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Entertainer, The (1960)

Main image of Entertainer, The (1960)
35mm, black and white, 96 mins
DirectorTony Richardson
Production CompanyWoodfall Film Productions
ProducerHarry Saltzman
ScreenplayJohn Osborne
 Nigel Kneale
Original playJohn Osborne
PhotographyOswald Morris
MusicJohn Addison

Cast: Laurence Olivier (Archie Rice); Brenda de Banzie (Phoebe Rice); Roger Livesey (Billy Rice); Joan Plowright (Jean Rice); Alan Bates (Frank Rice); Daniel Massey (Graham); Albert Finney (Mick Rice)

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Archie Rice, third-rate variety performer in a failing summer show in 1950s Britain, tries to revive his flagging fortunes but alienates his family and loses everything.

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Tony Richardson originally directed The Entertainer at the Royal Court with Laurence Olivier playing Archie Rice. The film version, also starring Olivier, was Richardson's second feature.

John Osborne's stage play continued the critique of postwar English life he had begun in Look Back in Anger. Rice's seedy world might stand for the general malaise of the country, the decline of the music hall for Britain's lost empire. Osborne wrote the screenplay with Nigel Kneale and made significant changes to the play's structure, introducing new characters like the Lapfords, altering the characterisation of Frank and Jean, and creating new scenes, like the beauty contest, and the backstage telephone conversation between Archie and Mrs Lapford which signals his ruin.

The play had been structured as thirteen 'turns'; the music hall numbers played in front of a curtain which was drawn back for the 'naturalistic' family scenes. When Archie performed his numbers, he did so directly to the theatre audience. The film audience is at one remove from this as it watches another audience see Archie perform - the quality of direct communication is lost, even though Richardson includes medium and close shots of Archie's act.

Richardson also brings a documentary realism to the piece, setting it in the recognisable north England resort of Morecambe, its dingy but convivial pubs, cramped boarding houses and huge half-empty theatres. Some of the political and social dimensions of the stage play, for example the Suez crisis, are played down for the film, which becomes much more a recreation of Archie's world and the story of his downfall.

The changes in the theatre of the 1950s made middle-class actors of Olivier's generation, with their classical training and a lifetime playing Shakespeare, appear old-fashioned and out of touch. Olivier, only in his early fifties, set about becoming part of the new era ushered in by the English Stage Company. His seedy, shabby and untalented music hall performer shocked his middle-class, middle-aged admirers, but it brought him a new young audience and altered the public perception of him.

Archie is rarely 'offstage' and Richardson uses shots of his mirror reflection to suggest the theatrical persona behind which he hides. Despite strong performances from the rest of the cast, especially newcomers Joan Plowright, Alan Bates and Shirley Ann Field, it is Olivier's film. It was marketed as "the seamy, searing story behind the smile" and "Hamlet plays the clown".

Janet Moat

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Albert Finney: The Guardian Interview (1982)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Comedians (1979)
Bates, Alan (1934-2003)
Davenport, Nigel (1928-2013)
Field, Shirley Anne (1938-)
Finney, Albert (1936-)
Gray, Charles (1928-2000)
Hird, Thora (1911-2003)
Livesey, Roger (1906-1976)
Morris, Oswald (1915-)
Osborne, John (1929-1994)
Plowright, Dame Joan (1929-)
Richardson, Tony (1928-1991)