“Servant? I’m nobody’s servant!” How Joseph Losey’s ‘The Servant’ Became a Class Above the British New Wave

By the time of The Servant’s release in November 1963, the so-called ‘British New Wave’ was in its final throws, huffing and puffing like the chimney stacks that littered its films. Starting with Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top in 1959, the British New Wave heralded a national cinema committed to addressing contemporary social issues and an accurate, responsible representation of the working-class. Clayton’s landmark drama about working-class ambition in an industrial Northern town was soon followed by a flurry of social-realist or ‘kitchen sink’ dramas, notably Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and This Sporting Life (1963). In contrast to the conservative British Cinema of the 1950s, lambasted by Lindsay Anderson as “snobbish, emotionally inhibited, wilfully blind to the conditions of the present, dedicated to an out-of-date, exhausted national idea”, the New Wave was a vibrant, modern and unbridled attempt at creating an intelligent national cinema in the mould of France and Italy. However, by 1963 audiences were drained by the barrage of bleak monochrome tales concerning frustrated factory workers, fading entertainers and single mothers. The changing taste of the British public was soon confirmed with the release of the comically surreal riff on social realism, Billy Liar (1963), and the rambunctious, swinging 1760s period drama (in technicolour) Tom Jones (1963). Just as the working-class’ full frontal assault on the ivory towers of British cinema seemed all but doomed, a trojan horse was shuffling in through the back door with ambitious intentions; The Servant.

On paper The Servant was not an enticing prospect. The story revolved around the relations between a rich young aristocrat and his new manservant in a grand Chelsea townhouse, a far cry from both the cobbled streets of the kitchen sink dramas and the impending wave of youthful exuberance championed by the A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Blow-Up (1966). Its director, Joseph Losey, was a genre director who had settled in Britain following his backlisting during McCarthy’s communist witch-hunts, and its star Dirk Bogarde looked decidedly dated through his association with the twee, conservative 1950s Doctor in the House comedies. While rising playwright Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay, the source material came courtesy of Robin Maugham’s 1948 novel of the same name, a stark contrast to the popular new band of writers like Alan Sillitoe, John Braine and John Osborne. If Britain as a whole, not just in its cinema, was all about embracing the new youthful generation of culture, from music to fashion,The Servant felt decidedly dusty and old fashioned, resolutely backwards facing.

If tradition and conformity typified the sum of the film’s parts, then The Servant’s opening hints towards something far more subversive and threatening, establishing the power relations between master and servant while slyly undermining it. Opening to an establishing shot over a long parkway in London, the camera zooms and pans over the rows of barren trees, leafless from the harsh winter, before landing on the sovereign crest of Thomas Crapper lavatory shop where Bogarde’s immaculately dressed Barrett strides into frame. The contorted branches coupled with John Dankworth’s eerie jazz based score hint towards an underlying malevolence, while the visual joke of Thomas Crapper, and specifically its royal crest, suggest something rotten this way comes and perhaps a flushing away of the established order. These visual cues are further reinforced when Barrett enters the luxurious townhouse, tellingly letting himself in, to find his future employer, Tony (James Fox), slumped in a deck chair asleep. Losey’s construction of this meeting sets up the initial power hierarchies as Tony sits helplessly low in the frame’s foreground, dwarfed by the vertical figure of Barrett overlooking him. In the proceeding scene Tony appears to assert his dominance by leading Barrett through the house and requesting he sit for an interview, however this reclamation of power feels rather superficial as Tony anxiously wanders the room, babbling to the stoic Barrett. It’s impossible not to feel Tony has bargained for far more than he realises with his jovial final suggestion that he requires “well, everything!” from Barrett.

As Barrett settles into his role of manservant, much to Tony’s delight, the situation is complicated by the arrival of Tony’s fiancée Susan (Wendy Craig). What follows is a power struggle between Susan and Barrett for Tony’s attention, unfolding in a passive aggressive war of attrition. In typically expressive framing, Losey continually plants Barrett squarely between Tony and Susan. As Tony is reduced to a childish dependency on Barrett we can sense the shifting powers within the household, the distortion of hierarchy, with the duplicity of Barrett continually reinforced through Losey’s prominent use of mirrors. Losey’s mise-en-scene is one of his most potent weapons and he utilises it ruthlessly to attack the absurd, lazy and idiotic ruling-classes. When Tony and Susan visit Lord and Lady Mounset at their country estate, the duo’s pomposity is mocked by the marble statues mirroring their static poses. Losey further subverts the Mounset’s authority by the subtle visual cue of having their very own manservant lead the camera in and out of the room, bookending the scene and bequeathing power to the servant.

While The Servant is ostensibly a critique of Britain’s dated class system and subversion of the traditional hierarchies, Losey and Pinter extend their attack beyond class intuitions. Throughout the film Barrett and Tony’s relationship is characterised by a thinly veiled homosexuality, often played completely straight but with a tongue firmly lodged in the cheek. Several times Tony dismisses the need for women in the house, while over the dinner the two men admit to feeling like “old pals”, an emotion only stirred in them once before; during the testosterone heady days of the army. Such subtle underpinnings later turn into outright innuendof when Barrett admits his army nickname was “Barrett the Basher” and, after Barrett is injured during a frenzied game of improvised handball, he exclaims “I’m not staying here, I’m not staying in a place where they just chuck balls in your face!”. It is worth noting that Bogarde kept his own homosexuality a secret during his career, adding an extra dimension of subversion and resonance to proceedings, much like Bogarde’s performance as a blackmailed homosexual in 1961’s Victim. Even the Catholic church does not escape unscathed as a pair of priests during the restaurant sequence are presented comically discussing their drunken clergymen like bickering old ladies.

The major criticism of the British New Wave was the fact much of its working-class drama was directed and produced by the Southern, Oxbridge educated elite, therefore presenting these largely Northern-based dramas from an outsider perspective rather than an internal one. ForThe Servant, its outsider credentials privileged it a unique viewpoint to observe and deconstruct the British class system. Dirk Bogarde, a middle-class matinee idol, toppled his own tired screen persona through the radical character of Barrett; Northern, calculating, ambitious and sinister. The Servant’s final third, where the power dynamics between Tony and Barrett have completely reversed, sees Bogarde transform Barrett from cool restraint to manipulative hysteria. He actively encourages Tony’s excessive drinking, scolds his superior like a child and, most chillingly, taunts him with “a guilty little secret” during a game of hide and seek, reducing Tony to a quivering wreck. Barrett’s ambitions, once so well hidden, our brazenly aired when during their handball game he criticizes Tony for abusing his privileged position at the top to beat the working-class servant, both literally and metaphorically. Whether it is working-class envy for Tony’s sweat free riches, the desire to destroy the complacent aristocracy or create a vacuum state void of class dimensions, Barrett’s motives for unravelling Tony remain suitably ambiguous throughout. In comparison, the New Wave was marred with the criticism its omnipresent anger was often directed at nothing in particular, too often avoiding genuine critique or awareness of issues like regional snobbery, inequality and class bias.

The Servant’s dissection of class and attack on the archaic aristocracy couldn’t have arrived at a better time than in 1963 where the public and the political domains were gripped by the infamous Profumo Affair. The scandal revealed the love triangle between John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government, 19 year old model Christine Keeler and Russian espionage agent Captain Yevgeny Ivanov. The sensational scandal, which cinematically combined sex, drugs and the Cold War, exposed the political elite as decadent, corrupt and untrustworthy. The Profumo Affair struck a mortal blow to the faltering Macmillan government, culminating in a Labour victory at the General Election in 1964. When Tony is seduced by Barrett’s ‘sister’ Vera (Sara Miles), the turning point in his descent into depravity, the echoes of Profumo are profound. The Servant perfectly captured the declining influence of Britain’s affluent society as the sixties took root with unnerving prescience.

The Servant’s continued influence on cinema can be witnessed most recently in Paul Thomas Anderson’s majestic Phantom Thread (2018). Anderson’s film mimics The Servant’s power struggles but reimagines the scenario within the claustrophobic confines of a high society London dressmakers run by the enigmatic Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his domineering sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). When uninitiated waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) arrives on the scene as Woodcock’s muse and lover, she finds herself battling against the strict order and established dynamics of this exclusive society. Like The Servant, Phantom Thread dissects post-war Britain, destabilising the power structures of a high class society and reversing the hierarchies in place. Beyond thematic similarities, Phantom Thread shares a setting with Losey’s film as both unfold in lavish Georgian townhouses, creating an insular environment and utilising the seemingly endless stairwells as a battleground for dominance. On the smaller screen, the ever brilliant and innovative Inside No.9 self-consciously parodied The Servant in the episode ‘Tom & Gerri’ to wicked effect.

Wedged between the incendiary rawness of the British New Wave, typified by Arthur Seaton’s motto “Don’t let the bastards grind you down!”, and the hip, cultural revolution emanating from Carnaby Street and Radio Caroline, The Servant has found itself often overlooked from the pantheon of great British films. Approaching its fifty-fifth anniversary The Servant has lost none of its unique charm or impact; Bogarde’s pivotal career performance, Pinter’s subversive script and Losey’s impressionistic monochrome direction. Much has changed in Britain since 1963, butThe Servant’s incendiary class politics remain frighteningly relevant today for both master and servant.