To glance at any 1950s or early 1960s copy of the Spotlight Casting Directory is to be immersed in a world of ambition, hope and quiet desperation. Asides from the amazement of beholding a still-hirsute Warren Mitchell or Charles Hawtrey, ambitiously billing himself as a “Leading Man”, there are the smaller advertisements for the lesser-known character actors. Some could be contacted ‘c/o Spotlight’, others gave the PUTney or FRObisher telephone number of their bedsit, and so many featured a photograph that was at least five years out of date. ‘Specialises in military parts’ reads one description, while on the page is the proud boast ‘just returned from a successful tour of Nyasaland’. And almost all contained the tacit message – please call.
This was the realm of The Comedy Man, adapted by Peter Yeldham from Douglas Hayes’s novel and directed by Alvin Rakoff. Portraying Charles “Chick” Byrd, ‘the oldest juvenile in the business’, was Kenneth More, who was then facing a turning-point in his cinematic career. His time with the Rank Organization had ended in 1960 with a disagreement with John Davis over being loaned to Columbia for The Guns of Navarone (J Lee Thompson 1961); Carl Foreman eventually cast David Niven as Miller. By that time, the days of Pinewood and Elstree having their roster of stars was already coming to an end, and More’s increasingly middle-aged appearance meant that he could no longer be cast as one of the, almost relentlessly, joshing young “chaps”.
The actor was also keen to progress beyond casting as ‘the stiff-upper-lip war hero or the hearty, back-slapping, beer drinking idiot’, as the latter self-deprecating portrait could never encompass his range. One thinks of Reach for the Sky (Lewis Gilbert 1956), A Night to Remember (Roy Ward Baker 1958) and the genially calculating and manipulative Ambrose Claverhouse of Genevieve (Henry Cornelius 1953). Freddie Page in the screen adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea (Anatole Litvak 1955) remains one of the most incisive and devastating portrayals of male insecurity in post-war British cinema. As David Shipman argued in The Great Movie Stars; The International Years:
‘No other British actor had come so close to that dependable, reliable quality of the great Hollywood stars – you would trust him through thick and thin. And he was more humorous than, say, Gary Cooper, more down-to-earth than, say, Cary Grant’.
The Greengage Summer (Lewis Gilbert 1961) allowed More the opportunity for a major change of image as Eliot, a debonair but self-loathing Raffles. The Comedy Man provided him with an even more challenging role and a script he thought relevant ‘to my own life, and to the lives of so many actors I had known’. After Chick is fired from a North Country repertory theatre company (for sleeping with the producer’s wife), he decides to make one last attempt at West End success. He does eventually achieve stardom, but in television commercials for breath mints in a part he acquired only after the suicide of his fellow actor Jack Lavey (Alan Dobie). Much of the drama focuses on a tired actor desperately trying to maintain his dignity, while eking out an existence in the bedsit land of a grey London far removed from Nicholas Tomalin’s new middle-class ‘Scampi Belt’ – all ‘Goon voices and Mini cars’. Meanwhile, Chick attempts to maintain his sang-froid as he collects his 63/2d from the Labour Exchange and hunts for a spare shilling to feed the gas-meter in a room where the damp has nowhere else left to rise.
The Comedy Man also features casting that was not so much “de luxe” as “premier cru”; Frank Finlay’s phlegmatic agent, Edmund Purdom’s leading man, the waspish agent of Dennis Price and Norman Rossington’s commercial traveller. The ageing thespian played by Cecil Parker, is a nightmare vision of Chick’s future, all ‘dear fellow’ and leaking spats, and the picture immeasurably benefits from its leading ladies. In 1969, More reflected that he frequently played men with a “little boy” quality and that ‘if you have that little twist of helplessness, vulnerability, those are the people I want to get to know, and that’s the quality I try to get into my work’. But Byrd’s patented defences are gradually collapsing, for Judy (Billie Whitelaw) grows weary of his bantering routines, and his new girlfriend Fay (Angela Douglas) makes him realise he can no longer remain aged 25 all his life.
The release of The Comedy Man was delayed until late 1964 – as the unlikely co-feature to Lord of the Flies (Peter Brook 1963) – and some critics patently did not understand the picture. Kenneth Tynan wrote in The Observer that it exhaled “a gamy whiff of stale 1950”, while Alan Dent of The Illustrated London News complained that ‘we can hardly wait for him to return to his usual breeziness and jollity’. But what should have been immediately apparent, was that More’s depiction of the slow corrosion of hope and idealism is a performance on a par with Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer (Tony Richardson 1960). ‘I’m sorry’, Chicks whispers on the set of the “Honeybreath” commercial, an apology as much to himself, for destroying his integrity, as to his late friend.
And there are so many other reasons for viewing The Comedy Man, from Bill McGuffie’s score to the black and white city, where out of work thespians contemplate pressing “Button B” in a telephone box, in case anyone has neglected to retrieve their 4d. Above all, it is a showcase for a truly great actor, one who wore his talents so deceptively lightly that they were so often taken for granted.
Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA