The Stereotyped Rattle Of A Simple Man

This 1960s culture-clash social commentary comedy is never quite sure of what it wants to be.

The 1964 film Rattle of a Simple Man would very much like to be a part of that early Sixties series of revolutionary British films that includes the Angry Young Man kitchen sink dramas and the edgy, working-class comedies that dealt with the issues of the day – and perhaps it is, if only by default. But while based on a stage play – the guarantee of authenticity for a film of the time, surely – this is strictly a second-division effort. It’s not so much that it’s a bad film in its own way – it’s just not exactly up to the standard of its contemporaries and while those films often fought against stereotypes of class and culture, this seems all too happy to revel in them.

Harry H. Corbett plays Mancunian Percy Winthram, a naïve middle-aged virgin who travels down to London with his mates to attend a football match – the implication of simple-minded Northerners heading into the big city being ladled on with all the subtlety and condescension that only London based filmmakers and writers who had never actually been ‘up North’ could manage – where they wind up at a strip club much to Percy’s distress, his sense of morality and decency being the match of any modern-day prude.

In the club, his over-confident arsehole mate Ginger (Michael Medwin) makes a clumsy pass at sexy blonde bar girl (i.e. prostitute) Cyrenne (Diana Cilento), only to be knocked back in a moment that seems to stretch belief – assuming that she is on the clock, it seems odd that she would reject such an easy mark, and if she’s not, why is she even at the club? The lads (including a surprisingly youthful Brian Wilde) then con Percy into accepting a bet to chat her up and go home with her – which, thanks to her overhearing the bet, he does successfully. But when the pair get back to her flat – in a building populated by bohemian beatnik types who are, in their own way, every bit as stereotyped as the Northerners – he’s unable to follow through. Instead, the pair sit in the flat, talk, bicker and lie their way through the rest of the film in a classic theatrical one-location style (save for the clearly inserted extra scenes following the other chaps on their adventures in the Smoke).

As a story that is essentially a two-hander, the film naturally relies on the characters – and the actors. This is fine in the case of Cilento – her character is a sweet, charming tart with a heart, who is full of stories of her life of excitement and privilege, even if we pretty much immediately know that she’s making a lot of it up, and she comes across as effortlessly sexy and lovely – the sort of girl that you could believe anyone could fall in love with, even if the film ultimately has to make her a somewhat predictably victimised figure in the end, cramming its own dose of morality rather too far down the viewer’s throat (I’m not sure if this is the first example of a fiction making the link between sex workers and childhood abuse, but it’s certainly an early example).

Unfortunately, Corbett’s Percy is a rather less convincing and likable character – his accent is laughably bad, and his character is rather one-dimensional, a simplistic Northern stereotype that is frankly embarrassing. Corbett was a fine actor with a knack for playing put-upon, tragic figures, but here he struggles to be at all convincing. It makes the relationship that develops between the pair seem less than plausible, even by mismatched romance movie standards. It’s impossible to believe that there would be any genuine connection between these two, and Charles Dyer’s adaptation of his own play struggles to make any aspect of this ‘relationship’ – thin as it is in any case – seem even remotely convincing.

That said, there’s still a lot about the film that is fun, if only as an exploration of a London long since gone – the footage of Sixties strip clubs (and strippers), pubs and bedsits is fascinating to see, a slice of what was then contemporary life now made wistfully nostalgic and historical. And there are still some effective moments of comedy from Corbett, despite his overall failure as a character – he’s too good an actor and too connected to downtrodden characters (Steptoe and Son had begun broadcasting two years before this was made) to ever be completely unconvincing. Furthermore, the film at least manages to balance the sense of comedy and tragedy that a lot of films of the era dealt with, with a final scene between Percy and Cyrenne, full of confession and revelation and plans that you know are unhinged as soon as Percy finds out the truth about her (though could he really be so innocent?) and suddenly has to confront his own snobbery and moralising beliefs.

But as much as Muriel Box directs the film efficiently, ultimately it doesn’t really seem to have very much to say – it deeply lacks substance in comparison with many of its contemporaries and the ending seems oddly old-fashioned – an unconvincing moment that seems designed to please the audience rather than fulfill the needs of the story and one that, along with the jaunty title music, suggests that no one involved could decide if this was a humorous drama or a light, throwaway comedy. In the end, it’s somewhere between the two, not really working as either, and that’s probably why you won’t see this listed along with its contemporaries – there’s an immediately dated feel to it that those gritty, cynical movies didn’t have that probably made it seem out of touch at the time (and which, needless to say, does the film no favours for modern audiences, though all those Sixties classics would no doubt be seen as wildly problematic now). Cilento makes the movie worth watching (and watchable), and it’s certainly a painless enough viewing experience. You probably won’t be bored by this, but it’s not especially memorable either.


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One comment

  1. Probably shouldn’t wade in to this, but, in the spirit of lively debate … Shouldn’t worry too much about whether those 60s ‘classics’ would be considered ‘problematic’ (that wonderfully vague umbrella of a term). I found out recently that someone with whom I am vaguely acquainted, and is a complete twat, has found employment as a ‘sensitivity reader’. (Another delightful term – straight out of Orwell or some other Scifi nightmare – except we’re living it!!!). All this is, on my part, par for the course for internet whispering (does the internet make gossiping, bitchy hairdressers of us all?). The existence of these unelected censors is only slightly mitigated by the fact that one can simply negotiate one’s way around them to find whatever filth or inflammatory content one desires. Censored in sector A, rife in sector G, say. It’s a bit like the tory anarchist society described by Peter Bone in the old tv documentary Maggie’s Militants. Anyway, God bless you, and best wishes regarding your recent bereavement, and thanks for the Reprobate and all who sail … God (b)less PornHub, I say! Some very moving art there.

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