Opening shot: an elegant square in London’s Chelsea, lined by leafless trees on a grey, wintry day. The figure of Barrett (played by Dirk Bogarde) appears at one end, pausing beneath the sign over Sir Thomas Crapper’s flagship store advertising ‘sanitary engineering’. But the engineering that this character is to undertake over the course of Joseph Losey’s 1963 film The Servant is most unsanitary, unsavoury and cruel.
He struts confidently across the square and enters one of the elegant Georgian houses unannounced, moving through its labyrinth of rooms, empty and rundown but about to undergo a transformation as profound as that of the characters.
The Servant was the first film production that Bogarde had been personally involved in behind the scenes, coming on board at an early stage and working with Losey to get cast and finance in place. With Bogarde on board, a female star of equal weight was needed, and the role of the sexually promiscuous Vera went to Sarah Miles, who was very much in demand after her appearance as a seductive schoolgirl in Term of Trial (1962).
James Fox was cast as Tony, his first big screen role, while for his girlfriend Susan, Bogarde suggested Wendy Craig, who he’d worked with on Basil Dearden’s The Mindbenders (1963). The script offers almost no background on these characters yet the actors enter and exit their scenes with such assurance that they convey fully rounded people who clearly have a life beyond the screen.
Bogarde’s investment in the project is clear from the 12 pages of his memoirs that it occupies – 12 more than he allocated to virtually all of the 40 or so films he’d made up to then. Losey had given him a copy of Robin Maugham’s source novel back in 1954 when they worked together on The Sleeping Tiger (directed by Losey under the pseudonym Victor Hanbury). At that point Losey envisaged Bogarde as Tony, the upper-class young man just home from the colonies who sets out to find himself a manservant. By the time the film came together in 1962 Bogarde was too old to play Tony, but Losey had earmarked him for the film’s most demanding part.
When he was offered the role of Barrett, Bogarde suggested that Ralph Richardson would be better casting, but Losey’s vision for Barrett was far from the clichéd depiction of the English butler. Bogarde, now in his early 40s but still incredibly handsome, gives a sinister edge to the character that a more conventional approach could scarcely have achieved.
Heavily Brylcremed, he alters his appearance subtly but with striking results. Making Barrett northern was a master stroke, his accent moving between affected refinement and unfettered coarseness depending who he’s speaking to, and spitting venom at a group of women who harass him in a phone booth. His affectations reveal his gaucheness, tentatively opining that “mandarin red and fuschia is a very chic combination this year” and donning white gloves to serve wine.
Bogarde’s collaboration with Losey and screenwriter Harold Pinter on The Servant was a new experience for the actor; an opportunity to make a film he believed in with a director he respected, and one of Britain’s most exciting playwrights.
This was Pinter’s first foray into cinema and his script was thrilling. Pauses, emphasis and intonation were apparent in the spare dialogue, and Bogarde’s relish as he utters the lines is palpable. Some small changes were made during production, as evidenced by the scripts in the Bogarde and Losey paper collections held by the BFI. Barrett’s speciality dish was changed from ‘lobster flambé’ to ‘cheese soufflé’, while ‘Caesar salad’ became ‘green salad’, since the first was unknown to British audiences. A speech in which Barrett lashes out at Tony was embellished, Bogarde writing in the additional lines: “Who washes your pants – cleans the bath out after you?”, adding to the tone of a lovers’ tiff.
Such interventions were rarely tolerated in commercial cinema, and Bogarde had found being a matinee idol incredibly frustrating. As a Rank contract artist, he had no control over his screen image and was best known for popular comedy, especially the ‘Doctor’ series in which he played the hapless Simon Sparrow.
Stardom had effectively killed his stage career, as lovestruck fans would scream and call out to him during performances. Screen work did occasionally bring a hint of satisfaction: Hunted (1952) and Victim (1961) were among a very few titles that gave him a sense that film acting could be rewarding. On The Servant, he found it exhilarating to have the freedom to shape his performance around nuance and emotion rather than to a carefully timed schedule.
In the press material, Losey describes Bogarde’s performance as a “startling innovation” in its departure from his previous roles, while one critic proclaimed the film “the high point of Bogarde’s career”. Wendy Craig recalled how generous he was to her on set, his guidance and encouragement contrasting with Losey’s more brusque approach.
The shoot took place between 28 January and 29 March 1963, the winter of Britain’s ‘Big Freeze’, and the relentless cold and snow contributed to the film’s bleak atmosphere. When Losey came down with pneumonia, Bogarde took over his duties, relaying the director’s instructions and further cementing his sense of commitment to the film.
The house in the square that Barrett enters in the first sequence is almost a character in itself, its unconventional layout contributing to the film’s sense of unease and disorientation. Once his manservant is appointed to oversee the decoration, Tony imports his parents’ furniture and accoutrements, presumably from the family’s country pile. Barrett is as anachronistic as the antique paintings and silver serving dishes, and he plays up to his role, initially fussing round Tony like a nanny, later behaving more like a frustrated wife.
From the off, Susan mocks his pretensions and the film’s central power struggle is between her and Barrett, effectively over the soul of Tony. She is a modern young woman, bemused by Tony’s old-fashioned airs, but identifies the butler as a rival early on, vainly resisting his efforts to oust her from her role as homemaker.
Barrett’s transformation from obsequious retainer to purveyor of perversion and immorality is deftly portrayed by Bogarde through voice, costume and physicality. As he gains power, his smarm and toadying are replaced by sarcasm and sniping, while his impeccable suit gives way to dressing gown and plimsolls as the house descends into disorder.
Bogarde gives Barrett (and the film itself) a tangible yet ambiguous air of evil, as if Tony is a guinea pig in some shadowy experiment in corruption, gradually propelled into a state of regression. At first they live like students, playing rough games and doing jigsaw puzzles, but Tony is eventually reduced to an infantile state, helplessly dependent on Barrett for sex and drugs.
Susan finally concedes defeat and retreats. Despite her initial challenges to Barrett’s dominance, his debasement of Tony is so complete she can’t undo it. Her final visit to the house, during a ‘party’ attended by an assortment of zombie-like women, is an unsettling scene. As she’s ushered out of the house for the last time, she slaps Barrett round the face, shocking him momentarily. Yet his final gesture is to solicitously pull her coat over her shoulder as if to protect her from the cold – a sign of respect for a worthy adversary.
Acclaimed in the UK and Europe, The Servant was not a success in America. Bogarde wasn’t as well-known there, the US distributor observing that neither The Tonight Show nor What’s My Line were interested in him as a guest when he came over to publicise the film. Tony Richardson’s period romp Tom Jones was taking the country by storm, overshadowing The Servant’s downbeat, black-and-white ‘arthouse’ mood. Tom Jones also dominated the awards, although Bogarde and director of photography Douglas Slocombe both won BAFTAs for their work.
The film’s failure was a blow to Bogarde and Losey, but they worked together three more times: on King and Country (1964), Modesty Blaise (1966) and perhaps the most admired Pinter collaboration, Accident (1967). In his memoirs, Bogarde recalled each of these films as a “bitter, exhausting, desperate battle”, yet much more rewarding experiences than the commercial films he had made over the previous 15 years.
Yet he was right to seek out filmmakers with integrity and artistic vision. His work with Losey, and later Luchino Visconti and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, gave him the opportunity to nurture the talent he had merely skimmed the surface of as a film star.
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