Tony Richardson’s The Entertainer juxtaposes the Suez Canal crisis with life in a rundown seaside resort to paint a picture of British decline in 1956. The film stars Laurence Olivier as a mediocre musical hall performer and serial womaniser Archie Rice as he scrounges around Morecambe searching for show funding and outrunning the debtors and the taxmen.
In this under-recognised classic of British cinema the old ways meet the new. Firstly, as a film made by Woodfall Productions it would be one of their many literary adaptations to revitalise Britain’s national cinema, sweeping away the era of Gainsbrough, Ealing and the Archers. Roger Livesey represents this old order. He plays Archie’s venerable father, a former musical hall star who now laments the state of popular entertainment – ‘they don’t want human beings anymore’. His roles in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death epitomise the mannered aristocratic grandeur of a certain type of British cinema that directors of the British New Wave, such as Lindsay Anderson, disliked. We see the glimpses of the new in the first screen appearance of Albert Finney as Archie’s son, soon to be the archetypical angry young man in the British cinema.
Secondly, within the film the old modes of entertainment and spectacle are meeting the new. The music hall as an institution was an anachronism by 1956. While Olivier masterfully gives us the sense that Archie is mediocre entertainer, there is also the sense that the type of entertainment Archie represents is also now old fashioned. Perhaps the musical hall metaphor was more obvious in John Osborne’s original play. The play itself was the new; Osborne’s theatre was a radical articulation of working class frustrations, before unseen on stage. His drama, in emphasising the faded institution of the musical hall could make similar claims about the state of Britain as a whole. Richardson’s adaptation of the play complicates this metaphor, but in my mind improves it. The musical hall was the popular entertainment of the last generation but failed to offer more than escapism. Cinema, especially the new cinema of the British New Wave, could transcend escapist entertainment and reveal social realities to a mass audience. The Entertainer presents the musical hall in all its damning reality. The make-up Archie wears becomes ridiculous in a close-up, his songs shrill, his jokes obscene. In focusing so much on Archie’s money problems the film reveals the economic and therefore social reality of popular theatre. When we consider that the film may be presenting the musical hall as one decaying British institution of many, the particular quality of the cinema, to reveal social reality, has a powerful effect in proving Britain as a whole to be in terminal decline.
Thirdly, I would emphasise Laurence Olivier’s performance as simultaneously containing the contradictions of both old and new. For me this is Olivier’s most significant filmed performance. Filled with both self-pity and self-hatred, Rice can overcome both with a showman’s charm. Rice is a performer in his relationships, each interaction a show to manipulate others. Olivier rejected the new school of method acting, working out character from the outside in. But despite this his performance feels incredibly modern, as naturalistic as any Brando or Dean. The subtly of his expressions convey more than his words in some scenes, particularly in the scenes between him and Shirley Anne Field. The only serious flaw of the film is that it doesn’t build itself enough around this central performance, instead using Rice’s daughter to frame the narrative.
The Entertainer is a criminally underseen film from the British New Wave. It is the movement at its most self-reflexive, a commentary on what popular entertainment can be in the new British cinema. If you’re interested in the British New Wave or the point in British culture the films reflects or simply want to see a very good film, I can’t recommend The Entertainer more.