A Better Class of
This two-hour biofilm based on the boyhood of actor-playwright John Osborne, with wraparound commentary by the author, makes absorbing tv which owes much to Frank Cvitanovich's sensitive direction.
It is an entertaining evocation of drab, wartime Britain, exploiting period songs and radio shows to suggest some of the influences which made Osborne an angry young man of the 1950s.
Osborne's aim is to emphasize and explain a much-vaunted hatred for his mother Nellie. Eileen Atkins' sympathetic portrayal, however, is that of a hardworking woman, unable to communicate with her dying intellectual husband, Tom (Alan Howard) or her difficult, bookish son.
Osborne, the romantic schoolboy, reserves his filial affection for his terminally tubercular father, but the adolescent also impresses as an unpleasant, lonely rebel.
The storyline follows the Osborne family from London to the small offshore Isle of Wight and back to suburban Surrey, and covers the author's pubescent affair with the boarding school principal's niece which resulted in his expulsion.
Variety, Wednesday July 31st, 1985.
Some thirty years ago, the British theater was rocked out of its drawing-room complacency by Look Back in Anger. The play was written by John Osborne, the most prominent of a group dubbed "the angry young men." Not too many commentators at the time considered that Mr Osborne might be less interested in demolishing the aristocracy than in getting a firm foothold for himself on the social ladder. Behind much of the anger, it seemed, was simple resentment and envy.
More recently, Mr Osborne ha been focusing on his own early years, in a published autobiography and in a script for a subsequent film. Both are called A Better Class of Person. The film was produced and directed for Thames Television by Frank Cvitanovich, and it can be seen on Channel 13 at 10 tonight as part of a weeklong Thames on 13 salute to the British company.
The story begins in London in the late 1930s as war with Germany is breaking out. John is a schoolboy living in very modest circumstances with his pinched, rather disapproving mother and his invalid father, a quiet man spending nearly all of his time in bed reading. Life for the boy is mean and dreary, as dispiriting as the weather that remains dismal even at the family's favorite sea resort. Somewhat disconcertingly, John Osborne himself pops up at that resort, recalling: "A few summers ago I brought my daughter here. A few concessions to fashiion and dress, it could've been 1938." Back on the story of his early years, he says, "A time comes and the slime can be safely scraped away.
In fact the scraping is minimal, and that is why this film version of A Better Class of Person is so generally disappointing, despite innumerable moments of insight and a beautiful evocation of the period. Mr Osborne's script is clearly too taken with himself, while it is the father, played by Alan Howard, and especially the mother, indelibly etched by Eileen Atkins, who truly pique our interest. Portrayed at different stages by Gary Capelin and Neil McPherson, the boy, a victim of rheumatic fever, is a quiet, withdrawn lad, whose sensitivity can border on arrogance. Mom is not far off the mark when she says, "Sometimes I think you can't have any feelings at all - like a bloody German, you are."
With the start of the war, the Osbornes, with their incapacitated head of family, are sent to the Isle of Wight, courtesy of a local society whose aristocratic chairwoman reminds them of how lucky they are. Mom fawningly agrees that everyone's been ever so kind. But the new home turns out to be a lonely spot that leaves Mom longing for the bombs of London. When Dad dies in 1940, apparently much to his relief, mother and son head back to the mainland where the charitable society will arrange to get him a schooling that will fit in with her social ambitions.
Growing up during the war years is captured effectively, from air-raid drills in school to the reports of former students being reported killed in the war. There is also the powerful presence of American pop culture, in songs and in such movies as Yankee Doodle Dandy and Double Indemnity. But we do keep wishing to see more of Miss Atkin's Mom, who is not impressed with young John's standoffishness. "Not like me," she says. "I like company and a bit of a joke." But Mr Osborne can hardly take his eyes off his younger self, and, just in case we didn't know or perhaps forgot, he returns when the story reaches 1945 to inform us that, in just 11 years, Look Back in Anger would reach the stage. A touch more humility would have helped enormously.
John J. O'Connor
New York Times, Wednesday March 25th 1987.