Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The Boulting Brothers remembered: Lucky Jim - 1957

landscape image

Kingsley Amis' best-selling novel Lucky Jim, about a junior history professor at a redbrick university, was first published in 1954. Its hero, Jim Dixon, predates such 'angry young men' as Jimmy Porter (Look Back in Anger, first performed 1956) and Joe Lampton (Room at the Top, published 1957). By the time the Boulting Brothers came to film Lucky Jim, however, the 'new wave' in British culture had made an indelible impression. Both Amis' novel and their own films, following the excellent reaction to their satirical look at army life in Private's Progress (1956), could be seen, if not wholly accurately, as a part of this breakthrough.

landscape image

The Jim Dixon of the film is without doubt a rebel. Our first sight of him is lying in bed smoking, when he should be at a meeting. On the wall by his bed is a girlie pin-up; on the opposite one a drawing of his departmental head, Professor Welch, at which he is throwing darts. His methods, encouraging students to question received wisdom, bring him into conflict with his stuffy, tradition-bound seniors, who are as rooted in the past as the subject they teach: Welch at one point picks up the telephone and says, sonorously, "History speaking".

landscape image

The overall impression, though, is that neither the Boultings nor Ian Carmichael, making his third appearance as their lead actor, were quite sure how far to categorise Jim as an 'angry young man'. Sometimes he seems like a breath of fresh air in an antiquated world of academic and social rituals; sometimes like a risible fish out of water. Carmichael's performance likewise veers from the breezy, if guileless, impudence of, for example, a Tom Courtenay characterisation, to his own hapless Stanley Windrush persona from Private's Progress (and later I'm All Right Jack, 1959).

landscape image

landscape image

As in other Boulting Brothers comedies, there is much broad humour among the jibes, including slapstick fights, drunk scenes and a chase finale. Yet the mix here is less successful than elsewhere in their work, and for once the policy of taking pot shots at both sides does not quite come off. The general inconsistency of tone may stem from the somewhat ambivalent relationship of Amis' novel to the 'new wave'. Perhaps, too, the academic environment is just too rarefied, too unrelated to a recognisable outside world, to be satirically relevant.

landscape image



Published by


Volume 24, No.286, November 1957, page 135

LUCKY JIM (1957)

Jim Dixon, junior history lecturer at a provincial university, is bored with the frustrations of his job and affronted by the atmosphere of sham culture with which Professor Welch, head of the history department, smugly surrounds himself. Visiting Welch's house for the weekend, Jim quarrels with his son Bertrand, an arrogant pseudo-intellectual; falls in love with Christine, Bertrand's fiancée; escapes with difficulty from Margaret Peel, a neurotic and clinging colleague; and further damages his relations with the Welches by burning large holes in his bedclothes with a cigarette end. Further moderately disastrous incidents follow, including the wrecking of a ceremonial university occasion and culminating in Jim's delivery of a public lecture for which he is instructed to base his text on Welch's book Merrie England. Preparing for the ordeal on whisky and tranquillisers, Jim drunkenly attempts to indicate his real contempt for this theme to the audience, then collapses on the platform. His resignation is immediately demanded. Jim is rescued, however, by Christine's industrialist uncle, who offers him a job in London; and he finally wins Christine herself from Bertrand.

Kingsley Amis's novel was a tough, funny and irascible piece of contemporary social comedy. The Boulting brothers' screen version broadens the comedy into farce, introduces a few elements of its own (a final slapstick car chase, a solemn boxer dog), and turns the whole thing into an amiable joke in the line of Private's Progress and Brothers in Law. The characters have lost contact with Redbrick reality (compare, for instance, Jim's relationship with Margaret Peel in the novel and film) and in the process the book's social satire has been jettisoned. Lucky Jim has become broader, milder and softer; from the screen version, with its thoroughly traditional humours, one would never suspect that the novel had become the symbol of a new movement in English fiction.

There are moments during the disastrous weekend at the Welches and the alcoholic defiance of the Merrie England lecture which come within striking distance of the mood of the original. Too often, though, potentially comic scenes are spoilt by faulty timing, a determination to hammer home the joke and play for an easy laugh. This also affects the performances. As Jim Dixon, Ian Carmichael remains the amiable, likeable light comedian of the other Boulting comedies; funny enough in his own right, he scarcely suggests Amis's hero. Terry-Thomas makes heavy weather of the fatuous Bertrand, a thorough-going piece of caricature; and Sharon Acker is a guileless and ingenuous heroine.

The Monthly Film Bulletin was published by the British Film Institute between 1934 and 1991. Initially aimed at distributors and exhibitors as well as filmgoers, it carried reviews and details of all UK film releases. In 1991, the Bulletin was absorbed by Sight and Sound magazine.