Dirty secrets

Revisiting Joseph Losey's 1963 classic, "The Servant".

Entering the house of his future master without knocking: that is what the servant in Joseph Losey’s film of the same name does in the opening sequence, thus inaugurating  the first collaboration between the blacklisted American director and Harold Pinter. The Servant (1963) is chamber-class drama shot through with a destabilising sexual tension. Tony (James Fox), a puerile aristocrat just back from Africa, hires Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) as his servant. Barrett will help him refurbish the townhouse where they both live, displaying an obliging and attentive character that masks a malicious ambiguity. He does not meet the approval of Susan (Wendy Craig), Tony’s fiancée, who will in fact try to have Barrett sacked after intuiting the sway that the servant  exercises over her boyfriend.

“For god’s sake!” exclaims Susan when Barrett intrudes on an intimate moment. “Restrict him to quarters,” she adds after the servant leaves. “Couldn’t he live out?” “No he couldn’t,” replies Tony brusquely. Something begins to crackle - sexual tension has already altered the established order of things. Things don’t get any better when Barrett’s alleged sister, Vera (Sarah Miles) moves in and seduces Tony who will then find her in bed with his alleged brother. But Vera and Barrett are just lovers. Disconcerted, Tony fires Barrett on the spot only to accept him back a while later - not as his servant any longer. After having first upset and then demolished the social and sexual divisions Tony and Susan hid behind, Barrett is now the maitre fou of the house.

The Servant is a refined psychological arabesque. Maintaining a carefully calibrated balance between literal and allegorical meaning, Losey realised an essay on class relations with the logic of a thriller. Delicately, if mercilessly, the film rubs away at the foundations of social status, debunking behavioural codes so as to expose the insecurity they disguise. Once deprived of their certainties and privileges, Tony and Susan fall into a despondent state of confusion; unable to react they allow Barrett subdue them without offering any resistance. Losey exploits the figurative potential of Pinter’s script. Rejecting all moralism, the cinemaphotography allows the sordid light of mistrust to pervade the mise-en-scene. Deforming mirrors and oblique reflections litter Tony’s apartment that will soon turn into his trap. Every gesture, every camera movement and exchange between the actors is charged with malice.

Back in 1963, when the closet was the only place for homosexuality to hide, Tony and Barrett's relationship must have seemed “peculiar”; today it is clearly charged with homoerotic attraction. But theirs is not exactly an affair, more a coercive class action that sees Barrett manipulating Tony’s sexuality for his own perfidious ends. An oblivious pawn in a game whose rules and goals remain obscure, Tony stares impotently as Barrett follows his dark, vengeful impulses. Moral corruption is an intrinsic part of the world Losey portrays - sex and power are its emanation and violence its result.

The claustrophobic spaces and exploitative relations are reminiscent of Fassbinder, but if, in the German director, there is a melodramatic despair, in Losey a lucid, cold detachment prevails. Bogarde’s performance is monumental, accompanying his every unpredictable and ruthless move with an iniquitous grin. While playing hide and seek with Tony, Barrett whispers in a devilish tone: “You have a dirty secret, you shall be caught” as his former master awaits him, terrified, behind a curtain. 

"The Servant" will be screened daily at BFI Southbank, London SE1 until 2 April.

Un-civil servant: Dirk Bogarde (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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