I was given a dvd of The Admirable Crichton this Christmas. The 1957 film, starring British actor, Kenneth More is set in Edwardian England and was adapted from the stage play by J.M.Barrie.

Barrie’s play has a contemporary setting, being performed for the first time in 1902. There are some details of the productions including illustrations from that first production, on Wickipedia, where it lists also the dates of later productions, and of several adaptations to film, TV, and radio. I’ve not seen the play, but it’s the dates that interest me, and three dates in particular.

The first is that date of first production (1902), the second that of the Kenneth More film (1957), and the third, (2016), the year in which I watched it. Co-incidentally around fifty years apart, these three dates can be viewed as giving onion-skin like perceptions of the issues raised by the story.

There is a fistful of well known novels, plays and films set in Edwardian England. The period is seen as the last, idyllic summer of the Victorian world, turning to the autumn of 1914, and the four year long winter of the First World War. The Importance of Being Ernest, The Go Between, and The Shooting Party are three of my favourites – the latter dating from 1983, a lifetime after the events it describes. As one who takes an interest in the English short story I’m aware of A.E.Coppard popping up on the scene in 1919, at the beginning of what was in many respects a new world at the end of that war. In Norman Nicholson at 100, (Matthews & Curry,eds.Bookcase,Carlisle,2014)  a collection of essays about the Cumbrian poet, I contributed an essay contrasting the seemingly opposite outlooks of the two poets Nicholson, born 1914, and Geoffrey Holloway, born 1918, the former looking backward, the latter forward.

In the case of The Admirable Crichton, play and film, we see an examination of the English, perhaps British, class system reviewed after fifty years during which a single world war, with an intermission of twenty years, brought forth our world. To watch that film, fifty years after it was made, gives another view. The Second World War has often been described as ‘the people’s war,’ but ‘The Great War’ has tended to be seen as one between the European Ruling Families. Perhaps what the families began the peoples had to finish. Here, play and film, look at the same issues of class, and, perhaps unconsciously, gender from different sides of that divide. From our present perspective we see both aspects from a distance.

 

The story is relatively simple. The father and three daughters of an upper class family, along with a couple of young suitors, and the eponymous butler and a ‘tweeny’ maid – my adoptive grandparents, and this makes, to quote Robert Frost, ‘all the difference,’ were ‘in service’ (not to be confused with being ‘in the services), are cast ashore on an uninhabited Pacific island. There, the competence of Crichton is contrasted with the incompetence of the others, leading to a reversal of roles. He becomes ‘the governor’ in a benign  patriarchal dictatorship that lasts until rescue arrives. Then the roles revert, almost to what they were before. That almost concerns the eldest of the three sisters, Lady Mary, with whom Crichton has fallen in love. In the film version – and I suspect, from clues in the Wickipedia entry, in the play too – she is keen to carry on their relationship, and to defy convention, but Crichton is, at heart, a conservative, and ‘falls back’ on the convenient ‘tweeny,’ who, cor blimey, is happy to get him. They set off for a new life, with a bagful of pearls he has saved from the island. Arthur Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets spring to an ironic life for me at this point, for several of those stories dealt with the disasters of working class people coming into capital! (I wonder, as we speak, so to write, how those two £33,000,000 winners will fare?). J.M.Barrie, apparently, wanted to have Lady Mary and Crichton continue their relationship, but felt that ‘the stalls’ would not accept it. The filmmakers too, balked at what might have looked like a Hollywood ending. I think if I were adapting it again today, and translating it into modern times, I’d have to say the same. Perhaps that would be a worthwhile experiment – to see if the story, with either ending, could be made acceptable to ‘the stalls,’ or even to the writer. The characters do seem stereotypical, and dated stereotypes too, but, when one becomes old enough to look back far enough, what seemed avant garde when we did it can look awfully stereotypical in retrospect!

What I’m left with, watching a fifty year old version of a fifty year old comedy of manners, is a series of questions. What was taken for granted, and what ironic in the two versions? What do we take for granted? What do we find ironic now? Is Crichton’s innate conservatism, and Lord Henry’s skin-thin republicanism to be believed in, or laughed at? And the sexism, the inverted snobbery? Where do they fit, in 1902, and 1957, and 2016? How far have we come, and what arc has the trajectory of social change left in our sky (poetic, huh!)?

Wincing, amongst the laughs. I found the characters both embarrassingly out of date, and reassuringly familiar – but not necessarily in the right order (to quote Eric Morecambe).

BHDandMe in his English Derby....

BHDandMe in his English Derby….

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