Between Chatterley and the Beatles' First LP
Here is the piece I contributed to the booklet accompanying Studiocanal's 4K restoration of Joseph Losey's The Servant, which is being released on 20 September.
Blacklisted by Hollywood after being named in the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings, in 1951 Joseph Losey came to Britain and began a new career as a director of crime thrillers. Then in 1961 he directed Eva for the Paris-based producers Robert and Raymond Hakim. It was an attempt to leave genre film-making behind and to make a European-style auteur film. Losey called it ‘a profoundly personal film’, but the producers made heavy cuts, against his wishes. The cuts, in Losey’s view, ‘destroyed a film which was of all the ones I had made the closest to being a great film’.
Losey recalled the Hakims’ cutting of Eva as a ‘horrible experience’. One way to avoid it happening again was to become his own producer. With former production manager Norman Priggen, he set up Springbok Films to make The Servant. To raise the budget, they purchased a bond from the Completion Guarantor, Film Finances, which gave an undertaking to the financiers of the film that if The Servant exceeded its budget, then Film Finances would meet the over-cost.
Securing this bond required submitting a script, budget and schedule, which Film Finances’ consultant John Croydon then examined with a view to assessing whether the film could be made for the available money. Sixty years on, Croydon’s report makes fascinating reading because it captures how the film was at the cutting-edge of what was then deemed acceptable. Its production coincided with the dawn of a permissive society that the poet Philip Larkin famously fixed as having begun somewhere ‘between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP’. Losey began to shoot the film on location in Chelsea at the end of January 1963 (about two months before the release of the Beatles’ first LP).
Croydon thought that The Servant’s story of sexual entrapment was calculated to push at the limits. ‘Pinter, Losey and Bogarde must have got together to decide amongst themselves how they can do this to earn an X cert. without incurring a complete ban!’ he wrote. ‘My opinion of it as it is written, is that it is just pornographic!’
Many people today are likely to regard Croydon’s attitude as jarringly narrow-minded. But to do so would be to make no allowance for the time and culture to which he belonged. Croydon’s mindset was that of someone who had entered the film industry in 1931. During the 1940s, he was at Ealing Studios, where the films he had worked on as a line producer for the director Alberto Cavalcanti included the great portmanteau classic Dead of Night (and one of its two lighting cameramen was the cinematographer of The Servant, Douglas Slocombe). Croydon had spent the best part of his career in an industry that routinely made films for universal exhibition. The British Board of Film Censors had a responsibility to exclude from public exhibition anything likely to offend a reasonably minded member of the audience, but the values of that audience in 1963 reflected a far more conservative society than today’s. While a younger generation of film-makers was making rapid progress in changing the dial of what was acceptable, Croydon had to reflect where the needle pointed in 1963.
While his job was not to express an opinion of the artistic merit of a film, his opinion of whether Pinter’s script was pornographic mattered because it raised a serious question over how a ‘just pornographic’ script could none the less be made to pass the censor. ‘It is for this reason that I cannot see what the director intends to do and cannot therefore assess whether or not the schedule is valid!’
Film Finances needed to understand the uncertain gulf between the script ‘as it is written’ and as it would be filmed to know whether it was safe to give a completion guaranty. Exploring the same gulf now provides considerable insight into Losey’s nature as a film-maker. While Film Finances – no doubt with the help of a few meetings – had to try to read Joseph Losey’s mind, we have the advantage of being able to see the finished film.
It is striking how Pinter’s characteristically spare script – which usually offers only minimal description of action or setting – is uncharacteristically expansive over the details of Tony’s degradation:
Cheap sex magazines replace the expensive monthlies. There is an overlay of BARRETT everywhere. Photos of footballers cellotaped to mirrors. Pornographic calendars. Nudes stuck in oil paintings. The furniture has subtly changed, the rooms no longer possess composition. Elegant pornographic books have been yanked from TONY’s bookshelves and are strewn about (private editions L’Histoire d’O, etc).
L'Histoire d’O was a notorious underground pornographic novel that had been published in France in the 1950s. Yet neither L’Histoire d’O nor the sex magazines nor the pornographic calendars nor even the nudes feature in the finished film.
Croydon could not have known it when he was examining the papers, but Losey had no interest in presenting the visually explicit detail of pornography. Instead, he wanted to capture what could not be seen and was ultimately far more disturbing – the merciless destruction of a soul and its fall into the abyss.
With his experience of 1940s Production Code Hollywood having provided a good preparation, Losey delighted in the art of allegory and metaphor. Tony’s house seems almost alive in its malevolence: the looming, prison-like staircase; the long-case clock in the hall that measures out its doomed owner’s dwindling time; the motif of a circle, suggesting a trap, which endlessly repeats itself in mirrors, doors, windows, chandeliers, even a revolving chair.
This motif first announces itself in the extraordinary opening shot, which, moving through 360 degrees, takes in Barrett as he comes out of Thomas Crapper & Co Sanitary Engineers (by appointment to the late King George V). It’s an exaggerated use of symbolism to evoke the twisted nature of Barrett’s class revenge – this ‘gentleman’s gentleman’ is a creature of the sewers, corrupted by the very system of privilege and birthright that he wishes to destroy.
Referring to a scene that depicts Tony returning home late at night to discover Barrett and Vera making love in his bedroom, Croydon asks, ‘Can we be sure no attempt will be made to perform a Lady Chatterley?’ He needn’t have worried, because once again Losey’s aim was to reach beyond the merely physical to evoke a state of mind – the feel of damnation. In the script, Barrett is described as appearing at the top of the stairs after he has heard Tony entering the house. Pinter specifies, ‘Naked if possible’, but what Losey chooses to show is Tony looking up the stairs as the giant shadow of Barrett’s naked form is cast large against the landing wall. The dark figure looms high over Tony, the composition suggesting the insupportable weight of class contempt bearing down on him.
‘Script short,’ observed Croydon, ‘unless director has some form of elongation of script in mind.’ In the end, the 88-page script ran 115 minutes. The elongation Losey did have in mind – in a collaboration with the production designer Richard Macdonald that contributes as much to the film as Pinter’s script – was to tell the story of Tony’s moral collapse through the use of camera movement and décor. In the very last shot, as Tony sinks into oblivion on the landing, the camera descends vertically – as if sewer-bound – to take in the long-case clock in the hallway with its circular dial, its pendulum now still.
As John Croydon knew, a script was only a beginning – a libretto without music. What mattered was how it was made to play. And whether it was allowed to play. When the film had been completed, Losey – as his own producer – was able to look back on a production that he described as ‘the only picture I have ever made in my life where there was no interference from beginning to end, either on script, casting, cutting, music or on anything else. The result, whether the film succeeds or not, whether one likes the film or not, at least it’s something I can defend as being mine.’