Death makes strange bedfellows. The obituaries columns are marking the deaths of Ian Carmichael and Johnny Dankworth, rightly praising each for their contributions to art and culture. Yet though there is no obvious connection between the two, they do share a paradoxical relationship to British film – what you might call invisible significance. Ian Carmichael was perhaps the pre-eminent actor on British films of the 1950s, an iconic figure, and yet one who barely turns up in the film histories and has generated almost nil scholarly attention. Johnny Dankworth, arguably Britain’s best-known jazz musician, scored several of the most important British films of the 1960s, yet who would think to cite him as a key figure in that decade’s cinema?
Dankworth’s overlooked contribution occurred to me while watching Joseph Losey’s Accident (1967) a couple of weeks ago, the first time I’d seen it in years. The film is a cold, forensic study of adultery and obsession amongst Oxford dons who wound one another with words said and unsaid. But what struck me was the absolute righrness of the jazz soundtrack. Its cool, unworldly tones counterpoint the action (and inaction) of the film to perfection. You could not imagine the film working with any other kind of score, and you realise just how crucial jazz soundtracks were to those British films of the 1960s with pretensions – and just how many of those soundtracks were supplied by Dankworth. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), The Criminal (1960, Losey again), The Servant (1963, and Losey again – Dankworth’s most distinctive film score and the one which got him many subsequent commissions), Darling (1965), Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), Modesty Blaise (1966, a Losey misfire), The Magus (1968), and more. The sounds of Sixties films are as iconical and of their period as their visuals, and Johnny Dankworth supplied many of them. It is certainly hard to imagine how Joseph Losey’s best films would have worked without him.
Ian Carmichael was the antithesis of cool, but by being cast against type by the Boulting brothers he became the everyman figure of British 1950s films. The Boulting films ushered in the satire boom by taking on British institutions and pillorying them one by one: industry and the unions in I’m All Right, Jack (1959), academia in Lucky Jim (1957), the legal profession in Brothers in Law (1957), the army in Private’s Progress (1956), and religion in Heavens Above! (1963). Others used him in films with a similar acid touch – Sidney Gilliat satirising politics in Left, Right and Centre (1959) and Robert Hamer’s exposition of oneupmaship in School for Scoundrels (1960). Carmichael’s what-ho, anyone-for-tennis persona seemed a throwback to the 20s and 30s (and one which gained him renewed popularity on TV in later years with The World of Wodehouse and Lord Peter Wimsey), but the Boultings saw that his guilelessness confronted by hypocrisy would yield comic, satiric dividends. Nowhere is this most effectively done what in I’m All Right Jack, where Carmichael is used as the stooge of both industry bosses and unions before he bursts into rage at the film’s climax, denouncing all sides for their blind self-interest. His paroxysm of rage and call to anarchy as he throws to the crowd the money that had been given to him as a bribe is startling, even unnerving to witness. Just what have we done to bring this nice Liberal young man to this? Perhaps there was something a little too cosy about Ian Carmichael to make critics warm to him, but as the embodiment of reason in a maddening world (a persona he developed before the Boultings found him – see the 1955 satire on television, Simon and Laura) his performances adroitly reflect the dilemma of a nation caught between its past and present and not knowing which way to turn. Still the most insightful book on British cinema in the post-war period, and one which notes at several points Carmichael’s key contribution, is Raymond Durgnat’s A Mirror for England: British Movies from Austerity to Affluence (1970). The key text on jazz in film, with all of Dankworth’s credits, is David Meeker’s Jazz in the Movies (1981) – now available as a superb fully searchable online resource from the Library of Congress.
Nite: Originally published on the British Library’s Moving Image blog, 8 February 2010, and reproduced here with slight emendations.