Magazine article The Spectator

Filming Lucky Jim

Magazine article The Spectator

Filming Lucky Jim

Article excerpt

Shortly before Lucky Jim was published Kingsley Amis wrote to Philip Larkin expressing the wish that `something nice would happen to me, like having a fuck or selling the film rights to Jim. That'd be funny wouldn't it? Dixon, Alec Guinness; Christine, Gina Lollobrigida; Margaret, Dulcie Grey; Bertrand, Orson Welles; Welch, Boris Karloff; John, Peter Lorre... Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.' Bizarre as the prospect might seem Hitchcock did indeed make offers for the film rights, only to be outbid by the Boulting Brothers. The 1957 film with Ian Carmichael as Jim and Sharon Acker as the delectable Christine was no more than passable, and Amis, while praising it for publicity purposes, was disappointed. He thought they had turned it into a farce, played it for laughs. `There is only one place for the writer in the film industry,' he wrote, again to Larkin, `STARING UP MICHAEL BALCON'S GREAT BIG FAT BUM.'

What, one wonders, would he have made of last Friday's version, which in truth exchanged farce for affectionate nostalgia? Stephen Tompkinson, despite looking like a superannuated Harry Potter, captures some of Jim Dixon's mixture of bitterness and nervous energy. Robert Hardy transforms Neddy Welch from a semi-articulate buffoon into a more sinister presence, and Stephen Mangan reprises Terry-Thomas's recreation of the loathsome Bertrand. The acting was fine but set design and cinematography prompted comparisons with Heartbeat. The camera lingered patiently on noisy old black telephones; grotesque tableware was displayed as if on an Antiques Roadshow 1950s Special; suits, dresses, hairstyles, spectacles and so on seemed to be promoted as a revival of post-second world war fashion. More unsettling than these routine attempts at period authenticity were the parts of Jack Rosenthal's otherwise faithful screenplay which presented Jim Dixon as a caring political radical. At the end of the famous drunken lecture we found him setting the irrelevance of `Merrie England' against the more pressing issues of McCarthyism, Apartheid, the NHS and the H Bomb, none of which are mentioned in the novel. Indeed the most controversial, and for many the most attractive, aspect of the original Jim was his apolitical philistinism. J. G. Weightman wrote in the TLS that Amis had `spread the impression that Redbrick is peopled by beer-drinking scholarship louts who wouldn't know a napkin from a chimney piece' and in the Sunday Times W. Somerset Maugham was so horrified that he couldn't bring himself even to mention Jim's name, using instead the sinister 'they', who will `in due course leave the University. Some will doubtless sink back into the modest class from which they emerged; some will take to drink, some to crime, and go to prison.' Others, however, will infiltrate the press, the education system, even parliament, and Maugham felt `fortunate that I shall not live to see it'.

Amis found all of this hilarious, but Weightman and Maugham inadvertently point both to the reason for the novel's success and in the end to why it can never properly be adapted to the screen. As an individual Dixon is a harmless opportunist, but what caused many to treat him as symptomatic of imminent moral and social anarchy was his alliance with a thirdperson narrator who choreographs the book with the same deft, sardonic touch that Jim would have used if he had told his own story. …

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