After his first dramatic success, The Winslow Boy, Terence Rattigan conceived a double bill of one-act plays in 1946. Producers dismissed the project, even Rattigan’s collaborator Hugh “Binkie” Beaumont. Actor John Gielgud agreed. “They’ve seen me in so much first rate stuff,” Gielgud asked Rattigan; “Do you really think they will like me in anything second rate?” Rattigan insisted he wasn’t “content writing a play to please an audience today, but to write a play that will be remembered in fifty years’ time.”
Ultimately, Rattigan paired a brooding character study, The Browning Version, with a light farce, Harlequinade. Entitled Playbill, the show was finally produced by Stephen Mitchell in September 1948, starring Eric Portman, and became a runaway hit. While Harlequinade faded into a footnote, the first half proved an instant classic. Harold Hobson wrote that “Mr. Portman’s playing and Mr. Rattigan’s writing are play-going experiences one encounters only once in a thousand nights.”
The Browning Version focuses on Andrew Crocker-Harris, a Classics Teacher at an English public school. He’s no Mr. Chips: students despise him as “the Himmler of the Lower Fifth,” a harsh disciplinarian lacking charm or empathy. His Headmaster rushes him into early retirement and denies him a pension. Cruelest of all is his wife Millie, who elopes with science teacher Frank Hunter and derides his spinelessness.
So far, we’ve framed Crocker-Harris as a pitiful burnout. But Rattigan’s probing elevates him from pathetic to poignant. His encounters with Taplow, a student who likes “the Crock” despite his faults, remind Crocker-Harris why he became a teacher in the first place. He muses over his lost translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, his unfortunate marriage, his efforts to transfer his passion to students. In a beautiful speech, he broods over his shattered ideals and broken dreams:
“For two or three years I tried very hard to communicate to the boys some of my own joy in the great literature of the past. Of course, I failed, as you will fail, nine hundred and ninety nine times out of a thousand. But a single success can atone and more than atone for all the failures in the world.”
Soon after, Taplow buys Crocker-Harris a copy of Robert Browning’s Agamemnon translation, reducing him to tears. But Millie won’t even allow Andrew this triumph, claiming Taplow bought it to hasten his promotion to the Upper Fifth. If Millie’s plight, married to an obsequious milquetoast, generated any sympathy, she obliterates it. (The Aeschylus play becomes a potent parallel: both stories involve men destroyed by faithless wives.) Still, it emboldens Crocker-Harris enough to demand final speech at a prize-giving ceremony, over the beloved cricket coach.
Despite its brevity, The Browning Version rivals The Deep Blue Sea as Rattigan’s best play. Whether he drew on personal experience (Rattigan’s Classics teacher, J.W. Coke-Norris, evidently inspired “the Crock”) it has a power transcending teaching drama cliches, or “well-made play” craftsmanship. Geoffrey Wansell says, after writing mostly comedies, it “marked Rattigan’s arrival as a British dramatist of serious consequence.”
II. The Asquith Version
A masterpiece of British cinema, The Browning Version (1951) was one of several collaborations between Rattigan and Anthony Asquith. Nicknamed “Puffin,” Asquith was the son of Prime Minister Henry H. Asquith, and began directing films in the ’20s. It wasn’t until his adaptation of Pygmalion (1938), starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller, that he gained renown. He’d adapted Rattigan’s earlier plays French Without Tears (1940), Flare Path (as The Way to the Stars, 1945), The Winslow Boy (1948) and The Woman in Question (1950).
Rattigan and Asquith proved an adept pairing. Like Asquith, Rattigan’s father also came from public service, serving as a diplomat to Egypt and Turkey. Both men were heavy drinkers, smokers and profligate spenders. Both were also gay, at a time when Britain outlawed homosexuality. Rattigan characterized their creative relationship as “combustible,” but they became close friends and frequent collaborators.
Given Browning‘s brevity, and demands of cinema, expanding the play became inevitable. The first twenty minutes consist of original material, introducing the school and various supporting characters before Crocker-Harris appears. Dialogue from Frank and Taplow’s first scene in the play, for instance, is parceled out among three scenes. Viewers glimpse Frank performing chemistry experiments; he’s not only Andrew’s romantic rival, but a charismatic teacher beloved by his students.
In contrast, Asquith introduces Crocker-Harris in a darkened classroom, looming over his students from a desk. He berates his students for bad work and humiliates Taplow for laughing at his joke. Compared with the chummy Frank, he’s austere and hateful. Asquith’s interplay of light and shadow gives the school, and Crocker-Harris’s classroom in particular, a frightening, tomb-like atmosphere.
Asquith and Rattigan’s adaptation stresses school politics. Frank, with his emphasis on science, represents creeping modernity rendering the study of Greek and Latin obsolete. There’s some sparring between Frank and the Headmaster, who jokingly blames Frank for trying to blow up the world. There’s emphasis on the school’s obsession with sports, evinced by the admiration of Fletcher, the teacher-turned-cricketer who’s offered the climactic speech. Poor Crocker-Harris is merely obsolete.
Most of the subsequent film follows Rattigan’s text closely, despite different staging. Crocker-Harris’s speech to his successor Gilbert (the “failure” monologue excerpted above) occurs in the classroom rather than Crocker-Harris’s study. Asquith films in medium shot, with Crocker-Harris pacing the classroom, back to the camera for much of the scene. He disappears into the darkness, emerging only after bearing his soul. Yet Michael Redgrave still compels with minor gestures like a tap on the desk or his hangdog posture. Asquith commented “It is not only the proximity of the actors, but the momentary exclusion of their surroundings which gives such an intensely concentrated effort.”
Browning‘s greatest coup is casting Michael Redgrave. Nearly unrecognizable, Redgrave slicks back his hair and sports a reedy monotone that evinces frosty disconnect. Yet Redgrave finds a million minor touches to humanize Crocker-Harris, helped by Asquith’s direction. While tutoring Taplow, Asquith films them in close two-shot, registering Redgrave’s reactions to his pupil’s reading. He’s moving in his breakdown, choking back tears in profile, trembling as he swallows medicine. Offered undue praise or pity, he snaps back into cultivated coldness. It’s a remarkable performance.
Asquith’s supporting cast is respectable, despite being overshadowed. Nigel Patrick makes a likeable Frank, just before his star-making role in David Lean’s The Sound Barrier (1952), Brian Smith is a charming Taplow, and Wilfrid Hyde-White a wonderfully unctuous Headmaster. But Jean Kent plays Millie as such an unpleasant shrew that we instantly hate her. Already problematic in the play, Kent’s Millie forfeits even Rattigan’s marginal sympathy.
The ending provides the most obvious departure. Rattigan’s play ends with Crocker-Harris phoning the Headmaster about the final speech, then sitting down to dinner with Millie. Asquith shows Millie leaving Crocker-Harris, then his valedictory address, admitting his failure and receiving applause. Then he grants Taplow his promotion to the Upper Fifth before leaving campus. Some critics found these additions excessive, and they do grant Crocker-Harris a Mr. Chips grandeur he otherwise lacks. Yet they’re both earnest and earned, with Redgrave enhancing the bittersweet triumph.
Matching the play’s success, The Browning Version became a top-grosser in England. More surprisingly, it proved extremely successful in France: it won Best Actor and Screenplay at Cannes, and Andre Bazin praised it as representing British filmmaking “original and free from influences from Hollywood.” But Browning flopped in the United States. Regardless, its warm reception elsewhere ensured its later status as a classic.
Television often revisited The Browning Version, including a lost 1955 version starring Peter Cushing. In 1985, Michael Simpson adapted Browning for the BBC, starring Ian Holm as Crocker-Harris, Judi Dench as Millie and Michael Kitchen as Frank. It’s closer to Rattigan’s play, but Holm is too invariably reserved, without Redgrave’s subtle shadings of emotion. Like most teleplays, it’s adequate rather than memorable.
1994 saw another big screen version. Ridley Scott cherished remaking Browning, but ultimately passed the project to Mike Figgis, director of Internal Affairs (1990). Figgis assembled a formidable cast: Albert Finney as Crocker-Harris, Greta Scacchi as his wife (Laura in this version), Matthew Modine as Frank, Michael Gambon as the Headmaster. Screenwriting chores went to Ronald Harwood (later of The Pianist), who updated Browning to modern-day England.
Figgis and Harwood retain scenes from Asquith’s adaptation, but expand Rattigan’s play even farther. Some alterations are minor: Frank becomes an American, for instance, and one student is a Nigerian businessman’s son. There’s beautiful photography of the Dorset Countryside, with the school itself represented by Milton Abbey and Sherborne. Other changes are more substantial: Taplow (Ben Silverstone) features in a major subplot, where he’s harassed by the school bully. This subplot provides atmosphere but contributes little to the story.
Figgis makes two major alterations, one positive, the other detrimental. Figgis admitted “my interest was less in the school, the boy and his teacher than on the failure of a marriage”; naturally, he makes Laura more sympathetic. Unlike Millie in the 1951 version, her pain over her failed marriage and Andrew’s inadequacies seem more deeply felt. She’s more exasperated than sadistic, apologizing for spoiling Taplow’s gift and even gaining respect for Andrew after his final speech. Greta Scacchi helps immensely: she’s snappish but also vulnerable, allowing us to empathize with Laura.
The characterization of Crocker-Harris, however, just doesn’t work. Albert Finney is warm and charismatic throughout, utterly the wrong note for “the Himmler of the Lower Fifth.” Rather than gradually awakening to his failure, he’s a skilled teacher with a melancholy streak. In his introduction, he delivers a stirring rendition of the Agamemnon that rivets his students. He’s gentle towards Taplow at their tutoring session, affectionate towards his wife, greeted by ex-students and respected by fellow teachers. Figgis retains Crocker-Harris’s apologetic farewell, but this Crocker-Harris has nothing to apologize for.
Instead of focusing on Crocker-Harris’s failure and redemption, Figgis emphasizes encroaching modernity. Gilbert (Julian Sands) is a modern language teacher, with the school wanting to remove Classics from the curriculum altogether. Asquith tackled this too, but it merely complemented Crocker-Harris’s deep-seated inadequacies. Perhaps there’s drama in a good teacher being squeezed out by curriculum changes, but it seems like Figgis completely missed Rattigan’s point.
This Browning Version received only a marginal release. Critics were reserved in judgment, considering it mediocre. Albert Finney won considerable praise, and rightly so. He plays Crocker-Harris as written, with great pathos and poignancy; his tearful meltdown over Taplow’s gift would melt the stoniest of hearts. His accomplished acting, however, doesn’t atone for the film’s miscalculation.
Even in this diluted form, much of The Browning Version‘s power remains. Inspirational teacher stories like Goodbye Mr. Chips, Dead Poets Society and Mr. Holland’s Opus often seem treacly and overdone. Rarer (and more compelling) is the story of a teacher who’s less symbol or plot device than frail human being.
Tom Ryall’s Anthony Asquith (2005); Geoffrey Wansell’s Terence Rattigan: A Biography (1997); and Dan Rebellato’s introduction to the Nick Hern Books edition of The Browning Version (2007). The Mike Figgis quote comes from Laurence Raw, The Ridley Scott Encyclopedia (2009).