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An Oz in Room at the Top

Paul O'Hanlon | 30.07.2015 14:19 | Analysis | Culture | London | World

A look at a bygone Britain as seen through the eyes of an Oscar winning film. Britain at all levels is depicted as desperately holding on to class as a means of self-belief. Joe's relatives tell him to stick to his own kind, yet the toughs that beat him up don't see him as of their own class. The rank-pulling of Jack Wales tells him that it is just a different kind of war now.

An Oz in Room at the Top

The classic 1958 Oscar winning film Room at the Top starring Laurence Harvey and French actress Simone Signoret heralded the dawn of the British New Wave of films. The films of this period featured the so-called angry young men like Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Richard Burton. Lithuanian born and South African raised Laurence Harvey was the first of these angry young men.

The novel of the same name by John Braine tells the story of the ruthlessly ambitious Joe Lampton who leaves the fictitious small town of Dufton (possibly based on Keighley or Skipton, though there is a real life village called Dufton in Cumbria) for the big city of Warnley (Bradford in the film). He secures a low paid job as a clerk in the local city hall and then through a drama group meets and seduces Susan Brown the daughter of the local super rich industrialist Mr Brown. At the same time he becomes infatuated with an unhappily married older woman called Alice Aisgill. Ignoring the advice of his work colleague Charlie Soames (played by Donald Houston) that Alice’s husband George Aisgill is dangerous and that “You can’t do it, Joe. You can’t run two women in a town this size.” Lampton proceeds to do just that.

Susan’s affluent parents strongly disapprove of the vulgar working class boy with `the bulging shirt and the chromium cuff links` and they send her abroad touring in the south of France to escape his advances. In her absence he entices the bored and unhappy French born Alice whose husband George is away having an affair with his secretary.

If you haven’t seen this award winning film I won’t spoil it for you, it’s recommended and is available on DVD. It won two Oscars, one for Simone Signoret as best actress and one for Scottish born script writer Neil Paterson for the best adapted screenplay from another source. Paterson had an interesting career, born in Greenock near Glasgow, growing up in the Scottish Highlands in Banff then going to Edinburgh University after which he played football for Dundee United in the 1930’s, then writing as a sports journalist for D.C. Thomson and later ending up as an Oscar winning screen writer.

The film was considered very daring and risqué for its time with dialogue containing words like `bitch` and `bastard` and `whore` and its depiction of adultery with torrid love scenes involving a steamy French actress in a state of semi-undress led to it being given an X certificate. There was also much commentary about the British class system with the obnoxious upper crust RAF chocks away chap Jack Wales constantly taunting working class Joe Lampton about his failure to escape from a prisoner of war camp and not getting promoted beyond sergeant observer. He laughs in a highly exaggerated fashion when Joe makes a slip of the tongue at a drama group rehearsal when Laurence Harvey’s character mispronounces `brazier` as `brassiere`. He constantly goads Joe and throws his war hero record with his DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) in to Joe’s face.

At a time when many British people didn’t have televisions there were queues several times round the block at cinemas to see this landmark film. While the film was seen as shocking by many in Britain not least the censor, it was given a cooler reception in France. Simone Signoret in her autobiography `Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be` states that French people didn’t see anything particularly shocking about adultery as it was common for a French man to have several mistresses and then go home to play happy families. She also stated that people in France did not like being reminded of the Second World War (rationing in France did not end until 1958 the year the film was made) which figures prominently with scenes of bomb damaged houses.

You might well think that Australians would be absent from the rather bleak landscape of post war West Yorkshire in this 1950’s film which was actually set in the late 1940’s – the early days of the assisted passage or `ten pound pom` when people escaped rationing and bomb blitzed England for a new life in sunny Oz and not vice versa. However Australia is represented in Room at the Top by actor Allan Cuthbertson who plays the part of George Aisgill, businessman husband of the stunningly attractive Alice Aisgill memorably portrayed by Oscar winning Simone Signoret.

In his many British films Allan sounded awfully upper crust, very pukka, all Eton and the Guards and surely must have come from a very wealthy English family in stockbroker belt in true blue West Surrey and he must have been to Sandhurst and Oxbridge and all that. But strewth! Allan Darling Cuthbertson was a fair dinkum Aussie born in Perth, WA in 1920 who did not come to England until he was 27 in 1947 after his wartime service. During World War II, he served as a Flight Lieutenant with the Royal Australian Air Force from 6 December 1941 to 1 July 1947, based with 111 Squadron Air Sea Rescue Flight. After the war he tried his hand at acting and his considerable armed forces experience led to him being cast in military roles, which was quite common in actors of his generation, especially those with a military air about them. He learned his craft with frequent performances on the London stage in the late 1940’s and 1950’s and through making numerous guest appearances with repertory companies between 1959 and 1971.

You simply wouldn’t accept him as an Oz with his “Not especially, I shouldn’t have thought.” and “Actually, in point of fact.” and “I don’t see why you have to be so damn rude.” and “Alice tells me she wants a divorce, well I’m not agreeable.”

Though best known for his film roles he was a noted stage actor. In London's West End, he appeared as Laertes in Hamlet, Aimwell in The Beaux Stratagem, and Octavius Robinson in Man & Superman, among many other roles.

He and Laurence Harvey worked again in the 1963 film `The Running Man` which was filmed in Spain, Gibraltar and Ireland. The plot revolves around an insurance scam with Allan Cuthbertson playing the part of the rather pompous insurance official Mr Jenkins. When Laurence Harvey’s character Rex Black goes to collect what he believes will be his huge pay out he finds to his horror that he has missed the most recent premium on his policy thus invalidating it and he is told in a cold though civilised tone:
“No extension is ever given when insurance is on a monthly basis, we have a duty to our shareholders. We’re not a charity you know.”
When asked by Harvey’s screen wife Lee Remick if he couldn’t stretch a point as the premium was only two days late, Cuthbertson simply shrugs and Harvey says sarcastically “Look at him, he looks as if he couldn’t stretch anything.”
Cuthbertson replies rather stuffily: “I really don’t think it’s necessary to talk like that.”

He reprised his role as George Aisgill in the follow-up to Room at the Top; Life at the Top which was made in 1965 though this sequel was less successful perhaps due to the absence of the stunning Simone Signoret whose character kills herself in the original film after being rejected by Joe Lampton in favour of Susan Brown.

He portrayed Captain Eric Simpson in the 1960 picture Tunes of Glory and Major Baker in the 1966 film The Guns of Navarone.

Perhaps surprisingly Allan Cuthbertson also had a talent for playing comedy famously playing Colonel Hall in an episode of Fawlty Towers `Gourmet Night` in 1975 and he was a regular guest on The Morecambe and Wise Show from 1973 to 1976.

One of his last theatre parts was in The Corn is Green by Emlyn Williams at the London Old Vic in 1985.

In his personal life he was long married to Gertrude Willner, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, who had been a lawyer originally but later became a school teacher in England. They adopted a son.
Known as a collector of rare books Allan lived in Croydon, South London until his death in 1988 at the age of 68.

Paul O'Hanlon
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