscars.
Much was made at the time of the X-Certificate handed down by the British Board of Film Classification. Before Room at the Top, an X was a reliable guarantee of distasteful, silly and salacious film --the BBFC was subsequently keen to redress the wrong thereby done to Room at the Top, hence its forgiving stance on the film’s edit. (There’s an absorbing account of this by John Oliver in the included BFI booklet essay). Room at the Top became the certificate’s first ‘proper’ film, yet the cinematic trailer (also included in the BFI’s anniversary edition release) shamelessly hams up the ‘X factor,’ verging, even, on doing the movie a disservice. And it raises an interesting question. Did Simone Signoret’s slightly incongruous casting as Alice, magnificent though it turned out, also serve the purpose of upping the film’s glamour quotient?
Laurence Harvey is a convincing, threatening and handsome presence as the coldly ambitious Joe Lampton, a man brazen in his desire to locate stepping stones to the top. A modest accountancy job in Warnley removes Lampton (physically, at least) from his hometown slums and installs him in the symbolically-chiming top room of a guest house. One fears immediately for Susan Brown, another am-dram and naïve heiress to Warnley’s top industrialist. Her father, played giftedly by an out-of-character Donald Wolfitt (an actor then better known for his roaring thespian turns), is wealthy yet in touch with his roots, unlike Susan’s mother, who has acquired hideous airs and graces. When Joe eventually sees off Susan’s officer-class boyfriend, who delights in calling Lampton “Sergeant,” a perfunctory courtship ensues. Susan’s mother hurls all that she can at the pair in order to quash the romance; her father, you feel, recognises something of his younger self in Lampton, although he too sees no future in the relationship (perhaps more for paternal than class-based reasons, though they also play a role). The rules say that Susan is off limits to the likes of Joe, something of which his peers at the firm —affable, happy-go-lucky types all— remind him constantly. You can never be one of them, society chants. Accept your place. Of course, this only makes Joe more resolute in his desire to marry Susan, or more pertinently, marry the family.
It seems that everyone can see through Joe Lampton apart from Susan herself. It’s telling that, when Joe is on a sentimental visit to his decrepit hometown of Dufton, his aunt and uncle are quick to detect and call out his crude motivations. Alice Aisgill offers the most insightful observations. Her pillow-talk counsel —that all he must do to succeed as a person in life is to be his authentic self— is received with Joe’s best doe-eyed expressions and then ignored. After an idyllic stolen weekend, Alice is struck by a forewarning of tragedy, and, with the news that Joe is to marry Susan, so it comes to pass, in a drunken car accident. The book, incidentally, is far less kind to Joe Lampton over Alice’s fate than the film, which in general does smooth the character’s edges a touch. Director Jack Clayton and writer Neil Paterson evidently opted against an internal monologue (a device used to good effect a year later in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), and so the bitterness expressed by Lampton towards his lot in life is only truly pronounced in the novel, where it is even more obsessive —a mantra of resentment comparable to that of Gordon Comstock in Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
The novels of the New Wave produced a rich seam of lesser-known sequels, mostly set in domestic familiarity, often with a heavy sense of the party being over. Billy Liar on the Moon by Keith Waterhouse comes to mind, in which William Fisher now seethes quietly in the marital home that he privately calls ‘Mortgagedene.’ Alan Sillitoe waited forty-two years to publish Birthday, an elegiac sequel to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Stan Barstow turned A Kind of Loving into a trilogy with The Watchers on the Shore and The Right True End. Following suit, John Braine penned Life at the Top, a rather one-track and disconsolate follow-up that was also turned into a film, again starring Laurence Harvey as Joe, who, despite having superficially achieved his youthful aims, has not escaped his demons. We find him a decade on, still married to Susan (now played by Jean Simmons instead of Heather Sears), who is older, shrewder, and more than able to play her husband at his own old games. Braine even went on to write a 1970s Thames TV series, Man at the Top, in order to draw the well of Joe Lampton’s trials and tribulations fully dry. Completing a circle of sorts, Joe was played here by Kenneth Haigh, the original Jimmy Porter in the 1956 London theatre production of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.
John Braine may have been labelled an Angry Young Man in the 1950s, yet he’s on record as disavowing any social criticism or judgement. It’s an interesting standpoint if you’ve just watched Room at the Top, yet Braine maintained his assertion that he was simply telling it like it was. In any case, his politics were later revealed to be on the conservative right. It’s hard to picture Shelagh Delaney, say, a woman easily equal to Braine as a writer, joining the Establishment and signing a letter declaring unwavering support for the US war in Vietnam, as Braine did in the company of Kingsley Amis. Yet his extraordinary debut novel, and more so the film to which it led, set in train a thrilling new era of English realism, paving the way for Delaney’s A Taste of Honey and many more. --Neil Jackson