River Of Grass
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On Film4: 4 Sep 1:00AM
Richard Attenborough stars as a working class teen sent to a public school as part of an experiment in this drama from the Boulting brothers
Richard Attenborough was in his mid-twenties when he played the 14-year-old Jack Read in The Guinea Pig. But don't let that distract you from this fascinating look at the British establishment and issues of class in the 1940s. Although playing Jack once more relies on his baby face, it's a very different role for Attenborough to that of the psychopathic junior gangster Pinkie in the previous year's Brighton Rock.
Where Brighton Rock was directed by John Boulting and produced by his brother Roy, here the roles are reversed, with Roy directing as well as having a hand in the screenplay. The screenplay was co-written by Bernard Miles, the actor-writer but who'd return to looking at the changing face of Britain's class system in his subsequent film Chance Of A Lifetime. Miles here plays Attenborough's father, though he was only 16 years his senior. The third hand in the writing was that of Warren Chetham Strode who also wrote the source play.
Jack is the son of a Walthamstow tobacconist who is something of a local hero, having played in the army's champion football team. Jack's a Cockney lad, pure and simple, and sticks out like a sore thumb when, as part of a social experiment, he's awarded a scholarship to top public school Saintsbury. Indeed, sore is what he becomes, as a result of incessant bullying. In a metaphor for the country at large, the rules he's used to are very different to the strenuously upheld code of Saintsbury. His aged housemaster, Hartly (Trouncer), can't understand this troublesome boy at all. But Jack does find a champion and protector of sorts in younger teacher Nigel Lorraine (Flemyng).
When Jack goes home for Christmas, he finds himself caught between the two worlds, unaccepted now by his old friends. On his return to Saintsbury, he dedicates himself to learning the code, to progressing academically - and socially. Lorraine even tries to argue the case for supporting Jack at university, though finds Hartley reluctant, until he has a meeting with Mr Read.
Basically, the film shows that, given the right circumstances, individuals can move through Britain's notorious class barriers. There are two ways of looking at this: either the film is saying a few select youth can make the transition if they are prepared to sacrifice their own identities and fully embrace the rules of upper class conduct; or it's saying that in Britain, post-war, society itself was changing radically and class barriers were breaking down.
The film was made in the context of a new Labour government of unprecedented left-wing sensibilities. Clement Attlee's government of 1945-1951 was at the heart of the creation of the welfare state and nationalisation of utilities and core industries, very much shaking up the established economic order. Indeed, the film even reflects the 1944 Fleming Report, which looked into how private schools could been integrated into the state system (they weren't).
In the light of all this, the film is probably intended to represent the latter interpretation of British society, but either way it remains a fascinating document of changing attitudes. Changing attitudes that even allowed its script the inclusion of the word "arse" - a first in British cinema.
Attenborough's boyish demeanour serves him well in this great British drama, ably wrangled by the young Boultings.
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