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Harry Mount - The Servant

Arts | By Harry Mount

The Servant (1963), re-released in cinemas this September, is a toxic version of Jeeves and Wooster. By Harry Mount

The Servant (1963), re-released in cinemas this September, is a toxic version of Jeeves and Wooster.

Dirk Bogarde’s Barrett isn’t just brighter than his master, Tony (James Fox). He’s also a lot nastier.

The idea of the intelligent servant goes all the way back to Plautus, who features a clever slave in several of his plays in the third century BC. But to make the servant clever, horrible and ultimately his master’s master is the brilliant idea by Robin Maugham (Somerset’s nephew) in his 1948 short story, The Servant.

Directed by Joseph Losey with a subtle screenplay by Harold Pinter, the film is wonderfully menacing, its melancholy strain intensified by John Dankworth’s jazz soundtrack, including All Gone, sung by Cleo Laine.

Pinter, only 32 at the time, also has a bit part in the film as a young ‘Society Man’ with a la-di-da voice. The Servant isn’t just about the flip in power between master and servant. It’s also, without it being said, about the flip of the old order in postwar London, as Society Man gives way to his supposed inferiors.

In 1963, Chelsea is about to get trendy. Tony nurses his growing drink problem in lovely suits and ties, but he also sports a cardie and sheepskin coat, and is very proud of his new abstract picture.

As well as dining next to Society Man in a smart French restaurant with his Society Woman, Susan Stewart (a haughty, imperious Wendy Craig), Tony heads for an informal trat, where a guitarist strums beatnik numbers.

Fox is a bit wooden but that doesn’t matter – plenty of toffs are timber from the neck up and are also given to stiff arm movements. Maugham and Pinter nail that combination of stupidity and Olympian confidence often found in the upper classes.

Tony’s dim confidence dissolves as Barrett slowly, subtly turns the tables on the ruling classes. He starts with little flashes of anger at Susan Stewart, when she disapproves of his décor and wine choices. It isn’t long before he’s removing Miss Stewart’s ‘chintz frills’ from the master’s dressing table – the first stage in Barrett’s war to detach Tony from his girlfriend, so he can have complete power over him.

Soon Tony is craven and cowed, feeling trapped in his own house, while trying to conceal his affair with Vera (Sarah Miles), who pretends to be Barrett’s sister but is in fact his lover.

How good Bogarde is at threatening, weary arrogance wrapped up in servility. He offers something to Tony – ‘Would you like a nice hot drink?’ – before following it up with an ‘I couldn’t care less’ gesture when the offer’s turned down.

Bogarde promptly drops the servility when he’s away from James Fox. So he’s really playing two subtly different people: the compliant servant turned swaggering bully, with a touch of campness in the affronted uplift of his chin.

Bogarde is the stand-out star of the film. Only 42, he retains his matinée-idol looks, if they’re a little drawn. He gets Barrett’s northern accent spot-on, too. It’s a long way from Simon Sparrow in Doctor in the House (1954).

The whole role-reversal thing is a fantasy, of course. But, where it would be blown up into comedy in P G Wodehouse or Plautus, Pinter makes it credible with his understated screenplay, as do the actors by avoiding melodrama.

Even as Barrett becomes the boss, you can really believe he was once a servant, by the brisk, impatient, professional way he clears the dishes with little fluttering gestures. A master-class in how to play a servant.

This story was from October 2021 issue. Subscribe Now