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Rattigan, Terence (1911-1977)


Main image of Rattigan, Terence (1911-1977)

Terence Rattigan seems easy enough to pigeonhole if one follows the standard line. A formidably successful playwright and screenwriter from the 1930s onwards, his fondness for upper-middle-class characters and the kind of milieux familiar to him from his background as a diplomat's son eventually proved his downfall, when he was singled out by the 'angry young men' who challenged theatre convention in the mid-1950s as the epitome of everything they were opposed to, making him deeply unfashionable almost overnight.

The truth, as usual, is rather more complicated, as was the man himself. A gay man at a time when physical expression of homosexuality was illegal, he understood better than many the virtues of reticence. Despite the comfortable background of many of his characters, his own political sympathies were distinctly leftish, and many of his best plays deal with social and financial exploitation. (In this he has much in common with Anthony Asquith, his preferred screen interpreter). And although supposedly out of touch with drama by radical young playwrights, he significantly boosted Joe Orton's career by financing the West End production of 'Entertaining Mr Sloane'.

Rattigan was born in early June 1911 (there is dispute about the exact date) and educated at Harrow and Oxford. He became extensively involved in university drama, and ultimately abandoned his studies to try to break into the West End as a playwright. He failed, but his father offered to subsidise his writing for two years, after which he was required to find a job. Happily, the job in question was for Warner Bros Studios in Teddington, polishing dialogue for screenplays, a task he credited with teaching him the virtues of economy.

His major break came in 1936, when his play 'French Without Tears' became an unexpected West End smash. Over the next decade, he would work primarily as a playwright ('After the Dance', 1939; 'Flare Path', 1942; 'The Winslow Boy', 1946) but increasingly as a screenwriter, adapting his own and other people's work. Anthony Asquith had filmed French Without Tears in 1939, beginning a long professional association with Rattigan that lasted until Asquith's final feature The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964). Rattigan's WWII experience as a RAF officer inspired both 'Flare Path' and the loosely-related screenplay for The Way to the Stars (d. Asquith, 1945).

He shared a screenwriting credit with Graham Greene on Brighton Rock (d, John Boulting, 1947), though in fact they never worked together: Rattigan turned Greene's novel into a screenplay intended for Asquith, but when the Boulting Brothers adopted the project they hired Greene himself to darken the tone. Although Greene disliked Rattigan's controversial censor-baiting ending, it nonetheless concluded the final film.

Rattigan's next two collaborations with Asquith were adaptations of existing stage successes, The Winslow Boy (1948) and The Browning Version (1951). In both, Asquith's treatment of Rattigan's text was unshowy but focused, fixing attention on the exceptional performances of Robert Donat and, especially, Michael Redgrave. His biggest 1950s stage hits, 'The Deep Blue Sea' and 'Separate Tables', became high-profile films (1955, d. Anatole Litvak and 1958, d. Delbert Mann), neither of which so much as hinted at what Rattigan later claimed were intentional gay undertones. However, his dream screenwriting project was a biopic of T.E. Lawrence, to be directed by Asquith with Dirk Bogarde in the lead, which was ten days away from shooting when the Rank Organisation withdrew funding and the project collapsed. Rattigan reworked it as a stage play, 'Ross' (1960).

He wrote two more screenplays for Asquith, both originals - The V.I.P.s (1963) and The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964) - as well as Heart To Heart (BBC, tx. 6/12/1962), an exploration of the way that television can make, break and rehabilitate public reputations. Fittingly, it was his first script written specifically for the small screen, which he followed up with a 90th birthday tribute to Winston Churchill, Ninety Years On (BBC, tx. 29/11/1964). By then, he was spending increasing amounts of time abroad, and bought a house in Bermuda, favouring a warmer climate after a serious health scare and living off lucrative commissions for often unproduced screenplays.

He was appointed CBE in 1958 and knighted in 1971. He lived long enough to see a brief revival in his theatrical reputation before his death from bone cancer at 66. His critical standing has risen considerably since then, especially post-2000, thanks to a string of high-profile stage productions that emphasised that a man often labelled as fusty and hidebound as The Browning Version's Andrew Crocker-Harris was in fact an immaculate craftsman capable of registering almost invisible tremors beneath the stiff upper lip. The Browning Version itself was controversially remade by Mike Figgis with Albert Finney and added swearing (US, 1994), while a second film version of The Deep Blue Sea (d. Terence Davies) premieres in 2011, Rattigan's centenary year.

Michael Brooke

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Brighton Rock (1947)Brighton Rock (1947)

Graham Greene thriller with Richard Attenborough as a vicious gangster

Thumbnail image of Browning Version, The (1951)Browning Version, The (1951)

Michael Redgrave excels as an emotionally repressed schoolteacher

Thumbnail image of Sound Barrier, The (1952)Sound Barrier, The (1952)

Little-known David Lean film about ambition, courage and jet aircraft

Thumbnail image of V.I.P.s, The (1963)V.I.P.s, The (1963)

Assorted celebrities are stranded in an airport when fog hits the runway

Thumbnail image of Way to the Stars, The (1945)Way to the Stars, The (1945)

Deceptively low-key drama about RAF pilots in World War II

Thumbnail image of Winslow Boy, The (1948)Winslow Boy, The (1948)

Adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play about a boy accused of theft

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Thumbnail image of Asquith, Anthony (1902-1968)Asquith, Anthony (1902-1968)

Director, Producer, Actor