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Sunday, February 07, 2010

Ian Carmichael R.I.P.

I was very sad to hear the news that Ian Carmichael, the veteran comic actor has died at the age of 89.

All the tributes that have come in have stressed what an incredibly nice and pleasant person Carmichael was. And also how modest he was. I can only concur with that having interviewed him back in 2004, in relation to an article I was writing on the late Dennis Price, who played Jeeves to Carmichael’s Bertie Wooster in the wonderful 1960s tv series ’The World of Wooster'. Carmichael could not have been friendlier- he was totally devoid of any pomposity.

After the article was published, I received a lovely hand-written letter from Carmichael to say how much he enjoyed the piece. He was a true gent and a very good actor. But what a pity he never received the knighthood he so richly deserved. And it was also a shame and indeed rather scandalous that the BBC chose not to feature the news of his death in their main BBC1 news bulletin last night. Apparently the weather in Washington DC was more worthy of inclusion than the death of a much-loved veteran British actor. I'm sure Robin Carmody will have a view of the significance, if any, of that.

In his obituary of Carmichael in The Guardian, Dennis Barker writes:
What made Carmichael notable was that he could play fool parts in a way that did not cut the characters completely off from human sympathy: a certain dignity was always maintained, so that any pathos did not become bathos. He was at the opposite pole to Norman Wisdom, whose conscious pathos irritated some people.

I'd certainly go along with that. And I'm pretty that Robin Carmody, no great fan of Norman Wisdom either, would too.

Above you can watch a great clip of Ian Carmichael in action in the wonderful Robert Hamer film 'School for Scoundrels'. Dennis Price is in it too, as a very dodgy and very slimy car salesman, ably assisted by Peter Jones.



Robin Carmody said...

I'm not sure what to make of this, really.

Obviously I feel alienated by and disconnected from the overwhelming subservience of the British media to American power on all fronts, and the false assumption that everyone wants to hear and read about it. I am strongly opposed to the latterday "norms", not because they provide "choice" to the public, but because they pretend to provide it but don't.

All that being said, I can't say what Ian Carmichael represented meant all that much to me; I might be able to see that world as an ally of convenience when things are *really* desperate, but I couldn't see it as such in any real, proud, thought-out way. I find Johnny Dankworth's death more upsetting because he represented a certain dynamism, a zest for the future, but crucially a future in which public institutions would still play a key role ... as a wonderful article about ITV start-up music (of which Dankworth wrote the finest example) in the Independent put it ten years ago, when it still seemed that much less like Ancient History, "the old world, post-war and pre-Thatcher, could have been modernised rather than abolished". I can't feel the same way about Carmichael because he just represents the unreconstructed old world, indeed elements within it which would have greatly resented the Wilson government in 1964 ... there had to be changes, just different changes, and Carmichael's world would have had no changes at all.

All that being said, 'I'm All Right Jack' says much about the complacency of *all* sides in the late 1950s. It has undoubtedly been cited by neoliberals as On Their Side - in a 1993 article psyching up support for the privatisation of British Rail, the Sunday Times used the film's title as a headline to convey the impression that the rail unions enjoyed too many privileges and perpetuated too many restrictive practices, and a nervous LWT cancelled a showing of the film just before the 1979 election - but I'd hardly see it as an ideological tract of that kind, not least because nobody could really have foreseen what was to come. It could as easily have been proto-Wilsonian (you won't like this comparison, but it was released almost concurrently with Roy Jenkins' 'The Labour Case' and the Obscene Publications Act) or even Tory Anarchist (in that Ingrams/Waugh Private Eye sense) as proto-Thatcherite - it attacks all 1950s tribes fairly equally, points out (as David Lindsay would no doubt agree) that supposed enemies in fact shared much common ground, and is a superb evocation of the time, particularly valuable for its encapsulation of Old Left glorification of high culture ("all them cornfields and ballet in the evenings") whose collapse in the face of the 60s generation ultimately left the floor clear for Blair.

But really ... a glance at Carmichael's filmography is ultimately depressing, with little of any real lasting value; 'Heavens Above!', the last of the Boulting satires released on the edge of one Harold's fall and another's rise, is interestingly ambiguous - it seems to be espousing socialism while consciously aware that human nature was against its truly working - but cops everything out with its ending, and was just on the brink of obsolescence anyway, while 'Lucky Jim' was a dismal watering-down of its source. Much of the rest doesn't even merit comment, certainly not when compared to 'Privilege' or 'Radio On' or, to draw a more direct comparison, 'The Ladykillers'. Like I say, there have been and will be deaths that affect me more. But almost everything Carmichael did was better than Norman Wisdom's oeuvre, I'll give you that.

DBC Reed said...

The big Carmichael films were certainly lacking in savage satire,
but the pre-Thatcherite post-war consensus around the merits of a mixed economy was certainly faithfully reflected in them. Kite, brilliantly portrayed by Peter Sellers, is not seen as a threat to the State as he would have been in an equivalent American film (are there any American films about strikes featuring comedy Communists?)
There is a very silly 1959 Carmichael film called Left,Right and Centre where he actually plays a Conservative by-election candidate but he falls in love with the firebrand lady Socialist and applauds her attacks on social class so enthusiastically that he has to be restrained by his agent (Richard Wattis).I rather miss those days when there was no call for savage satire.Nowadays the social- equivalent of the upper-class twit Carmichael would mouth gormless Ludwig von Miserabilist rhetoric and call for hundreds of thousands of public servants to be made redundant.

Robin Carmody said...

Indeed. This is why I think neoliberals are wrong to claim those films as their own - it implies a thought-out, ideological stance on the part of the Boulting Brothers which they, like most people at the time, wouldn't really have understood the meaning of. I would say they were pointing out that Communists and the old establishment were both as happy as each other to keep out new ideas - that there was an informal literal-conservative pact - but I don't think it was calling for any dramatic changes *beyond* that, merely just pointing it out in a pre-TW3, pre-60s way, and you're right that there was never anything like the US level of paranoia about "reds under the bed".

DBC Reed said...

A disturbing exception to the even-handed postwar consensus view of strikes was "The Angry Silence"(1960) which I think was financed by Richard Attenborough himself,as his contribution to national debate.Here the strike is got up by a sinister Red infiltrator and the brave strikebreaker (Attenborough himself v. authentic) and his wife (Pier Angelli!) are put through the mill by nasty brain-washed strikers.A year after Carmichael and Sellers and at the beginning of the Sixties,this film appeared over the top at the time and at a remove from the consensus which "you've never had it so good and all that" seemed fairly happy with the mixed economy.