The Admirable Crichton (1957)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 13 January (1.10 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

The study of class difference has always fascinated UK cinema, in particular looking back at a past in which the gulf between patrician and plebeian members was brought into sharper focus within single households. The success of TV shows like Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey prove that the interest has not waned, especially the status of the serving classes jarring with their wealthy employers. It’s little wonder that stately homes now open to the public attract millions of visitors. The glimpse into the kind of world that no longer exists, massive buildings housing single families and with labyrinthine quarters for the servants, is an almost surreal experience in the twenty-first century.

The Admirable Crichton was adapted from J M Barrie’s play, a comedy that was written and first performed in 1902 to enormous success. The first film version appeared in 1918, and since then it has been adapted for the radio and television, though this version from 1957 remains the best known. It was filmed in colour, with much of the action taking place on Bermuda to replicate the sun-kissed paradise in which our misfit heroes find themselves. Lewis Gilbert directed, and Director of Photography Wilkie Cooper’s eye for composition excelled in showing the attraction of the characters’ island home over its hardships. It really does look like a ravishing location on which to be stranded.

The eponymous Crichton (Kenneth More) is butler to Lord Loam (Cecil Parker), senior politician and owner of the vast Loam Hall. A practising Liberal, Lord Loam believes that his three daughters should acquaint themselves with a future in which all people are treated equally, and arranges gloriously awkward sessions in which the family and servants mix, to everyone’s bemusement. It’s the era of Suffragism, but Crichton cares little for the equalising of society, nor his master’s efforts to simulate this within the home. He’s the perfect butler, managing the staff with a firm but fair hand and believing strongly in the prolonging of tradition. One of the daughters is arrested for being involved in a heated Suffragette rally, and to avoid scandal Crichton suggests the family take a voyage to the South Seas. All goes wrong when the cruise runs into stormy waters, the boat sinks and the survivors find themselves on a beautiful but entirely uninhabited island. Along with Crichton and Lord Loam are the three daughters, two young male aristocrat friends, and Cockney girl Eliza (Diane Cilento), the maid known as ‘Tweeny’ because her serving role sees her move between roles.

Whilst the strandees aren’t in any real danger, it’s clear they have no idea how to cope with their new environment – Crichton asks the noblemen to tie their rowing boat to a rock, but they wrap the rope around a turtle instead, which duly ambles off into the sea and their vessel floats away. It turns out only Crichton has any practical knowledge and, after some initial tension, he emerges as the group’s leader. Two years pass. The roles reverse, Lord Loam serving Crichton in menial duties and being renamed ‘Daddy’, whilst the Butler now goes by ‘Guvnor’ and has used his skills to build houses, source food from the sea and create a reasonably comfortable life for them all. The men all love Tweeny, but she loves her Guvnor, a problem exacerbated as Crichton falls for Daddy’s eldest daughter, Mary (Sally Ann Howes). This culminates in a wedding ceremony between them, yet before the nuptials can be completed the spy a passing boat. Do they light the beacon and get rescued, returning to civilisation, or will they stay where they have found a semblance of happiness and equality?

Renamed Paradise Lagoon for the American market, the film was made as a vehicle for More, a genuine British box office draw in the 1950s and at his best in roles that emphasised his stolid masculinity. More was initially reticent about taking the part, but comes into his own when the action moves to the island and his practical skills and natural charisma come to the fore. He’s supported by a fine cast, veteran Parker nearly stealing the picture as the befuddled Lord who engages enthusiastically in becoming the servant once his circumstances change. Cilento has the film’s heart as the adorable Tweeny and, for this viewer, was a far better match for Crichton than Mary, a British alternative to Grace Kelly whose aloof persona never really cracked.

The Admirable Crichton is a perfectly enjoyable comedy-drama, strangely unthreatening to modern audiences who have the more visceral survival tale of something like Cast Away with which to compare it, yet entirely likeable. Furthermore, it’s a delight to me to come across a movie in which so much takes place and it’s all over in just over ninety minutes, points made succinctly, characters suitably developed; economic film making it its finest.

The Admirable Crichton: ***