Great unappreciated films: The Ruling Class


(c) United Artists / Embassy Pictures


It’s fair to say that the British film industry hasn’t produced anything else quite like The Ruling Class, the satirical 1972 movie starring flamboyant Anglo-Irish actor Peter O’Toole, directed by émigré Hungarian filmmaker Peter Medak and scripted by English playwright Peter Barnes, who adapted for the screen his 1968 play of the same name.  (For one thing, has any other British film starred and been directed and written by three different people who are all called ‘Peter’?)


Okay, The Ruling Class’s surreal but relentless lampooning of Britain’s social, religious and political establishments gives it some similarities to the famous film trilogy directed by Lindsay Anderson, If (1968), O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982).  Indeed, the similarities feel still more pronounced due to the presence in The Ruling Class of Arthur Lowe and Graham Crowden, two actors who made regular appearances in Anderson’s work.


Also, the casting of Lowe, Coral Browne and Harry Andrews in The Ruling Class calls to mind Douglas Hickox’s stylised and deliciously-black comedy-horror movie Theatre of Blood (1973).  Lowe, Browne and Andrews appear in the Hickox film too, playing vitriolic drama-critics who are murdered by an embittered and deranged Shakespearean actor played by Vincent Price.  The Ruling Class shares with Theatre of Blood a mad but compelling antihero and a general dose of the macabre.


But for acting gusto, for directorial flair, for a story that blends a bewildering range of genres, and for mocking humour that veers between the delightfully subtle and the bruisingly un-subtle, The Ruling Class is in, well, a class of its own.


O’Toole plays Jack Gurney, the 14th Earl of Gurney, who inherits his title after the 13th Earl – a short but barnstorming performance by Andrews – accidentally perishes during a disturbing sex-game involving a noose and a ballerina’s skirt.  To the relief of the late earl’s brother, a Church of England bishop played by the incomparable Alistair Sim, he didn’t commit suicide, which would of course have been sinful.


The Gurney family is dismayed to learn that young Jack is out-and-out, barkingly insane.  He believes he is Jesus Christ and sports an appropriately Christ-like beard and mane of hair.  He also wishes to bring peace and love to the earth and sleeps upright on a giant wooden cross.  Before long, the most unscrupulous of his relatives, his Uncle Charles (William Mervyn) and Aunt Claire (Browne), are plotting to get rid of him.


Charles decides to ensnare Jack using his young opera-singing mistress Grace (Carolyn Seymour).  He introduces them, calculating – correctly – that Jack will fall in love with her and marry her.  When the marriage is consummated and an heir produced, Charles can then have Jack committed.  Charles’s plans go astray, however.  Grace falls in love with the crazy but unsettlingly charming Jack and, later, Jack seems to be cured of his madness by his psychiatrist Dr Herder.  Herder is played by Michael Bryant, who for some reason does an uncannily accurate impersonation of the great Czech character actor Herbert Lom.  Indeed, so much is Bryant like Herbert Lom that during the film I assumed I was watching Lom.  I only realised it was Bryant in the role when I saw his name in the closing credits.


(c) United Artists / Embassy Pictures


Herder bases his cure on the reasoning that there can only be one Jesus Christ, and if Jack can be convinced that somebody else is Christ then he’ll be cured of his delusions.  There follows a sequence in which Herder introduces Jack to a psychiatric patient called McKyle, played by Nigel Green, who believes himself to be a very different sort of Messiah: a wrathful, blood-and-thunder, take-no-prisoners, Old Testament-style one with a booming Scottish accent.  Green’s performance here is electrifying – literally electrifying, because the panic-stricken Jack sees bolts of energy shooting out of his hands.  Actually, it’s disconcerting to watch Nigel Green in a role like this if, like me, you mainly remember him for playing Colour-Sergeant Bourne in Zulu (1964), who was surely the calmest, most unflappable and most down-to-earth character in the history of the British film industry.


And Charles’s scheme to have his troublesome nephew banged away in the loony-bin ultimately fails when the court psychiatrist (Crowden) discovers to his joy that Jack is a fellow old Etonian — the film’s dig at the public-school-powered ‘old-boy network’ that’s dominated Britain and its institutions for centuries — whom he’s definitely not going to incarcerate.  The pair of them then burst into a jolly rendition of The Eton Boating Song.  Incidentally, the film is peppered with musical interludes like this one.  None of them last long enough for it to quite qualify as a musical, but they add yet another colour to its crowded palette.


Of course, as the movie audience has immediately guessed, Jack isn’t really cured of his insanity.  “I’m Jack!” he affirms a little too keenly, “I’m Jack!”  He no longer believes that he’s Jesus Christ, but he soon develops a worrying interest in Victoriana and we realise that the Jack he thinks he is now isn’t Jack Gurney.  It’s a different Jack, one who gained notoriety in the back-streets of Whitechapel in the late 1880s.  In a phantasmagorical scene, splendidly orchestrated by director Medak, we see Jack step through the wall of his mansion’s living room and into a Victorian back-street, accompanied by one of the film’s female characters – who, predictably, is soon spitted on a long sharp blade.


However, in the film’s final irony, Jack Gurney’s confusion with Jack the Ripper does him no harm whatsoever.  His Ripper-style murder is blamed on someone else – on the film’s sole working-class character, the Gurneys’ butler Tucker (Lowe).  Then, near the movie’s end, Jack takes his seat in the House of Lords and there delivers a debut speech that is a demented, psychotic hang-’em / flog-’em rant.  The speech, needless to say, is wildly popular among the House’s venerable members.  (Medak shows the assembled lords through Jack’s mind’s-eye as a horde of rotting, cobwebbed but somehow animate corpses.)  His infant son, meanwhile, is also gurgling, “I’m Jack!  I’m Jack!” which suggests that the insanity of this particular branch of the ruling class will continue for another generation at least.


With all this going on, the success or failure of The Ruling Class obviously depends on the ability of the actor in the lead role and Peter O’Toole is glorious.  He’s at the height of powers – still surfing the waves he made in 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, 1964’s Beckett and 1968’s The Lion in Winter; and before alcohol abuse and bad movie choices, like 1979’s Caligula and 1984’s Supergirl, took their toll on his reputation.  For the entire film his character is as mad as a hatter and yet you have no difficulty believing that Carolyn Seymour’s Grace – and indeed, later, Coral Brown’s Aunt Claire – could fall for this wild-eyed, loquacious and charismatic lunatic.


But O’Toole is helped by his supporting cast.  Arthur Lowe is wonderful as the beleaguered and cantankerous butler, Tucker.  While Lowe’s career was full of delightful moments, I think the most delightful moment of all comes in The Ruling Class when he learns that the late 13th Earl of Gurney has left him 30,000 pounds in his will and he does a wee dance to celebrate.  Coral Browne, meanwhile, who was pushing 60 at the time she made the film, gives a memorable performance as a mature lady who remains sexually charged, slinky and alluring.  There’s nothing inelegant about the scene towards the end of the movie where she tries to seduce O’Toole, who’s some 20 years her junior.  (Actually, I can understand why in real life Vincent Price married Browne shortly after he’d killed her onscreen in Theatre of Blood.)


The film also showcases the talents of several actors whose careers were never quite as successful as they should have been.  Carolyn Seymour is delightful – and gorgeous – as Grace and it’s a shame that most of her subsequent work was on TV: Survivors, Space 1999, Hart to Hart, Cagney and Lacy, Magnum PI, Remington Steele, The Twilight Zone, Quantum Leap, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager, Babylon 5 and ER.  William Mervyn, who was typecast playing upper-class gentlemen in the likes of The Railway Children (1970) and various Carry On films, is excellent as the main villain, Uncle Charles, and it’s unfortunate that he wasn’t given some similarly meaty roles before his death in 1976.  Also in the movie is James Villiers, playing Jack’s dim-witted but amiable cousin Dinsdale.  I was used to seeing Villiers in villainous or officious roles, like in Seth Holt’s Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1972) or the 12th Bond movie For Your Eyes Only (1982) and it was a pleasure watching him play a very different character in this.


Another talent connected with The Ruling Class that never got to blossom as much as it should have is that of Peter Medak.  In 1980, he directed The Changeling – a brave attempt at staging a subtle, old-fashioned ghost story during a period when most scary movies involved screaming teenagers, masked knife-wielding maniacs and buckets of gore – and in the early 1990s he made a couple of decent British films like The Krays (1990) and Let Him Have It (1991); but by 1998 he was directing old rubbish like Species II.  More recently, though, I’ve seen Medak credited as director of episodes of quality US TV shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad and Hannibal – so I hope he’s getting at least some professional satisfaction from his American tele-work.


I should add that Barnes’s original play has just been revived on the London stage with that ubiquitous Scotsman, James McAvoy, in the role of Jack.  I like McAvoy a lot and I think he’ll acquit himself admirably in the role, even if he isn’t quite in the same league as Peter O’Toole (who passed away, alas, just over a year ago).  But then again, who is?


So let’s hope that this McAvoy-helmed stage production of The Ruling Class will lead critics and audiences to rediscover the joys of the play’s cinematic version in 1972.


(c) United Artists / Embassy Pictures